In the introduction to the first edition, I said that I wrote this book out of anger. That declaration still stands although the anger, as expressed in the new essays, is more tempered with patience and sorrow. Or to put it another way, I haven’t mellowed, I’ve just gotten sneakier. I remain, to the end, unreconstructed. I am still angry about the decline of rural society that leads unerringly to a decline in urban society. I still think it doesn’t have to happen. I still refuse to bow to the "wisdom" of accepting this decline simply because I am powerless to prevent it or because smart people know it is inevitable. I still don’t believe in the economist’s god of inevitable economic determinism. I maintain that human willfulness can save society or can destroy a civilization, by actively choosing short-term gain over long-term good or by passively remaining silent and supine in the face of someone else’s choice of short-term gain. As I say somewhere in this book, it surpasses my understanding how we can agree to regulate players to act properly for the long-term survival of our stupid games, but we cannot do the same with real life and real community.
I’m still angry at our educational system, which could teach the folly of allowing a rural society to languish and die, but instead perpetrates the myth that bigger, urban schools are better than smaller neighborhood schools and then closes all the latter. I still believe that education should be able to teach people that greed for short-term gain is just as threatening to the common good as murder. I think education can show how this greed manifests itself in economic policies that encourage overextension, destructive farming practices, and ultimately the bankruptcy of not only our rural practices, and ultimately the bankruptcy of not only our rural communities but all communities. As I write this, in September of 1999, statisticians are reporting that for the first time in our history, personal savings have dropped below zero. We are literally living on borrowed time and borrowed money. Our inability to curb this kind of extreme greed is surely a failure of the kind of intelligence that education should foster.
2000, but do not follow the order in which I wrote them. Of the earlier observations I made in 1980 or 1985 or 1990, few sound dated, as I feared they might. In fact, there is an uncanny similarity between my description of farm economics in the early eighties and at the beginning of the new century. The age-old truth is once more confirmed: in a remarkable way history does repeat itself. How could it be otherwise when human nature continually repeats itself? Eerily similar articulations of the pattern of rural decline can be read in the history of England’s industrialization in the nineteenth century, or in the decline of the Roman empire. If one wishes further proof, archaeologists find the same story in ancient Crete, Babylon, Cambodia, and Mexico. In all cases, the decline of rural culture ushered in a general decline. Are we genetically programmed to keep on repeating the same stupid mistakes?
But my hope, my intention is that this book exudes less anger or blame for the condition of rural society than it inspires love for the land and the human values it nourishes. If that love prevails, it will lead more people back to the necessary virtues of survival fostered by rural life. Such a love could lead us to what democracy desperately needs to survive: a solid middle-class society of independent smallholders, not only of farms but of all kinds of businesses.
I also write this book to protest and reject the cultural images of farmers and rural people that public opinion continues to promulgate, especially through advertising and its influence on the media. The joys of rural life, though they bear little resemblance to the overblown fantasies of Rousseauist romantics, are still very real, and very much realizable, an antidote to the restlessness and chaos that infect modern life. But the vast majority of people don’t know this. Rural life has been a victim of the most inaccurate media-imaging in our cultural history—as bad as the imaging of the Native American. Too often, farms are presented to an urban audience, already prejudiced against "local yokels" as places of discontent, boredom, poverty, crudity, despair, meanness, and ignorance. Surely, these tendencies exist in the cross-section of any community including downtown Manhattan. But I know from hundreds of letters and conversations, that just as there have always been people in farming who were unhappy and incompetent because they were not fit for it, so there are thousands, perhaps millions of people in urban situations who are unhappy because they belong out on the land and do not know it. They have the true farmer’s spirit in them, that blend of creative artistry, intellectual curiosity, independence, manual skill, and love of nurturing that marks the true farmer and gardener. If these people had been exposed to intelligent and craftsmanlike farming instead of merely reading sour, Hamlin Garland type "real life" novels about farmers who would have been failures at anything they tried, they bight be living on and working their own little farms today. And with these hundreds of thousands of carefully kept little homesteads dotting the landscape, the mad rush toward short term money gain might be slowed.
I hope the readers of these essays share the vision I had as I wrote them: that producing some of our own food should be as much a part of life as cooking food ourselves. There is practical hope in that vision. Garden farms are even blossoming in cities today. In the heart of Cleveland, Ohio, in the shadow of skyscrapers, a team of horses patiently plow garden plots and the National Guard, instead of cluttering up the highways on weekends with their "maneuvers," is hauling manure from the zoo to the these new examples of urban farming. And it works to everyone’s short-term advantage, too. This is what people can do when they put their wits together.
Sustainable farms are to today’s headlong rush toward the earth’s destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.