Something of a British Wendell Berry, Philip Britts (1917-1949) was a soft-spoken West Country farmer, poet, activist, and mystic. Even as his country plunged headlong into a second world war, he sought a way of life where people could work together in harmony with nature and one another. He found an answer, though it would cost him his land and his life.
These were years of turbulence and disillusionment, in Europe and beyond. Why had progress brought with it so much suffering? Britts saw that in losing our connection to nature and the earth, we are losing our humanity - our connection to one another. He watched as his friends in the peace movement, socialist circles, and Christian churches joined the battle against Hitler, but he refused to resort to violence. Instead he threw himself into an attempt to live out the radical demands of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount on a personal and local level in community.
Britts's story is no romantic agrarian elegy, but a life lived in the thick of history. The international pacifist community he joined, the Bruderhof, was soon forced to flee Europe. Now the earth he tilled was no longer the moist soil of his homeland, but a harsh tropical climate of drought, locusts, and blight. A highly trained horticulturalist, he loved working the land and discovering new wonders of nature, "to see in growing corn the fingerprints of God." And his expertise and research helped alleviate hunger in Paraguay and Brazil. But now the soil was also shoveled over babies' graves, and soon Britts himself contracted a rare tropical disease that would take his life at the age of thirty-one, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
Philip Britts's generation faced great dangers and upheavals, as does ours. His response - to root himself in God, to dedicate himself to a community, to restore the land he farmed, and to use his gift with words to turn people from their madness - speaks into our age just as forcefully. The life he chose, as well as his poetry, remain a prophetic challenge in a time still wracked by war, racism, nationalism, materialism, and ecological devastation. Britts's insights into our relationship with the natural environment are particularly poignant now that we are even more aware of its fragility.
In a world of concrete and plastic, we find ourselves craving for reality and transcendence. With poems hinting at the myriad ways nature points beyond itself, Philip Britts stands in the tradition of John Muir, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and other great writers who help us rediscover the sense of awe and wonder that can be found in the natural world. As Wendell Berry writes, life is "miracle and mystery." But this is a homely mystery, an everyday miracle. Through his poems and musings, Philip Britts shows us that we can reclaim this awe and mystery in straw hat and muddy boots, before breakfast or in the heat of the day.