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Works and Days

The Rural Way

January 12th, 2014 - 11:22 am

I worry though not about the way we look or talk, but rather about the use of the land. It no longer grows people, or produces for the nation a 5% minority of self-reliant, cranky and autonomous citizens, who do not worry much about things like tanning booths, plastic surgery, Botox, male jewelry, tattoos, rap music, waxed-off body hair, or social media. I think our impoverished society reflects that fact of agrarian loss, in the sense that never have so many had so much and complained that they had so little while being so dependent on government — and yet they are so whiney and angry over their lack of independence. The entitlement state is the flame, the recipients the moths. The latter zero in on the glow and then, transfixed by the buzz, are consumed by acquiring what they were hypnotized by.

Out here is the antithesis of where I work in Silicon Valley. Each week I leave at sunbreak, and slowly enter a world of Pajama boys in BMWs and Lexuses, with $500 shades and rolling stops at intersections as they frown and speed off to the next deal. Somehow these techies assume voting for Barack Obama means that they are liberal. They are not. By proclaiming that they are progressive, they feel good about themselves and do not have to worry about why their janitorial staffs are not unionized, or why no one but they can buy a house, or why they oppose affordable housing construction along the 280 corridor, or why they fear the public schools as if they were the bubonic plague. Their businesses don’t create many jobs in the area; they don’t live among the Other; they seek to get out of paying income tax as they praise higher taxes; and they use money to ensure their own apartheid. And so they are “liberal.”

No wonder millionaires like Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer represent such a culture. How odd that the power, the water, the food, the lumber, and the minerals that fuel Silicon Valley all come from distant invisible people, the uncool who are overregulated, overtaxed, and over-blamed by those they never see.

Every six months or so I crawl under the house to check the wiring, plumbing, foundation, and assorted repair work. I did it last week. In the dirt is the weird detritus of 140 years: some square nails, a strange, ancient rusted pipe wrench, 1930s newspaper stuffed into some sort of mouse hole, penciled-in runes of weird numbers and notes scrawled on the redwood beams by some unknown carpenter, a fossilized carcass of a long dead cat, a few rat skulls and ribs.  It is also sort of like archaeology, trying to sort out the layers of improvements per good farming years: the foundation raised on redwood beams after the boom of World War I, the metal conduit wiring installed in the 1940s when raisins were again high, the heating ducts put in during the brief boom of the early 1980s, and so on.

Is there a future to any of this?  

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on the meaning of future. None of my children will farm; even if they wanted to, the remnant 40 acres of the original 140 are too few to be viable. The local schools are poor, at least in statistical rankings. There are no pre-Stanford preschools out here. My great-grandparents and their parents got here before the schools; my grandfather graduated here in 1908, my mother in 1939, me in 1971, my children in the 1980s — after that comes the end, I think, of the continuity.

Most of the area’s youth under 30 have long fled to L.A. or the Bay Area. They are sort of the bookends to illegal immigrants who left Oaxaca for places like Selma that they see as heaven in comparison with Mexico. The youth left Selma for tiny apartments in Westwood or Mountain View that they see as heaven compared with what they left.

The land left behind has soared in value, not because it is a necessarily desirable place to raise a family, but due to the fact that in a California of 39 million, in a third year of abject drought, and with the world in need of our state’s fruit, nuts, and fiber, there are not too many places left with such good loam soils, a long growing season, and a water table still about 50 feet.

What keeps a person sane when writing about the Chris Christie road show;  the Benghazi, AP, NSA, and IRS scandals; the vast expansion in the government and its never-ending deficits; the insanity on campus; and the world of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton?

The refuge of the rural world, and the remembrances of a wonderful world gone and now beneath our feet.

Yet I can hear them still.

(Artwork by Shutterstock.com.)

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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."
40 weeks ago
40 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.


40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
What a great and bittersweet read. Thanks Dr. Hanson for writing it, along everything else you do.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (59)
All Comments   (59)
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Beautiful, VDH.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Michelle Obama should try yard work in her garden when Barack is off to who-knows-where.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Post some pictures of your place some time - assuming you haven't in the past.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 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
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent article! I can relate and I'm a longs ways from California.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 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.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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