Letters From a Conservative Farmer — A Country Adolescence
Some readers may remember National Review back in the days when William Buckley edited it. Its composition was markedly different from what it is today — all politics, all the time. Buckley had room for a cookery column by Nika Hazelton, a countryside column by Bill Rickenbacker, and other excursions outside the realm of politics, because he believed that being conservative meant much more than a mere political allegiance. A conservative should be interested in as much of life as he can apprehend.
These letters, unpretentious essays, are offered in that spirit. They also have a didactic purpose, because I fear that conservatives are not as well informed about what goes on in the countryside these days, ignorant of the forces that are seeking to mold the countryside to their designs.
We have been farmers (of a sort, as you shall learn) since 1962, first in Vermont, then for thirty years on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and now in the Champlain Valley in New York. These essays are based on our experiences of the last forty-eight years, as well as some earlier ones of mine.
A Country Adolescence
(I learn a conservative moral lesson and unconsciously assimilate a conservative ideal.)
When I was in my fourteenth year, in the spring of 1947, we moved to a small saltbox house in what was then rolling farm country in central New Jersey, to an area called Waln’s Mill, and there I lived, when I was not away at school, for nearly the whole of the next four years.
The house, humble, homely, comfortable, shaded by tall tulip trees and white oaks, seemed to grow naturally out of the small clearing backed by dark woods, halfway up a hill that rose gradually from the creek bottom. In the front, across the dirt road that ran below a bank, the land fell away, on one hand opening a vista of swampy meadows sweeping down to the great trees bordering the creek, and above us, of hayfields stretching up the hillside, of hedgerows and distant woods. Right down the middle of the view was a farm lane that began across from our house, winding its way between the fields to disappear around a far bend.
At first, just being in the countryside filled my days and my imagination: A screech owl in the woods behind the house; swimming in the muddy creek; a marsh hawk gliding back and forth just over the meadows; stepping on what appeared to be a dry hard cow pie; a huge snapping turtle in the creek bank mud; vultures soaring in the summer sky; wild strawberries so plentiful in the roadside grass that we made jam and even ice cream; the smell of country rain; dewy cobwebs in the grass; hiding under the bridge from Jerry, the runaway bull.
Lanes, woods roads, chance forest openings have always been temptations to me, as if I had an obligation to explore them, to see where they ended up. And there was the farm lane right in front of me, dusty, still under the summer sky, latent with purpose and movement, quickened for a few minutes each day with the passage of Mr. Crow’s old black Ford pickup. Going away from me, the truck got smaller and smaller, emerged from a dip where a stream ran, passed the weathered empty tenant house (latent itself with its missing life, still under a shadowy elm, its rhubarb patch struggling in a sea of witch grass) and then around the bend, glimpsed once more through a gap in the honeysuckle that swarmed over the fences, leaving at last a drifting dust cloud and the final dying noise. But I did not follow it to its end, not yet, not then, perhaps because I knew there was a farm at the end of it, the source of the cows pasturing in the meadows. Because of the haying in the hillside fields, the farm finally became for me the image of, the definition of farming, a symbol that derived some of its great power from the ignorance of the city boy who conceived it. I would not casually stroll up the lane into the field of force generated by that symbol.
We lived in that countryside, but we were not of it; we didn’t make our living there, we were only onlookers. On summer evenings we sat on the lawn to watch Mr. Crow’s farmhands drive the slowly moving herd out to pasture after milking; on fine afternoons, while the men were haying in the field across the road, we played badminton; awakened at dawn by the clang of milk cans being loaded onto the truck at the end of the lane, we turned over and gratefully went back to sleep. It was I who established a connection, however tenuous, with the countryside. It came about because, in our area where small-scale general farming prevailed, farms did a little of everything: Raised grain; shipped milk; raised poultry; sold piglets, vegetables, eggs, honey, and fruit; grew tomatoes on contract for canneries; and so on. Mr. Crow’s regime belonged to the 19th century, maybe even the 18th. He milked twenty or so Jerseys, but the stock was poor and inbred (Jerry being the only sire), the hayfields were not regularly plowed and fertilized, and the pastures were largely wasteland. He lived in a handsome, rambling farmhouse built in the early 1700s, with his farmhands, two or three elderly men like himself who did what had to be done to maintain the farm from day to day, and little else. On dark winter days when sleet beat against the windows, they lay on the hearth before the wide fireplace, drinking cider from the barrel in the cellar and spitting tobacco juice into the flames. These men, in fact, were really much more than farmhands; they were countrymen of a type now vanished, sturdy, self-reliant men who could turn a skillful hand to any country task: Axmen who could fell a tree and hew it into beams to build a barn; honey-gatherers who calmly hived swarms of wild bees; husbandmen who could train a green horse to plow; slaughterers and butchers; tool makers and menders; veterinarians who could heal wounds and deliver difficult calves; weather prophets; hunters who knew how to set snares and where pheasants nested. Much of their time was spent hunting, fishing, and trapping, and we would often see one or another — tall gaunt men in rough clothing, crossing the meadow toward the creek with a long fishing rod, or passing along the hedgerows, rifle in hand.
On a still August evening one of the hands, out hunting woodchucks, a tall shambling man, stepped across the road from the hayfield to chat with us as we sat on the grass watching the dusk come up out of the meadows. I sat to one side watching him — he introduced himself as Bub Archer — fascinated by his strangeness, his difference from anyone I knew. His face was rough, weathered, deeply tanned, slab-sided with a prominent Roman nose, and he chewed tobacco! I actually saw the plug in his cheek, and now and then he turned and spat behind him. He told stories about his many hunting adventures, and Mother remarked that he must’ve begun at an early age.
“Oh, I was a little smaller than the shaver here, maybe I was eight or nine,” he said, smiling at me.
I blushed and looked away; I knew I was small for my age.
Bub turned up the next evening with a joint of cooked woodchuck, wrapped in a bit of waxed paper, and nothing would do but we must try it. I remember him standing tall under the low, sloping kitchen ceiling, laughing, showing his tobacco-stained teeth, as we gingerly tasted the meat. It was, just as Bub had said, rather like pot roast.
So, I became a hunter. Not because of the meat, you understand — that was just a pretext. It was the figure of Bub Archer, my Deerslayer, that inspired my adolescent imagination, and although I spoke to him only two or three times after that, I needed only that meeting to send me forth to the woods and fields with my Model 68 Winchester single shot .22, morning and evening, wearing cut-off dungarees and a pair of moccasins, hunting knife at my belt. In those four summers I killed only one woodchuck, soon after I began, but I persisted because it was more than a material quest, and like all such enterprises, something of a mystery, at least to me. Of course, there was the fantasy of the hunt and the woodsman in the primeval wilderness, and there was the wonderfully keen pleasure of solitary observation, all my senses alert, alive to everything around me, but I also think that this satisfied, for the time being, a wish to make some connection with the countryside.
By next summer, Mr. Crow’s leisurely regime was gone — he had sold the farm to a young couple, the Davises, and the farming pace picked up. There were more cows, the fields were plowed and planted, and there was an air of bustle about the place. We began buying our milk there — ten cents for a two-quart jar of Jersey milk with thick gobs of cream floating in it. And for me, the agricultural era was about to begin.
One muggy afternoon when thunderheads loomed on the horizon, Bob Davis drove into our yard, anxious for help with the hay harvest. Apprehensive as I was, fearful of the farm and of my own ignorance and inexperience, how could I refuse? For the next couple of hours I staggered alongside a flatbed truck, heaving up hay bales. When it was all safely mowed away and Dot Davis brought pitchers of milk and big platters of sandwiches out to the barn floor, I fell on the food voraciously, shaking with hunger and fatigue. I had never done any real work in my life. Walking down the once-forbidding lane, jingling 70 cents in my pocket (35 cents an hour), I sensed the significance of the experience and I felt the beginning of pride.
Bob had regular hands, but during that summer and the next two I was often hired for specific jobs, like handling bags of grain on the combine, or picking tomatoes, or pulling tassels from hybrid corn. I was not paid much, but I knew I wasn’t worth much, something brought home to me when I worked alongside Dean, a local boy my age, another temporary hand. He was slightly built, but having been raised to it he knew how to do a job of work. When we picked tomatoes, Dean, despite my best efforts, always finished his row first, well ahead. We were not really competing; Dean was just doing his job as he always did, moving right along at a steady clip without pause or wasted motion. It seems odd that I was no more than mildly chagrined by his obvious superiority, but there were special reasons for my lack of rancor. For one thing, Dean was a fine boy, quiet, polite, modest, friendly, trustworthy. For a wonder, he never scorned my poor efforts nor flaunted his ability, as other boys would’ve done. For another, although I wanted to have some relation to the rural scene in which Dean so admirably fitted, the wish was not deep; I knew I was an outsider, that I belonged to another scene, that in the fall I would return to boarding school, and eventually I might go on to college, moving into a world where I could not foresee that my ability to pick tomatoes or buck bales would matter at all.
My favorite job was combining. Bob drove the tractor, while I stood, swaying on a platform in back of the combine, bagging the grain as it came down a pipe. Combining took forever. Often, we would be at it all day, even till dusk. I loved it, riding around and around the field, out in the sun, like the grain handler of the world. Sometimes when we worked late, folks from our house would drive out to the field with bottles of cold beer, and we would all sit on the flatbed truck and drink beer and laugh and talk, and in the dusk we could feel the coolness coming up from the creek bottom.
Bob grew tomatoes on contract for a cannery in Trenton, and I would go with him when he took in a load. The day before, several of us would load the ’38 Chevy flatbed with a great pyramidal pile of baskets of tomatoes. At three o’clock the next morning the truck would slowly grind along the lane, lights on in the misty pre-dawn darkness, and I would run across the lawn, jump down the bank, and scramble into the cab. He left so early in order to get a good place in the line, but there was always a long line ahead of us. Sometimes it was midnight before we were unloaded. We spent the day napping, chatting with other farmers in line, talking about all kinds of things, smelling the pervasive odor of canning tomatoes. It was, more often than not, a dull way to spend a day, and I was not paid for it either; I was just along to keep Bob company. But only once did I miss, and after the truck had left me behind, just waking, I jumped on my bike and pedaled the fourteen miles to Trenton. Why did I go?
Like all thoughtful, serious men, Bob had a strong, subtle sense of humor, and I suppose I looked on our relationship as all larks, although I respected and admired him, without consciously thinking about it, for depths that at 14 and 15 and 16 I could only sense, not know, not name. But they came to the surface for a moment during my last summer there, just before I turned 17. I had taken advantage of the cannery trips to ogle the girls we saw on the streets, remarking coarsely on their charms to Bob. The last time I did this, and you’ll understand in a moment why it was the last time, Bob, who always spoke deliberately in a voice that was not deep, but which seemed to come from far inside him, quietly rebuked my coarseness and then went on to ask if I did not intend to preserve my virginity until marriage? That had been his sexual code, he said.
The effect was devastating. At once I felt very small, very callow. What made such a great impression was his depth contrasted to my shallowness. When he spoke gravely, as he did then, I felt the words as natural growths, consequences that flowed inevitably from an extraordinary breadth of character imbued with experience, knowledge, and wisdom; they were not words of the moment off the top of his head, conventional clichés. Bob was the first person to address me on such a level with such piercing conviction, and the impact was terrific. And there was more, something moving in the way he spoke to me. I think Bob was really shy, not given to glib expressions of his moral sentiments, so it cost him something to overcome his reticence to speak across the gap that separates all of us from each other, and I felt that in the delicacy with which he spoke.
Some years ago, one of my sisters surprised me by asking if was Bob Davis who had inspired me to become a farmer. I had not thought of the Davises for years, and now, thinking back, I could say with surety that farming never entered my head as a possible occupation then. Statesman, general, actor, lawyer, author, senator, yes, but farmer? Any form of manual labor (I did not know then how much intellectual labor farming demanded) beyond a teenager’s summer job was not part of my world. It was not that I thought I was too good for it, but simply that in my class and situation only certain occupations were even conceivable. Besides, there had been other, much more recent influences, farmers I had worked for in New England. Thinking about them, recalling how and why I had respected and admired them, I realized they were of the same species as Bob: grave, humorous, sage men of great integrity, whose lives seemed to me a credit to humanity. Yet they were unheroic, unsung, ordinary men of what was quickly becoming an antique rural world, citizens of the Republic. General farmers all, they provided me with a pattern of farming as well as behavior and character.
I knew none of this at the time, and I gave up that life without a qualm. In the last year I lived in New Jersey, before I went away to college, I was hardly ever at Waln’s Mill. Living in the northern part of the state, I worked as a golf course greens keeper that summer, and spent my evenings playing miniature golf with my dopey girlfriend. Meanwhile, the fireflies were thick in the creek bottom, there were oats to be combined and hay to be made, a marsh hawk hunted the meadows, and the boy with the .22 was missing from the hedgerows and fields. I shake my head when I think of it, but it had to be done; I had to turn away from that life to seek what I thought was my fortune in what I thought was the world, and it was fitting that I should do it lightly, without a backward glance. I had to go away to come back — not to the same place, I mean. I never returned to New Jersey, but I did become a pokey general farmer and more than half a century after I first met Bob Davis, I realize that I have been trying unconsciously (and with indifferent success) to model my character on his.
Nevertheless, it would be nice to go back to that one rural place. I put down my pen and daydream that some of the family still live at Waln’s Mill. What I’d really like, I guess, is that it should be the summer of 1950 again, and I can feel the rhythm of the combine, chaff flies up golden in the sun, and I can hear Bob say, as I climb into the old truck at 3 a.m., “Well, well, and how’s Jigsy this morning?”
“Liberty must at all hazards be supported” —John Adams. *