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Works and Days

The Rural Way

January 12th, 2014 - 11:22 am

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Hard physical work is still a requisite for a sound outlook on an ever more crazy world. I ride a bike; but such exercise is not quite the same, given that the achievement of doing 35 miles is therapeutic for the body and mind, but does not lead to a sense of accomplishment in the material sense — a 30-foot dead tree cut up, a shed rebuilt, a barn repainted. I never quite understood why all these joggers in Silicon Valley have immigrants from Latin America doing their landscaping. Would not seven hours a week spent raking and pruning be as healthy as jogging in spandex — aside from the idea of autonomy that one receives by taking care of one’s own spread?

On the topic of keeping attuned with the physical world: if it does not rain (and the “rainy” season is about half over with nothing yet to show for it), the Bay Area and Los Angeles will see some strange things that even Apple, Google, and the new transgendered rest room law cannot fix. We have had two-year droughts, but never in my lifetime three years of no rain or much snow — much less in a California now of 39 million people.  I doubt we will hear much for a while about the past wisdom of emptying our reservoirs and letting the great rivers year-round flow to the Bay to restore mythical 19th-century salmon runs and to save the Delta three-inch bait fish. As long as it was a question of shutting down 250,000 irrigated acres in distant and dusty Mendota or Firebaugh, dumping fresh water in the sea was a good thing. When it now comes down to putting grey water or worse on the bougainvilleas in Menlo Park, or cutting back on that evening shower, I think even those of Silicon Valley will wonder, “What in the hell were we thinking?”

I do all the yard work on my three-acre home site and putter around the surrounding 40-acre vineyard. Mowing, chain-sawing, pruning, and hammering clear the head, and remind us that, even in the age of the knockout “game” and nightly TV ads for Trojan sex devices, we still live in a natural world. In the rural landscape, you are responsible for your own water. So you must know about what level resides the water table, and how deeply exactly your pump draws from, and the minutia of well depth, casing size, and type of pump. You know roughly how much sewage you’ve deposited in your cesspool and septic tank, and whether your propane tanks is half or a quarter full. There is no “they” who take care of such things, no department of this, or GS9 that to do it for you. Those who help you keep independent — the well drillers, pump mechanics, cesspool pumpers, asphalt layers, and assorted independent contractors — remind you that muscles and experience, not always degrees and techie know-how, are still important in extremis.

There are no neighbors across the backyard fence. At night there is no one out here, except the dogs that engage in howling wars with the coyotes. Nature abounds, both good and bad: squirrels that undermine the slab under your barn (I have shot them, gassed them, poisoned them for 40 years, and their burrows are larger than ever), and coyotes lingering out of range in the shadows by dusk. But also a red-tailed hawk in your redwood tree stands guard, and a great horned owl skimming across the vineyard that is strangely unafraid of humans. When I ride out in the Michigan countryside, I often stop and stare at octogenarians puttering around huge old clapboard farmhouses, determined in their final days to mow their lawns or paint their porches as if they were newlyweds — “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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I'm one who fled the rural way. I think at the time I hated pretty much everything about rural Georgia of the 1960s, at least the version of it that was my lot. Mine was an old Southern family with an RS, old land, and of course we knew what regiments great and great-great grandaddy had been in in Genr'l Lee's Army. And we were poor as dirt, but not as poor as my mother's people; they were tenant farmers, we at least got to pay taxes because we owned the worn-out land.

My family was relatively educated by the standards of the rural South of the day and they insisted that I pay at least some attention to school work. I had some obligation to follow my grandfather around on the place until he was killed in a timber-cutting accident when I was about five. He was clearing dead trees and stumps out of the headwaters of the lake on our place during the terrible drought of '54 using the brand-new Farmall Cub tractor we'd bought on credit; the only peice of machinery we'd ever owned new enough to have an owner's manual. I spent endless fascinated hours reading that owners manual once I learned to read. My dad had taken wage work after he came home from working in the shipyard in Savannah during WWII and it gave us a little, a very little, cash income no matter the price of tobacco and cotton. With my grandfather's death, we came to rely on Uncle Martin, an old black man, for the sort of half-a**ed maintenance that passed for keeping things up in the rural South. I followed Uncle Martin around and in many ways am still as half-a**ed as he was. We kept farming for a few more years with a succession of foremen and sharecroppers. The "plants" were starting to come South and the subdivisions for the managers and wage workers were being built. We farm kids didn't have any of the things the town kids had, and the town kids didn't have much of what the plant managers' kids had. All we had was more than the sharecroppers, the tenant farmers, and, especially, the blacks had. We quit farming in '63 and began subdividing old cotton fields. We bought the first new car the family had ever owned in '66, a strippo Ford Fairlane. I did OK in school, As where I was interested, Cs where I wasn't; Ds and Fs weren't an option. The college prep curriculum was math through Trig and Calculus, four years of English in which it really did matter how you spelled and punctuated, and two years of Latin plus two years of a "foreign" language. I bailed on the last two years and took the only classes that have ever done me any good: bookkeeping, typing, shop, and auto mechanics. Despite being a dropout from college prep, I was a National Merit finalist and had an SAT score that could have gotten me in most any school in the Country if there'd been anybody in my life who knew anything about getting into good schools, or even what a good school was. I rode "The Dog," the Greyhound bus, off to a regional campus of the University of Georgia in the fall of '67.

I was 18 and confused, insecure, resentful, and rebellious; perfect feedstock for leftist college professors. By that time I was also "a singer in a rock 'n roll band" to borrow a line from the Moody Blues and I usually had good drugs. That would rarely get me the sorority sisters and cheerleaders that the guys with the Gant shirts, Bass Weejuns, and GTOs got, but it would get me laid fairly regularly by at least second tier girls. I endured school until a high draft number and some serious drug charges made it pretty certain my pretty pink a** wasn't going to get shot in Vietnam. I got the drug charges behind me and got the Hell out of Georgia until the people who wanted to kill me simmered down. Came back after awhile and spent a little time in Atlanta, the city a quarter million Confederate soldiers died to prevent. Left in '74 and have only been back a few times to visit relatives. The listing agreement for what's left of the family land is on my desk as I write. Been fighting filling it out and signing it, but I will. The "mystic chords of memory" tug at me, but Margaret Mitchell had it right when she had Scarlett O'Hara say, "I'll nevah be po agin."
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
The continuity of life is breaking down in our country and our lives are being pulled apart too. There is no longer a connection to each other and to the land. I find that sad. It wasn't always that way - as Dr. Hanson points out - with more than a little regret. I know what he's saying. I wish I could say it so well - but I'll try:

I remember as a child (I'm 66) my parents would often pack us up in the family car early Friday evenings 6 or 8 or 10 times a year and travel what then was a long trip to my grand parents home. They lived in a large old grange hall - heated by a 55 gallon drum re-purposed from God only knows to heat the large space. Some of it was walled off - no 55 gallon re-purposed stove was going to heat that much space. Fresh water was collected in huge wooden barrels for use in the home - doing dishes etc. No need for flushing the toilet - that was outside - an outhouse. Old 30 gallon milk jugs were loaded up on Grandpa's pickup truck twice or so each week for the short drive to fill them up at one of Grandpa's friends home - good cool clear well water any time of year. That was the drinking water. It sparkled - water doesn't sparkle like that any more. Or maybe its the memories of a 7-8 year old child - slightly faulty but a memory that seems to have always made everything better than it was. Who knows?

My grandparents made room for all who were staying overnight - usually 2-3 of their children - with their children. They had 6 of them. Two are still with us. Somehow we all managed to find a place to sleep. But not before the musical instruments came out and the music began. There were guitars - a dobro - a fiddle or two - - a xylophone - washtub bass - and my Dad played the harmonica and sometimes sang.

We'd stay there until Sunday afternoon then head home some 70 miles - a trip that today would take you about an hour and a half. It was a three hour trip back in the mid-late fifties.

We were keeping the connection handed down from generations past.

After a very difficult depression and WWII hot on it's heels we were just happy to have God country and each other out the other side of it all. My grandparents saw each of their three boys off to war - and each of them came home. They hid the scars well. One was a 'participant' of the Bataan March. We didn't have much but we had each other. Sadly its these very things - God country and each other is what so many are lacking in their lives these days and they don't know it. How can they? They have no idea of what they have been cheated out of. Our kids no longer see the value of family gatherings - the family reunions are getting smaller each year - most of us are getting older - gray hair is the norm. A once very large family has dwindled and lost their connections. No amount of pleading seems to faze the younger relatives - and my 2 are no exception. You can't buy the connections we had - and that connection is all but lost now - God is fading - and our country is right behind those other two things so precious to my parents and grandparents. We felt good being with each other - safe. I wonder how all of our children feel these days. Safe? I don't think so.

The connection is all but severed.


13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
What a great and bittersweet read. Thanks Dr. Hanson for writing it, along everything else you do.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (59)
All Comments   (59)
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Beautiful, VDH.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Absolutely touching on so many level. The good, the bad and the just plain ugly. I remember my grandparents at my current age (your age) and I often feel so much older.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
wonderful article !

i especially agree with the idea that the "hoodie-footie" jackasses in silicon valley would greatly benefit from doing their own yard work.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Michelle Obama should try yard work in her garden when Barack is off to who-knows-where.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Post some pictures of your place some time - assuming you haven't in the past.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
I live rural in flyover country, one of those anonymous states most of you don't care about. We have 4 seasons, some of them with tornadoes and some with ice storms. The wind blows most of the time even when it's not stormy.
I garden, hunt and fish, run cattle on my pasture, make my own power. I have backups for my backups. Most importantly, I know my neighbors and we look after each other. This is a great place to live. Please just leave us alone.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Never. You don't know what's good for you. If Congress won't put you in chains, I will by executive order. [Broadcast 1/14/2014]

Best regards,
Your friendly President
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ever vote for anybody named Brown for governor? (Edmund G. Brown in 1958 and '62, his boy Jerry in '74, '78 and 2010)

If you did, wave goodbye to the water with a smile. You helped 'em grab it.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent article! I can relate and I'm a longs ways from California.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Another great story by VDH. I too am of an age that going back to the old ways is so satisfying and fulfilling. What is the point of making lots of money if you fritter your days trying to knock two points off your golf score or hiring someone to do the things that give the most satisfaction. I sold my new John Deere lawn tractor a few years ago and bought an old Cub Cadet to tinker on and to use. It has been like therapy to me. Knowing that I can keep it running and that I can fix anything on it without a computer or an EE degree makes it a treasure in my life.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
Let me edit the piece for you. All those folks in the Silicone Valley are living the three generation rule.

And

Your generation is the one that took its thumb off the bad guys.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
What terrific writing Dr H. I can't help but think that the situation today is just the tail end of a single great migration off of the farms and into the cities and suburbs that started long ago. The difference now is that these destinations no longer provide opportunity and there is no place really to go to escape the trouble that we have created for ourselves by abandoning the founding principles of our nation and by allowing the notions of family reliance and individual responsibility to atrophy so badly. Perhaps you will one day be happy for hanging on to your farm for another reason. The way things are headed, we may all need a place to make a stand. If that time comes and you need a farmhand, let me know. My job credentials are not great - I have no well and only about one quarter of an acre. My current crop is mostly grass and weeds.
13 weeks ago
13 weeks ago Link To Comment
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