It was not until my early 20s that I learned that my uncle Kermit Nichols had been a tremendous runner in high school and college. What I knew about him to that point was gleaned from summer visits to the Upstate New York farm where my mother Emily Nichols Cudworth had been raised. The farm was situated on the side of a Catskill hill overlooking the Susquehanna River. Her brother Kermit had taken over the farm from her father, and that’s what I recalled about the place, and him.
In his farming days, Kermit was a robustly strong man with large biceps and chest muscles that he could flex independently, and thus with humorous rapidity. He’d scoop up my skinny body and toss me on his tractor seat for a ride at high speeds down the flats by the river to send manure flying out of the spreader. I recall staring down at the whirring rubber wheels and thinking, “Death is near.” But Kermit loved things that went fast. He drove his cars too fast and had a couple frightening wrecks, if memory serves.
Once a runner
He may have gotten his love of speed from his own running career. He was well-trained from years of chasing after the cows on the big hill behind the barn. Due to this organic training, Kermit was something or a natural in his day. My mother tells of a moment when she went to watch him in a road race. Kermit was so far in the lead he stopped to talk with his family for a minute or so before running off to victory.
My father grew up right down the road from the Nichols farm. He was raised by aunts and an uncle that took in a family of three sisters and a brother after their mother died from complications of breast cancer, and their father experienced intense emotional instability after losing his Cortland farm and a store through the Depression.
The Stewart farm where my father was raised sat just 200 yards down the road from my mother’s farm. That farm was a more humble affair, yet had its charms as well. Behind the farm sat a deep Susquehanna marsh where the deep voices of bullfrogs tempered the night, and great blue herons came in soaring through the trees.
I recall walking into the Stewart barn to encounter the massive hooves of workhorses that helped Leon Stewart in all his farming duties. The horses regarded me with suspicion but not fear. I dared not get too close.
Two farms. One life.
Having the wander of these two farms made a deep impression on me. Catching leopard frogs in the water-filled tire tracks on the hillside was a favorite occupation. Nature was so close you could taste it some days. The hills were thick with fossils in the shale. A hillside spring held deep, clear water into which we introduced a chain pickerel from the river. It lived there dining on frogs for an entire year, for when we returned that next summer we could see the fish fifteen feet down, slick and happy.
Working around the farms was a joy and filled me with a sense of being needed. Kermit assigned me to sweep up the manure when the cows came back for milking. I’d take that scoop and work from end to end shoveling manure into the trough with its automated belt that it into the bed where it was gathered for use on the fields.
I’d rise early to do these chores, then wander into the hay loft to tumble among the massive piles of bales. My cousins tell of finding kitten litters in this upper barn, but I never did.
The cats were smart and somewhat careful around people because my uncle was not necessarily fond of them. He scooped one up on the way back from the barn and tossed it onto the roof of the house. Letting forth a chuckle, he then turned and spit tobacco on a hapless grasshopper. The insect was pinned to the ground and I marveled that a man seemed to have such control of this environment, his farm.
No love lost
But farming was not Kermit’s favorite occupation. His back strained at all the milking and chores, and ultimately he made the decision to sell the farm and move into government work. “You should work for the government,” he once told me. “It’s steady work and you build a pension for the rest of your life.” He later moved to Florida as a land assessor and enjoyed a long retirement driving his cars around the flat Florida roads.
The man might seem like a contradiction in terms, but in many ways my uncle’s life made perfect sense. His love of liberty and the freedom of running likely conflicted with his obligatory work on the farm. Going out for runs in the fresh air of dawn is a very different endeavor from ushering cows into stalls for milking. Every.Damned.Day.
I am only speculating on these ideas. But I once asked my uncle why he sold the farm and he was firm about his resolve to do so, for all the reasons shared above. My mother once told me that Kermit named all his cows after ex-girlfriends so that he could kick them going into the stalls. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it makes some form of cathartic sense.
My mother loved that farm. I think my father enjoyed certain aspects of his farm upbringing as well. He did lament that at times during his high school career, he was not allowed to pursue sports because of his duties on the farm. That would be a theme that haunted him his whole life. Some of his fervent devotion to his son’s athletic careers may have stemmed from the denial he felt at never having the opportunity to pursue his own sports career.
Father knows best
I now realize there were aspects of projection in some of his urgency. Perhaps if he’d have just come out and told us how lucky we were to participate in sports when he did not have the chance, we might have processed his occasional frustrations with our careers.
At some point, it struck me that things might have been very different in life had my family somehow stayed on the farm. I have no way of telling if I might have been a decent farmer. People speak of loving that life, but I am not sure I was ever cut out to be a farmer.
Just this weekend we visited the farm of a longtime friend whose husband is a leading farmer in Northern Illinois. He was the focus of a surprise birthday party and he took the opportunity to speak to a group of 50 or so people gathered in the barn to celebrate the birthday of his wife as well. He explained that his family has been farming their land for more than 100 years. Now their children are farming as well. I felt a deep respect for his legacy.
Like my uncle Kermit, this man has in some ways moved into the government realm as well. His service to the agriculture industry has included eight years in Washington working with government officials to plan and implement broad spectrum farm policies. His own farm has been incorporated in a county program designed to preserve farmland where the suburbs of Chicago threaten to chew up good agricultural turf. Recently he’s been counseling national interests on a plan to turn Illinois into a better food hub than it already is.
All this speaks to a great mind at work. His ties to the land have never been broken, yet he’s taking a broader look at what that means.
People and the land
We need people like that for sustainability, and intelligent growth. The trouble with farming these days is that its industrialization has created confusing scenarios. Seed companies have patented protected technologies and now refuse to let farmers even keep seed year to year. If you’re caught doing that, these mega-companies are known to sue, even to the point of putting farmers out of business. It’s happened all across the country, with sleuths from agribusiness swooping in to threaten and instill fear in farmers simply trying to make a living.
The cultural shelf
The reason I think about all these things is also simple. I live on the edge of the Chicago suburbs. It takes just two miles riding west to enter a vast complex of farm fields. All summer long I ride among fields of beans and corn. There are hog farms as well, but no so many dairy cattle as there once were.
Having come from farm roots, and growing up in places like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where the Amish dominate the countryside, I have never been far from the world of farming. Every time I cycle or run past a farm and smell the hay or the manure, it takes me instantly back to the family farms we visited each summer. Even where I went to college in Decorah, Iowa, farms owned the landscape. Our 100-mile weeks took us through and past farms of many types. Cows roamed up and down the limestone hillsides and land that closely resembled my birth roots in Upstate New York.
All this rolled through my mind as I considered the legacy of that farming friend and his birthday. His wife was one of the first people I met when we moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Their wonderful marriage has produced so much good in the world, including many children and grandchildren.
One grandchild in particular caught my eye at the party . She danced among the grownups while wearing a monarch butterfly costume. Perhaps she and I have something in common. During one of the first years we lived in Elburn, Illinois there was a massive monarch butterfly migration that came through our area. The insects were so numerous my younger brother and I rode our Huffy bikes along the east-west roads collecting dozens of monarch carcasses.
Now the monarch is threatened by farming practices that include a detergent approach to eradicating milkweed, the host plants for monarch caterpillars. Monarch numbers have dropped precipitously as a result of these corporatized attempts to wipe out plants that interfere with industrial agriculture.
There are consequences to all such attempts to manipulate nature. As a result our family has taken to “monarch ranching” the past 10 years or so. This summer my daughter and I raised and released monarchs by growing milkweed in our garden, harvesting the eggs and raising them in the indoor safety of small pens until they go through metamorphosis and hatch into new butterflies.
Freedom with a cost
It may perhaps be a cliche to note that “butterflies are free,” but in fact they are not. All of nature is intertwined, and there is no such thing as freedom for any creature here on earth. Some people may refuse to belief it based on religious consternation, but all of us are tied together in an evolutionary venture without guarantees. This especially includes those who farm the land. We all depend on decisions about food production and land conservation. The fact that these decisions are now concentrated in the hands of fewer minds is not necessarily a good thing. A
ll of nature depends on room to experiment with success and failure. That is how evolution works. When we concentrate and eliminate the competitive virtues of this system, we may imagine that we are cutting down risk and increasing production capability. In fact we may be increasing our exposure to crop failure, disease and other afflictions. It certainly works that way with biopharmaceuticals. The stronger the medicine becomes, the more germs adapt to overcome them. We might be breeding our own superkillers and never know it.
Careful what you farm
Nature is an immensely powerful force, and it is principally the hubris of the human race that imagines our position as a separate and superior species to the genetics, competitive history and evolutionary processes that delivered us to this point.
The commitment to farm the land may be one of the noblest of occupations in all mankind. It is a mark of freedom in its way. But it is also a commitment that comes with huge obligations and risk. Farmers know this better than anyone on earth. You can’t really afford to oversell yourself or make too large a bet against the vagaries of the occupation.
For these reasons I’ve never quite understood the largely conservative politics of my farmer friends. Perhaps it has something to do with farm subsidies and the pursuant corporate welfare for the agriculture industry.
But what about the fact that hundreds of thousands of family farms no longer exist for the simple fact that farming is now so industrialized that the costs of operation, market competition and insurance far exceed the ability of a simple family farm to survive? It seems like people are voting against their own interests in the long term.
The very liberal response of our culture has been to raise money for family farmers through concerts such as Farm Aid, which attempt to support those individuals who want to continue their family traditions and be able to farm successfully through this generation and the next. These may be nothing more sentimental notions at work.
But there are signs that society is sick of this brand of existence. Small financial institutions keep cropping up to fulfill the needs of people sick of being denied and neglected by heartless banks and the banksters who run them. That’s not sentimentality. It’s basic human respect.
Is that too humble a request to fulfill? That is a question I’ll never be able to answer for myself in terms of my association with farming, and whether I could have succeeded as a farmer. But I’ll give you an honest answer. I doubt it. I don’t think I’d have liked it any more than my uncle Kermit ultimately did. My mind is too restless and I was always too anxious to deal with being tied to one thing too long.
I know it hurt back in when our family farms were sold. A part of my childhood vanished with them. I have certainly carried those farming associations with me through all those miles covered in farm country. And they are many. Every barn is a point of fascination to my soul. The walls of dry corn we now pass during long autumn bike rides are like chronicles of years gone by.
I believe you can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. I’ll freely admit that I’m a hayseed at heart. Some part of me will never be city-sophisticated and I’m frankly grateful for that. In my case, I’ve become an environmentalist and a birder, a painter and a writer about all things natural. Even my theology is anchored in organic fundamentalism. This is the belief, as described in my book The Genesis Fix, A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age, that because Jesus––and the whole Bible for that matter––use parables based on natural symbols. Through earthly examples, we learn the spiritual truths of heaven. We should follow that example and learn about and respect nature first and foremost.
Jesus used many examples from farming to teach us about our responsibilities in the Kingdom of God. His parables about vineyards and harvests, about yeast and mustard seeds all pointed from earth up to heaven.
So our natural theology about sustainable existence should include deep consideration on how we farm and use the land. Over the last 100 years, the human race has tamed the land in ways that amount to exploitative and wasteful practices. Billions of tons of topsoil have flowed from the heartland through the Mississippi basin into the Gulf of Mexico. On the Eastern side of the continent, runoff from farms has polluted the Chesapeake Bay, causing massive damage to fisheries and the entire ecosystem. Over and over the pattern of waste and degradation is repeated. Even the quality and climate of our atmosphere has suffered consequences of waste released into the air. Cars and cow farts all contribute to these problems.
As I’ve ridden through farmland for more than 30,000 miles the last ten years, I’ve thought about these things. So while I am not a farmer by trade, there is a planting and harvest of intent that still goes on. I don’t buy the idea that one political party owns farming as a cause over the other.
We can turn to a very basic passage from the Bible to explore our various roles in society, and how important it is to consider the importance of balance in all this:
Jesus told us how to think about such things in simple language. Here in the Book of Matthew:
30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Yes, I think about such things even as I pedal past all these farms on roads that bisect the fields. Every one of us has a role. Even the weeds, you see. Even the weeds you don’t see.
This is the harvest of reason from the seasons. That we should all be more considerate of where our future really lies. Or does not.