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.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
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.