Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream (reviewed January 2008)

Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream, Gene Logsdon (1993, revised edition 2000)[*****] Gene Logsdon is the "Contrary Farmer," the title of the first of his books I read. I just love him, probably because he reminds me so much of my dad. Logsdon is probably more socially adept, my dad more hermetically inclined, but basically they are the same guy: super smart and bookish, super skilled and practical, with gentle, tender souls under their crusty, pissed-off contrariness. They both have the good sense to see the world in a grain of sand -- or at least in a pasture of white clover -- and to know that it is not only enough, but everything they need (well, that and a wife!) Logsdon is both a farmer and a journalist, and he does both on 32 acres in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. In this collection of essays, he rails against industrial cash-grain operations and huge animal factories, supported by the agri-business economists at the large land-grant universities (Ohio State in particular takes a hit) that are ruining ecologically sane farms and rural culture. He writes plainly and nicely about his own farm, family and community. He draws hopeful portraits of sustainable farms both small and large that "are to today's headlong rush toward global destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind." He finds this sort of common sense and common purpose most often among the Amish, about whom he writes without the usual sentimentality. He notes that it is simple human frailty -- "not a cheap food policy, protective tariffs, free trade, government subsidies or overproduction" -- that have led rural communities, along with the rest of human society, "toward a wasteful, spendthrift, exploitative economy." He goes on to note that "Amish culture resists financial chaos and the decline that follows by fortifying individuals against their own frailty. The culture sanctifies the rural virtues that make good farming, or good work of any kind, possible: a prudent practice of ecology, moderation in financial and material ambition, frugality, attention to detail, good work habits, interdependence (neighborliness), and common sense." These are the values Julie and I strive for (not altogether successfully, but we try), but in the heart of the city. It seems to me that these are not rural virtues at all, but what used to be working/middle class virtues, before being middle class was seen merely as a stepping stone to becoming rich. I certainly see these very values among my elderly urban Black neighbors, and the lack of them today (as the result of many forces) seems to be at the heart of the crisis in the urban Black community. The one thing that makes me a little crazy about Logsdon, at least in his earlier essays from the 80's and 90's, is that he has such a chip on his shoulder about the city, and the "urban elite," "urban values," "urban sprawl," etc. It seems to me that most of us living in the city have more in common with the plight of poor rural folks being displaced from their land and their ways by unsustainable economic forces than we do with the ultra-rich folk who control the economy, whether it be from the top of a skyscraper, a suburban industrial park, or a McMansion on a former farmer's field. In his most recent essays, Logsdon seems to agree, and sees the irrepressible agrarian impulse pushing up through the city's pavement. I too see that impulse all around me in the city, and along with Logsdon's final essays, it gives me a glimmer of hope.

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