Friday, February 5, 2010

A Sympathetic Agrarian

There is a sizeable number of would-be agrarians in America that live in cities. I am one of them. We are a varied lot with different experiences and desires. I don’t pretend to represent all of us. Nonetheless, I do offer a few insights into how an agrarian at heart can be true to himself (and possibly herself too) even while living in a city or a town.

My insights come from over two decades of dealing with this conflict: between where I live and where I want to live. The formative years of my youth were spent on a small farm in Utah Valley. I grew up cleaning the barn, milking goats, and irrigating the orchard and garden at all hours of the day and night. I learned from experience not to lick an ice-covered fence post, and that one should take care in flaying a rabbit not to puncture the digestive tract. I didn’t enjoy getting up early to do the chores before school. But I did come to love the miracles of new life in the spring, of summer rain storms, and the wild mountains that started almost from our back yard.

Since then I have lived in a dozen cities and have fond memories of each place. Nonetheless, my desire for a simpler agrarian life has remained with me wherever I go. I make a living doing agricultural research and this has provided me with some rural opportunities. But it has also been a constant reminder to me that I no longer live a rural life.

In my efforts to pull myself out of a recurring rural nostalgia, I have come to rely on three agrarian helps that are very applicable to city life. In fact they are keys for me (a sympathetic agrarian) to making city life meaningful.

The first and most important thing is to work. There are, of course, many kinds of work and not all of them are agrarian helps. Work in front of a computer, no matter how worthy the cause (such as writing an agrarian essay) doesn’t qualify. Work on the phone, in any of it’s modern forms, doesn’t qualify either. There are, however, a surprising number of other kinds of work that do qualify: washing the dishes by hand, planting and caring for a garden (no matter how small), repairing the lawn mower, polishing the silver, cleaning the shed (or garage). The list is nearly endless. The key part of qualifying work is to be doing it - and to be doing it with a conservative or a creative deliberation.

This may sound a bit too obvious but it needs to be emphasized. Work means that we’re not lost in mindless past-times that are the bane of our time (and the primary reason for the epidemic of our whole-body neuromuscular neglect). Mindlessly watching television or engaging in computer games neither conserves nor creates anything. As possible ways to relax after an honest day of work, they may be nice. But they should never be confused for agrarian helps.

Another important help is to develop trusted friendships. One of the givens of rural life is to know your neighbors. City life is quite a bit different. In fact I hardly know who the people are that live on our small street. We wave to each other to be courteous and at Christmastime we take each other treats. But they know next to nothing about us and we know next to nothing about them.

In the more rural area where I grew up, I knew who lived in every house along the street - not just the mom and dad, but everybody - including the dogs. Come to think of it, I even had lunch (at least once) in every one of those houses.

We got along as neighbors pretty well too (most of the time) and helped each other out when we found ourselves in need of it. One time our next-door neighbor Denny managed to rope our runaway cow Lulubell and bring her to heel. He somehow lapped the rope around a big cherry tree and slowed her down. I also remember helping my friend next door move a truckload of rocks so we could play basketball together. I ended up smashing my finger and couldn’t play after all. Life was usually a team effort, even with the accidents.

Less than a mile from where we lived was a subdivision. Houses there were on small lots (like the one I live in now). I only knew a few of the people who lived there. We had very little sense of community with them.

It is certainly one of the ironies of our time that the closer we live to one another, the less we seem to know of each other. But life in a city does not have to be that way. There are people in your neighborhood that you will like if you get to know them. The difficult part is getting to know them.

For us it helps to meet people at church, while walking the dog, or just picking up the mail. Taking an agrarian friendliness into the city may not be intuitive - especially considering how suspicious most people are - but it can be done. It’s also quite remarkable how helpful friends can be in making city life bearable for a sympathetic agrarian like me.

My final agrarian help is to live in the natural world as much as possible. The life of a farmer is almost completely determined by the order of nature. Many of us living in cities, on the other hand, have practically cloistered ourselves completely from anything that isn’t manmade.

A farmer expects to get his hands dirty and knows that a harvest only comes after planning, much work, and the contributions of the Creator. The office troglodyte, however, is content to nourish his body with fast food. He is also more than happy to contract-out the yard work in order to have more time for TV.

A farmer rises with the chickens in order to avoid the heat of the day. The contemporary urbanite doesn’t even get to work until 9:00 and then stays up long after the sun has gone to sleep.

The farmer is also very much in tune to the seasons and to subtle changes in the weather. At the end of the year he knows it is the time to gather wood and then to cozy-up to the fire and let the slumbering world alone. The city dweller, on the other hand, runs from a heated house to a heated car to a heated office in the middle of winter. If she owns a coat, it’s more for fashion than for keeping warm. Who wants to be out in the cold anyway? Not even a blizzard can slow her down.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The truth is that even those of us living a city life can still respect the cycles and rhythms of nature. Perhaps the stars are dimmer in town but we can still plant a garden - even if its only a few potted plants in a window. We can turn off the TV and take a walk in the park. We can even vacation in a forested retreat instead of at an amusement park. It is possible for a sympathetic agrarian to find sustenance for the soul in a city despite the distractions of demos.

There are a lot of us living on earth these days. Most of us have no choice but to live in a city. Sometimes this is frustrating when we know that we prefer a quieter and less frenetic living space. Fortunately, all is not lost. The virtues that inhere naturally to rural communities do not by necessity have to be riven from the fabric of urban life. A bit more thoughtful work, neighborly kindness, and natural engagement are all opportunities still open to us. If they don’t present themselves to us naturally in our artificial environments, they are at least part of our human natures. With a bit more care they can still do us a lot of good.

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