Saturday, March 20, 2021

Writing a Libretto

 Some years ago we were looking at a farm for sale in Utica, MN.

As soon as we hit the rambling rural backroads of “Amish Country” we found ourselves pressed against the car’s windows in a spellbound silence. One particular sight that is seared on my memory is that of a young towheaded boy nor more than 4 or 5 years of age, tending a bon-fire of trash in the backyard of one of the white farmhouses. It struck me instantly that to our “English” sensibilities, both the fire and the fact of the child working were something distasteful and frowned upon as too risky…at the same time I found myself keenly desirous of the pluck and initiative of the little fellow in the blue trousers, both for myself and my own children.

In stark contrast, the “farm” we visited ended up being something of a rural leisure estate. The family had come, hoping to “raise their children in the country” and had left. All that remained now were the trampoline, the large home, with its cable TV hook-ups, and the multi-car garage and boat storage. There were no signs of fields tilled, trees planted, or even a garden.

There are two ways of living in the country “for the children’s sake”. One involves them as partners, and makes them as much a goal as any crop, and the other manages them like an retired old gelding that is put in a paddock with food and water and left to itself for the rest of the time. Living in the country does not magically make for a family filled with “down home values” and a serious work ethic. Joel Salatin’s 1st and 2ndcommandments for family friendly farming are “Integrating children into every aspect of the farm” and “Love to Work.”

“Children in diapers need to be involved with the activities. I have no idea how many times our kids fell asleep in my arms on the tractor seat. I’m sure someone will jump on me about safety here, so let’s talk a little about safety to get it out of the way…..The simple truth is that a life worth living is fille with risk. Anyone who wants to eliminate risky from his own life or the life of his children does so at the cost of taking the zest and fire out of life. The rough and tumble part of life teaches wisdom and caution. One of the things we’ve noticed since our children were tiny was their caution compared to the recklessness of non-farming children.”

                                                                      Joel Salatin, “Family Friendly Farming”

People squeamish about risks need to listen to more opera. Or sing it.

I’ll never forget a college chum’s birthday party in CA. She came from a singing family. One of her cousins was a tenor with the San Diego Opera. We were stretched out on the ground in front of the grand piano in their living room, with all the languid loveliness of college girls unencumbered by any serious responsibility or self-awareness. All of the sudden Ernie began to sing. My chest wall began shaking with the physical vibrations of his vibrato. I was shocked by the confrontational reality that was opera- at point- blank range. It suddenly felt like I had been living my life at half-volume, half-pressure, half-heart. The music made me aware of the rewards of confrontational risk. You cannot sing full-throated without taking risks.

When she was 1, Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” became my daughter’s theme song. She would brandish her baby spoon whenever he belted “Vincero! Vincero! Vincero!!!”  We were making bread the other day listening to him and she looked up with a grin and said: “Mama, isn’t it great to be alive?”

More from Joel Salatin:

“If you teach a child that he’s above mucking out the manure or pulling weeds you’ll raise an arrogant, uncompassionate hard-to-please master.”

“Require and allow children to work. And work with them……Parents, don’t cheat yourselves into thinking you’ll have the same bond over recreation and entertainment that you would over work. The emotional depth and the import of work is far greater than a shared recreational experience. That’s just play. And please don’t think I’m suggesting that we should not play or participate in recreation. I do, however, believe it is greatly overrated in our culture, and has tended to cheapen the value of the human experience.”

                  - Joel Salatin, “Family Friendly farming, a Multigenerational Home-based Business Testament”

In our own family with our children, and the unique age gap between our older and younger daughters, we find ourselves marveling at the particular gift of work that is specific to the different age groups. Yesterday we seeded 25 flats of brassicas and flowers. We found that the time flew by, largely because of the genius the two little ones have for making dirty work fun, and the deftness which the two older ones have at making detailed work efficient. The little ones stripped down to their skivvies and helped Papa fill the flats with soggy metro mix, and the older ones rolled up their sleeves and painstakingly placed tiny broccoli seeds in each cell. Label. Place. Mist. Cover. Spray. Shelve. Done.

This is definitely a case where small farm/domestic economy differs from industrial economics, or from any model which pushes for more efficient production and invests in time and labor- saving devices without thought for the human quotient.  If I had a vacuum seeder I could do the job perhaps as quickly or more quickly by myself, but I would stifle the larger goal of raising my children alongside me in work and play. I would lose the conversations about Fabre and Agatha Christie.

“I can’t remember which one the murderer used….what is that poison that smells like bitter almonds?”

“Oh! I know that one, I just read about it in my Fabre.” (brings a newly seeded flat of kale to the shelves where she slides it under the lights. Grabs a book from the table.)  “Yes, here it is: the cherry-bay.”

 There would be no singing along to the “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”  in the kitchen, reveling together in the smells of lunch in the oven and sap on the stove. Perhaps most importantly, we would lose the cultural collective memory of farming and how to live and work together as a family. Gene Logsdon was always remarking on how the Amish view their labor as part of their gain, their net profit, not loss. This is part of the genius of the Amish way of life, and that of the small family farm. 

There is no real secret to it, except that the crop being raised is not just oats or peas or organic vegetables, but also people.

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