Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Landscapes of My Past
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
In an essay I mentioned, in passing, the sadness I felt seeing abandoned fields, and a reader chided me: the sight of fields reverting to their natural state, viewed dispassionately, can be very attractive. Ah, but I was not dispassionate! That was the point — my feelings were involved. I have cleared land, I know the labor involved: felling trees, pulling stumps, ditching and draining, manuring, plowing, disking, planting, policing the edges. To see it neglected, all that work cast away, left to the destruction of entropy without even a valedictory word seems almost blasphemous to me, a sin against our striving life.
I see this sort of landscape all around me in the Champlain Valley that was once intensively farmed. Well into the 1970s it was a center for the production of trefoil seed, and when I began planting trefoil in Cape Breton in the 1970s, the seed bag label said: “Produced in the Champlain Valley.” But something in the soil caused a blight, and all that remains today are the yellow flowers blooming among the weeds along the roadsides. There were always dairy farms, but today only two remain in the area. There is still a market for hay downcountry, so some fields are still kept up, but as I drive by the fields growing up to brush, by empty barns and leaning silos, I can think only of the rural life that was and is no more. I did not live here then — we have lived here only 16 years — so my feelings are general, a little abstract.
I can summon up a more specific scene: in Vermont once I spent a week roofing a barn that overlooked an abandoned road that led through equally abandoned fields, and in the midst of those desolate acres was the ruin of a house beside the road, its roof gone, its windows hollow gaps, and as I worked on the roof I thought of the house when it was a home, when a farmer’s wife looked out the window to see her flowers growing before the house, and it made such a sad impression on me that I can still see it in my mind nearly 50 years later.
During our first summer here we took the ferry across Lake Champlain to visit some old Vermont friends, and on the way back we took a back road to pass a farm where an old Irishman had taught me how to mow with a scythe. I remember following him, studiously watching every move as the scythe left a neat row of clover beside his path, the scythe moving steadily, smoothly from right to left as Jack stepped forward. I had to watch him because he didn’t know how to tell me; he couldn’t put his technique into words. So I watched him, and so I learned, and so I worked. Fifty years later I drove by that field and it was a wood. Not a brushy field, a wood.
Cape Breton was a special case, its fate the result of the death of two cultures: the old folk culture transplanted from Scotland, and the culture of Provincial self-sufficiency manifest in the fishery, the forest industry, coal mining, and the steel mill. By 1971, when we got there, the decay of both cultures was far advanced. The state of the folk culture was more obvious to us as we struggled to make a living from a harsh unfamiliar environment and also tried to accommodate ourselves to a folk culture, something we had never before encountered.
I have told that story before, so now I will say only that in the 19th century, when the Island was settled, there were thousands of small farms spread across the Island, but they were not commercial enterprises. In the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides, where most of the colonists came from, the hard conditions and poor soil dictated what was essentially subsistence farming, raising food for one’s family, with perhaps a meager surplus for trading, so there was little incentive for change or development. When you are raising products to sell in a market, when you have to satisfy people at a distance, people who do not know you, you feel the commercial pressure for improvement. There was little of that in Cape Breton.
So long as the Island was isolated during most of the 19th century, the old ways endured, but by the 1890s a steel mill opened in Sydney, the principal town, and steamship service to Boston was regular. The most independent and resourceful youth left the farms in droves, to work in the steel mill or in industries around Boston or as domestics there, dooming the little farms to a lingering death. By the 1950s, when the last survivors from the 19th century, those left behind after the resourceful ones left, finally died, and the farms were abandoned. By the time we got there in 1971 they were gone.
The survival of the few farms in our area was due to the presence of a gypsum quarry on the peninsula where the men worked, so allowing them still to keep a cow or two, a pig and some hens, perfunctorily maintaining the old ways desultorily. So we were able to learn from them and to observe the old patterns of life in a folk culture. By the time we left in 2001, the countryside around us was deserted: the old had died or gone into nursing homes. And by then the modern economy of the Island had died, too. The coal mines and steel plant were closed, the pulp mill was barely surviving, and the gypsum quarry was defunct.
Of course it was sad, but so much of the decay had happened so long ago, and it was not our culture that had died there, that I could not have the strong feelings I had when I saw Jack’s clover field, where I had learned and labored, grown into a wood.
When I call up those old rural scenes in my mind, there is one — Waln’s Mill where I worked on Bob Davis’s farm nearly 70 years ago — that resonates with especial power. The farm was sold to a company that used it to raise turf for the suburban housing developments burgeoning in New Jersey in the ’50s and ’60s, and I heard that the estate by the mill had been turned into a restaurant. These changes do not bother me because I do not think about them; after all, I have never seen them (as I saw a clover field succeeded by a wood). No, when I think of those years a kaleidoscope of scenes fill my mind: sitting beside Bob in the ’38 Chevy truck piled high with baskets of tomatoes, driving to Trenton; swaying on the back of the combine, bagging oats; reaching up to pull corn tassels; maneuvering the old Allis-Chalmers tractor through a narrow gate, proud of my prowess; watching the cows on the bridge over Crosswicks Creek. I know, of course, that I can never revisit these scenes that still live in my mind, I know that my nostalgia is stupid, I know the saying “You can’t go home again” — but still, there it is, the long-gone rural scene, archetype of so many more I was to see in my lifetime.
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. —A. E. Housman *