Saturday, April 4, 2009

Too Far From the Farm

Several lines of thought lately have led me to contemplate the impact on our society of the decline in rural life. I’m talking about the fact that fewer and fewer people live on a farm anymore, and fewer and fewer city dwellers know anyone who does. This has changed our culture in many ways. But the particular effect that has intrigued me lately is a modern city dweller’s relationship to nature.

Urbanites typically have one of several attitudes toward nature. Some simply want nothing to do with it. The local park is about all of it they’re interested in experiencing, or perhaps the zoo. Otherwise they are happy to live in high rise apartments and work in office buildings and spend their leisure hours in clubs or museums or theatres.

Then there are the outdoor sports enthusiasts. For them, nature is something to conquer, as in climbing a mountain or snowmobiling through Yellowstone National Park. These people sometimes cross paths with another group, the wilderness lovers, but they’re very different in their outlook toward nature. The wilderness lovers worship those remnants of nature untouched by humans. They long for nothing more than to experience such places, but they feel their own presence there is an intrusion – and they resent the presence of the sports enthusiasts, who don’t share their reverence.

None of these has the same perspective on nature as the farmer. He enjoys the outdoors like the sports enthusiast, and he loves nature like the wilderness lover. But his love for it is more intimate and more connected than the others because he is part of it, not an invader or outside observer. The farmer gives his time and labor to the land and receives back from it his livelihood. He participates fully in the natural cycle.

The city dweller is part of this cycle, too, but feels disconnected from it. He drinks water from a river or well he might never have seen. He eats produce that he wouldn’t recognize if he saw it growing in a field. He likes meat but doesn’t like to think about how it got to his table. To the disinterested city dweller nature is a distant memory. To the sports enthusiast it is a playground, and to the wilderness lover it is an icon of lost innocence. But for the farmer nature is a resource. It is also his home.

I was fortunate enough to have grandparents who lived in the country and my favorite thing to do as a child was to visit them. My grandparents grew up in rural East Texas, but when they got married in 1925 they moved to Houston. He became a shop foreman for Hughes Tool making drill bits for the Texas oil fields. She raised their three daughters. When he retired they moved back to the farm she grew up on, and began to practice all the skills they had learned growing up but had long left behind. They planted a garden. It was almost an acre and my grandfather plowed it with a tractor. They raised cattle and pigs and chickens. My grandmother canned the fruits and vegetables they raised. She even tried her hand a few times at churning butter and making lye soap, but it was so much easier to drive into town and go to the grocery store for some things. During the summer weeks I spent with them I got to experience all aspects of rural life.

I think the general lack of such experiences today has some disturbing consequences. For one, we have become squeamish. People don’t like to get their hands dirty. Kids won’t pick up a caterpillar. Parents are embarrassed if their children see one dog mounting another. Many adults decide to become vegetarians.

This last observation is emblematic of the transformation I’m talking about. It is perfectly natural for humans to kill and eat animals. It’s been going on for all of human history. And for almost all that time, if you ate it you probably killed it and cleaned it. Our grandfathers moved to the city and started buying their meat at the butcher’s shop, but they remembered where steaks and fried chicken came from. Their children knew this too, but not having grown up with it weren’t comfortable thinking about it. Their grandchildren are so removed from it some think it is evil and have decided not to eat meat at all.

I remember when I was about ten there was a calf on my grandparent’s farm whose mother for some reason couldn’t suckle it. They bottle-fed it until it could be weaned. My grandmother even named it: Carnation. My sister and I enjoyed feeding and petting Carnation. Then one weekend we went to visit them and Carnation was gone. I remember how my sister reacted when she learned where the steaks we were eating had come from. My grandparents tried to console her, but to no avail.

Attitudes towards guns have undergone a similar transformation. As they became less familiar to people they seemed at first scary, and then later evil. I contrast this again with my own experience. When we used to visit my grandparent’s farm there was always a loaded .22 rifle leaning in the corner of their bedroom. There were other guns, too. They were used for hunting birds or deer, so there was no reason to keep them loaded. The .22 was sometimes used for squirrel hunting, but it was kept loaded and handy to dispatch certain nuisance animals that occasionally made their appearance. Armadillos would dig up the yard and the garden. Raccoons would rip open every ear of corn in an entire row and only eat a few bites. Rattlesnakes were dangerous to people and livestock.

No one gave a thought to the danger of having a loaded rifle there with kids in the house, because we had all been taught to handle guns and shoot from an early age. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to shoot a gun. My grandfather taught each of his grandkids how to shoot that .22 as soon as we were old enough to hold it. I must have been only three or four years old. We would sit on the back porch and shoot at a tin can resting against an old tree stump in the yard. It was absolutely my favorite thing to do. When I was little he would always be sitting right at my elbow. But by the time I was eleven or twelve he would let me shoot it by myself.

Part of the problem with guns in the city today is that kids know only a Hollywood fantasy of them, not the reality of them. Guns are the forbidden fruit that adults tell them never to touch. But that rifle leaning in the corner of the bedroom wasn’t dangerous to anyone because, first of all, we all knew proper gun safety. We had an excellent appreciation for what a gun can do to a person or an animal. Secondly, I knew that if I ever wanted to shoot it all I had to do was ask. It was as familiar to me as my baseball glove. I taught my kids to shoot a pellet gun when they were little because I wanted them to have the same familiarity and healthy respect that I had. I wonder if accidental shootings wouldn’t be rarer if more parents did that.

If you grew up on a farm or knew someone who did, you realize that nature doesn’t have to be kept completely pristine, either. It is a resource without which humanity couldn’t survive. We must care for it and be good stewards of it, but the idea of leaving all of it completely untouched is, literally, suicidal for the human race. Between the extremes of destroying it and not touching it there is plenty of room for developing it and benefiting from it responsibly.

In East Texas we have oil wells. My grandparents weren’t fortunate enough to have one on their property, but many of their neighbors and kin did. Back in the sixties, the oilmen sometimes made a mess when they drilled a well, and they didn’t always clean up after themselves perfectly, either. They’re much better now, of course. But even then the land recovered and nothing was permanently destroyed. All of us as a society have benefited from the oil pumped out of those wells, and the landowners benefited financially as well. It would have been silly to leave it all in the ground.

Growing up in Houston, we have often gone to the beach in Galveston and seen the oil rigs offshore. It never bothered me to see them. It didn’t spoil the experience for me. It was kind of cool, actually. Sometimes tar balls washed up on the beach and that wasn’t pleasant. But again, they’re much more careful about it now, and in any case the benefits to everyone far outweighed the inconvenience to a few. I don’t think most people minded that much. Nobody has to freeze in the dark on our account.

As I reflect on all these things I realize that it is the typical urban attitudes toward nature that are unrealistic and unsustainable, not the attitudes of those who would cultivate it as a resource. Whatever ideals we might hold about nature, the very cities we live in would be impossible without the large scale transformation of the land that farming, ranching, mining and other productive activities entail. And you know what? It’s not all that bad. There is a beauty to a well-tended world as well as to the pristine wilderness. We can have both. It is God’s gift to us. We are not alien to nature; we are part of it. We cannot deny our dependence on it and our inevitable effect on it. Let us both embrace it and harvest from it, without apologies.

3 comments:

David Hensley said...

While I think you're right in most of your assertions about farm life, I would actually have to disagree when you say:

"it is the typical urban attitudes toward nature that are unrealistic and unsustainable, not the attitudes of those who would cultivate it as a resource."

Not so in the sense of water consumption, arguably one of the most urgent problems of sustainability. About 70% of all water resources are devoted to irrigation, 15% for industry, and the other 15% is general household use.

Agriculture takes a huge toll on the landscape, on the Earth, if it's not done right and carefully. The kind of farming you described, family farming, was definitely not a problem. But I think it is the death of that, and the rise of agribusiness and the deforestation/fertilization/monoculture that it brings that is causing a lot of sustainability fears regarding agriculture.

Bill Hensley said...

It looks like my meaning in that statement was not quite clear. The typical urban attitudes I profiled are: 1) nature is irrelevant, 2) nature is a playground, 3) nature is a sanctuary. I was contrasting these ideas to the more rural notion that nature is a resource. I maintain that the latter is the most realistic. The unsustainability to which I refer is the fact that without large tracts of land being devoted to mineral production and intensive agriculture, cities (and the people in them) could not exist.

You raise a separate question, which is wise stewardship. Nothing in the notion of "nature as a resource" suggests that we should wantonly destroy it. Just the opposite, in fact. We still want our forests and farms to be productive a millennium from now. Topsoil erosion, chemical runoff, and water management are all problems that need to be solved. But the answer isn't returning to the family farm, as romantic as that notion might be. If we want food to be plentiful and cheap for the inhabitants of this planet it is going to require the application of technology.

BTW, they may still be clearcutting in the third world, but here in the US we are seeing significant reforestation. Just in our back yard, in East Texas, timber companies have been buying up unused farm land and planting trees. When they harvest a stand of trees they replant. My cousin still raises cattle on the old family farm where my grandparents lived, but if you drive past their place down that old dirt road, large tracts are now wooded which were pasture land when I was a child.

Bill Hensley said...

I misspoke when I said "clearcutting". I should have said "deforestation". The timber companies do tend to harvest a stand of trees by clear cutting, but when they do they invariably replant.