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Spiritual Groundwork

Rachel Davis

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Rachel Davis had been scratching her head, trying to figure it out. Her home state of South Carolina is square in the Bible Belt and, like much of the South, has a reputation for its citizens’ religiosity. And, as anyone who’s ever bitten into a Palmetto State peach knows, South Carolina has an agricultural heritage that’s just as strong. Might, thought Davis, there be a connection between the two?

Well, judging from her preliminary investigations, there might just be. Davis, a senior English and religious studies double major from Piedmont, S.C., spent the past summer visiting farms in the Upstate as part of a research project supported by the College’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund. The College distributed $197,588 to 35 students performing summer research under the guidance of faculty mentors this summer. One student examined the muscle mass of insects. Another studied Gothic literature to discover Victorian British commentary on homosexuality. Another developed environmentally green chemicals for use in the polyurethane industry.

For Davis, the research support helped her investigate the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of South Carolina farmers. Many of the farmers Davis interviewed – 13 of 15, to be exact – claimed that farming was a religious or spiritual experience for them, or that it played a meaningful part in their so-called lived religion. To put it another way, farming and faith are deeply integrated into the lives of these men and women.

One berry grower, for example, told Davis, “My farm is my ministry.” This woman sat in a rocking chair on her porch, discussing with Davis how she viewed the strawberry as a symbol of healing, and how she felt “the presence of the Lord” on her farm. During their conversation, a man drove up to visit. Lo and behold, Davis discovered he had been baptized in a pond on that very farm.

During another interview, a farmer became emotional discussing how a hailstorm destroyed his peach crop for the year, costing him about $15,000. After the storm came through, the man immediately began talking to God, seeking guidance, if not answers, in the wake of calamity.

Davis has noted that much of the writing in the Bible uses pastoral language, which, she feels, makes Christianity’s intersection with farming logical. The Lord is referred to as a shepherd. God is said to be the world’s first gardener. Also intriguing to Davis is how farmers see their relationship with God mirrored in their vocation. There is the concept of creation, she says, and farmers must play the role of nurturer to their crops and livestock.

While the majority of farmers in South Carolina might have a Christian faith, Davis is aware of the tie-in between farming and other faiths and spirituality. In academia today, according to Davis and religious studies professor and faculty mentor Elijah Siegler, scholars have identified deep ecology as a spiritual movement or philosophy based on reverence for living things. In fact, the term dark green religion has been coined by University of Florida professor Bron Taylor to describe one’s conviction that nature is sacred and deserving of the utmost respect.

Before Davis began her summer research project, Siegler had her tear through a reading list that covered much popular modern food thought and study. She read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which examines the effects of the fast food industry on people and the world. She watched Food Inc., which focuses on mass-produced food, and Back to Eden, a film that explores organic farming methods and their relationship to God. Davis also studied the back-to-the-land movement and modern homesteading, which has experienced a resurgence of sorts after periods of popularity in the 20th century.

Many back-to-the-landers, according to familiar narratives, are elite and well-educated people who retreat to rural locations in search of a more pure and simple existence, à la Scott and Helen Nearing, who famously documented such a lifestyle in their 1954 book Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World. These scenarios have been well documented by academics, so Davis wanted to focus her research on more traditional farmers who have always lived on their land and who might have more conservative religious and cultural views. It’s an area that has been under-researched, agrees Siegler.

Next up for Davis are some more farm visits – this time around Charleston.

Then, it’s time to write up the results before she graduates and likely begins a career as a high school English teacher. Davis plans to enjoy her remaining rural excursions, and – if they’re anything like her previous visits to farmland in the Upstate – she’s in store for some fascinating correlations between faith and farming. It’s all very impressive to her mentor, Siegler, who couldn’t resist an agricultural reference when praising his student’s work: “I think she’s really breaking new ground here.”