The Shallow Insistence
by Lynn Miller
There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
- John Adams
A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.
- Henry David Thoreau
How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?
- Charles De Gaulle
There are melodies so evocative they would melt any attached words. There are images so powerful they might negate explanation. There are working rythmns which fly well beyond the vocational titles we give them. Those powerful melodies, images and vocations; all of them deep and rooted now in the human pysche. None of this has to do with good or bad, it is just so. And that has been for most of mankind’s modern days, these last five centuries. But then the shallow insistence snuck up on us and we have fallen down or are falling to our lesser selves.
The shallow insistence, the casual impatience, the convenience imperative, the lazy demands – whatever we call them or it – it has us in its grip. Today I hear of a man who says he quits his farm dream because you and I are unwilling and/or unable to tell him the simple secrets to how a comfortable living might be made without too much work, without too great an investment, without disappointment. He has insisted we give him the guaranteed plan. He casually says he’s not going to waste any more time on dreaming. He demands for himself a life without so much hard work. He says to us that those powerful melodies, images and vocations are all a thing of the past – or never existed at all. He says of us we are charlatans for hard-selling the agrarian life as a dream come true when all it is is misery, disappointment, hard work and poverty.
And I’m supposed to stand chastised and humbled because I dare to edit a publication which champions such a boondoggle? To defend our efforts against the shallow insistence tires me to the bone. There is no boondoggle UNLESS you see it as such. There are no answers, no guarantees, no sure-fire plans. Some of us will never make successful farmers, regardless of what criteria or definition you use to measure success. And some of us will continue to succeed no matter how poorly we are doing. If you see it won’t work, it won’t work. If you see it as the effort you want to make, it is already working. I’d much rather be home farming than in here defending music, art and hard work.
Expansive. Crystal clear summer midday. On the porch with daughter- made grilled turkey pepperoncini, cheese and mustard sandwich, limeade the chaser. The Italianeate shadows, cropedges – under trees and livestock – off the buildings – look as the sandwich tastes, thick with flavors and colors. Just in for a break from the field. It’s one of those days when most every bird is lazy-happy to be alive and somersaulting insects delude themselves into believing their lives will be long. Watch as old saddle horse saunters towards shade tree, head swinging low and slow on her long neck while tail does double time across the itchy hips. Puffy white clouds pass on parade, their pace matching the bird snores, the mare’s saunter, the insect somersaults and my sandwich party. Will be returning shortly to the field work. Glad for it. Glad to know what to do, to have it to do, to feel it working on me as well. I feel expansive and in the expanse of my good life, all of the moment and moments.
Back and forth across the field, walking speed, able to rest with thoughts instead of wrestling with them. No way to hurry this process. The time spent working this field gives me an acceptance quite above patience. No insistence, nothing shallow. Feels like I’m riding the day, and I am oh so happy for it. When I have completed this procedure I will have visited with my eyes every square inch of this field’s top side. Not to say I will know or understand it completely because that will take several lifetimes.
“Oh, you farmer you.”
As a young man I was prescient… I knew I wanted to be a farmer and an artist. Nothing else filled my imagination. And all during those growing up years, a half century ago, I was constantly warned that my choices were unwise. That neither art nor farming would grant me much in the way of security and wealth. It would be a slow life, hand-to-mouth, and one with very little prestige. So, wize guy that I have always been, I asked ‘what’s so wrong with slow? And ‘hand-to-mouth’ sounds pretty good to me – are you suggesting it should be ‘foot to mouth’ or ‘butler to mouth’, or heaven forbid ‘syringe to blood stream’? I know you mean that it likely will be tough and I’ll have to work for each meal. But again I say, so?’
Some of you will feel these words incorrectly as some sort of taunt. I’m sorry if that is the case, because that is not what is meant in the sharing. I have heard it said of me that ‘yah sure, he’s farming, but it’s because he had the money to get a start.’ Nope, not so. Started out poor as a church mouse but just as courageous and silly. And I’ve heard it said, “he’s not a very good farmer, always behind in his work.” To which I respond – yes, that’s certainly true but it is as much by choice as by happenstance. I do take the time occasionally to put this magazine together, and to paint pictures, and to do things with my family and friends. So the farming hasn’t always got the full measure of time it cries for BUT it has always received from me the fullest measure of my passion, ease, comfort, anxiety and thoughtfulness. But then I’m not normal in any measureable way. I am different from most other folks I know who choose to farm. We are all different, all individual.
Yet, the wider public has a definite sense of what it means to be a ‘farmer’, to be that character that says ‘farmer’. And that sense is ripe with contradictions. They see us as hardworking and slow witted, they see as essential and replaceable, they see us as highly skilled and uneducated, they see us as courageous and insulated, they see us as poor and lucky, they see us as trustworthy yet sneaky, they see us as alchemists and as luddites, they see us as agronomists and gamblers, they see us as religious and heathen but mostly they see us as unfortunate.
What is it about us? I was in the auto parts store today trying to get a couple of spark plug wires for an old Wisconsin-model baler engine. I took the originals in with me, learned long ago I had to do that otherwise they would argue when I described the parts. They say things like “ain’t no such wire, not like that any ways.” So I took in the offending wires and plopped them down on the counter. There they were big as life, no arguing with that. The two guys took a look at them, fingered them and then rolled their eyes in reverse unison. “What are these off of anyway?” So I tell them and the owner says, “better take him back there and show him what we got on the rack.”
We discover that they truly don’t have anything quite like my old wires so they decide they will sell me the parts and pieces to assemble. The hired man says, “don’t know how to put them together, never seen it done” to which the store owner says, in a voice meant for every other customer to hear “Just give him the parts, he can put it all together, he’s a farmer.” Somehow the tone of voice had the sour harmony of a history professor’s referencing of some idiot neanderthal tribe’s self sufficiency skills. So I pipe up and say “Maybe you should put a sign on the door says no farmers need apply.” And he mumbles looking down and says “no, no, it’s not like that…” because times are tough and every customer is essential and he knows now is not the time to pick a fight with a paying customer let alone a ‘farmer’. And I think ‘wait a minute, it was all meant in jest. Let’s lighten up here.’ But I don’t say it out loud because these times beg of us to play sweetly the pipes of the civility organ. So we part company in full and quiet disagreement, uneasiness at the core.
Where is the thing which separates us? What is that thing? I want to think that some of us have lives filled richly with stories while others don’t. And when those two worlds meet they never truly meet. I have a friend who is also our family dentist. He is a treasure, a man filled to overfull with stories yet most eager to hear yours. I have another good friend who is general practitioner but one who has never shared a story and seldom has time to hear one. I do not mean to suggest one man the better. They are both superior human beings. I do mean to suggest one man the more accessible and perhaps tolerant.
Today, with the cyber universe dictating to us our speed and values, more and more people are coming to be storyless. They have none to share and most certainly aren’t interested in yours. They do get some comfort at having their society well ordered and rapidly accessible. They know who it is they most want to be like and they set them well up on invisible pedestals, and they know who they don’t want to be like and work hard to put them in their place and out of view. They shield themselves from any story that might draw them into some sort of permanent public connection. James Agee, Eudora Welty, Studs Terckle, Italo Calvino, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Twain are of a type which today are seen publicaly as en- emies of the shallow insistence.
When we began to lose our stories, we began to lose our sense of humor and with that went some of the strongest defense of public liberty. But even the concept of public liberty requires thought especially if we are to know why it is a thing to be defended.
Food, shelter and warmth used to be generally accepted as the basic needs of the human animal. Long ago I added to the list, for myself, ‘thought’. The freedom and the capacity to think are certainly not givens, certainly not guaranteed, and in most modern societies they are most definitely not recognized rights. Some see a free thinking populace as a strong threat to commerce, property rights and the quietude. When it is written in constitutional law that we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, do not mistake that to include the right to think deeply about personal and social subjects. We are expected to ‘sign-on’ to the package deals of industrial commerce, political parties and media instruments. We live in a time of socio-economic governance; business and industrial interests have as much or more control over our actions than does the rule of law.
Thought ought to be part and parcel of a public liberty. There is an old adage which goes something like “the best guarantee of democracy is a well informed voting public.” So I say our democracy is at risk. And that is exactly how corporations want it and how we allowed it to become. Impa- tience is the name of the game. On top; impatient for profit, impatient for power, impatient for control. On the bottom; impatient for thrills, for free lunches, for indolence, for unlimiting shopping, for speed, for satiation.
After returning from an extended summer road trip into the midwest, Paul Hunter commented to me as to how cell phone coverage has made significant shifts – several rural areas he had been able to call from were now without signal. In my own similar experience I have found amplified reception in some population centers and new dead zones as well. Crazi- ness but there is a pattern to it all. As people become more and more dependent on mobile phones, companies are experimenting with the boundaries of these new relationships and service. Cell phone companies appear to be doing the ‘Chinese Shuffle’: meaning do whatever it takes with pricing and service and availability to run the competition completely out of business then later adjust prices and coverage to maximize profits. And our government is in full ‘compliance’ seeing a fully connected populace as a more easily secured populace. There is very little room for public liberty in a fully governed country.
We are deep within the Orwellian nighmare of the book ‘1984’. Those who believe that the Internet has given us the ultimate in public liberty with access to ‘knowledge and real time news’ don’t see or fear the connec- tions and controls. In the name(s) of national security and public safety our governments may shut down the internet and mobile phones with the flip of a switch. Our military has kept that option and used it in targeted modern combat scenarios. If the citizenry can be convinced of a ‘perpetual’ threat of eminent catastrophe and destruction brought on by such demon forces as Ecoli, immigrant hordes and religious fanatics, every one of us will be at the behest of whosoever holds the power. Not in the distant future but today. What does this mean for farming? Government and the military are big business and vice versa. Food, energy and the shopping mind-state of the populace constitute the heart of the global economic exchange and the necessary focus of big business. Before this great recession, experts said over and over again ‘it can’t happen – there’s too much money in the system and too many controls;’ but it did happen. Todays experts are saying our industrial food system is safe, secure and must be kept that way to prevent global hunger, while misguided official efforts work to regulate small independent farmers out of existence for the stated sake of public safety. Meanwhile the U.S. federal government would rather you didn’t know that over the last 12 months there have been more than 74 million instances of food-borne illness (over 99% of which have been caused by industrial agricultural production methods).
Ed and Dena have two little girls, Charlene and Nathalie. The four of them live on a small farm outside of Parkdale, Oregon not far from Hood River. Recently, while all were alseep in their beds, the Golden Labrador Bella went berzerk, snarling, growling and barking feverishly. Bella was supposed to be asleep on the kitchen floor. When Ed heard the commotion he knew something big was amiss. Bella is so laid back that to drive her to this level of protective fervor meant bad things were afoot. Ed scrambled around trying to think what to do while Dena calmly checked it out and found no obvious problems. So Ed went to the kitchen for a glass of water, Dena went back to the bedroom and Bella almost knocked her over trying to get under the bed to hide.
Ed, glass in hand looks up from the kitchen sink, across into the living room and sees… a skunk in the house, tail high, running back and forth. It ran into the den and up on the computer desk (checked it’s email and facebook accounts) then scampered back into the living and across the back of the sofa before finally making a beeline for the cat-door and freedom. Boy, were they lucky. In its haste the Skunk had just plain forgotten to leave any odor behind. It was obvious to Ed that Bella had previous run-ins with the aromatic forest cat. It was also obvious that this particular skunk knew how to use a cat-door.
Next day Ed managed to catch that offending skunk in his have-a-heart trap. He hesitated to tell anyone he still had it, alive and well. Hesitated because he knew full well that there were folks scattered around his neigh- borhood that would take a mighty dim view of his trapping and frighten- ing the poor little wild animal. So he was waiting for just the right oppor- tunity…
Stories give us more than news they give us emotions and connectivity and they give us humor. As we lose the stories, we lose our sense of humor. We cannot afford that.
A couple of years ago, at Justin and Sarah’s wedding reception, I visited with a man I hadn’t seen in some time. He’s a long thin laconic cowboy in the Ace Reid mold. Seeing him again brought to mind a story he had told me several times. Seems this fellow, in his younger days, worked as a special impact-dynamics engineer for Boeing aircraft. It was his job to do facsimile testing of what occurred when birds hit aircraft windshields at great speed.
“How’d you do that?” I asked. “Oh,” he said slow and low, “we loaded live chickens into shoulder-mounted rocket launchers and shot them at the windshields. Gave us a pretty good idear of what to expect at several hundred miles per hour.”
Well, at the wedding I asked him to repeat that story for some friends and several of them joined me in laughter and disbelief – but one woman didn’t. “That’s cruel, stupid and disgusting!”she said and hauled off and slugged me in the chest.” I have friends who’ll put a stop to that right now” and she stomped away. Why’d she hit me? I never shot no chickens. Political correctness and abject absurdity both have a way of sucking the air right out of a party. ‘Meant well’ doesn’t get the job done.
I say let them shoot the chickens at windshields so long as due diligence has been done to determine conclusively that they are using only old barren hens too tough to stew. (I don’t want to find out they are using some lovely Lakenvelder poult or a juicy tender Black Jersey Giant cock- erel.) I say better chickens than parakeets or morning doves or flamingos. I say leave it alone – leave the whole silly mess alone, afterall it’s a well paid job for some future cowboy.
In fact, more I think about it, there is merit to apply such efforts else- where. Imagine the value of using remote-triggered catapults to lob cack- ling old hens into the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate chamber? I say do it when they are having a vote on either raising their own pay or loosening up campaign finance reform.
And why stop there? Lob old hens over the cameras and on to the sets of live mainstream television news shows. Silliness you say? Is it any sillier than the blather we get now from media and our government? And if we are gentle with the catapulting we might be able to gather up the unhurt hens and get two or three barrages out of them. We’d have to hurry about all of this though, because it is very likely that a group of well-meaning meddling citizens will work to make it against the law to lob chickens on the grounds of animal abuse and cruelty to paltry poultry. Yes, Thelma, I do believe that, strictly speaking, as of today there is no law against chickenlobbing.
WHO STANDS TO GAIN?
These are meddlesome times. We are, by insisting every aspect of human behavior be monitored and regulated, sliding down a greased and painful slope to social mayhem. And it is because we are regularly pitted, you and I, against one another – we are egged on to suspect, to hate, to demean, to disregard each other. Hard to get a fix on sides to the arguments. All motives demand to be held suspect. And it is all a diversion, a smoke screen to keep us from dwelling on the corporate complex which mines our basest hungers, our deepest fears and the thin outer layers of our imaginations.
It doesn’t matter that it is for the public good, all that matters is your arrogant presumption to say you know what is in the public good. It is the prelude to an end to all public liberty.
Charlie Chaplin wrote, in a movie song, “Smile though your heart be breaking.” Well my heart is breaking with all the mean-spirited petty feuding folks are having amongst themselves while we are being robbed blind by corporations, the planet is being poisoned, the media plays us like an old spinster at a single’s dance, we being drugged to dull submission by a complicit state and federal government system, the electronic media fries our poor brains, and our public liberty is put through a sausage grinder. “Smile though your heart be breaking?” Okay, but the only way I can smile through all of that is to fling loogies, insults and nasty side swipes enough to maybe get some of us to laugh at how downright ridiculous it is. I recently had a man cancel his subscription to this publication because, in his words, it’s nothing but a liberal rag. And that after a woman accused us of being right-winged and bigoted against gay farmers. Now, I say both accusations are downright silly and deserve a laugh or two except that I take personal offense that this publication be branded either way. I refuse to be labelled a liberal or a conservative – call me old, call me old-fash- ioned, call me late for dinner – but don’t tell me I belong to any particular persuasion just because I refuse to say the pledge of alleigiance to any organized(?) politcal party, ideology, movement, shopping club, or dog breed.
We are deep in the bowels of the Orwellian nightmare, at risk of succumbing to a false inevitability. It does not have to be this way!
Our dream was that we find the land of milk and honey, it was to be our heaven on earth and thereafter. But the honey bees are dying off and the milk’s all being boiled to a worthless chalky tea. The Bees are dying because profitable modern chemistry and bioengineering can’t be bothered with such inconsequential and hyper-sensitive insects. And the milk’s being boiled so that the incredibly high chance we’ll all be poisoned by the unsafe biological nightmares of huge dairies can be held somewhat in check AND because pasteurization is a convenient legal tool to outlaw small dairies defacto. Instead of charging the directing boards of corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto with crimes against humanity we are diddling away our political hutzpah by insisting that over-weight truckers have their licenses revoked and that seeing eye dogs be neutered.
DUDE! LIKE ORGANIC…
And now the general public is to somehow be congratulated because it has discovered “Certified Organic” foods and farmer’s markets and CSAs and raw milk and bean sprouts and tofu? I say toe-fooey. Another example of the shallow insistence. I say we do not need to become fashionable. I say it is a curse. I say we need to become essential and fertile and appreciated. I say for good food and alternative farming to become fashionable is to say we will wear it for a while, at least until the next shallow insistence comes along.
Beware the fickle tastemakers and bunctious snobs of foodeezma’s new guard for their particular form of elitist facism would pay false worship to the epicurean dream whilst handing control of food’s future to the corpo- rate crap shoot. The plexity and fecundity of our dirtiest farming? Therein is the death-embracing terroir of the deepest fulfilling and unknowably indescribable sauce and sausage.
Know them by their cowardice as they hold up corporate hex signs to ward off those of us who would deign to make the case for the artisan in agriculture – for the prayerful craftsman in farming – for the emotional parent – for the spontaneous dirt-digging rastaferian – for the rythmn loving song-catching seed-gatherer – for the cow-gentlers – for the brewers of manure teas – for the agrarian priests who each and every day give thanks for the unknowable, the unattainable, the unaccountable and the unassail- able beauties of human ingested nature.
They say to us “this is how it is” as final justification for their heart-dead notion of how it must be. They say to us “only a fool would go down that path” as if foolishness were a crime against their sacrosanct notions of sterility. They say to us “let us be reasonable about the best future” when it is the exact opposite they demand. They say “small farms cannot feed the world, we need to be realitistic about efficient production scales for organic agriculture” and with this they show their true industrio-fascist colors.
It should never have been allowed that the discussion of food and nature be centered on the human social reality. It must be centered on nature’s reality with the accurate nod to humans at worst as one set of end consum- ers of waste and at best as capable of a spirituality aligned with farming. We come after. Otherwise the shallow insistence will win the day.
So at this stage of my life, I make the choice to follow the vitalities I feel for evocative melody, powerful images and farming. Which really doesn’t matter much in the wide scheme of biological life because it is the deeper insistence of just one small and insignificant human being. Ah, but then that is just possibly a spark of health at a time when sparks are sorely needed. What were to happen if it caught on and every day more and more people were to follow the vitalities they feel for a life of melody, poetry and farming? I believe in that case that shallow insistence would become less a social disease and more an occasional exhausted porch whim of the splendidly tired. Ah, you farmer you. LRM