I’ve just sent in a resume for a position with a national rural-life organization, and while I was writing the cover letter, I thought of Jefferson and Washington. How they loved their farming pursuits and their lands. (I’m leaving aside the slavery question at the moment, but it’s never far from my mind.)
Jefferson, for instance, with all his legendary bookishness, loved to experiment at Monticello with varieties of peas, his favorite vegetable, to see how well they’d grow in his soil, when they would ripen, how they tasted. He also introduced viticulture to the United States. He kept copious notes over years and must have learned a great deal.
And Washington, who vastly preferred the life of a gentleman farmer over that of a politician, enjoyed using his ingenuity to develop a plow that would cut effectively through his pebbly, tough soil. He also designed a 16-sided threshing barn with a grooved floor through which the grains of wheat would fall after horses’ hooves worked them out of their hulls. In the barn cellar, slaves would then gather and sack the grain.
These two men of the world, of accomplishment and experience, dearly loved the land. I think they had a bond with it that many of us today have never known: the fruit of their own land sustained their very bodies, while the beauty and challenge of that same land sustained their spirits. I also think that this life of physical and mental health is why they both lived to ripe old ages and remained young in their excitement over what the next season would bring.
One reason I so love the writing of Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry is the way they draw (and live) this steel-strong link between agriculture and true culture. Between the work of one’s hands and the joy of one’s life. Between a human life and the lives of plants and animals who share it. Berry is a professor, poet, essayist and musician as well as a farmer — he’s culture with a capital C. Logsdon, well, he’s just a plain hoot to read. I’d love to meet him one day.
Because of them, and of men like Jefferson, I don’t see that farming has to be merely manual labor. It can be a big multifaceted mental game too. Farming, plumbing, carpentry, cabinetmaking — it’s a terrible underestimation to dismiss them as “working with your hands,” when there’s so much of the brain and heart required, too. There’s intelligence and creativity involved. There’s a respect for one’s ancestors’ work coupled with the courage to face and answer a new generation of questions. Culture!
I told the good folks in my cover letter that “without the freedom to farm, this country has little freedom to grow.” And I see now that I meant it even more than I realized at the time. I want to think about this some more.