Agrarian Aggregate: Farm to Pen in the Pacific Northwest
Posted on March 26th, 2011
This morning, I wished for a cabin in North Carolina, an anchorite’s hole, a Pilgrim At Tinker Creek mind space where the chatter would cease. And our internet connection got shut off.
It was only a temporary service interruption (we are uniformly bad at remembering bill due dates in our household), but it still carried the ring of a ‘wish, granted!’ genie chuckle about it, and I sat there at my desk thinking, well shoot. What now?
What now, because running an online literary magazine has necessarily meant being glued to either my smart phone or my laptop more than ever before, over the course of the last month. (The FG is nearly a month old! Why only yesterday, you were a twinkle in a Rainier-misted eye at a summer backyard barbecue…). What now, because my body has forgotten, over the past year and a half, that it ever spent time hefting cases of produce around in a walk-in, and my hands have softened into scribbler’s paws, no longer knowing the physical surety of the cut of a knife. Who, and what, was I without the internet?
My grandmother had always said that our bodies are built for work. And when she said work, she emphatically did not mean the physically idle things that I do now, under the guise of writing, a good deal of which involves keeping a weather ear out for the telltale sounds of beagle-led destruction in my living room. No. When she said work, she meant a physical task that kept a body honest. Work that was something you showered because of, as opposed to showering for. There is a difference. There are people that know that difference. I used to be one of them.
I’ve been meditating on these things all week, in the course of preparing for an interview in the coming days with local farmer and author Kurt Timmermeister. Work. Farms. Bodies in motion. None of this is to say, and I’m careful not to say, here, that one type of work is inherently more valuable than another. There are many types of work that make our current world spin. But there’s one that has grabbed the collective imagination of the current cultural zeitgeist, and that work is farming. Men, women, land, and sweat. Bovines, haunches leaking steam into the early morning air. The silhouette of a ram against the setting sun on a lone hill, the ghostly sheep wandering the verge below. The soft warm secrets of eggs being laid under cover of darkness, in a thick-aired shed. Farming.
Which isn’t to say that this is new, either. Long before the New York Times decided to ‘discover’ something again (Young people! Farming! In or near Portland! Squee!), there were twelve men, Southerners all, who made an impassioned stand championing the cause of knowing one’s geography, and carrying it beneath one’s fingernails proudly, the way your grandparents did. Twelve poets, authors, historians, and men of letters who made me feel that perhaps despite my sedentary state, words might yet be able to do something, be it ever so humble, to advance the case for farming. Who might lend me some of their wisdom, when the time came to ask questions of someone who knows his land, and his place in it, far better than I know the confines of my office.
The Southern Agrarians. Donald Davidson, John Gould Fletcher, Henry Blue Kline, Lyle H. Lanier, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Herman Clarence Nixon, Frank Lawrence Owsley, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, John Donald Wade, Robert Penn Warren, Stark Young. Emerging from a philosophical discussion group originally known as the ‘Fugitive Poets’, their collaboration gave rise to the creation of a singular work of impassioned literary advocacy on behalf of Southern agricultural traditions: I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Traditions that, according to the authors, were synonymous with Southern culture itself. In its first essay, John Crowe Ransom states,
“It is out of fashion in these days to look backward rather than forward. About the only American given to it is some unreconstructed Southerner, who persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living. He is punished as his crime deserves. He feels himself in the American scene as an anachronism, and knows he is felt by his neighbors as a reproach.”
And indeed, these men wrote at a time when America, as a whole, was moving away from its agrarian past, and onwards into a mechanized future. The America of the 1930s was an America ravaged by the fallout from Black Tuesday—an America whose hope in agricultural prosperity was blighted by the Dust Bowl. Whatever hope remained seemed destined to take root in further industrialization (a hope that bore fruit, largely thanks to the manufacturing demands of WWII). No one was looking to the fields to save America—the fields were barren. And yet. Here were twelve men, making the argument that the things that remained most true about any American, but, particularly a Southerner, were the things to be found in the very soil that had proven false for so many others. That the identity of both individuals and of our nation was written into the furrows of the land, not the whirring gears of the automobile.
Here, at a time when our business has only grown more esoteric, a majority of it taking place in the nebulous otherlands of an electronic superhighway, I find myself contemplating, and seeing, uncollected, a similar group of impassioned advocates, Kurt amongst them, making the case for a return to the pleasures of place and geography—a modern, larger, and more diverse band of renegades, whose disparate activities and locations are nevertheless united under the banner of Agrarianism, once more. A recognition that divorcing ourselves from intimate knowledge of our food’s production has led to a larger loss of a collective identity that was once more firmly linked to our physical geography—a sense of America as an actual place, as opposed to an intellectual concept.
The theme of ‘geography’ has subtly permeated our offerings here at the Farmer General during the month of March, and it is to this theme that I keep returning, when I think about questions of work, and what to ask of a farmer whose labors, both literary and physical, are so clearly tied to a specific sense of place. What I was really wishing for, I believe, at the outset of this essay, when I wished for an anchorite’s holding, safe somewhere in the blue hills of western North Carolina, was that same specific sense of place. What I hope to be able to know, in some small part, if only by asking, is one way to come back to that knowledge, from the confines of the disembodied desk chair. Farming may be no inherently more virtuous or better than the work that occurs in less geographically specific places, but, I believe that a large part of its attraction lies in a general hunger for that same knowledge—an echo in the bone that understands what our bodies were built for. And hopes, even if only by reading, at first, to find its way back there again.