On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!

On wading in: Day 29. The least obvious kinds of blessings.

We’ve been gardening and CSA-ing for long enough that we’re used to having fresh local food, at least much of the time.  And we’re big fans of local arts and crafts, DIY and various forms of microenterprise.  And every day that I get to grow something, buy something locally, or give to support an initiative I believe in, I am grateful that I have enough (time, land, money, energy, knowledge, compassion, community) to be able to do that.

Every once in a while, though, something shifts a little in how I view the world, and that happened today.  We were driving home from the farmer’s market downtown with a little car bursting with local goodness: cabbage, beets, turnips, red onions, raspberries, Sungold tomatoes, soft pretzels, eggs, camembert, and two kinds of pork sausage, all produced in and around our area.  And we’d enjoyed seeing our farmers and growers as well as assorted friends we run into downtown.

As we headed home, I was wishing I’d had a chance to get to my friend’s shop not far away, Downtown Handmade and Vintage.  It’s a funky, beautiful, creative place, and I’m feeling like I need a little more funk in my life.  But every time I go to buy an item of clothing from an ordinary place (like my Old Navy jeans and H&M shirt at the moment), I feel a little gross.  Just a little bit.  And I’m not suggesting YOU should; I’m just saying that it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile my pretty minimal clothing needs with my pretty substantial concerns about global fiscal, labor, and environmental sustainability.  My clothing is part of me and yet it’s also mostly part of a culture and practices that I don’t want to support.

So here’s what occurred to me: the ability to buy things you cherish from people you want to support in a community you are happy to belong to — this is the perhaps the least obvious and most important kind of blessing.

Herman Daly says in one of his many fabulous articles on sustainable economics that water (as in the “trickle down” theory) is the wrong metaphor for money in an economic system.  Blood makes more sense, he argues.  Because economies don’t get rained on from above; they are circulatory, with all organs needing the flow of funds and important central organs driving its pulse, pressure, and purity.  (Okay, he may not have spelled it out in such detail; I can’t remember.  Check out his work at Orion Magazine and elsewhere to find out.)  But here’s my point: when we have money to spend and the inclination to spend it locally, we are part of the heart of our community.  When we love what we buy and are grateful to its makers and growers, we are part of the soul of our community.  It’s not only a responsibility to buy local, but a privilege and a positive pleasure.

(“Duh,” you’re thinking.  Well, sure.  But still.  Right?)

On wading in: Day 17. The particulars.

As I sat last night with the smell of my son’s hands (grapes, tomatoes, basil from our farewell-to-the-garden harvest) and the image of a Somali immigrant high schooler carefully blowing large, perfect bubbles and laughing with joy as my three-year-old chased them down, I realized that these were my touchstones for the day.  

I need these touchstones; I need specific memories and moments to ground me in the world.  Community does that for me, ideally, through its webs of friendship, caregiving, mutual tedium, shared challenge.  But lacking that, I’m needing to build some of these pieces for myself. 

One of the ways I’m doing that is through my work with the Maine Humanities Council, especially this new series I’m creating on the agrarian novel in the USA.  The more I read of these glorious novels and the insightful criticism related to them, the more caught up I am in questions of nostalgia, utopianism, political structures, and illustrative details.  The difference between a polemic and a novel, after all, is largely about the level of detail in plot, character, setting.  The particulars are what pull us in and what make a difference, and those of us who tend to view the world from a distance sometimes have a hard time remembering that.  What’s beautiful about agrarian novels in particular is the synchronicity between what they advocate (attention; local knowledge; reverence for beauty and for nature) and what they do (demonstrate each of those principles in their own process and language and plot).  It’s a harmony that’s well worth seeking in the other fields of our lives.

Some particulars of today: at the Bread Shack, while I waited for my car to get fixed down the street, I had a cup of cocoa.  When it came, in a perfect round white cup with a dollop of chocolate-sprinkled whipped cream on top, Dara (owner and friend) asked the server to bring a spoon.  A demitasse, specifically.  It needs it, she said.  It’s just crying out for it.  And she was right.

At bedtime, Ezra wanted to read Brown Bear again, because we’ve finally (after a year or two) finished putting up the remainder of the wall decals from his Brown Bear set.  (He had been missing the aquatic creatures: the yellow duck, goldfish, and green frog, on account of us having no body of water to put them near/in.  They now occupy wall space near a picture of a duck pond.  It’s all out of proportion, but Ezra could not be more thrilled with the whole thing.)  So a reading of Brown Bear involves him reading to us and pointing energetically to each creature in its place on the four walls of his room.  His face is full of light as he searches and finds, over and over, the brown bear climbing in a tree; the red bird soaring toward a bird house; the yellow duck waddling toward the pond…and on and on.  “My friends,” he calls them.  “My friends are so happy to be all together.”

On wading in: Day 2

I’m enjoying the fact that Day 2 is September 2nd…and also painfully aware that when I miss a day, we’ll all know it.  But hey.  This little practice is more for my benefit than yours, so perhaps I’ll be the only one to care.  (Assuming you can live through the agony of missing a post from me…I know, I know.)

Today was a mixed bag of a day.  It was our second Sunday and it sure felt like it.  (Explanation: when I was an academic, someone once explained to me that the summer months could be best understood if labelled as weekdays: June is the Friday night of summer; July is Saturday; August is one long Sunday.  Sunday always involves a little relaxation and introspection, but it’s mostly filled with housework, homework and dread.)  We had this beautiful gift of a four-day weekend, and I was all giddy with a sense of possibility before I realized a) it would rain the whole time; b) we had no plans and it was Labor Day weekend; c) we don’t really have disposable income at this time; and d) we have tons of stuff to do around the house.  So we decided to make it a staycation of sorts, with predictable results.  We loved having two Saturdays (I lobbied briefly to call it three Saturdays and one Sunday, but let’s be real) and used them well, with a picnic by the river and lots of fun garden time.  There was picking of homegrown veg (based on Alice Waters’ Simple Food refrigerator pickle recipe), singing, dancing, and a whole lot of important house and yard work.  But today the rain was INTENSE, and we loafed about all morning and then spent the afternoon with friends we haven’t seen in ten years.  Which was satisfying in itself.  And now…and now…

Here I am, trying to imagine what this project of wading in means.  Partly, it seems to mean paying attention to things so that I can develop a habit of living in the moment and recollecting it with some reasonable calibration to reality.  That’s not a strength of mine.  I notice the dramas: the joys and failures.  I tend to discount the mundane.  But in life with kids, the mundane is kind of the point. It’s the source of the joy.

All this is reminding me of this brilliant new series I’m creating (and scholarship I’m writing) for the Maine Humanities Council on the agrarian novel.  It’s not much of a category in the US, you see, though it should be.  It’s farm literature that illustrates a love of the land, a reverence for the ordinary, an appreciation of people and nature and the routine, miraculous systems of nature.  It tends to be skeptical of gimmicks and passers-by, preferring deep roots and time-tested solutions.  It pays attention, sitting quietly for a while to make room for the wise, the funny, or the beautiful.  Just in case they show up.  That’s the kind of approach I’m trying to take to my life these days…and it’s nice to be living it even as I let my ever-scrambling intellect go play with the abstractions.  Gene Logsdon says “firsthand experience” is the difference between the agrarian writer and the writer; I’d argue, today, that firsthand experience is the difference between happy living and muddling through.  Not just HAVING the experience, but showing up for it.  Being present with it, sharing it with others, and remembering it as best you can.  These are my work, today.

What’s yours?