From the Land and Back

This weekend, kept indoors by the glorious rain, I finally read a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for at least a year. One of my best friends found it at a thrift store and thought of me. She knows I love anything to do with gardening or farming, and especially with old-timey farming methods, from back before tractors and combines. I don’t know why I didn’t read this book earlier–maybe I never took the time to see exactly what it was about. But the title says it all: From the Land and Back: What Life Was Like on a Family Farm and How Technology Changed It.

The author, Curtis K. Stadtfeld, grew up on a farm in central Michigan during the Depression years. It was a landscape that would never make anyone a millionaire through farming, even in better economic circumstances. Nevertheless, with the distance of adulthood, and having moved away to the city, Curtis feels that his family was rich. Rich in life. In connection to the natural world. Rich in challenges for the body and mind. A farm, he says, was a place where you had to learn about everything, and it seems no coincidence to him that many of the great inventors and original thinkers of America have come from farming families.

But Curtis doesn’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. He talks about the hardships, too. And he’s well aware that most people abandoned that life as soon as they were economically able–himself included. And yet their motivations don’t always seem to have been rational. One of the first things to leave the farm when diversity started to give way to specialization was the chickens, even though a look at the books reveals that eggs often brought in as much money or more as the production of the milk cows. Curtis’s explanation for their disappearance? “[N]o one ever liked them much.”

So, too, machines seemed to take over the farm because people–well, men–did like them. And they liked them always bigger and more powerful. “A man wanted his own combine,” Curtis writes, “partly because it might give him a sense of independence, but also because it is a universal ego satisfaction to dominate a complicated machine.” Only gradually did it become apparent that those impressive hulks of steel were not going to make everyone rich, either. In fact, they were going to drive most of central Michigan’s farmers right out of business. And put the rest in perpetual debt.

But how can we go back? Life on the diversified, horse-powered small farm may have been rich in some ways, but not in the ways people were starting to want after the boys came back from World War II. They wanted radios, watches, cameras, new cars. They wanted to travel, not be stuck on the same eighty acres with the same six people day in and day out. “The war changed us from savers to consumers,” writes Curtis. It made farm boys rush to jobs in factories. With their new cars and free weekends, they could travel from state to state, and ended up marrying girls from a hundred miles away–or more.

“[T]he real question,” says Curtis, “is, have we improved the human condition? Is man in the factory better off than man on the farm?” (He does mention that the farm was “hell on women.” Though with better medical care, things could be different.) “More broadly, is man in the city better off, happier, than man on the land? If not, then it has not been progress.”

He concludes with this statement: “We should know that once, in the farm country, a system worked, and people were happy. There really should be a way to keep what was good, to add things that really represent progress, and not destroy the fabric of life along the way. We are beginning to see that we must live with our planet, and we must live with ourselves.”

He wrote that in 1972. Just as a lot of young hippies were heading to the woods to try to do exactly that. Forty years later, we’re still trying. We’re bringing back the urban farms. And the first animals to arrive? Chickens. For whom we seem to have developed a new affection.

 

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post. Great read. Many thought-provoking questions, especially appropriate for this Earth Day weekend. Bravo.

    1. Sharon says:

      Thanks! I was so happy to realize on rainy Earth Day, when I thought I was all out of new gardening books to read, that I had this!

      1. I’m sure you did. Thanks for telling us about it.

  2. Jason says:

    I’d love to find this book… gotta go try!

    Incidentally, have you ever heard of a book called “Better Off”? It tells of a man who — in an attempt to finish his thesis on the detriments of technology — goes to live in a small Amish commune. His writings during this time show how he and his wife got used to the alternate universe that is life without electricity and technology.

    1. Jason says:

      Sorry, the complete title of that book: “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology”

    2. Sharon says:

      Yes! I love that book! It’s the reason I now own a hand-cranked clothes washer and treadle sewing machine! That book is really very good, much better than the similarly-themed “See You in a Hundred Years.” I think mostly because Eric Brende and his wife had a community of people helping them learn the skills they needed, whereas the authors of A Hundred Years were doing most things on their own, and weren’t terribly well prepared. But I learned a lot from both books. So glad to know someone else who’s read “Better Off”!

    3. Sharon says:

      Oh, and by the way, there are several used copies of “From the Land and Back” available cheaply from http://www.betterworldbooks.com. Or maybe you’ll get lucky, and your library will have it!

  3. Seasonsgirl says:

    Looks like a good book 🙂

  4. Cindy says:

    I initially saw the title and thought it was of the same ilk as “Back from the Land,” which documents the 1970s back-to-the-land movement and how it didn’t work out for many people. This book sounds really interesting; great post!

    1. Sharon says:

      Yeah, I think the title of this book could have used a little more thought, but oh, well. The content’s good!

  5. Becca says:

    Another book to add to my list! Thanks for the great review. Also loved “Better Off” and the Brende family- interestingly, they settled in St. Louis and now sell soaps and salves (and copies of the book) at my neighborhood farmers’ market!

    1. Sharon says:

      That’s really cool! I’d love to get to talk to them some day. Maybe I’ll have to come out to St. Louis. Do they still run the “Bunk ‘n’ Bagel”?

      1. Becca says:

        Let me know if you ever make it out to St. Louis! I think the Bunk N Bagel was their previous homesite in Hermann, MO, before moving to St. Louis. Pretty sure Eric still offers bicycle rickshaw rides around town, and otherwise they run their Hermann Handmade Soaps business out of their home.

  6. Debi says:

    Great post, Sharon. I especially liked the comments about chickens!

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