Rural Ramblings – Spring 1977
Ralph C. Miller
To him who in the love of Nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language – Thanatopsis: by William Cullen Bryant
“A various language,” the poet said and he might not have been wrong to add “in curious places.” My own affair with Nature goes back a long way. Admittedly not always a faithful lover, I hope I can say that even in the strange pathways that the construction trade has led me, I have usually managed to keep an ear out for those varied siren songs.
Now we are far out in Mid-America: the Mid-South… “ramblin” through Tennessee and North Carolina, on the way to Virginia. No hurry, be there for Christmas., Meanwhile we’ll have a look-see at the countryside. I’d have to say that the trip didn’t start until Memphis. When you’re 39 thousand feet up it’s difficult to relate those green and brown postage stamps to the farms we are seeing down here.
We flew into Memphis in late October to take on some of the work we sometimes do when we’re asked. In our six weeks there the only outings we had were a couple of Sunday “sashays” down into northern Mississippi around Holly Springs and the other time across the big river into the Arkansas delta country. Now it might be said that November and December are a poor time to assess the worth of a land. It’s true that at this point her crops are put by and she wears a barren lost look to a surface glance.
Pursuing the metaphor about one’s Love, you can make a more honest judgment (if a little less romantic) of her long-term potential if you see her at the tag end of a tough day. If she is just as dear to you then, you have found what you’re seeking.
The all-too-brief run into Arkansas around and west of Horseshoe Lake disturbed me in some way, as though someone I cared about had been abused. And yet the land is rich, and sweet – well tended, mostly. I walked it, handled it, tasted it, too. Delta land, fertile, friable and undoubtedly valuable.
Over in Mississippi I had a similar reaction. There were areas aplenty that I liked; some fine cattle, some horses – riding horses, that is. Mostly I was affected by the cotton. So much of it was still in the fields – in December? They had some bad weather and I suppose the bolls opened late. I don’t pretend that I know about cotton except in shirts. Disturbing…
I struggled with it before I came to admit it. Putting a rational handle to my prejudices I can mask them as considered opinions. Here is what I think unsettles me: I’m objecting to the one crop concept of agriculture whether it be cotton in Mississippi, soybeans in Arkansas, tobacco in the Carolinas, or even peanuts in Georgia. Earl Butz and his followers called it agri-business; you could term it that way, but I’d hesitate to call it farming.
That Arkansas delta country was a perfect case in point. Valuable land, unmistakably producing valuable crops, all of which were trucked off and marketed for cash. Rich land and poor people (except for the favored few, many of them absentee landlords or corporations). It is symbolized by the ramshackle cabin of the sharecropper and by an almost total lack of animals – not even many pigs and chickens. Without animals, no barns, of course. Poor houses and no barns in a fertile land. It saddens me, ‘Ain’t no way to treat a lady, no way.’
What I’ve been carrying on about has been mostly pointed at the South only because we’re down here, but it surely isn’t just a southern failing. Wheat, corn – or the grass seed industry in my own Willamette Valley – any area that ties itself to a single cash-only crop is bound to be affected by it. Farming has, from the beginning of time, been a way of life, not a line of business, and when we lose sight of that, men and nations are poorer.
To climb down from the soapbox and get rolling East once more – traveling across Tennessee came near to being unalloyed joy. Even where they raised cotton it was hardly to the exclusion of other things. I like the state in the main, and obviously the Volunteer State still likes farming. Fine cattle, horses, hogs, the fields lying fat and fallow awaiting another spring. I like barns and here they stand in plenty. Mostly old, some rickety, but lots of them solid and filled to bursting with forage for the approach of winter. Quite a few silos, too. Barns and silos say to me that the farmer is putting back some of what he is taking.
Many people today are sputtering angrily that we can no longer afford the “luxury” of feeding cattle. They cite the world population reaching toward some astronomical and incomprehensible figure which must be tendered larger and larger amounts of grain, seemingly as added inducement to reproduce itself still further. If we are unable to keep a place for our animal life and to replenish at least some part of what we are using so prodigally, we’re in deeper trouble than we know. I like barns, particularly old ones, log ones and even neglected ones.
And I like worn fences, hedge rows and windbreaks around irregular fields; I like contour plowing and other evidence that someone cares about the land. I even like stone fences. Of course accompanying that comes the instinctive wince as I recollect the unremitting toil and the frustrations inherent in a soil that occasions the building of stone fences. No one has ever said that farming is an easy, soft life. No union guarantees short hours and high pay. It has to be a labor of love and one man’s response to a challenge. There is evidence that a growing segment of America hears and responds in just that way.
Elsewhere in this issue you will find something about the Henry Masts and their neighbors and their continued efforts to adhere to this way of life. They are not alone. Along the way I had time for rewarding talks with a couple of bright young (at my age everyone seems so young) Americans. Denny Clark and Julie Bishop represent two of the companies whose startling growth testifies to the need and challenge of rural America.
Denny and his brother, Miles, run the Cumberland General Store just outside of Crossville, Tennessee. It is primarily a catalogue order store, but they do have a new building designed to appear old and filled with genuine country specialties. It won’t do to think of it as just another souvenir shop filled with bric-a-brac largely from Japan and Taiwan. Although they may stock bowlers and felt top hats, along with shaving mugs, as an outward concession to nostalgia, the vast majority of the merchandise is real and practical. “Outfitters for a trip back to basics” they term themselves. They come awfully close to that.
Harness and horse blankets, forges and farrier tools, butter churns, porch swings, cookstoves with reservoirs – windmills and wagons, cider presses, pumps and plows; not, mind you, secondhand articles gleaned from some farm midden heap, but brand new and serviceable items to gladden the hearts of us old-timers and to inspire the most recent convert. Like Santa’s gnomes, a horde of young people rush to fill the orders in the catalogue department, but the business grows so fast that they can‘t keep up. Who said Rural America and the Family Farm has no future?
In reference to the above, Lydell Sims, a fine (sometimes tongue in cheek) writer, was recently conducting post-mortem on the pitchfork in the columns of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. With only a few diehards dissenting, his readers apparently conceded that any hayforks which might be unearthed should be rushed to the nearest museum. If there be mournful souls out there who really think the pitchfork is dead, turn your gaze to the pages of the Cumberland General Store Catalogue. It not only has farm forks of every variety, but offers the purist genuine, handmade, white oak (yes, wooden) pitchforks in three, four, or five tines. The corpus delecti refuses to lie quietly, Mr. Sims.
The other visit which heartened me so much was at the office of Mother Earth News in Hendersonville, North Carolina. I’m not too much on figures, but the sum of those as presented by Julie Bishop was most enlightening. The incredible growth of that magazine was very impressive; even more so was the percentage breakdown on their readership. It was evident from their research that those seeking a change of life-style, especially a rural one, are largely young, educated, professional and probably talented.
If country living and small family farming can get their share of these the future is much brighter. I say this, not because I feel that they would make better farmers necessarily (sometimes the education and talent doesn’t show on the end of an axe or a fork), but because it represents both the universality of the appeal of the back-to-the-land movement and a distinct reversal of a trend.
Lastly, a bit of pure and selfish indulgence. We made a brief pilgrimage up through the Great Smokies into the Carolina back country. From Asheville to Yancey County, Spruce Pine, Linnville, around Grandfather Mountain to Blowing Rock and Boone. We may not have proved anything pertinent to this column, but I know it was good for the soul of this Old Rambler. Those mountains are the oldest on the continent and no man in all his foolish posturings has changed them much. I trust he never will.