Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.
Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.
Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.
He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:
“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”
So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.
A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:
Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.
I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.