In Which I Visit a Farm and Feel Superfluous

‘Do you ever visit a farm,’ I asked Mom, ‘and get the feeling that you know how to do nothing of any use whatsoever?’

‘I was just thinking about that,’ she said. ‘I’ve read Wendell Berry, and that counts for—exactly nothing.’

We were in the car on Lazy Valley Ranch, in between the barn where you got registered and directed and the u-pick blueberry patch. I don’t know what parts of the surroundings went together, but it was the overall effect that was important to us. The blue-and-white buildings looked practical and aged. A large open shed overflowed with rusty pieces of what, perhaps not having eyes to see with at a brief glance, I can only call junk. More-or-less dry fields held horses, cows, a donkey, and an emu. Another field had several large pieces of equipment in it and hay bales scattered through it. The vehicles looked long and well used. And we felt like unnecessary and inferior city mice.

I’m reading Hannah Coulter right now, Mom just reread it and is reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays, and we’ve both recently read an interview with Berry in the CiRCE Institute’s FORMA magazine. Part of the message we’re getting is about the value and usefulness of small farms, and—in some ways—the unnecessariness or less-wholeness of sophisticated modern ways of life. Going to Lazy Valley Ranch, this farm which looked like something out of Wendell Berry, brought our reading and considering into a new proximity. I at least felt ashamed of being in the Tahoe there among those rusty vehicles, as if it were a faux pas of some sort (though Mom pointed out that that’s rather funny, as many Americans would look distinctly down at our chunky 2005 eight-seater).

The difference that we found between reading Wendell Berry and visiting Lazy Valley Ranch reminded me of something from the “A Brief Biography of Reason” podcasts that David Kern and Tim McIntosh are doing over on the CiRCE Institute Podcast Network. Discussing the Allegory of the Cave, they said that people feel like if you accept the Allegory of the Cave that means you’re out of the cave… but that’s not necessarily the case. Similarly, reading, appreciating, and even agreeing with Berry’s work doesn’t get you anywhere on its own.

Horses, cows, donkeys, emus, and fields of hay which needs to be turned into haybales intimidate us. Mom’s ‘yeaaah’ didn’t sound very convinced when Dad said reassuringly, as we were talking about our uselessness, ‘you make bread.’ I think that in a way we’re awed by people who can make a farm go—like Harriet in Have His Carcase: “she now realised that there was, after all, something godlike about him [Peter]. He could control a horse.” My cooking? In a very nice modern kitchen, with produce, meat, and grains which I had no part in the growing or processing of. My writing? What good does that do in the world? How many hungry mouths do I fill?

I don’t know how to communicate that farm: why when I came to it I felt inferior and unnecessary. I think, though, that we might have gone to it and felt that it was inferior and unnecessary; perhaps that we didn’t is a point in our favour—though it doesn’t get us out of the cave.

(Just to be clear: this post is more of a record of impression—should I say, emotion—than a reasoned essay. I neither intend, nor think it is morally or ethically imperative for me, to betake myself to a farming life.)