Rural Ramblings – Winter 1977
Ralph C. Miller
I’m sure there is something to be said for constancy. The one woman man, like the fabled one man woman, is probably a rare and beautiful thing. As for me – alas, I am admittedly fickle. I have had the same wife for some 30 odd years but she has had to share my affections. First there was Melinda; my feelings for her have nearly rivaled those I have for her Mother. More recently there is my latest love – like her Grandmother and her Aunt she is a charmer. Dark hair and dark eyes and at 18½ months a secure knowledge of her power over all males particularly “Gamfa.”
All of the aforementioned only explains why I was reading “Baa baa black sheep” and had old memories triggered by the line, “one for the little boy who lives down the lane.” Whether the nursery rhyme was in part responsible I don’t remember, but I have had a weakness for Country Lanes for a very long time.
Any rural road is to me an opportunity for pleasurable adventure but country lanes are something more. Either you already know what I’m speaking of or it may be hard to explain. No matter how deep into the country you get, with a road there is usually the chance that it leads somewhere-quote-important. On the other hand a lane doesn’t have to lead anywhere; in fact you may hope that it doesn’t for therein lies much of its charm.
The word is used quite loosely of late but in the old pure sense – “a narrow way closed in by trees, hedges, fences or buildings” – a lane is its own reason to linger, to smell and feel and experience the true sense of Country. There aren’t as many country lanes as there used to be, more’s the pity, but they are worth searching out.
I do appreciate all types of country lane, rock walled, tree bordered, lined by hedges, even fenced if the farmer has been wise enough to leave some hazelbrush, thornapple, scotch broom or wild rose bushes. Aside from the lane that leads to my house I expect my favorites are those that give me the feeling, however fleeting, of being shut into a private world where time has lingered.
That usually implies Spring and Summer when all the trees and hedges are in full leaf. In Spring there is a sense of bursting outleaves, grass, even bird songs. It’s difficult to be a practicing pessimist down a Country Lane in Springtime. Unmatchable; except there’s Summer – That breathless, somnolent air with only the drone of bees for accompaniment. And the smell of a lane in Summer, flowers, surely, vegetation (probably pollen), but even the dust is sweet down a lane, especially that stirred up by a horse or dog, or maybe a small boy driving cows.
It’s Fall now, Autumn, Indian Summer, tending into the bright clear days of October with the nip of Frost waiting in the wings. No ticker tape parade ever equaled a stroll down a hardwood bordered lane in Autumn. Crimson and gold carpet of course, a shower of beech, birch, oak or maple confetti; and where is the decorator who can match the reds of sumac, vine maple or even the lowly poison ivy? Later, when the snow lays deep in Winter, the lane is a place of hushed mystery, brooding, expectant, awaiting Spring.
I apologize if I seem to have been carried away there for a minute. Even a semi-literate Country Boy can become almost lyrical in walking through cherished byways.
All of this is nonsense to the Agricultural Industrialist guiding his 500 horsepower behemoth across mile wide fields. He long ago relegated lanes to the same midden heap as the windmill, the pitchfork and the workhorse. And there are many others who will question it’s relevance, or dismiss it as one more surrender to nostalgia.
I make no apology for my memories or my feeling for the less tangible rewards of rural living. I applaud and utilize genuine progress but I reject the idea that newer, bigger or different is ipso facto better. I think we need to reacquire a set of old fashion scales – see and weigh what is being lost when placed in balance against the glib promises. These promises of a bright tomorrow for Agriculture have had a way of turning into yesterdays disappointments and the headaches of today. The gains (when gains there be) are usually short-lived and demanding of ever increasing sacrifices in terms of the quality of life.
The rap on nostalgia, admittedly often justified, is that we recall things only as we wish they had been, forgetting hard times, hard work and deprivation. That’s a human failing and there’s the obverse side. While we stand accused of dwelling on past glories, the progressivist in Agriculture frequently has to borrow the line from Baseball, “Wait ’til next year.”
As far as hard work is concerned, they are right; it was – and is – although 14-16 hours on a tractor is no picnic. I’ve done my share both ways. I’m still digging, planting, and hoeing, mainly with hand tools and currently have the calluses and back aches to prove it. Getting ready for Winter on even 12 plus acres is work. Pruning, mulching, turning the soil for winter fallow, splitting and cording up the season’s wood – all this can temper nostalgia’s joy and yet I bask in it. I spent long years in the City away from it with little pride of accomplishment. Perhaps this time is the sweeter for that hiatus.
Speaking of mulching and planting, that means manure. I know those out there whose view of the forest is obstructed by the trees will say that’s carrying it a bit far, but not even shoveling and hauling manure dampens my enthusiasm. That’s what I have been doing these past days and I will be back to it as soon as these lines are finished.
Believe me there are worse occupations. I’m hauling it here from the main farm where the SFJ Editor lives and my trip back and forth takes me right through one of the local bastions of Agri-business. They, too, are engaged in spreading fertilizer on huge fields – the chemical kind spread from big hoppers pulled by bigger tractors. I wouldn’t trade jobs.
There’s another point here, the manure comes from the horses and cattle we keep. Those tractors leave nothing behind but pollution and impacted soil. Incidentally Carol had a fine big filly colt last week. That’s continuity. I haven’t noticed any baby tractors out in the fields I mentioned.
Talking as we have been on roads and lanes brings me to the subject of directions. The bucolic bumpkin giving directions to dudes has been the butt of countless jokes (and not a little genuine frustration). “The Country Mile” has become a part of the language and that trite old chestnut, “you can’t get there from here” has been used so often its origins are all but forgotten.
Gibes notwithstanding, one sometimes suspects that Rueben may have been a better actor than given credit for. Misdirection laid on by the unassuming yokel may have been a form of humorous vengeance, all the sweeter for having bamboozled the know-it-all “City feller.” Now I never perpetrated anything like that – and I’ll continue to deny it. Nobody ever proved it anyway. But I’m fairly sure that I have been the victim on occasion; I couldn’t prove that either.
Signs and a guidebook are helpful, but often it’s just a case of knowing where we need to go. That applies to other things, such as farming. Trouble is there are those along the way whose directions lead us anywhere but where we should be going. Whether they are themselves misguided or self-seeking, the end result is the same. We continue to wind up further down the profligate road; wasted resources, wasted manpower, wasted lives.
As I write there are two separate gatherings sitting this week to discuss this: At WinRock Farm in Arkansas, a symposium (the first of three) has been convened to study the Small Farm Options. The project is sponsored by the National Rural Center of Washington, D.C. In spite of the fact that the Editor of this magazine is on the panel I am not hopeful for noticeable results.
Not to be too paranoid, WinRock Farms and the National Rural Center are too closely tied to Standard Oil and the same “Big Government” that we followed into this morass for me to hope they can or will lead us out. Also on the panel are many representatives of the Department of Agriculture. As long ago as 1955, Earl Butz was not necessarily making policy but only reflecting it when he declared, “Adapt or die; resist and perish… Agriculture is now big business. Too many people are trying to stay in Agriculture that would do better someplace else.”
If the Department is now trying to help the small farmer stay in business it represents a remarkable turnaround and I fear is hardly universal there. Among other Universities represented there is Louisiana State. Their man’s title reads in part: Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. Who was it warned us, “Not to set a fox to guard the henhouse?”
There was a real opportunity here for an honest evaluation and some constructive assistance but… I have at hand a copy of a Paper prepared by David E. Brewster, a Historian with the Department of Agriculture Economic research service. There are some disclaimers offered with it; as a Historian he is merely trying to put the background in perspective. The background doesn’t worry me but he quotes some definitions about the present and future – “… With few exceptions the small farm in Government circles today is defined as the farm in trouble … the operation that by itself cannot provide a satisfactory income.” Again, “… major programs in recent decades have been intended really for only a limited part of agriculture. The small farm has increasingly become equated with the marginal unit, if not with outright failure.”
The above quotes taken out of context can hardly be held against Mr. Brewster who was attempting an objective assessment of the current consensus. We can’t deny that the small farm is in some difficulties, (when was it not?), but it isn’t alone. The whole of Agriculture is hurting, including the Big Farms, in spite of all the Government subsidies, the support prices, surplus stock piling and all of the favorable treatment. To quote once more from Brewster on a 1971 study of such programs, “… (they) tend to provide benefits … primarily to those larger farmers who produce the bulk of the agricultural output.” On even terms the Small Farmer can compete but he can’t be expected to overcome programs designed to help the bigger operator buy him out or drive him off the farm.
The other group I mentioned is an Agriculture Subcommittee chaired by Senator Abourezk of South Dakota and meeting this week, (October 20). He or someone close to him has the right idea about getting some of the pressure off the backs of the Small Farmer, however, among the list of those scheduled to appear are names suspiciously reminiscent of the Agribusiness lobby.
I hope I’m proved wrong about my pessimism on these two clambakes – Lord help us if I’m not! What the small farm really needs is not so much assistance as less resistance.
Enough of that; way back there I spoke of quite literally being steered in the wrong direction. Can I tell you of one trip of long ago to Little Rock and the same general area where the symposium is sitting? Summer, 1940. Among the young people I knew well in Kansas City were several who were called up in that first surge of military service. A number of them were at Camp Robinson outside of N. Little Rock. Not to make too much of it, six of us, including four girls, started down to visit them over a long weekend.
Two flat tires and a long cramped, mosquito ridden night later we were finally bowling down the main highway in Northern Arkansas entertaining thoughts of eventually reaching haven, cool showers and hot food. Our dream was rudely shattered by a detour. If you have visions of a makeshift road along the right-of-way for a mile or two it was not that kind of detour. This was full scale and monumental.
It took the Highway Policeman five minutes to explain the roads that should lead us back some 10 or 15 miles down the line. Of course we got lost. At that point we expected nothing else. It was a two door sedan, the day was hot, the road was dusty; I confess none of us were exactly in ecstacy over the beautiful countryside, (The Ozarks are beautiful).
I’ve told this tale to several Arkansawyers before and all said the same thing, “There’s no such place as ‘Bee Branch’ in Arkansas” – they even said that when we got to Little Rock. I admit I’ve never found it on a map and it’s one of the few places I’ve been that I couldn’t find my way back to, but I swear it was there the day we were lost. “Brigadoon’ – was that the name of the village that appeared only once every hundred years?
Bee Branch might have been called a village but only by courtesy although as I remember it did have a town square. Trouble was that it was too small to surround the square so everything was built on one side.
Saturday afternoon in a country town in 1940; must have been at least a dozen rigs, mostly teams and wagons with a few old farm trucks, and each one loaded with a large family. Summer in the Ozarks can be a sizzler, so we left all the doors open when we parked in front of the raised wooden walk in front of the only store. The girls were dressed to suit the weather, shorts, a bare midriff or two, sunback dresses. When I came out of the store with what I could find in the way of food and cool drinks there was a line three deep in a radius of 20-25 feet around the car.
They weren’t saying a word, didn’t appear scandalized; I think fascinated would be a better word. If we had been little green people getting out of our flying saucer it might have brought much the same reaction. For some reason it struck us all as hilarious – not the people or the community, but their reaction to us. I guess to them we were better than a freak show and we played to the audience. Even the girls who didn‘t normally smoke, puffed on cigarettes or tipped up a bottle of beer.
We left the village shortly after but not the feeling. It set the tone for the rest of the trip. Not even getting into Little Rock very late and finding our reservations at the motel long gone could spoil the hilarity. The girls found lodging in a gone-to-seed Ante bellum mansion but all they could furnish for we two lads were a couple of folding cots, which we would be welcome to set up on the front porch. What a front porch, two stories high, fluted peeling columns, and the brightest lights and the biggest bugs in town. We ended up under the shadows of a lilac bush where a gentle shower caught us along toward morning.
Nothing that happened after Bee Branch made any difference, not even on the trip home when I roused to find that I was the only one awake in the car – and I was in the back seat. We were going steadily down a straight road and the driver was fast asleep.
I was only in that tiny mountain village possibly twenty minutes but it has remained with me like no other. I was a long time sorting it out but I guess it boils down to seeing yourself as the other fellow sees you. On their home grounds they weren’t the oddballs, we were. And if we could understand that, we didn’t have to change them or to change ourselves. Our putting on a show for them didn’t belittle their stature, only our own. Bee Branch, if you’re still out there, I salute you.