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Briefly Reviewed: March 2022

The Seven Ranges: Ground Zero for the Staging of America

By Will Hoyt

Publisher: Front Porch Republic Books

Pages: 237

Price: $28

Review Author: Steven Faulkner

Will Hoyt is a carpenter with over 40 years of professional experience building and remodeling homes, much of it in Berkeley, California. He worked with “a worm-drive power saw, a 24-ounce framing hammer (smooth head), and then (after the technology appeared) a pneumatic nail gun.” But after decades in Berkeley, finding himself something of a romantic, Hoyt decided to move his family to a small farm in east-central Ohio to live a life of qualified freedom that allows a man to think and read and write as well as chop wood and carry water. His farm, he says, is something of a Walden Pond experiment, and he and his family supplement their income by running an inn for oil and gas workers.

Hoyt’s surprise, after having a whole country to look over before deciding on a particular set of acres in the hills of eastern Ohio where he would set out to do some “environmental restoration,” was in noticing that the lands to his south had been harvested not of their timber and crops but of the soil itself. Coal mining had ripped through several counties, leaving a kind of wasteland of decapitated hills, weeds, yellow-boy chemical runoff, and stagnant, fjord-like ponds and lakes. What had happened here, and how did a formerly successful farming and sheep-raising culture allow such devastation to ruin the land? And why hadn’t he noticed all this before moving in?

Hoyt is a natural philosopher, a man given to thinking things through and wondering about causes and effects, so he began what turned out to be a considerable amount of research — all the way back to native cultures and into pioneer years after the Revolutionary War (when George Washington arrived with an army of 13,000 to burn the log cabins of recently arrived settlers who were “squatting” on land he’d bought). Hoyt researched Thomas Jefferson’s dreams of establishing so-called ward townships, and “Thomas Hutchins’ Enlightenment-based 1785-87 land survey of federal lands in eastern Ohio — the so-called ‘Seven Ranges,’” which “portioned land according to a grid-like pattern of ‘section and range’ to make it ready for commercial sale.” He looked into the effects of the Civil War, into issues raised by the equal-rights clause of the 14th Amendment and its use by corporations, and into the devaluation of tradition and the consequent invasion of huge industries willing to rip the guts out of whole counties to make a profit.

Covering all this and more (including the Whiskey Rebellion and the town of Steubenville’s role as a major root of Las Vegas’s gambling enterprises) “is a big undertaking,” Hoyt admits, and “it’s entirely possible that I will fail in my efforts to describe the damage I see.” He emphatically does not fail but succeeds in engaging the reader through chapter after chapter of historical revelation and careful analysis. His success is rooted in passion — shown in how, to get a look at the landscape, he chose to take a ride up the Ohio River on a quarter-mile-long towboat and barge system from Marietta to the Ohio/Pennsylvania State Line on a wintry day and night — and a determined effort to understand extremely complex problems.

Hoyt is a Catholic with an appreciation for traditions that stretch back to the Middle Ages and beyond. He notes that secular America sees tradition as a prejudice that needs to be overcome or set aside if we are to access universal truths, while the “medieval era tended, conversely, to look on tradition (‘established usage’) as a storehouse of…‘selected’ information that ensures access to universal truths.” Hoyt, therefore, sees land, for example, to “embody and to reflect that which is good in and of itself,” while modern Americans see land as simply utilitarian, “as a scenic backdrop or a staging ground for the extraction of timber, grain, and coal.” Hoyt favors the medieval person who thought of freedom as “a function of embedment in a rightly ordered community,” whereas moderns believe we are free “to the extent that we independently control our actions,” thus making us autonomous individuals as free as possible from community restrictions.

Hoyt keeps trying to find a middle ground. He thinks British distributists too close to socialism, and Southern agrarians “uncomfortably close to ultra-traditionalists.” In seeking middle ground, it’s not clear with whom, among intellectuals, he sides. He likes Wendell Berry, though he believes Berry’s religious stance, perhaps influenced by his “Baptist upbringing and a resulting wariness toward ‘organized religion,’” is “compromised.” It is also difficult to locate Hoyt’s position in relation to other Catholic thinkers. He speaks of an “integrative center,” by which he means profound “Christian belief in the Incarnate Word, which reached a high-water mark during the Middle Ages.”

What is the reader to make of this unique set of complex answers to a host of complex problems? Hoyt’s main point seems to be that we need to resist the polarization of American culture, or what he calls “false-opposite sets” of answers to our problems, such as atomized individualism set against the centralized state, emotionally charged religious experience set against secular sexual licentiousness, or retreat to a pristine wilderness set against runaway industrialism. Rather than individualism, Hoyt advocates community and small-town cooperation. Rather than charismatic Christianity (which grew up in pioneer Ohio and Kentucky), he sides with historic Catholicism. Rather than commodifying land and property, he and his family have chosen, if not a middle course, a less conventional path. He chose not to leave the city and head for the wild mountains, but to leave the city and find some land that can be managed and restored, however difficult such a project is proving to be. Hoyt wants to invest in land and restore it, join a working agricultural community and help improve it, keep the faith and be renewed by it, and help restore both land and relationships.

Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living

By Charles J. Chaput

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Pages: 272

Price: $25.99

Review Author: Michael V. McIntire

When I was a boy, gathered with my brothers and sisters at the family dinner table, my Catholic father often preached to us about developing what he called “a moral sense of values,” by which he meant the principles that would govern our lives and our actions. To us as children and adolescents, he was teaching what it was we should value, as our values would, in turn, determine the kind of persons we would become.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, like many others of his generation, heard a similar message as a child. But one does not hear much talk like that today. This is why Chaput’s Things Worth Dying For is worth reading. Quoting his father, he tells us, “Your hearse won’t have a luggage rack.” Now in the autumn of his life, when “the road of life in the rearview mirror is a lot longer than the road ahead,” Chaput shares his personal reflections on the things worth living for. “When we talk about the things worth dying for,” he writes, “we’re really talking about the things worth living for, the things that give life beauty and meaning.” His book is a response to two great temptations with which people struggle: “The first is to try to create life’s meaning for themselves, which translates to no meaning at all. The second is to live and die for the wrong meaning, the wrong cause, the wrong purpose.”

This is not Chaput’s personal memoir, nor is it advice on how to live our lives, although it contains a smattering of both. Rather, the book is a call to reflect on our personal values, and those of the culture that surrounds us. He wants us to think critically, which he defines as “the ability to know trash when we see it and to take no part in it.” Such reflection may reveal that we have lost much, and that the result of shallow values is invariably emptiness and despair, even if some material goal is achieved.

Chaput witnessed both the honorable culture of America and American Catholicism, and their decline. Born into a strong Catholic family in “flyover country” in 1944, he was a boy during the Cold War when people anxiously built bomb shelters against the threat of nuclear war. He was a seminarian during the revolution in the Catholic Church over Humanae Vitae. He was ordained shortly after America’s prominent Catholic universities began secularizing. He has lived through what were perhaps the most prosperous years of our nation and the Catholic Church in America, as well as the most tumultuous, and he has kept his balance throughout. He writes with a familiar, easy, down-to-earth Midwestern style, direct and to the point. Although reflecting on values and “the meaning of life” is serious business, Chaput makes it attractive, presenting it as a friendly discussion over pizza and beer — or over wine and cheese, if you prefer.

The values by which we live today, whether we are conscious of them or not, do not exist in a vacuum and are not our own creation. They have been shaped by the family and culture into which we were born. Thus, memory is a necessary faculty, albeit one under strenuous attack by today’s “cancel culture” that rejects ties to the past and destroys reality for the sake of fantasies. Chaput reminds us that our future is “tied inescapably to the past.” The future grows out of present choices, and present choices are formed from past decisions. Today was tomorrow yesterday! He asks, “Is what we do today important enough to be remembered tomorrow?” Without recall of the past that has shaped us, we cannot know who we are, and we cannot foresee a future. A culture that rejects its past is a culture with a deliberately induced case of Alzheimer’s, resulting in a frightened state without hope or the consolation of memories. “Destruction of the past,” Chaput says, “is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”

The archbishop looks at recorded memory to examine the values that have historically shaped great cultures, the things their men considered worth sacrificing for and dying for: honor, country, religion, family, friends — all these are “ties that bind.” All these are higher than “self.” And all these are rooted in love. To know what one will die for is to know what one deeply loves. Without a memory of love, life is empty.

Of all the ties that bind a people or a nation together, the strongest are the bonds created by blood. The family is the “cornerstone of human identity, a source of security and of personal meaning.” The family engrains moral character, habits of work, mutual respect, and self-discipline. It is a school of love, in which children learn from experience that love is always an intimate relationship with another person. “One cannot love humanity,” Chaput tells us, nor an ideology either, “and it cannot love you back.” Family life develops an active faith “rooted in the one thing that finally matters: a living relationship with Jesus Christ.” Strong families, as Pope St. John Paul II told us, make healthy societies, and strong families are a threat to tyrants. “A unique mark of the modern era,” Chaput writes, “is its hostility to the idea of family itself — mother, father, children and extended relations.” The intact family is a threat to those who celebrate and promote divorce, abortion, homosexuality, feminism, and “gender freedom.” Underlying society’s attack on the family is “the belief that no revolution can succeed without first transforming human sexual relations.” Being blind to the past and its lessons assures that we will repeat past mistakes into the future. “The only brake on this cycle of stupidity and pride is a culture’s moral character,” which is formed in the family. So, according to the Great Reset, the family must go.

Chaput addresses another great family tie — the Church — in a novel and engaging manner. He writes as though he were conducting a seminar on the subject, and he invites us to listen in. While writing this book, he sent a questionnaire to a number of faithful Catholics, asking them to reveal how they see the Church in these troubled times. He sent the questions (such as “How do I think of the Church — mother, spouse, community, institution? All four? Which most commonly?”) mostly to laypeople but also to clergy. Most answered. Chaput devotes 14 pages to verbatim quotes from some of these respondents and an additional eight pages to his own responses to those questions. In these days of cowardly shepherds and apostate clergy, when the Church seems to be growing more political than spiritual, the testimony of these faithful witnesses is most welcome. We hear the truth of what the Church is, why it is worth dying for, and why it is a joy to be a member of such a family — as frustrating and dysfunctional as it sometimes seems to be.

The archbishop boldly addresses topics our own pastors and bishops don’t, and he gives us valuable homilies on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Things Worth Dying For challenges the reader to personal formation of lived values based on Truth. Chaput’s advice echoes the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “God did not call me to be successful. He called me to be faithful.”


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