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Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Time to Plant, A Time to Reap: From Winter Daydreams to Summer Work


A winter crop is the crop that a farmer grows in his mind while he sits by the stove in the winter. They are always perfect crops. They are perfect because no sweat has been shed in them, and they are safe from pests, human frailty, and bad weather. Summer crops are another matter.  
– Wendell Berry, “Looking Ahead” (1978), in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural
There may have been a time when Wendell Berry’s work was known only to a small group of devoted initiates, but that day is long past. Berry’s essays, as well as his fiction and poetry, have brought him well-deserved recognition in his lifetime, as it should be. I was proud of my country when Wendell Berry was chosen to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you missed that lecture in 2012, it’s worth taking the time to read it (or listen to it) now, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read or heard it, it’s well worth revisiting.

Berry (a farmer and a poet, after all) is as sensitive to language as he is to land, nature, farming, society, and history. I flinch each time a visiting small town consultant uses the term ‘agribusiness’ instead of simply agriculture or farming. To Wendell Berry, the change in terminology reflects an enormous change in attitude and perspective.
Farming, according to most of the most powerful people now concerned with it, is no longer a way of life, no longer husbandry or even agriculture; it is an industry known as “agribusiness,” which looks upon the farm as a “factory,” and upon farmers, plants, animals, and the land itself as interchangeable parts or “units of production.”  
– “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems,” 1979
I also flinch at talk of our community needing to “brand” itself. Are we a “product”? In some ways, yes, you will tell me. Well, I’m just hopelessly old-fashioned. I don’t even seek to “brand” Dog Ears Books. I work hard to maintain the quality of my bookstore offerings and to get the word out (and the people in), but “branding”? In my book, that’s for breakfast cereal. Whole or steel-cut oats do not require an advertising campaign. I leave it to you to think of cereals that depend on brand-name recognition.

I don’t want “brand recognition” for my bookstore, just a good, solid reputation.

One of my village neighbor-friend customers recently asked me to order Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land for her. (Generally, I stock as much of Wendell Berry’s work as I can, but this time of year stock tends to run low and not get replenished until later in the spring.) She has many of his books already but was told that if a person had only one, it should be this one. So I ordered a copy for her and one for stock, and when she came in to pick up her order we both began paging through to find favorite essays.

Immediately I turned to “A Good Scythe” (1979), a short essay running only slightly over four pages. You see, I have a scythe at home in my barn, and I also have instructions for “hanging” it, i.e., adjusting the grips to my height and the length of my arms. I’ll need to sharpen (whet) the blade, too, this spring, and then, what’s to stop me from mowing my own meadow, without any noisy machinery at all? It will be a dream come true, working with that beautiful old tool.


Native grasses and wildflowers

The season of seedtime
After giving a list of the problems encountered with a power scythe and a contrasting list of advantages gained by using one powered by his own muscles, Berry adds two more differences he discovered, first, that he never took any pleasure in using the power scythe but always did with the hand tool, and second, that he experienced, if I may paraphrase, “the good kind of tiredness” after working by hand, rather than the strained weariness left him by the power tool.

Back in the 1970s (the Environmental Era, as I think of it) we had a name for tools like this. They were called “appropriate technology,” AT, which was to say they were technology suited to the job at hand rather than to an outsized vision of every farm being a thousand acres and every household task requiring electric "horsepower." For me, AT means washing dishes at home by hand. It also means, in every part of my life, reaching for books and magazines printed on paper, reading that can go from car to coffee shop to desk to bathtub to bed and never need batteries.

Well, what did you expect of me? If I were not already in love with the life of the senses, I’d have little reason to live in the country, and if I weren’t given to romanticizing my life (who will do it for me if I don’t do it for myself?), I’d never, ever have become a bookseller, so you will not be surprised, o my little band of readers, when I confess that my very favorite part of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was that section where Levin was out in the fields, mowing with the peasants.
Levin looked around him and did not recognize the place, everything was so changed. An enormous expanse of the meadow had been mowed, and its already fragrant swaths shone with a special new shine in the slanting rays of the evening sun. The mowed-around bushes by the river, the river itself, invisible before but now shining like steel in its curves, the peasants stirring and getting up, the steep wall of grass at the unmowed side of the meadow, and the hawks wheeling above the bared meadow – all this was completely new....  
... But Levin wanted to get as much mowed as possible that day and was vexed with the sun for going down so quickly. He felt no fatigue at all; he only wanted to work more and more quickly and get as much done as possible. 
 - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Winter daydreams are fine for a while, but getting outdoors to work is going to feel very satisfying, this year as always.


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