The Address of an Uninvited Keynote Speaker
I wrote the following in one fell swoop after receiving a call from a young friend. He was relaying a tentative invitation—or the possibility of a tentative invitation—that immediately excited me into eight hand-written pages without a pee break. That was quite an accomplishment for an old man.
Well, the possible tentative invitation fell through. It failed to materialize. I’m not sure why. My inner hermit was relieved. My constricted soapbox manager was, at least for a while, beside himself with deflated bubbles.
But here are the hastily scribbled pages, edited with a residue of burst bubbles.
In late January of 2023, I took a call from a young friend who is a long-distance runner. He has a degree in philosophy and makes a living by pulling weeds and hoeing potatoes on an organic CSA garden in northern Wisconsin. Such are the vagaries and vicissitudes of the emerging rural culture where more and more bright young people are coming to the countryside rather than leaving it.
My young friend told me he’d shown my Nature’s Unruly Mob to his friend (who does rural-related stuff for one of the county departments); and she, after reading some indeterminate portion of the book—whose subtitle is “Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture,” wondered aloud whether I might be willing to be the keynote speaker at an upcoming annual gathering of a watershed-protection organization with which she was affiliated. That’s what my friend—I’ll call him Ethan—said to me over the phone.
My immediate response, as I confessed to Ethan, was a mixture of excitement and anxiety.
I am, you see, a bit of a hermit, maybe more than a bit, partly by temperament, partly as a consequence of pursuing a peculiar subject matter that has preoccupied me for over fifty years. That preoccupation is the condition and quality of rural culture. It’s a topic, conversationally speaking, that’s shrunken to the size you can drown in a bathtub. Or a coffee cup. Not many people are interested in the condition and quality of rural culture, even—oddly enough—most farmers.
So when I was asked (or thought I was asked) to speak to an audience that supposedly was interested in the subject (even if the invitation was secondhand and tentative), I jumped on my pen and rode it until the ink ran out. Or until I had to pee. And since I was—and am—of the view that my life story, or at least aspects of it, might be helpful and even emblematic in unfolding the quality and condition of rural culture, I’ll attempt to drag the reader along, I hope not too unwillingly, with pieces of wandering narrative.
I’m a Lincoln County farm boy. Or, to be a bit more abstruse and provocative, a Lincoln County farm boy who prefers to think of himself as a peasant. Of course there are no peasants is America. They’re an obsolescent, obsolete, and perhaps even forbidden character type. They’ve all been drowned in the agribusiness hot tub, which may explain why even farmers are a bit chary of the rural culture subject. You never know if there might be a surviving peasant hiding in that embarrassing topic.
My parents literally made the small farm I grew up on. (The story of that farm has been compressed into two small books, disguised in a slightly fictionized form, by the backwoods writer Seedy Buckberry. One book is called Get Poor Now, Avoid the Rush, and the other is entitled A Windfall Homestead. They seem reasonably accurate and authentic accounts but, with a writer’s name like “Seedy Buckberry,” you never know for sure.) I like to tell people that, born in 1946, I’m just old enough—raised until I was four or five in a tamarack log house my father built in the early 1930s—to have actually experienced the last decade or two of a rural culture in thinning transition, from kerosene lamps and workhorses, home canning and barn raisings, threshing crews and silo-filling rings, quilting bees and one-room schools, to electronic and horsepower everything, tractors so huge and complex that only hired technicians can repair them, supermarkets of international reach, metal buildings with all-night lighting, and consolidated schools that would die without underarm deodorant or football.
My childhood wasn’t exactly Norman Rockwell. It wasn’t all pretty or perfect. My parents had a difficult marriage. (An exploration into those difficulties would reveal tensions very much having to do with the stresses and fault lines that rural culture was experiencing in the 1950s and ‘60s. But, perhaps unfortunately, we’ll leave marriage counselling for another day, even if the personal is political.) My mother died of cancer before she was fifty. My father was her bedside nurse. She died at home, on a cold February night, in 1963. There was no health insurance. If my father had not been such an incredibly hard worker—well, an incredibly hard worker with a powerful Depression-era sense of family responsibility—the farm would’ve been lost to the mortgage that was incurred because of relentless medical bills.
My father had an eighth-grade education. My mother made it through the seventh. Both in one-room schools. They were, in 1940, in their mid-to-late twenties when they settled on a log shack marriage. For another decade, the farm got incrementally bigger, year by passing year. A 30’ by 60’ lumber barn, in 1943, was built over a fieldstone foundation. A little over a dozen cows, mostly grade Guernseys—with young stock and work horses—began to fill that barn. A few barn cats and a dog that slept in the straw. A new, homemade frame house, two story, complete with electricity, a flush toilet, and a party-line telephone in 1950. (The black-and-white single-channel television didn’t appear until the mid-1950s.)
There are those who say that the industrialization of agriculture was achieved in large part by making small-scale farming an economic impossibility, that the prices paid for what the small farm produced were no match for what things cost, for what farm families needed or wanted or were persuaded to desire. Now we all know—having tried and failed to explain it to our kids—that needs and wants are two different things. But here are two short needs-and-wants stories—one of my father and another of my mother—that illustrate, I think, the blurred line between needs and wants, with a little desire persuasion tossed in.
We used to peel popple pulp in the early summer—my father, older brother, and I—after the annual crop of glacial stones was picked off the oats and corn fields. (Picking stones was a seasonal excursion into childhood purgatory.) And then there usually were ten days or two weeks before haying began. That’s when we went to the woods. But on this particular year the pulp peeling job took longer than my father had anticipated or planned for. The hay was ready to cut, but my father wasn’t free to cut it. At least not as usual.
So we’d get home from the woods; my older brother and I (with help from our mother) would milk the cows and do other barn chores; our father would crank up the Farmall C and go cut hay with a mower that was designed to be pulled behind horses. The next evening, if all went well—no rain—or the next evening plus one or two, he would rake that hay into windrows. But the pulping had to go on in the daytime until the job was done. Meanwhile, the raked hay was ready to be put in the hay mow. We were, because of the woods work, unable to gather the hay in the usual way with the small tractor pulling a hay wagon and, behind the wagon, a traction-powered hay loader that worked the loose hay up a metal incline and dropped in into the wagon. So my father asked a neighbor to bale our hay while we were in the woods. (Actually, the neighbor worked days for the county highway department; so it was the neighbor’s wife who did the baling.)
The pulping and the haying—the first crop—got done at the same time. Now my father had a deal with my brother and me regarding our share of the pulping money. He kept his promise to the cent. But what it cost him to have the bales dropped in the field—bales we picked up after chores in the evening and hauled to the hay mow—was almost exactly equal to his share of the pulping money. That situation or circumstance made him so mad that he went to town, to an implement dealer, and bought a used PTO baler—the Farmall C could just barely pull it in first gear with full throttle—a used baler with a flawed timing chain that caused the plunger to snap the twine-tying needles on repeated and multiple occasions, each snap requiring a trip to town, to a blacksmith shop, to have the broken needles welded. The air was blue, and it wasn’t all from the Farmall C.
Of course there was a second step: not only another (slightly better) baler, but a bigger tractor—a Farmall H—and a crusher to break the stems of the newly cut hay so the crop would dry more quickly. And, of course, a hay elevator to transport hay bales from wagon to hay mow. The cows, utterly unimpressed with these technological improvements, did not increase their milk output. The rough pastures did not, with eager cooperation, grow more grass. Costs went up. Income did not rise accordingly.
That’s a snapshot of my father’s story. Here’s my mother’s.
In the 1950s, the small city of Merrill had a pea and bean canning factory. My mother worked night shifts for two or three summers—crappy pay, irregular hours—to save money. For what you might ask? Not for another junky baler, but to buy a kitchen table with aluminum legs, with chairs to match, with padded plastic cushions, so that the dreadfully old, old-fashioned, and out-of-date round oak table, with all its wooden chairs, could be dispensed with.
I loved my mother and father. I love them to this day. And yet, for all their peasant skills, they were, each in their own way, swept up in a commercial ideology of getting bigger, getting in on the perpetually changing wave of Progress, even of leaving behind an affiliation with the working class and creeping up, by ambition and emulation, into the middle class. (The cows did not give more milk. The rough pastures seemed content to remain rough and pastoral.)
Commercial and governmental ideologies were disdainful of the old-fashioned and backward. Their most assertive representatives were carnival barkers for unlimited progress. Get on the progress express or get left behind. As Ronald Reagan repeated weekly on early ‘60s television, when he was an adman for General Electric, Progress is our most important product. Or, as Earl Butz proclaimed in the early 1970s, when he was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Get big or get out.
Rural culture—folk culture—is, nevertheless, as old as the human race. Before the rise of civilization, a mere five or six thousand years ago, all human life was rural and folk. Such cultures go so far back in time it’s hard to fathom their depth in antiquity. And even though a predatory aristocracy systematically expropriated the production and labor of the peasantry, and kept a rather impoverished rural culture from an unimpeded cultural evolution, life continued to be overwhelming rural and folk until the Industrial Revolution enabled commercial and political elites to industrialize agriculture with a corresponding evisceration of all things rural and folk. Get big or get out. Embrace progress or die. Work in a factory or starve.
My mother died in 1963, and my father remarried in 1964. I went to college, dropped out, worked on a ranch in Montana (where I helped make hay for a thousand head of Herefords rather than a plump dozen Guernseys), got chased down by the Selective Service to help in the effort to kill Vietnamese peasants who were supposedly a serious threat to the American way of life. Once out of the clutches of that psychotic murder machine, I was a heavy-duty estranged and alienated young man who ended up in inner-city St. Louis for most of ten years.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize how deeply I missed rural life. (I would go to the zoo, to the elephant house, just for the smell.) I realized small farms were dying. I wanted to know why. So I asked people I thought smart and well-informed to explain it to me. Why are small farms dying? That the answers I received felt inadequate and even superficial left me puzzled and aggravated. So I began to read history. Here’s what I gleaned from that reading.
The original farmers were women. Or, to put it in a larger perspective, before the rise of horticulture or agriculture, human life was built around bands or villages of hunter-gatherers. Men were the hunters. Women were the gatherers. Historians say that after the last Ice Age—we’re talking ten thousand years ago, more or less—a new thing began to happen. The gatherers in what’s now know as the Fertile Crescent, from the Nile to the Indus, began a process of seed and plant concentration that is the cultural root of horticulture. Over many, many generations, hundreds of years, this food concentration by gatherers increased to the point of becoming horticultural; the village became stable in location and increased its population. Hunting became less and less important. At some point some young buck caught a wild baby goat or sheep, carried it home, dropped it in his mother’s lap, and asked his mom to feed the damn thing so he wouldn’t have to chase all over hell and gone for some meat. The next cultural step for that young man was to watch his grandson or great-grandson become a farmer.
However it happened—my little tale may (or may not) be a bit fanciful—when animals beside the dog and cat were domesticated, the village began a shift from horticulture to agriculture, from plants to plants and animals. The food abundance of the village became even greater. There were, as yet, no cities on Planet Earth.
We’ll get to cities in a moment. But there’s another story to be told here—it’s a crucial story—having to do with animal domestication. If the horticultural and agricultural village was stable in location, the nomadic herders of vast flocks of sheep, goats, and horses were not stable in location. Those folks were regularly on the move. And, as historians point out, the men in stable villages had largely abandoned the violence of hunting and the warrior culture typically associated with hunting as a way of life. The cultural life of the settled village was a life of vastly reduced violence or the propensity for violence. The nomadic herders of the Eurasian steppes, on the other hand, didn’t abandon their warrior culture, and they—for booty, for fun, for excitement, for something to do—would periodically sweep down on the stable villages and loot, rape, burn, and carry off a few pretty girls. At some point—and this is another of my fanciful (or not) imaginings—a gimpy old warrior, a rather strategic old geezer out on his last hurrah, turned to his equally gimpy pal and said: Are we stupid or what? Why do we keep wrecking these villages? Why don’t we just make these stupid farmers build us a fortress and bring us stuff all the time? Why don’t we institutionalize our capacity for plunder? (I realize the gimpy guy would not have used a word like “institutionalize,” but the impulse to stay and coercively exploit in an ongoing manner certainly resulted in the institutionalization of extraction and expropriation.)
When that happened, when fierce nomadic warriors violently set themselves up as an aristocratic class, when they coerced the production and labor of a subjugated class of farmers, we have the beginning of what the grand old man of British historians—Arnold J. Toynbee—calls the institutionalization of the two congenital diseases of civilization, which he identified as Class and War. Toynbee says that each and every subsequent civilization that has ever emerged (only to eventually collapse) has been built of those two deadly diseases. (He did not whatsoever exempt our own civilization from that diagnosis.) Violence and the threat of violence constituted an underlying energy field that, over time, even millennia of time, was so common it began to feel normal. This is just how life is. Make the best of it. An immensely wealthy ruling class justified itself as the “protector” of the peasants by means of an immensely powerful armed readiness for internal control and external war.
There are historians who point out that all civilizations rationalize their Class and War diseases with elaborate mythologies that can be both secular and religious. In our circumstance it’s flag and cross. The secular folks like economic and political ideologies to gird the loins of their mythologies. The religious folks like doctrine and creed to wave as their fig leaves. These justifications are taught in school and church. They become intertwining, entangling, and enveloping mythologies that, once internalized as true and sacred, are extremely difficult to critically examine much less shed. Who dares to say a critical word about the sacred mandate of civilization? Who is silly enough to identify as a peasant?
So here’s my hermit’s warning. No civilization (before the current specimens) ever accrued the lethal capacities that are now globally obvious: thermonuclear weaponry on hair-trigger readiness and a rapidly accelerating set of Anthropocene extinctions with climate-changing “externalities.” Class and War, even if we polish them up and revere them as democratic achievements, are deadlier than ever before. (Global desolation may not particularly care if its sponsor is aristocratic or democratic.) Of course there’s a bit of a nagging question here. That is, if we actually believed in democratic equality (and acted accordingly on that belief), we would move with a certain political vigor to undo the extremities of Class and, by so doing, seriously reduce the propensity for War. We wouldn’t need War to protect the advantages of Class. The undoing of Class and War is probably the only way out of the civilizational pickle brine in which our sacred (religious and secular) mythologies are key and crucial ingredients. As our present circumstance so plainly reveals, Class and War are going to do us in unless we undo them.
If Arnold J. Toynbee is correct, if Class and War are the congenital diseases of civilization as imposed by feral warriors on horticultural and agricultural villages roughly five thousand years ago; and if those congenital diseases have infected the sacred justifications of all subsequent civilizations, even managing to pass through the political membrane that supposedly distinguishes the aristocratic from the democratic; then we either learn (rather quickly, historically speaking) to undo the underpinnings of Class and War and greatly shrink the propensity for male violence that lies at the core of economic coercion, or we may perish as a human species as we bring an enormous number of animal species down with us and leave the remainder of nature’s ecology in various stages of toxic sickness and gruesome mutation. That’s a very grim view. But it’s also an excruciatingly real and possible view.
So it’s time for a little relief. But relief will only come with hard discernment and with some serious struggle. Or, as Jamie Raskin puts it in his Unthinkable, “Cicero said that ‘to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.’” If we want out of the multimillennial death grip of institutionalized Class and War, we have to commit—really and actually commit in our everyday lives—to the renunciation of violence as a solution to conflict. We have to radically downsize our massive economic footprint. And we have to unconditionally disarm the weaponry of annihilation and put into political office only those people who unconditionally commit to that downsizing. Seeing through the mythological rationalizations of Class and War is integral to discernment and change, and that—in turn—means understanding and coming to grips with what occurred before we were born. Without historical perspective, without an understanding of how we got where we are, we are stuck in an institutional present in which Class and War are protected by a cocktail blend of secular and religious mythologies. We need to clearly recognize and (to use religious terminology) repent of those constricting and constraining mythologies.
A positive side of this civilizational and religious repentance will be the amazing growth of wholesome rural culture. Life in the countryside will flourish. Industrial agribusiness is the modern scientific form of a pattern of expropriation imposed on the horticultural and agricultural villages five thousand years ago by feral bandits. Lifting that expropriation will liberate the reconstruction of the countryside. Knowing the history and methodology of that expropriation makes liberation possible and plain. Not knowing the history tends to keep us in mythological pickle brine, ignorant of what occurred before we were born.
So here’s some of what we need. Local markets. Farmers markets. Enough young folks in the countryside to build beautiful new schools with ecological focus—and a whole lot less rigid (even pathological) compulsion. Solar Panels. Wind generators. Farming that’s both small-scale and cooperative, with a strong emphasis on community self-provisioning. Throw in some well-formulated universal healthcare. Our task is the rebuilding, the renewal, the reconstruction of rural culture in ways that are enormously more gender and racial friendly. The next transformational step in democracy is the undoing of the congenital diseases of Class and War and the restoration of rural culture. It’s time to liberate the peasants after five thousand years of civilized captivity.
I was literally thrilled when I first heard about the new CSAs Stoney Acres, Red Door, and Cat Tails, and about the folks—Greg and Wendy Galbraith—who developed their own form of rotational grazing for their dairy cows. These are just the beginning of a vast and comprehensive rural revival. I will by no means live long enough to see that revival in full bloom. But the alternative to that bloom—the human-induced ecological corruption of our earthly home—is a moral and ethical sickness, an ideological and mythological plague, that we cannot allow to succeed: as if toxic global death could ever be called success.