Last month I felt like I was living a John Denver song: country roads taking me to a colleague’s farm near St. Cloud, Minnesota, to the Washington County Fair in Lake Elmo, MN, and then last week to the Minnesota State Fair. (Well, a couple of city streets took me there.) Then last week my mind drifted country-wards while plotting out the first week of my Modern Europe class, in which a key early theme is the nature of the rural economy in England and France on the eve of industrialization.
Like most any European historian, I’m well aware that agrarian life was by no means idyllic—then or now. Like most any suburbanite, I would be in deep trouble if our food supply system collapsed and I had to rely on my own labors to avert starvation. And yet…
I go to a county fair and the state fair each and every year, and walk happily through cattle, swine, and poultry barns that, the other 363 days of the year, I’d be prone to drive past with the windows closed. My wife, who’s from a small town in northern Iowa and aware of my aversions to doing manual labor or feeling dirty and sweaty, is thoroughly amused by this. My brother-in-law, who grew up on a fruit farm in Virginia, is just baffled.
Why this longing for the agrarian?
In part, it seems to be rooted in family memory and personal experience. My mother grew up on a dairy farm in western Wisconsin, and some of my fondest childhood memories are from the summer weeks I spent on those acres (in the family now for more than a century) visiting my grandparents. (I even wrote a poem about those summers for my 12th grade creative writing portfolio, though to preserve what’s left of my dignity and of the reputation of the English language, said poem shall go unquoted.) And I treasure the adult memory of walking with my grandfather through an exhibit of historic farm implements at the Goodhue County Historical Society in Red Wing, MN, listening to him talk about each one’s function and development.
In part, my longing reflects a concern of my discipline. Well into the 20th century, the majority of people even in Europe and North America still lived in the countryside and either farmed themselves or worked within an economy dependent on farming. Fewer and fewer present-day historians have farmed, and I’m sure that most who do live in the corn fields are there simply because someone put a college there in the 19th century. Now, most historians have no experience doing the things they study (e.g., I teach military history without having fought in a war; my colleague Diana studies the history of the U.S. Census without having taken a census; my colleague AnneMarie researches prostitution in Los Angeles…), but given just how basic farming was to so many people for so long (and remains so for most of the Two-Thirds World), having no real experience or knowledge of agriculture seems like a serious deficit.
One brought into relief when one reads the work of that rarest scholar: the farmer-historian. The best known — only? — is Victor Davis Hanson, who writes about the Peloponnesian War with an unusual degree of insight, given that most of the soldiers who fought it did so in between planting and harvesting. (This is true for much of European military history.) How many historians would have understood, from firsthand experience, the challenge facing the Spartans when they tried to scorch a plot of Earth covered by still-green vines?
But past my own memory, experience, and disciplinary angst, I suspect that pastoral yearning is pretty common in present-day America. There are certainly plenty of examples of it in our cultural history.
For example, Google “baseball pastoral” and you’ll get nearly two million hits, only some of them from George Carlin’s famous routine contrasting baseball (“a nineteenth-century pastoral game”) and football (“a twentieth-century technological struggle). The notion that baseball fields are pastures planted by urbanites seeking to escape from the hectic pace and crowded space of the Industrial Age pops up repeatedly in Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries. Early in the 1st episode, Burns has Garrison Keillor speak Walt Whitman’s words: “Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…. The game of ball is glorious.” (Fortunately, Burns also interviews historian John Thorn, who points out that baseball, notwithstanding its lovely green space and fresh, when undomed, air, entered its professional phase deeply intertwined with urban problems like gambling and prostitution.)
Recently, New York Times film critic Mike Hale reviewed the films screened at the Rural Route Festival, finding that a documentary about Tibetan nomads (“Summer Pasture”) resonated with his own upbringing on an Iowa soybean farm much more than the festival’s romanticized paeans to American back-to-the-landers:
When it comes to American farm life, the primary vision put forward here is still not very familiar to a rural Midwesterner — from my time or, I suspect, from today — though it’s doubtlessly sincere, and growing. My hopelessly old-fashioned response to a film like Severine von Tscharner Fleming’s “Greenhorns,” a documentary tour of sustainable-agriculture enterprises, most of them covering an acre or two and none of them in the Midwest, is that it’s about gardening rather than farming.
One of my favorite movies is The 39 Steps, an early Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece (based on a novel by John Buchan) featuring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, a falsely accused man simultaneously on the run from the police and on the trail of a spy ring. Hannay flees to Scotland and seeks refuge on an isolated farm, the home of an aging crofter and his much younger wife, who yearns for the freedom of the city. Watch the first minute of this clip, in which she asks Hannay about “London ladies” and their painted toenails:
“I was just saying to your wife that I prefer living in town to the country,” says Hannay (at 0:45) as his host suddenly returns. And the farmer (played by John Laurie) simply murmurs, “God made the country.”
Not that cities uniquely embody the Fall; after all, agriculture was Adam’s punishment for his original sin. But perhaps there’s just a hint of Eden in the countryside, an echo of our innocence that reminds us of a time when God Himself walked this world “in the cool of the day.”