The other day, I pulled The Essential Agrarian Reader off the library shelf as research for my dissertation. The foreword of the book is written by Kentucky-raised author, Barbara Kingsolver, who so powerfully evoked my own gratitude to a semi-agrarian upbringing that I need to share. Kingsolver resuscitates a memory that I believe provides a better social and ecological blueprint for us moving forward than any dreamy idealism presented by technology-evangelists or the LEED/Green Building crowd. I'm no luddite and I think we should make use of and advance technology as appropriate, but we need to enlist a resilient form of social organization as well and there are some excellent lessons to salvage from the agrarian lifestyle. Admittedly, there's a history and risk of unnecessary hostility to difference when we form insular communities - I don't want to romanticize - but I believe truly thinking like a farmer embodies openness and connectedness if there are channels to exchange ideas with the wider world. And there now are.
On to Barbara. I've chopped up the foreword into my favourite excerpts.
First, she lays out the demise of family farmers, the common indifference demonstrated by some urban folk, and the difficulty in explaining why this disconnect is harmful.
Once in the early eighties, when cigarette smoking had newly and drastically fallen from fashion, I stood in someone's kitchen at a party and listened to something like a Greek chorus chanting out the reasons why tobacco should be eliminated from the face of the earth, like smallpox. Some wild tug on my heart made me blurt out: "But what about the tobacco farmers?"
"Why," someone asked glaring, "should I care about tobacco farmers?"
I was dumbstruck. I couldn't find the words to answer: yes, it is carcinogenic, and generally grown with too many inputs, but tobacco is the last big commodity in America that's still mostly grown on family farms, in an economy that won't let these farmers shift to another crop. If it goes extinct, so do they.
I couldn't speak because my mind was flooded with memory, pictures, scents, secret thrills. Childhood afternoons spent reading Louisa May Alcott in a barn loft suffused with the sweet scent of aged burley. The bright, warm days in late spring and early fall when school was functionally closed because whole extended families were drafted to the cooperative work of setting, cutting, stripping, or hanging tobacco. The incalculable fellowship measured out in funerals, family reunions, even bad storms or late-night calvings. The hard-muscled pride of showing I could finally throw a bale of hay onto the truckbed myself. (The year before, when I was eleven, I'd had the less honorable job of driving the truck.) The satisfaction of walking across the stage at high school graduation in a county where my name and my relationship to the land were both common knowledge.
But when pressed, that evening in the kitchen, I didn't try to defend the poor tobacco farmer. As if the deck were not already stacked against his little family enterprise, he was now tarred with the brush of evil along with the companies that bought his product, amplified its toxicity, and attempted to sell it to children. In most cases it's just the more ordinary difficulty of the small family enterprise failing to measure up to the requisite standards of profitability and efficiency. And in every case, the rational arguments I might frame in its favour will carry no weight without the attendant silk purse full of memories and sighs and songs of what family farming is worth. Those values are an old currency now, accepted as legal tender almost nowhere.
Most of our populace and all our leaders are participating in a mass hallucinatory fantasy in which the megatons of waste we dump in our rivers and bays are not poisoning the water, the hydrocarbons we pump into the air are not changing the climate, overfishing is not depleting the oceans, fossil fuels will never run out, wars that kill masses of civilians are an appropriate way to keep our hands on what's left, we are not desperately overdrawn at the environmental bank, and really, the kids are all right.
Okay, if nobody else wanted to talk about this, I could think about it myself and try to pay for my part of the damage, or at least start to tally up the bill. This requires a good deal of humility and a ruthless eye toward an average household's confusion between need and want. I reckoned I might get somewhere if I organized my life in a way that brought me face-to-face with what I am made of. The values I longed to give my children - honesty, cooperativeness, thrift, mental curiosity, physical competence - were intrinsic to my agrarian childhood, where the community organized itself around a sustained effort of meeting people's needs. These values, I knew, would not flow naturally from an aggressive consumer culture devoted to the sustained effort of inventing and engorging people's wants. [...] It's too easy to ignore damage you don't see and to undervalue things you haven't made yourself. Starting with food. What began as a kind of exercise soon turned into a kind of life, which we liked surprisingly well.
Our gustatory industries treat food items like spoiled little celebrities, zipping them around the globe in luxurious air-conditioned cabins, dressing them up in gaudy outfits, spritzing them with makeup, and breaking the bank on advertising, for heaven's sake. [...] I'd rather wed my fortunes to the sturdy gal-next-door kind of food [...]
Our agrarian education has come in as a slow undercurrent beneath our workaday lives and the rearing of our children. [...] Our children know how to bake bread, stretch mozzarella cheese, ride a horse, keep a flock of hens laying, help a neighbour, pack a healthy lunch, and politely decline the world's less wholesome offerings. They know the first fresh garden tomato tastes as good as it does, partly, because you've waited for it since last Thanksgiving, and that the awful ones you could have bought at the grocery in between would only subtract from this equation.
Before I had read this book you're now holding in your hands, I would have hesitated to suggest that one's relationship to the land, to consumption and food, is a religious matter. But it's true; the decision to attend to the health of one's habitat and food chain is a spiritual choice. It's also political choice, a scientific one, a personal and a convivial one. It's not a choice between living in the country or the town; it is about understanding that every one of us, at the level of our cells and respiration, lives in the country and is thus obliged to be mindful of the distance between ourselves and our sustenance.
[...] In any weather I may hope to carry a good agrarian frame of mind into my orchards and fields, my kitchen, my children's schools, my writing life, my friendships, my grocery shopping, and the county landfill. That's the point: it goes everywhere. It may or may not be a movement - I'll leave that others to say. But it does move, and it works for us.
I find more peace, mindfulness, and meaning from trying to think like a farmer (or gardener for that matter) than I do from the highest moments in the champagne world I occasionally inhabit. So Barbara, it moves me too.
Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.