Home and Shop Companion 0098
Home and Shop Companion 0098

Rural Ramblings – Summer 1977
Ralph C. Miller

‘… Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.‘

Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) wasn’t writing of farms and farming but his doggerel about the Walrus and the Carpenter is indicative of the fact that nothing is wholly irrelevant to Man’s imaginative rovings. And what has all that to do with farming? Nothing and at the same time if you follow the road far enough everything leads back to farming. Shoes were made of animal hides, ships carried barrels and hogsheads sealed with sealing wax to keep air from the produce, the cabbages are obvious and the kings – well, I seem to remember that Dodgson was born about the time that George IV was King in England. He was the one they referred to as ‘Farmer George.’

Routes and roots, bulls and buggy whips, cars, cans and the ‘Cancan.’ We could undoubtedly line up a hundred seemingly unrelated subjects and somewhere discover a connection to farming.

My last column was completed in Richmond, Va. and it goes without saying that we covered considerable ground in the last three months since we’re now home in Oregon. I’ll save our experiences with the quote-unquote, Worst Winter in the history of the Midwest for some time when the season merits it (and also when the lapse of time will allow a more objective view). The beautiful part of a column such as this is that rambling down rural roads is at least as satisfying in retrospect. That way if the truth gets stretched a little, a faulty memory makes a good alibi.

As far as we know, farming probably began on the move. People who profess to know about such things put the origins of farming at about 6,000 B.C. Eight thousand years is not a long time if archeologists are correct in saying humans or humanoids have been around for more than a million years. If we no longer count hunting as a valid form of livelihood, however, then farming has to be the oldest.

Anthropologists speak of ‘Reindeer Man’ inhabiting northern Europe some 10,000 years ago. How much pastoral herding they may have done is problematical, but they certainly followed the herds and lived off them for much more than the meat. In a cave at Nerja on the southern coast of Spain I saw paintings dating back 12,000 to 16,000 years. Mostly of animals, wild oxen, deer, horses, these were obviously representing hunts and hunting parties, but at some point in that remote past some enterprising (or possibly lazy) hunter decided that it should be easier to fence in or otherwise tether animals than to follow the migrations.

In the beginning, grazing and herding moved along established routes with available pastures, but our indolent herder eventually decided to gather and store forage. From gathering wild grasses and grains for his beasts to cultivating them for himself was the next logical step and farming was born.

The essentials as developed by those distant forebears were basic and haven’t changed all that much. Of course, if any hunter-turned-herdsman did begin with the idea that farming would be much easier than the nomadic existence of the hunter, he must have paid for his mistake. Farming in one place meant constant herding of the half wild animals, which led to corrals and fences, houses, barns and outbuildings, and then tools and plowing, seeding and cultivating, reaping and threshing, and then the land wore out and he had to move on or build it up. There were floods and droughts, insect pests, marauding animals, obstreperous neighbors; sometimes he must have wondered why he stopped hunting and fishing for his living. No, farming hasn’t changed too much, has it?

Joking aside, then as now, farming brought both rewards and headaches, but it drastically altered the course of civilization. Tribal and family grazing rights established by custom or force preceded and directly led to all national and personal territorial recognition. Ownership (beginning with: this is mine – I’ll defend it; leading to: that’s yours – I acknowledge it) is the most basic of human rights antedating even the respect for human life – no matter how offensive some may find that. And, of all ownership, that of territorial rights came first. Land and the hunger for it motivated tribes and nations certainly but, just as imporantly, it moved individuals.

If we understand that primal urge, it perhaps explains in part the phenomenon of the current turn-around in migration. For the first time in years there are more people under 50 moving back to the country than moving away. I’ve seen the figures to support this, but figures are not important except to those who hope to prove something by them. In this case, those who read this magazine are either a part of the movement or have met some of those who are. Most of them are looking for things their parents and grandparents discarded.

Old-fashioned butter churns and milk cans, like the horse, may be a curiosity to some, but to others they have taken on new meaning. The milk-can gave way to the stainless steel refrigerated tank-truck just as the horse gave way to the tractor. In the overall scheme of things, perhaps the demise of the milk-can was unimportant. Unlike the horse, as far as I know there is no concerted movement to bring it back for other than decorative purposes; it only illustrates the indiscriminate destructiveness of ‘progress.’

Now the energy crunch, something called ecology and a genuine unwillingness to be hemmed in by machines, bureaucracy or big anything is causing some people to rethink priorities. There is no way of knowing how far the trend will go but it is there and government and business will have to reckon with it.

I talk mostly of farms and farming because this is the SMALL FARMER’S JOURNAL, but I also refer frequently to rural and country living. There are a great number of people who can scarcely qualify as farmers and yet they live in a rural environment. That’s not necessarily a new idea. Over the centuries the joys of country life have drawn poets, statesmen, soldiers, thieves and nabobs, even though many have found the daily toil of full-time farming too oppressive.

Today many people discover that a supplementary income is essential, even though a garden and a few animals can provide much of their food. Purists among the farming community should remember that a lot of their ancestors started that way. Trappers, hunters, loggers and day laborers; so many had to struggle very hard until the day when they acquired enough cleared land and the animals to stock it. If that’s what it takes to get people back from the cities, we should support it and them. They’re the new ‘Pioneers.’

People tend to boast of having pioneer ancestry. There was a time when the word wasn’t considered all that complimentary. In general, the pioneer went because he had little else as alternative. He had no job and no prospects. About everything he owned would be in a pack on his back or over his shoulder. He trudged off into the wilderness to take up squatters’ rights on any free land he could find and hold. Sometimes he was paid something to open up the country. Then came the settlers with families, animals and possessions; in the end they all became farmers – and that will probably happen again.

To me, one of the heartening things in this resurgence is the interest of so many in the horse as a source of energy on the farm. Man and horses have an affinity that goes back to antiquity, but a lot of these young folks see the horse as motive power as well and largely because they are firmly disenchanted with the car and the tractor. Once they have left the exhaust-choked city behind they are reluctant to foist the old problems on the new environment.

Now the combustion engine is probably here to stay, at least until we run out of petroleum and substitutes, but there is and always should be a place around the farm for one or more horses. The editor of this magazine and other contributors will continue to tout the advantages of the horse, so I will not belabor the point here – not that point, but there is another one I’d like to make.

Back when this writer (and the world) were young and everyone had horses for work or transportation, comparatively few were of the huge, purebred draft breeds. They were just horses – farm horses, work horses, driving horses, and they may or may not have had any connection with Belgium, La Perche or the banks of the Clyde.

Today the Purebred Draft Horse is coming back from his lowest ebb, but there aren’t nearly enough if all those who are returning to the farm and expressing an interest in the work horse are to be satisfied. A limited supply and a rising market have priced the big horse out of reach of the beginner and he doesn’t need or want that big an animal at first, anyway.

What’s the answer? Well, it seems to me that here is a very real chance for breeders and trainers. There are thousands of reasonably adequate horses growing fat in pastures across the land that could be broken to harness for light work. There are countless more mares solid enough and constitutionally suited to bearing farm chunk foals if mated with draft stallions. The 1,200 to 1,600 lb. horse could be making the comeback the larger draft animal is engaged in and at much less cost for brood stock, feed and care. Then think of the market in bull hides, harnesses and even buggy whips.

Like the Walrus, we’ve touched on many things in our ramble, including most of those mentioned at the beginning, except one, perhaps: there was a popular song following the first World War which foretold the exodus we’ve been deploring. “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” Wasn’t that what started the whole thing – the Cancan?

Home and Shop Companion 0098

Home and Shop Companion 0098