Books the Contrary Farmer Treasures
The most difficult problem that an agricultural writer faces is convincing readers that farming is very much a part of the whole societal structure, not just another job by which a person makes a living. Therefore, what happens out in the countryside in one century invariably affects the cities in the next century, and often there is not even that much of a time gap. Food is the common denominator of life; producing food is part of the biological and cultural as well as economic fabric of a civilization. Although historians should continue to question the precise causal connections between rural and urban economies, it is a fact that a strong and vital urban society has always been supported by a strong and vital rural society. General decline in the Roman empire, the British empire, and the Russian Communist empire paralleled if not followed the decline of their rural communities. The same thing is happening in the United States, in my opinion, only we don't realize it yet. The following books all reflect my hypothesis in one way or another.
Rural Rides, by William Cobbett (last published by J.M. Dent and Sons, 1973, in the Everyman's Library Series) is still in print. Any book by William Cobbett will do, but in my opinion this one is the best for pointing out what happens when political greed ignores the plight of rural people and allows industrialism to overwhelm pastoralism. Cobbett is my role model although he was much more courageous than I could be, going to jail rather than quit his acid and fiery criticism of England's rape of its farm workers and the country's slow descent into centralized totalitarianism. Cobbett, active in the first half of the nineteenth century, accurately predicted England's decline as a world power and accurately pointed out, incessantly, its cause: impoverishing rural areas and forcing farmers and craftspeople to adopt the machine philosophy of the industrial revolution. Cobbett was also the first writer I know to question the practicality for formal schooling when educational information was readily available from other sources. He recognized that formal schools were little more than the tool with which people in power persuaded children to accept that power. Along with his angry common sense, Cobbett was an excellent writer, so reading him is fun. However, he is writing in the immediacy of the conflict in which he was embroiled, and to understand him, the reader must have a grasp of English history from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Go ahead. Make that a project. You will find yourself reading a history of a country's descent from a world power to a third-rate power that is eerily and frighteningly like the description of what is happening in the United States.
I recommend all of Wendell Berry's books. I consider his Farming: A Hand Book (a Harvest/HBJ book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967) to be more important, more telling-literally as much a handbook of agricultural reform as it is a book of wondrous poetry-than his essays, though his essays are magnificent. To a greater degree than any other writer I have read, Berry shows how the attempt to separate farming and the general society culturally or practically does great harm to both. His books are wonderful moral treatises, really, in an age where journalists are taught to avoid the moral aspects of what they are trying to write about-as if that were possible. Berry's most recent books are published by Pantheon. Earlier books published by North Point Press are now available from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Probably his best-known book, The Unsettling of America, was published by Sierra Club Books. My second favorite, after Farming: A Hand Book, is The Long-Legged House, publishing by Harcourt, Brace, and World in 1969. The chapter 'A Native Hill' moved me to return to my homeland and to farming.
Wes Jackson, farmer, plant geneticist, and now trying to rebuild a dying village in rural Kansas, is to my notion the most original thinker in American agriculture today. He seems to get progressively more penetrating and creative in his analysis of how to achieve a sustainable civilization as he goes along. And Jackson does not just talk. He acts. His latest book is Becoming Native to This Place (University Press of Kentucky, 1993).
Akenfield, by Ronald Blythe (published in 1969, available from Pantheon, as part of its Village Series), is a profile of an English village. The book makes a thoughtful Afterword to Cobbett a century later, and helps one to understand the difference between a rural village and a larger town or city. It is also just plain interesting reading about the rural mind. The book is a series of interviews with various residents of Akenfield in the south of England, and is very, very genuine, although Blythe cannot quite rid himself of the usual urban prejudice that a person who chooses to stay in a village or on a farm throughout a lifetime will suffer from cultural narrowmindedness-as if moving around in cities will cure that fault. Many of his interviewees repudiate this prejudice soundly, but Blythe never seems to be quite convinced.
A raft of books has been published over the last seven years or so, attempting, in the conventional journalistic manner, to describe the present state of commercial agriculture and the decline of traditional rural society. These books are mostly good, but I think that Richard Critchfield's Trees, Why Do You Wait? is the most telling (Island Press, 1991). It focuses on two communities, one in North Dakota and one in Iowa, but the situations he describes are very similar to those here in my part of Ohio.
But rather than broad journalistic reportage, however well researched, I think that personal glimpses and private meditations of the solitary pursuits of country people within their own lives reveal more about real farming and real country life. I am fond of John Baskin's In Praise of Practical Fertilizer (WW Norton, 1984) and his earlier New Burlington (also from Norton). I draw great satisfaction from David Grayson's old books, especially Adventures in Contentment (originally published in 1907, republished by Renaissance House, 1986), remembering that Grayson, whose real name was Ray Stannard Baker, wrote his country books as an aside to a career of courageous and controversial journalism. Harlan Hubbard's Payne Hollow is another book I love very much. I was fortunate enough to visit Harlan at his homestead on the Ohio River twice before he died. He was the most authentic of contrary farmers. Harlan and his wife Anna lived quite elegantly without electricity; telephone, or automobile.
I assume that following all the journalistic endeavors, there will be another wave of novels about the decline of traditional rural life. I am writing one myself, as a matter of fact. What I have seen currently in this genre is way too depressing for my taste or philosophy. The subject is one of sadness, to be true, but I'm convinced that most farm novelists left the farms they feel compelled to write about because they despised farming, and the sadness they exhibit now is hypocrisy: they turn sorrow into a tool to slyly belittle farm life, thereby in a backhanded sort of way justifying its demise and their flight from it. I prefer tough but loving portrayals, spiced with wit and humor, like Smith and Other Events by Paul St. Pierre, which is set in western Canadian cattle and homestead country, and rings with genuinity (Beaufort Books, 1984). None of that pathetic oh-dear-me attitude as exhibited in Jane Smiley's award-winning A Thousand Acres. A chapter in Louis Bromfield's Pleasant Valley, titled "My Ninety Acres," is my favorite short story. This portrayal of the love of an old man for his farm is so authentic that for years I thought it was a true account, not fiction.
The Thresher by Herbert Krause (BobbsMerrill, 1944) is another authentically written and well-written novel that comes to grips with great tragedies in farming without becoming maudlin, ghost-worshipping, or nihilistic. Krause loved and respected farmers, you can bet on it. The same goes for Mildred Walker's Winter Wheat (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1944) and Ralph Moody's Fields of Home (WW Norton, 1953).
I have to mention Modern Meat by Orville Schell (Random House, 1984). I often hear defenders of organic farming lament the use of chemical fertilizers, which in moderation do more good than harm, and pesticides, some of which are dangerously toxic and some at least as "safe" as gasoline. But rarely do the Organicists talk about medicines, hormones, and antibiotics being used and misused in the livestock industry, where in my opinion, the greatest dangers to health lie. Read Modern Meat.
James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about poor sharecroppers in the south in the 1930s, is a book I often draw on for inspiration, especially the chapter on education. This short essay, at least in the first few pages, has nothing particularly to do with farming or rural society, but is for me the most penetrating comment on the flawed psychology of modern schooling that I have ever read. I wonder if anyone else, professing to be a teacher today, has read that chapter, or if they have, if they understand what Agee is saying. He is not the easiest writer to read.
Marion Nicholl Rawson's lovely, quaint book of 1939, Forever the Farm, is another of my treasures. Rawson describes the life, culture, tools, and architecture of pre-industrial agriculture in America as she could still find it in out-of-the-way places in the early twentieth century. The book contains historically valuable material, but I treasure it most for the rural speech patterns Rawson has preserved and for the little cameo short stories that she sprinkles among the drawings and pages of descriptive and historical information. Probably this is becoming something of a rare book by now. My sister waited until our library put its copy on the discard pile and then she pounced on it and gave it to me as a birthday present.
I seldom find anything of remarkable interest in scholarly books about subjects relating to farming, but David W. Orr's new Ecological Literacy (State University of New York Press, 1992) is most helpful in showing the close relationship between sustainable farming, sustainable education, and sustainable societies. Orr's writing style is also clear and sprightly.
Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne (published in 1940 by J.M. Dent & Sons, and quoted at length in this book) is the best articulation of pastoral economics, as distinct from and opposed to industrial economics, that I have read. Unfortunately the book is rare and out of print. It should be required reading in every university course in economics.
For the practical small farmer looking for ways to make money from small-holding, Andrew W Lee's Backyard Market Gardening (Good Earth Publications, 1993) is an excellent source of information on fruits and vegetables.
And finally, everyone should read Jean Giono's little book The Man Who Planted Trees (Chelsea Green, 1985), a fictional account of how the restoration of ecological diversity to a plundered, deforested land not only led to a return of wildlife, diverse plant life, and clear running streams, but to the return of healthy human communities and viable, sustainable human economies as well. I don't know of any book that articulates as accurately and as beautifully the fundamental philosophy behind The Contrary Farmer.