Girl scouts performing Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha,’ 1928.
“Birds are taken with pipes that imitate their own voices, and men with those sayings that are most agreeable to their own opinions.”
~ Samuel Butler, Prose Observations
“There was still talk about what had happened three years previously in the Bukan valley. The men of two rival families assembled in a house in the village, with their respective mullahs, to sort out a case that had set them at odds for several generations. For a whole afternoon the parties feasted, smoked, and discussed the matter without once raising their voices, but without coming to a solution. So they had banished the priests and everyone under fifteen, bolted the doors and windows, lit an oil lamp in order to see each others’ faces, and settled the quarrel with daggers. There were six survivors out of thirty-five guests.”
~ Nicolas Bouvier, The Way of the World
“All flesh is grasse, is not onely metaphorically, but literally true, for all those creatures which we behold, are but the hearbs of the field, digested unto flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhorre, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not in an allegory, but a positive truth; for this masse of flesh which wee behold came in at our mouths: this frame wee looke upon, hath beene upon our trenchers; In brief, we have devoured our selves and yet doe live and remaine our selves…”
~ Thomas Browne, Religio Medici (1643)
I recently read John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, which I had to order from the UK since it’s unavailable here in the former colonies. A Herefordshire farmer and historian, Lewis-Stempel gives us a year in the life of an ancient hedge-ringed meadow, with all its flora, fauna, and meteorological visitations. If this sounds to you like a dull sort of book, you’re mistaken. All the dramas and wonders of human and animal life play themselves out in this space.
Farming runs in my blood, though I am no farmer. Putting my hands into damp soil or coaxing even the most willing plant to fruit gives me an ache of longing. My father was the last of us born on a farm. Tracing the generations back, we farmed in Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Prior to claiming his little territory of New World wilderness in the early 1600s, my tenth great-grandfather farmed in the west of England, in Somerset near Chew Magna, among fields and meadows that might have been very like those Lewis-Stempel tends today.
Every third year when I was a boy we drove to a family reunion in Iowa. My grandfather and his seven brothers and sisters and all their children and grandchildren would gather on my great-uncle’s farm. A hay barn was set aside for us kids, but we were free to roam. We came back to dinner so covered in dirt and hayseeds that we had to be sprayed down with a hose. Occasionally we were put to work in the field or moving hogs, but most of our time was spent playing, eating, fishing, planning pranks, telling jokes, and listening to our elders reminisce. This gave me, perhaps, no very realistic impression of farm life.
For an image of the reality I looked to my great-grandfather, born in 1891, who farmed a plot in Iowa until he was more than ninety years old. Thin, sinewy and weather-worn, he seemed as much a natural growth from the soil as the tree near his house that had swallowed up a wagon wheel in its slow decades of growth. He was about as talkative as that tree, too. “Tell us what things were like when you were a boy?” we would ask him. He would think for a minute and slowly reply: “Well, it was different.”
My grandfather, however, supplied the words. He quit farming in his forties when worries for his son’s health drove him to sell and find a happier climate. But he wrote a fifty-page autobiography and spared few details when it came to the trials of life on the farm, the desperate economics of it, the back-breaking labor and long hours, the sudden or the lingering deaths of family members in the fields or in houses snowed-in for a bitter winter. When grandpa himself died, after rousing momentarily from a week-long coma to sit up and lift his arms (like wheat stalks or sunflowers) toward the sky, he was buried by his request in a little country cemetery back in Iowa. There his first-born daughter, who had preceded him in her infancy, was already planted in the soil – like a seed, or the memory of a former life.
“In proportion as the years both lessen and shorten, I set more count upon their periods, and would fain lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel. I am not content to pass away ‘like a weaver’s shuttle’. Those metaphors solace me not, nor sweeten the unpalatable draught of mortality. I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity; and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town and country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here.”
~ Charles Lamb “New Year’s Eve” from Essays of Elia