Published in The Land Report, Number 67, Summer 2000, a publication of The Land Institute.
- The house had gone to bring again
- To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
- Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
- Like a pistil after the petals go.
- The barn opposed across the way,
- That would have joined the house in flame
- Had it been the will of the wind, was left
- To bear forsaken the place's name.
- No more it opened with all one end
- For teams that came by the stony road
- To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
- And brush the mow with the summer load.
- The birds that came to it through the air
- At broken windows flew out and in,
- Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
- From too much dwelling on what has been.
- Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
- And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
- And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm:
- And the fence post carried a strand of wire.
- For them there was really nothing sad.
- But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
- One had to be versed in country things
- Not to believe the phoebes wept.
Some years ago I frequently used to drive past a farm in a creek valley of narrow, scarce bottomlands and hillsides. ... The farm was small, mostly hillside, with a few narrow ridges and a creek bottom that could not have been larger than an acre and a half. In an area of semi-abandoned land, this farm was outstanding, not because of its "improvements," which were old and few, but because it was clearly both well used and well cared for. It was farmed by an old man and woman and a team of Percheron horses. Everything about the place was neatly kept. House and yard and barn always showed a resident pride. There was an orderly, abundant vegetable garden beside the house. The pastures were mowed every summer. The tiny bottomland where the old man grew his tobacco crop was cut into three or four pieces by waterways that were grassed and bridged. More than anything else, those little timber bridges bespoke the old man's care; the usual thing would have been to drive regardlessly across such shallow drains and so wear the banks away.Like Wendell, I found this place interesting — and for the same reason: "because it was a good marginal farm and because it was obviously a relic, the lone survivor within hundreds of square miles of a kind of farm that had been commonplace only thirty or thirty-five years ago. And finally it, too, went the way of the rest of them." Wendell describes what happens when the art of living in place disappears, when those versed in country things die.
As I watched the old man's farm, driving by it at intervals, I saw it suddenly begin to change. The yard began to look unkempt. Disorder began to spread around the house. The team of horses disappeared. I learned a little of the story. The old man had died. His wife had moved to town to live with her children. The house had been rented to people who, though they had technically become its residents, clearly did not live there. The farm also had begun to be used by someone who did not belong to it. I had stopped once and talked a while with the old man. He was busy fixing a fence at the time, and though he received me courteously enough, he did not permit himself to be much interrupted. I told him that I admired his farm. He thanked me, but without enthusiasm, obviously having spent little time yearning to be complimented by strangers. I said his team of horses looked like a good one. He said that they did very well. One morning after I had learned of his death, I stopped at the farm again in his honor, maybe, or in honor of my own sense of loss. It was a gray, wintery day. The place looked and felt forgotten. It had gone out of mind. Absence was in it like a force. The barn was closed, empty, the doors tied shut by someone who did not intend to come back very soon. Peering in through a crack, I found that I was looking into a milking room with homemade wooden stanchions, unused for years. I knew why: it had become impossible to be a small dairyman. I spent some time looking at the old man's horse-drawn equipment. Some antique collector had taken the metal seats off several of the machines; these had become bar stools, perhaps, in somebody's suburban ranch house. For the rest apparently nobody now had a use. Examining the pieces of equipment, I saw that they were nearly completely worn out, patched and wired together like the fences and buildings, made to do — the forlorn tools of a man who had heirs, but no successors.In a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, front page, left hand side, with the stippled-in face complete with a Pioneer Seed company hat, is Francis Childs of Manchester, Iowa, 60 years old. Mr. Childs has a target of 400 bushels an acre for corn this year. Last year, Mr. Childs posted 394 bushels per acre, breaking a 14-year-old record. The national average is a little over 100 bushels per acre. He is something of a hero to others, for according to the article, "At a lecture on a snowy night in the Iowa town of Waukon, all 132 seats in the Vets' Club are filled. Before he speaks, several farmers walk up to have their picture taken with Mr. Childs." This farmer of 320 acres of the best land in the world is not my idea of a person "versed in country things." He is not an agrarian, nor an artist. Those who clamor to be photographed with him are probably pretty much the same. A member of the Practical Farmers of Iowa said Mr. Childs was "like an athlete on steroids." The Wall Street Journal featured him because of his success in industrial agriculture. He has helped set the standard the escalating standard. Downstream from our Iowa super-farmer is the Hypoxia Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the largest zone of coastal hypoxic bottom water in the Western Hemisphere, right in the midst of some of our nation's most important fishing waters, an area about the size of Connecticut. Because of low oxygen, mostly due to agricultural chemicals in the Mississippi drainage, the zone is dead and expanding. Those "versed in country things" would do more than see the connection between the hypoxia of the Gulf and record setting corn yields. They would feel the connection as well. The sigh we moderns sigh "from too much dwelling on what has been" is drawn in part from an analysis well articulated toward the end of the same piece by Wendell quoted above:
The curious thing is that many agriculture specialists and "agri-businessmen" see themselves as conservatives. They look with contempt upon governmental "indulgence" of those who have no more "moral fiber" than to accept "handouts" from the public treasury — but they look with equal contempt upon the most traditional and appropriate means of independence. What do such conservatives wish to conserve? Evidently nothing less than the great corporate blocks of wealth and power, in whose every interest is implied the moral degeneracy and economic dependence of the people. They do not esteem the possibility of a prospering, independent class of small owners because they are, in fact, not conservatives at all, but the most doctrinaire and disruptive of revolutionaries.We all dwell on what has been, often without a sigh. When we dwell on the good examples, which show us possibilities, we are given heart. Here is Wendell again: "the old man and his farm together made a sort of cultural unit, recognized and valued in this country from colonial times. And it is still a perfectly respectable human possibility. All it requires is the proper humanity." Wendell's analysis is, of course, correct, and thankfully we do have a few examples of good farmers who have practiced the art of living in place — Gene and Carol Logsdon and David and Elsie Kline in Ohio. The late Harlan and Ann Hubbard on the banks of the Ohio in Kentucky, the couple given higher visibility by Wendell in his book on them. Harlan a painter, Anna an accomplished musician, both fluent in foreign languages, built their place with their own hands, mostly from what they could find, and then sustained themselves from the river and their large garden. Theirs was a life of abundance, not nearly so austere as Scott and Helen Nearing's and with none of the self-righteousness one feels from Scott Nearing's writings. What is interesting is that the aesthetic sense of all of these good examples carries the potential for driving down prodigal consumption. This exercise of the aesthetic sense necessitates ecological contact and instructs us on how to achieve a spare use of nature. Instead of leadership — accommodating aesthetic considerations with some eco-agrarian thinking from our colleges and universities — leadership toward a path that would help correct the problems, this is what I hear:
- What's wrong with shrinking the number of people on the landscape? Why shouldn't farmers, like everyone else, have to play by the rules of the market? Why not weed out the "inefficient" farmers?
- Food is safer now than ever because of the chemicals applied to our landscape and 2,4-D as a cause of non-Hodgkins lymphoma is one unfortunate tradeoff.
- Soil erosion? We've had agriculture and soil erosion for 10,000 years. Human numbers keep growing, don't they? Sure, civilizations have come and gone, but in those regions there are as many or more people now as at the time those civilizations crashed.
- "The world is changing."
- "Many people who have not grown up on a farm are able to go out and be successful farmers and will do so in the future."
- "Being ?raised to farming' may be a virtue, but even here this loss of our ?cultural seedstock' — as you ecological worriers put it — is relatively unimportant so long as even one percent have the desire to learn agriculture on their own."
- "Humans are adaptable creatures and economic laws are derivatives of human nature dealing with reality."
Each day, Nikolai and Galya Nikolinko arise in the dark and go about the business of making a living. They milk their cows, feed their pig, gather eggs from their chickens, tend their garden. They live off what they grow, and sell the rest for a few rubles here and there. From milk alone, they earn perhaps $100 a month. And when the sun rises, Nikolai heads off from his simple wooden house to his long-time job as a welder in a state-run auto repair factory. For this, he earns nothing. ... People survive on their gardens and their wits, and the official economy primarily is a distraction. ... Across Russia, especially in smaller towns and villages, millions of workers have gone months without wages. Both the government and private employers have been unable — or unwilling — to pay them. Even retirees have gone without their pensions. Outsiders tend to ask how this is possible: How can a nation survive when its people are unpaid? Why would a worker show up for a job that offers no wages? Like many Russians, Nikolai Nikolinko — who hasn't been paid in three months — doesn't ask these questions. Why wouldn't he show up for work? "Where would I go?" he said. "There aren't any other jobs in this town. I'm too old to look for work in Moscow. This is a one-factory town; we have no other choices. And besides, what if the day I decide not to show up the managers start handing out wages?"A crucial message — one never made explicit in the article — is that nature's economy, in combination with traditional culture, continues to feed the people and now subsidizes the industrial economy. Try to imagine nearly anyone but the rich and the Amish going without wages in the United States for three months now that our traditional rural economies have been mostly undone. The collapse of the Soviet Empire represents the first major failure of the industrial mind. We should more or less ignore the differences between capitalism and the Soviet brand of communism for both systems have sought to concentrate power and in so doing greatly reduced the number of people on the land and in small communities. Two important messages come through to me, messages of what we need to do to prevent the eventual likelihood of widespread social upheaval. First, we must aggressively consider ways to keep people on the land and in the small towns and second to imagine and implement ways to get more, but not all, people back onto the land and into more traditional relationships with sun, soil and rural community. Here is an immediate practical reason to be versed in country things. We don't have to junk every accoutrement of the technological era, but during times of food crisis, history has shown that no one is safe whether they grow food or not. Cultural arrangements of a diverse nature — not the industrialized pig or chicken factory — will insure our security. Whether we are talking about the huge feedlot beef facilities or a Central Valley of California-style agribusiness to provide our vegetables, both are brittle forms of food production. They combine key elements of the Soviet way which collapsed. This has all been said before in many ways, and in this period of affluence it is easy to deny that anything can or will go wrong with our production system however well motivated our workers or reliable our machinery may be. Whether it is the application of farm chemicals to our land and water, cutting of the tropical rain forest, or overhauling the architecture of our major crops and livestock genomes by introducing genes from long evolutionary distances, we see everywhere that the resilience of the important patterns in nature which support humanity is not infinite, that what we call cultural stability is more fragile than we have imagined, and that the small cascades of human calamity in the past become predictors for the future. Meanwhile we tend to ignore where true resilience lies. The Siberian welder and his family with their garden, pig, and chickens can teach us far more about a sustainable future than can the internet. There has never been a golden era in agriculture. And as we acknowledge the domestic problems — drunkenness, spousal abuse, kids on drugs and more — there was and still is a cultural wisdom, an agriCULTURAL wisdom derived from staying put, a wisdom gained no other way. Rural people, many rural people, even those with average or low intelligence, have and had a cultural handing-down of knowledge that expanded their intelligence. On the other hand, what we often see among intelligent people disconnected from the land is the use of their intelligence (often unwitting) for destructive purposes. High intelligence often multiplies brainpower in the wrong direction to create a kind of dumbness. I want to talk a little about the "eco" part of the eco-agrarian mind. This requires us to begin with the question: What has happened to ecology as a popular movement? We seem to have given up on the challenge of developing ecological modes of production. Why should we? After all, nature's ecosystems — prairies, forests, alpine meadows and more — run on contemporary sunlight and feature material recycling. Organic food production does exist, to be sure, but is not necessarily ecological. What seems to have supplanted the era of ecological awareness is lots of popular concern about human health. Endocrine disrupters becomes an issue. Health concerns range from dirty water and dysentery to accommodating the narcissistic who visit the organic boutique. The ecological point of view is lost in individual selfhood even before we get to how nature's ecosystems have worked over the millions of years. What about the question: How do we live in this world? How do we relate to the things we take and use? How can we live more artfully? Instead, this current emphasis on health and longevity has moved everything ranging from Midwest soil erosion to Southern California soil salting and agri-chemicals everywhere off the agenda to be replaced by arguments about the costs and benefits of biotech. "Gee whiz" genetics reigns. We hope to clone hogs to produce organs for human transplant. Pigs are slated to become factories for hearts, livers, kidneys and more. Putting our concerns for health and kids center stage and relegating to off stage how the world is or works ecologically and evolutionarily, results in the paradoxical trivialization of both health and kids. Most current agricultural and ecological thinking regards itself as progressive, and in one sense it is: very little of it can be enacted or implemented without ignoring or overriding our ancient human aesthetic sensibilities. C.S. Lewis said it very well in his book That Hideous Strength: "The very experience of the dissecting room and the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnancies was the first essentialfor progress." The array of industrial equipment on our farmsteads along with our pharmacopoeia of agricultural chemicals demanded a "stifling of all deep-set repugnancies" and this is what has accelerated the so-called progress in high yield agriculture. The farm as a canvas where we can practice the art of living in place has been subsumed by the economic and technological imperative. Finally, some thoughts of two soul mates who are also our best teachers. The first is from Leo Tolstoy who, before the Russian Revolution, wrote: "To return to the old ways is not possible; only one thing is left for those who do not wish to change their way of life, and that is to hope that things will last my time —after that let happen what may. ... the deception on which everything depends is wearing out." To call "what everything depends on" a deception, at first glance, may be too strong. Upon closer examination it may be even more true for us than it was at the time of Tolstoy. For whether we are talking about the automobile or Iowa corn, we are deceiving ourselves, at a minimum, by ignoring their ecological and energy cost. America's Tolstoy, our friend Wendell Berry, commenting on that farm in the Kentucky hollow has this to say: "By the standards of orthodox agriculture, as well as by those of the present economy and culture, this old man and his farm were merely anachronisms, leftovers. The possibility of their existence would seem contemptible, not just to the majority of agriculture experts, but to the majority of influential people of their kind. And yet we must ask why. And we must be careful not to accept too hasty or easy an answer. For no matter what may be said by the current standards of economics or technology or cultural fashion about this old man's life, there is still no legitimate way of withholding respect from him. ... Here was a man who worked until he died, taking care of himself and of his part of the earth." Our hope lies in that minority of people whose lives are less defined by economics than by beauty and the love which attends it. If agrarian thinking could replace industrial thinking one day, with technologies serving as agents rather than as masters, and if we, like the phoebes, can rejoice in the nest we keep, then we will see eco-T-shirts and bumper stickers and all the language of eco-hype only in museums. We'll look back to this time as a primitive era which called itself the environmental movement before "being versed in country things" was widely realized.