Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The American Homeplace

I'm finishing up Donald McCaigs book The American Homeplace. McCaig and his wife moved from New York City to the hills of Virginia in the early 70's. He knew nothing about sheep or living in the country, but was tired of the city and his corporate job. So they took their savings and drove around until they found a spot with good water and pasture.

It's been an interesting read. It's could easily be three different books. The first part of the book explains the history of his farm and surrounding area in Virginia. He talks about the homesteaders and their families and what happened to them.

The middle of the book is short essays about his time on the farm. I learned about his flock of sheep, especially his sheep dogs. I appreciate the thoughtful and tender way he speaks of the animals he's responsible for. His wife, Anne, and he sacrificed many a winter's night sleep to work during the lambing season. He talks about his community and how they rely heavily on each other to survive. And sadly, he writes about the decline in population, the youth of the area moving away to find work.

He's a model citizen. Volunteering for the fire department and working as an election official. He helped an elderly neighbor put up hay to relieve the worry of the old man's wife.

The last part of the book are interviews of fellow homesteaders and alternative farmers. I'd never heard of the political radical Scott Nearing or his wife, Helen and their influential book, Living the Good Life. Their hand built stone house is still being used at the Good Life Center at Forest Farm. Ah, if I were young, had children named Rainbow Trout, Black Earth and Butternut Squash, I would send in my application to be a resident steward.

McCaig also interviewed Wendell Berry and Maury Telleen, here is Telleens slate of ten considerations on modern agrarianism. One of my favorite interviews conducted by McCaig was with fellow Kansan, Wes Jackson of Salina, Kansas founder of The Land Institute. This is a conversation McCaig has recorded in his book:

On the way back to my motel, Jackson pointed at a brand new shopping center under construction, just slightly nearer to the highway than the old one, which would be torn down. Tax advantages, easier shopping, more fertile land gone.
I said, "Wendell Berry once wrote that soil is an ultimate value. Can you think of any other ultimate values?"
He was silent for a moment. "Well, there's water....."
"Oh, sure, Wes, and air, and-"
"The Kingdom of God," Wes Jackson said.

The Kingdom of God is an ultimate value. This book made me think, a lot about big agriculture and when it started to go wrong, when farmers began to feel the pressure to, "Feed The World" instead of their family. And I've thought about how hard it would be to live off the grid. I have a deep inner need to live more sustainably on this land, harness it's power and produce, bring forth the goodness only sweetened earth can provide. How successful will I be? I think ultimately, I will only be as successful as the work I put forth. God willing, my family will become more thankful of this earth, it's beauty, the miracle of life cycles. My children, my legacy, will look at their food and know where it came from and how much work was put into providing it and how deliciously deformed a tomato should be.


Lori Shaffer said...

April goes thoughtful...I like it. Loved your final paragraph.

april said...

Yeah, every once in a while I gotta spew a bit of my seriousness.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post April. You might enjoy the Omnivore's Dilema by Michael Pollan, and The $64 Tomato by William Alexander, if you haven't already read them.

Kate from HK

Becky said...

I've had similar thoughts at times. I'd love to build an 100% enviro-friendly home...use passive solar, wind and geothermal heating/cooling. Be able to pass surplus electricity back into the grid. Recycle my grey water. Use rain water for the lawn and wash. I couldn't grow my own food tho. The only thing I could farm successfully would be wind. LOL darn this black thumb of mine. But we do visit the local farmers market frequently. I like to buy local.

Jessie said...

I agree, April. Even though I don't want to live in the country :) I am interested in supporting more and more local farmers, etc. I know its harder, but seems worth it. Let me know when you are ready to ship to NYC!

Robbyn said...

A great post, April. And those delightfully deformed tomatoes are definately addictive.

We have the same desire...a return. It's hard work even getting there in increments. But very very worth it.

Donna said...

I remember reading "Living the Good Life", back in my "Mother Earth News" days. I was never a hippie, but had a secret wish to be one.

Cynthia said...

who is Kate from HK? is it Katie? April, you didn't tell me you had other HK friends!!

We have lots of homesteading books. My husband subscribes to Backwoods Home Magazine. It has lots of useful info for living off grid or lesser kinds of homesteading like canning, gardens, composts, house building, etc. It can be found on the web, of coarse.