Books carried me into farming.
There were the immediate catalysts—the investigative-journalism-meets-pop-science of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Barbara Kingsolver’s hobby farming memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Wendell Berry’s collection of essays and short stories, Bringing It to the Table. These books filled me with curiosity and fire at 16 or 17, exactly the right age when passion counts for much and nuance is some older person’s problem. There were earlier books, too: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the first books I remember reading to myself; E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; and a handful of books whose names escape me but which were all variations on the theme of city-child-is-sent-to-live-with-country-relatives-and-learns-many-important-things-about-life. As a kid growing up outside of Washington, DC, this was the micro-genre into which I could most easily insert myself. And there continue to be more books, notably Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: A Family Saga, a century-spanning epic following an Iowa farming family into the very near future.
In my mind, farming and writing have always been intertwined. Farming asks for obsessive observation, as does writing. Both ask a person to be an expert cataloguer of details, to fine-tune their awareness, to ask why and how. I’m clearly not the only person to have found herself at the crux of this intersection. The farm-literary cannon is historically deep and stylistically vast: poetry, fiction, and memoirs, stretching from ancient texts into the present.
Eliza Holmes, who grew up at the Farm School and graduated from the Learn To Farm program, is in the process of writing her dissertation about farming literature in 19th Century Britain and America. One of the ideas she’s addressing in her work is the way that writers relate to the non-human world. “Mostly,” she says, “we talk about wilderness narratives, we talk about Thoreau—and we don’t talk about him planting beans. We talk about him wandering in the woods.” That kind of nature writing is very different from the kind of nature writing that farmers engage in.
“A farmer isn’t really an observer,” at least not a passive one, Eliza says. “He’s someone who’s shaping the landscape and is shaped by the landscape. It’s a very reciprocal relationship, and a tense relationship.” The observations of farmers tend to be action-oriented: I notice this, which means I have to do that. They’re not guests in the landscape, but rather intimately involved. “What you look at when you’re walking somewhere and don’t live there, and what you look at when you’re doing chores over and over” are different, as is the way you organize that information into your understanding of the world around you.
Take the work of English romantic poet John Claire. “What I think I’m most interested in,” Eliza says, “A lot of it has to do with detail… with not differentiating things. He’ll be writing about an insect, something very separate… but then it flies into and out of a field where people are working… [Claire] describes the work that they’re doing, and how it impacts the bug, and they’re not weighted differently.” Both the bug and the workers are participating in the landscape, and Claire captures that integration.
Erik Jacobs, another LTF graduate, is interested in how writing functions as a tool for farmers. Erik’s background is in journalism, and when he started his own vegetable enterprise after graduating from the Farm School, he kept a detailed blog. “From a sort of functional and business stand point,” he says, “I think writing is critical to small scale farmers. Because the thing that differentiates us from the Whole Foods and people who are doing similar work to us… is story. The thing that keeps people supporting local farmers is their desire to invest in something personal, and somebody—a farmer. I think writing is a critical element in maintaining a loyal customer base.”
It’s also critical to drawing new people in—people like me and Erik, who didn’t grow up on or around farms. “The desire to be in relationship with the land and have a lighter footprint in this world led me to Wendell Berry” Erik says. In his opinion, Berry is “the essential wordsmith when it comes to conveying the spiritual essence of farming.”
There’s a difference between using words to sell your vegetables and using words to sell a way of life (or finding that your words have sold people on a way of life, intentions aside). Wendell Berry has found himself inadvertently doing the latter, and with tremendous skill.“I know he’s somewhat conflicted about that,” Erik says. “I reached out to him and… I told him that me and a lot of people were inspired by his work and his first reaction was to say: be careful.”
It’s a fine line to tread between teasing out the true and present beauty of an experience and romanticizing that experience. But as Abby DeVries, who completed the LTF program this past fall, sees it, “that’s kinda the nature of storytelling”: mundane things happen, and then you go back and find meaning in them. She recalls a Ted Hughes poem in which the head of a sheep has to be sawn off during a lambing. “It’s really grotesque but beautiful at the same time. It’s so real and beautiful and gross, and you want to keep reading it.” That searing illustration, that pulling in of the reader—“That’s the craft of writing.”
It’s a craft that, to Abby, feels very different from that of farming. “I definitely think they’re complimentary,” she says. “Being outside and doing stuff with your body all day, and then being able to come in and parse through what you’ve done… But I don’t know how similar they are as activities. To me, they feel almost like polar opposites.”
Eliza Holmes agrees. “One asks you to be so present in your body, and one asks you to be so present in the memory of your body,” she explains.
But that point of conflict is where we, as humans, exist most of the time: part in the present moment of our bodies, and part in the memory our bodies. Maybe this is why the literature of farming holds such powerful sway over our imaginations: It reminds us that we have bodies. It invites us into the memories of our bodies, by way of someone else’s. Just as the 19th century farmer-writers were trying to “write their way into an embodied relationship” with the land, as Eliza puts it, as readers we’re trying to find our way into that relationship as well.
This is as true for those of us who farm as for those of us who don’t. One of the byproducts of having both bodies and minds is that we’re not satisfied with grasping just the thing itself or ideas about the thing—we long for both. Growing up at the Farm School, Eliza says, farming “was just sorta the world I lived in. And then I went to books to try to find it.”