It is often the case my farm seems to me the only sane place in this country. I take it this is because, other than my wife and some animals, no one else inhabits it. Madman, bore, or perhaps something in between, I am the primary possessor of the human agricultural perspective on a bit of earth American law recognizes as mine, but which, in reality, possesses me as one of its minor living inhabitants. I have tried to do right by it within my significant limits, but, alas, have made enough agricultural mistakes in my life to forget most of them and curse myself in remembrance of those I do recall with a silent condemnation. Since my school days, truth be told, I have not ceased to marvel each year at the fool I have been the year before. Yet, on the extreme other side of these many active mistakes there dwells an attitude of complacency reflected in the way I sometimes idly watch the fields from my rocker, contemplating them all the while—particularly if a jug is handy. The agricultural problems and attributes of the landscape are laid out before me—the solutions to which, if any ever present themselves, destined eventually, in retrospect, to be reckoned ignorant and those of a fool. The former version of me, the doer, is something of an innovator (however meager his rate of success); the latter, the muser, a leisurely pragmatist with a practical, rather than idealistic, penchant for strategizing an approach to something that may never occur. I will be the first to admit my perspicacity often is suspect and misspent, but then trial and error are part of the farmer’s (as well as the writer’s) trade.
I have chosen to write briefly on my agricultural identity for a number of reasons, not least of which is to combat ongoing negative stereotypes of farms and farmers. In popular culture farm life frequently continues to be characterized as stagnant, dull, parochial, stupid, and backward, largely on account of its hard remitting toil. As with all stereotypes, each of these qualities may prove true depending on a given farm. Yet I also find each one of them problematic with regard to my own agricultural background and observations. As one who has traveled a bit, I would take special exception to the first pejorative word—”stagnant”— by noting simply that all excursions are relative and carry with them their own inherent limitations: life remains life wherever one idealizes and experiences it, even in transit or within the space of a few square miles. Moreover, I would assert the other characterizations primarily arrive from the observations of those who either suffered tragically in their agricultural upbringings or who failed, sometimes willfully, to discern the value of a farm’s many underlying nuances.
One simple fact is that the labor farm life demands of an individual usually is to the purpose of the betterment of the self, literal and artistic. “Work is the law,” wrote the painter da Vinci. “Like iron that lying idle degenerates into a mass of useless rust, like water that is an unruffled pool sickens into a stagnant and corrupt state, so without action the spirit of men turns to a dead thing, loses its force, ceases prompting us to leave some trace of ourselves on this earth.” Work delivers people from evil, or at the least lessens the evil they would do, in most any vocation. In farming, seasonal changes, the almost imperceptible lengthening and shortening of light hours, and variable weather make its undertaking a constant and rigorous exercise in observation, planning, and critical thinking. There is always something different to do, and it may demand to be done very quickly—as during harvest—or at a more leisurely rate (the mending of fences in winter comes to mind).
It was the slow, reflective periods of agricultural life which afforded humans the leisure to develop the arts for hundreds of years until widespread mechanization changed that process in the early twentieth century. Yet everything—the most fundamental and essential qualities of existence (all the elements of art)—may still be found on a farm: strife, peace, love, nature in most all its aspects, ideals, boredom, disgust, inspiration. And they are all diminished or intensified and combined to the degree one wishes or allows. It would be crude (and erroneous) to say these are predominantly surface phenomena. They appear so only until one comes to understand, with time and repetition of experience, their deeper implications. I have found that when possessed of free time, farmers seldom waste it. We may snooze in a rocker or take in the last ten laps of a stock car race, but, to my knowledge, we are least among the professionals when it comes to candidates for sustained outright sloth. We may on occasion appear set in our ways and unwilling to change. I believe this to be a byproduct of our strength, though it is possible for us to waiver and neglect many things for a time—even forget to be ourselves. But that has never much troubled me. At least never for very long. I know such men and am one of them.
When I am away too long I miss the qualities of the farm that abide in memory: the crows of the roosters and, yes, even the caws of crows; the gentle roll of the fields; the feel of a heavy maul or lightweight hoe in my hands; the odor of mown hay. In essence, I miss what is pleasing and beautiful about a farm; I pine for what Walt Whitman called “the secluded-beautiful, with young and old trees, and such recesses and vistas!”
There was a time a few years ago when I thought I would be leaving my farm and living in a city, and I actually attempted to do so for a matter of days, securing an apartment in a sprawling early 1900s building which sat alongside a crowded, narrow sloping street. I found myself existing in a dreamlike state whenever I was there, combined with a dreamlike sense of insecurity. When I laid down to try and rest I felt both lost in bliss and ready for any catastrophe. After a time I could feel the greatness of spaces I had known while taking my rest on the farm had disappeared, replaced by labyrinthine darkened walls and other lives pressed close all about me. I found I could not sleep alone in such an environment and would drive out of the city with my camping gear to one of the spots I knew in the national forest. There I would rest in contentment until the morning sun struck my eyelids, turning them red. In truth, I spent not a single full night in the city and when I returned to my farm it was with a powerful sense of relief.
Why was this? For one thing, I know for a fact there is an unbroken line of farmer men on my father’s side of the family stretching back to the Bavarian region of the Middle Ages and, I suspect, far beyond. May one simply break that line suddenly? For me, the answer appears to be no. And yet I can hardly remember my feelings toward the farm of my youth other than the vague sensation that somehow I belonged there—that it was where I was supposed to be. Perhaps most all children feel that way about the places they are reared. My memory of my childhood farm still wrestles with itself as if it were an angel or something else fantastic—the clear lights and ugly shadows of those unforgotten days wrapping about themselves in tumult. I do know that with regard to the continuum of agriculture in my life, its earliest recollections have such a peculiar quality that they have become merged into a single sensation of profound emotion containing both careless joy and an invincible sadness. It is this feeling which continues to form me and casts a shadow over the rest of my life, including all I write.
In 1953, the Appalachian writer and farmer Byron Herbert Reece remarked to a reporter that his novel writing had been interrupted by the need to plow his potatoes.
The reporter noted, “Anybody can plow potatoes,” and urged him to get back to his book.
More than a half-century ago, the reporter’s statement was perhaps true, but I would wager in the second decade of the 21st century more people can write novels than plow potatoes.
Indeed, we have lost many of our agricultural ways—even the simplest of them. To know they are something of a rarity is evinced by the fact that when I take my tractor less than a mile up the highway to the gas station I am waved at by numerous anonymous people in passing cars. The children in particular gesture and point in the same manner they might gesticulate at Indians or buffalo: because of the rarity of the spectacle—something they’d heard of and never expected to encounter on account of the phenomena’s fame for near-extinction.
In truth, there are more of us than one might think, though we often pass in disguise. Most all people who farm nowadays, self included, are industrial farmers in the context of Henry Ford’s vision: that is, out of economic necessity we work part of the time on the farm and part off. Like writers, farmers are not capable even of subsistence; our farm profits would not be sufficient to pay our property taxes and expenses without the income from our jobs.
Why, then, do we keep on doing it?
Here I should say something of my other vocation, which is responsible for the thing you find yourself perusing, and its relationship to farming. When it comes to farming most authors I know who write on the need for agricultural responsibility wouldn’t know which end of a horse to feed sugar to. They mean well, but I know for a fact the reality of day-to-day living would not agree with them. For one thing, it would quite simply kick their asses. Unless possessed of exceptional constitutions, at the end of a farm day they would be too spent to write, or do much of anything else for that matter. This was a fact the literary southern agrarians of the 1930s quickly discovered while trying to translate their principles into action, Allen Tate’s lazy incompetence at Ben Folly serving perhaps as the best example. A couple of them backed up their pens with pitchforks capably enough—Andrew Lytle, Madison Jones—but for the most part folks writing about agrarianism maintained a safe distance from actually practicing it. There is good sense in this since farming can actually kill you, as it did Byron Herbert Reece, who suffered and perished before his time.
The most famous of us, Wendell Berry, has remarked the only real time his farm chores allow him to write is winter. I generally agree with this assertion, though to an extent that season, too, is interrupted by my teaching duties. Yet it does afford more time than the others because one is not cultivating earth, planting, gathering wood, tending bees, and performing other tasks the remaining three seasons demand. Regardless, it is important to plan both one’s farming and writing endeavors with a minimum expenditure of time in mind. Though I occasionally experience impatience with a perceived slowness in others, I count it a great advantage to possess as one of my few gifts a penchant for efficient, streamlined thought.
As I have been seeking to establish, farming and writing are more alike than one might think. They are concerned with the essences of things. It has been remarked neither one’s fellows, nor one’s god(s), nor one’s passions will leave one alone, yet the work of farming and writing constitute realms in which one may find meaning and good during one’s fleeting significance in life. Writing affords the writer the privilege of relating all the manifestations of existence, great and little, superficial and profound. The successful writer independently creates through imaginative effort and against all difficulty of expression. And in order to achieve the best creation the writer must sacrifice something—give up some essential shred of the self forever. Writing, then, like farming, is at once painful and taxing and rewarding—only in different ways.
And so we reach the time of harvest for this brief essay. With some reservations, there are a few particluars I feel tentatively certain about. For one thing, this piece has led me to a recognition of the relationship between my occupations of writing and farming—that, in many ways, the latter anchors the former. Farming provides diversion, protection, consolation, the mental relief that comes from grappling with material problems, the wisdom of dealing with other forms of life in all their cycles, and the feeling of well-being that accompanies “riding”—note I refrain from using the word “harnessing”—the elemental powers of nature to a respectable harvest. Nature’s power often is hidden, sometimes overcome, though never extinguished. So powerful is its hold on me that I can not give it and its cultivation up. I know because I have tried.
Invariably, farmers and writers answer that call to do our work which comes from within us—which is a way of coming from nature—and has made us who and what we are. We make our farms and writings even as we are made by them. Noticed or unnoticed, ignored or commended, we meet, as best we can, the demands of our special and specialized work and lives. Somewhere within the sincere endeavor to accomplish, to go as far as strength will carry us, to continue undeterred by reproach lies that integrity which is ours. And if we deign to add to that integrity charity toward our fellow writers and farmers, especially those not so fortunate nor so far along as ourselves, then we approach an even greater good, and one in which there can exist no measure of excess.
Only in our imagination and in nature does every truth of existence find its existence. Imagination and nature, I believe, are the supreme masters of life. The tending of fields, like the rendering of memories, is as much a rendering of fields as a tending of memories. My first great adventures—at least those that were so to my mind—occurred on farms and so, I suspect, will my last. The localities of those early places had definite importance. Yet in the recounting of such a life a certain amount of naïveté, sentimentality, and even flat out error is unavoidable. I remain unapologetic for them as they are natural and probably impossible to overcome. And this fact is as true in farming as it is in writing. Indeed, I have witnessed the wisest and most venerable of farmers and writers betrayed by the hardest of their earned knowledge as they struggled to practice some new task. Some observers, such as myself, are supportive under these circumstances—even admiring of the courage necessary to risk failure in attempting something genuinely new—while others will exhibit only scorn at a person stumbling while seeking to break out of their established mold and identity. Which kind of reader are you?
If I could identify the attitude in which I approach writing and farming, and the writing of farming, I would articulate it as the spirit of love. It is a love that springs forth from the fragility of the human species; that—as was not the case three quarters of a century ago—the species possesses the means to destroy itself. What a weak, fragile thing it has transformed itself into—not unlike some delicate, endangered heirloom variety of vegetable. I think we have an obligation to care for it as best we can.
Though much of this essay has been concerned with farming as investigated through the medium of writing, I refrain from laying serious claim to the titles “writer” and “farmer” myself. After all, can one truly know the nature of even one aspect of life? How can we when we don’t know even our own thoughts? One may love writing and farming without that fact making one a legitimate participant in those vocations. True, I have loved them and practiced them for decades, but it is not for me to gauge the measure of my failures or successes. Nevertheless, right or no, I have found myself bold enough here to speak of them with a certain measure of authority.
I like to think that when I grow too old to be trusted with a pen or set of tractor keys, I shall lay down my books, quit my fields, and contemplate a place to be buried or, in the old northern European tradition, burned atop a pyre. Perhaps I shall have my books and tractor burned with me, which no doubt would make for an entertaining spectacle among the mourners as well as a source of much gossip in my little rural county. Why not? Who says one cannot both fade away and burn out?
We have all noted how things have changed—the sky, the atmosphere, the light of judgment which falls on the labors of all of us, renowned or obscure. No one succeeds in everything they do, and in that sense we are all failures. Yet there are farmers and writers still planning, planting, gathering, even now—reaping the honest harvest of a duty faithfully if imperfectly performed.
About the Author:
Casey Clabough is the author of the novel Confederado, the travel memoir The Warrior’s Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route, and five scholarly books on southern writers, including Inhabiting Contemporary Southern & Appalachian Literature: Region & Place in the 21st Century. Clabough serves as editor of the literature section of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the literary journal James Dickey Review. He lives on a farm in Appomattox County, Virginia and teaches at Lynchburg College.