An excerpt from
Of Farming and Classics
Reflections on Farming
This matter of choice has grown in the context of a shrinking of the automatic inheritance of land and the disappearance of a nearly automatic version of education. Some farmers still become farmers because they have almost no other prospect of making a living. This is certainly the case in a country like India. Some farmers, a tiny but vocal minority, farm because they believe, quite falsely I think, that they can make more money that way than any other. They always try to own very big farms and for the most part, during my lifetime, have gone broke. Some farmers still inherit their farms from their fathers or more often less directly from an uncle, cousin, or more distant relative, and such farmers, having been given what is in effect a large slice of capital, stick with it largely out of inertia. But there is a growing minority of farmers who become so purely through choice, and in some instances, having almost no prior knowledge of farming, somehow manage to get together enough money to start. Very often nowadays, such people combine farming with some other way of earning money. This is a great help, for farming demands capital to take care of necessary changes, and it is very hard indeed to supply that capital from the actual running of the place. This is what I have managed to do myself.
The small farm, the home in the country, the values of the rural life against those of the city—how often do these arguments recur within the last twenty years in a diversity of popular literature. And how laboriously have I myself tried to disentangle them! I wanted to think that a “place in the country” was something trivial in comparison with the “real” small farming that I wish so earnestly to see survive—but how peremptorily now I realize that this is not so. Inside of modern society the people who want to live in some functional relation to land and animals are my spiritual kinsfolk. They are not just voyeurs. They have mostly come to own at considerable expense a small acreage, and usually have to rehabilitate it to live there, as opposed to existing in their ordinary jobs in the city. I now recognize, as I did not earlier, the genuineness of their association with the land. It is not what is called in affectionately contemptuous terms “romantic”; it is a true and realistic revelation of land, animals, and birds, of rain and sunshine—and thunder and drought and floods—as matters that truly affect their lives, as part of the personal delights and hazards which drove them to own their “places.”
This community of people I have known from a very few friends, but far more from a number of writers (mostly American) like Wendell Berry and Noel Perrin. Those people and those books matter deeply to me. They don’t matter abstractly, as though they were part of an argument where I was on their side. They matter because they really feel, as I do, what farming means to us. This is complicated because I and these champions of modern country life are saying something very different from most of our contemporaries. About wanting to live within earshot of the sounds of the countryside and nothing else; about seeing and perhaps working land as man has done since infinite time; about knowing animals as a part of one’s universe of understanding and discourse, as a powerful alternative to an exclusive concern with human ideas, aspirations, claims on one’s social being.
But I belong—I probably cannot know entirely why—to the statistically slightly odder class which wants to be small farmers, either exclusively or as a sideline to the rest of what makes them a living. Small farming as an attractive job depends on the possession of a mind not now common. There must be a pleasure in association with animals, a manual skill and joy in handling them, and in the management of the little universe which is a small farm. In other cases there must be very much the same feeling about growing crops, and watching the life of plants that one has personally placed in the ground, as man has done for so much of his time on the planet Earth. The man or woman concerned must find in this work his or her fundamental satisfaction. This is a known phenomenon in some professions, as among doctors, engineers, or carpenters, where the most remarkable representatives drive themselves unmercifully at their work because it is there that they are most fulfilled intellectually and physically. Now farming does belong in this category, though it is rare to have that recognized. You had better face up to that fact if you want to be a small farmer, and you must recognize also that you had better be a devotee of the job itself, because society will not pay you a large salary, as it would for the exercise of what are called the professions.
To choose to be a small farmer implies some degree of intellectual discrimination and a willingness to disregard the attraction of being like most other people. There is an age-old prejudice against farming, as a life of hard work and no thinking. We are constantly being told that man “naturally” abandons working the land in favor of a more complicated and significant way of spending time. I suppose that there is some evidence in support of this kind of thinking from the past, though even then, I think, only when speaking of a farmer working a farm not his own. These have become very rare birds nowadays, with only a few people renting large or small farms and even fewer working steadily as hired farmhands (apart from seasonal fruit-pickers, etc.). Farming is now either a very large venture personally conducted by one or two persons, or a very small venture personally conducted. Large corporation farming except here and there in vegetable or fruit production is becoming as rare as the disappearing centralized farms of the communistic past. The delight of making and shaping a piece of land and its animal inhabitants, this peculiar kingdom, is uniquely satisfying to the human being with this appetite—because he can himself do nearly everything necessary. It is the very expression of himself. And yet there is also a disinterestedness in such farming. Some contradiction does exist between farming and the purely business side of making money. It is summed up in the eighteenth-century folk saying “Farm as if to live forever, live as if to die tomorrow.”
Perhaps anything that one cares enough about in modern society has to have an opposite to illustrate by contrast what it is that one likes. The principal foe to my feeling for the place in the country, small farm part-time farming, is the delight in the maximization of effort and achievement. It is particularly annoying in the agribusiness rhetoric directed toward the small farmers in a country like Ireland. “If you are making a small living from farming based on, say, twelve to fifteen cows, why don’t you rise to be chiefs of your profession and have thirty?” It can be done—if you divide your grazing into acre strips with electric wire, if you buy replacement heifers instead of raising your own, if you farm with close attention to every new and “scientific” wrinkle in agricultural “discovery.” In such a system there is no value to be placed in the moments of contemplated or indeed active happiness. The other day I had turned out a flock of sheep into a new pasture and a neighbor stopped, as he was driving by, looking at me standing watching them move into their new surroundings. He said, “You can see you really like the job.” There is no need to have this point made explicitly in the media all the time. But it is of the essence of true farming now and I believe always has been. If you farm in such a way that these moments are replaced by gross comparisons of how many cows you have now and how few so many years ago, and how much money you are making now in comparison with what you were making then—give farming up. Apart from what such an outlook is doing to yourself—this perpetual marathon-testing—farming will never give satisfaction. Farming isn’t a maximum money-maker in industrial society and never will be, because modern people will not pay as much money for food to put in their mouths as opposed to things they find more interesting than eating, or more self-satisfying in impressive social ways. In a way they are quite right. But someone has to produce the food that is elementarily necessary. Intrinsic to the production of food there is an impersonal joy.
Farming in Lemont
From about the first moment that I was officially a university teacher, I have combined teaching with farming. The two are so interdependent in my mind, for the satisfaction of my existence, that I cannot, even now when I am old and can do so much less in farming, see a possibility of discarding one or the other.
By disposition I believe in holding on to every acre of land one has ever owned. My disposal of two of these farms corresponded with the pressures of various factors in my life that had nothing to do with farming as such, but with the imperative need to get rid of the particular farm I owned in favor of buying another somewhere else. The eighty-acre American farm in Lemont which I bought in 1940, as the first, was an extraordinary occasion of joy and excitement. Here I could combine my living on the farm and driving in to teach at the University of Chicago, and that for a very considerable period of time seemed the happiest way to live. Unfortunately, the very shortness of the distance separating the farm from the city proved its undoing. Within ten years of its possession, I found all the surrounding territory being developed for suburbs, the keeping of livestock banned, since the area was zoned for housing, and finally the value of the land increasing entirely out of line with what I could possibly make from it. At the same time some streak of ambiguity in myself kept urging me to think of retiring to Ireland for part of my time each year and doing my farming and teaching in separate stints. It seems absurd, but it has worked out better that way. Though it means that I must farm through half of the year and must necessarily live there, it is just possible to find hired men in Ireland to do the work when I am away and pay them out of the proceeds of a fifty-acre farm. You can’t find hired farm labor in the United States except for “working managers” whose salaries could easily surpass the total profits of such a small farm. Also, by 1950 I was seeing the writing on the wall for my sort of small mixed farm in middle America, thanks to mechanization and, in my instance, the pressure of suburbanism. I knew that the small farm, in much the same form, has for the last eighty years or so survived in Ireland and the mechanization is still less than total; the urbanization of large stretches of countryside is nonexistent.
My American farm was the first land I had ever owned and the first house, and, as such, something infinitely precious. To other eyes than mine and occasionally to mine too it didn’t look so attractive. The house stood on one side of a small road, the barn on the other, and the small road at that time (1940) ran unsurfaced between two major roads.
Winter in the Midwest in those days was always very severe. We got tremendous spells of snowfall and subzero weather. The farm’s location fitted it to small farming in the nineteenth century, but hardly to accommodate someone in wintertime trying out modern transport (a small car) traveling thirty-five miles a day to his place of business. Also, unluckily, my farmhouse did not have central heating, since the basement had never been fully dug out. The heat in winter was furnished by a couple of giant stoves of the kind that I knew in Vienna—but in Vienna those heavy old nineteenth-century houses held in the heat much better than the nineteenth-century wood of which my Illinois farmhouse was built. The barn had grown dilapidated and not of the standard necessary to supply the market for liquid milk. You could ship cream if you took it daily to the local train in Lemont, but that was one chore too many when at least four days a week I had to make the trip to the university. There was a lot of reconstruction and repair necessary for both farm and house, and absolutely no spare cash to do it with. We bought that farm for $10,000 with a down payment of $2,500 to be made after three years. Till then we were renting it at $50 per month, but on the secure understanding that it could not be sold until three years were up and then only if we failed to provide the down payment. In fact, the man who owned it had long since left the state, and it was his brother who had to try to sell it. He had had no success for several years, and had been reduced to renting it. The financial stringency on both sides of this bargain was reflected in the agreement in which the former tenants, a French-Canadian family, were tenants by the month only, with no further security than thirty days. It is easy to imagine what sort of tenants they would be, and exactly what was the result of their farming.
Yet it was such a place and time that allowed me to see a wonderful series of events which I had never been part of in Ireland and which was to endure not very long in that part of America. In winter, for local transport we drove sledges in the snow. It was not until after my first three years that there was a snowplow that came down our little Derby Road. All those Christmas cards in Ireland, cheerful inanities with sledges, sleigh bells, and mounds of snow, sprang into an incredible reality. The communal struggle of me and my two or three neighbors to get to the outside world in the morning (my nearest neighbor, Tony Seiler, worked with the AT&SF Railroad) was both exciting and somehow fun. It is all so long ago—we were so young. I remember that Tony for a while used a very small burning lamp under the hood of the car to keep it warm. I remember another neighbor who hitched a mule to his car, pulled it the requisite fifty or a hundred yards, and when it started got out and released the mule, who trotted back to his open barn dragging the evener which had enabled him to pull the car. I remember hauling in cornstalks with the sledge, which was only the wagon converted with runners instead of wheels, when the cold was intense but the excitement of cantering with the sledge over the snow entirely overpowered the discomfort. Most of all, though to outsiders less dramatic, I remember how I learned to plow and work up land for crops. In Ireland on the farms of my Tipperary cousins there were scarcely any crops; it was all permanent pasture, as it still is on those farms, and as it is on my present small Cavan farm. It was America that taught me how to plow and sow and harvest corn and cereals; it was also America that taught me, as an ideal, to raise all the food for myself and my livestock. This sort of interlocked farming is now unfashionable, at least in the most fertile land in the Midwest, which specializes in just corn and soybeans. In my time there were always dairy cattle in addition to crops, or hogs or fattening cattle. The fixed support price for corn and the scarcity of extra help to take care of livestock have made this change; very much for the worse, in my opinion at least. It has led farmers with five to six hundred acres of land to put in crops and take them out again in two or three months and take outside jobs for the rest of the year. The loss in topsoil from this monoculture is appalling, and the pollution arising from insecticides and herbicides is now an acknowledged fact.
We started with something that might be described as subsistence farming with some supplementary cash attached. We had all our meat—not only chicken and ducks, but bacon and lamb and mutton and goat’s meat—and we had milk and butter. But we also sold lambs from our flock of fifty or so ewes, kept goats and raised them, and fattened seventy or eighty pigs for sale a year. After a couple of years of “share labor” with neighboring farmers, which was dictated by my almost total want of agricultural machinery, I began to acquire three horses to do the field work and hauling, but also supplemented them later with one big old 10-20 tractor which came still with steel lugs instead of rubber tires. If you drove this on a surfaced road, you were naturally unpopular with the county council, so I avoided that. But for slogging along, towing two fourteen-inch plows and plowing five acres a day or disking ten to fifteen, it was splendid. This left a lot for horses to do, planting corn, cultivating corn, mowing, making and hauling hay—aside from drawing out the manure. It was a perfect solution, and such old-fashioned but powerful mechanization was very cheap in the early 1940s. One must also remember that we were now facing into four or five years of war, when all forms of fuel were hard to get and there was every reason to use horses when one could do so. This first farm of mine, the American one, was a splendid blend of mechanization and old-time farming. I really cannot see why a version of it could not actually have survived. What happened is something like this: At the end of the war, the factories which had during the war exclusively been busy producing machines for the army turned back to producing tractors. They decided that the market to attack first was the area still occupied by small farms. After all, the factories produced tractors for sale, and the farmers’ horses were in direct competition for the provision of power. So from about 1947 to 1955 advertisements and personal agents worked at selling the tractor-cum-horses farmer a little light tractor, to supplement his heavy one, to do the corn planting, corn cultivation and hay work instead of the last team. These small tractors cost eight to ten times more than a team of horses and at least as much to keep up as a team. I do not really think that the team was supplanted on the grounds of economics. What did it in were two factors. First, as all farmers now had cars, there grew a sort of mental impatience with horses. You had to harness them in the morning and take them out of work for a midday feed, and you couldn’t simply leave them in the field when you went for lunch; in all these respects convenience called you to notice that animal power, as against mechanization, was always a stupid leftover. Those of us who felt differently, and there were quite a few and by no means all older people, were assailed by a different sort of compulsion. The older horse machines were relatively cheap and simple. The agricultural machinery companies deliberately discontinued their production, replacing them with motorized models nearly all geared to the power takeoff of the tractor. It was clear that, as one’s machinery gave out and as what was left of it that was not yet fit for the scrap heap would soon be so, one simply would have no tools left to use animal power. What was at work here was a vague inclination toward mechanization—a something in the air, a psychological element in one’s fancy, and, added to this, the purposeful exploitation of the remaining opening for tractors by making it impossible to farm with horses at all.
The next step, which I didn’t see at first hand in America because I ceased farming there and started up in Ireland, where more gradually the same thing happened, was to put on the market steadily more powerful tractors—much dearer, of course. These created an appetite for more and more land on each farm, since the new tractor enabled the farmer to work more land, and the cost of the extra mechanization caused him to buy or rent more. Gradually, the population of the farms fell off from 10 percent of the population in 1950 to 2 percent in 1990; and it is now the boast of agriculture in the United States and in many other countries of the industrialized world that enough food is produced for a nation’s people by an absolute minimum of farmers.
In the modern climate of opinion, where there is a strong undercurrent asserting the dullness and monotony of agriculture, there are always many people who readily accept the industrial idea that the less help needed, the better. It is perhaps worth looking at the other side of the same proposition. It is, in most countries, not a question of losing hired help from farms. Such labor is very scarce in any part of the world, in view of the constant appeals of the superiority of city life. What is happening is that there are fewer and fewer farmers themselves, and those who are left are forced to farm at a speed and a tension which leaves any hardship of the past simply nowhere. Whatever intelligent opposition to this endless expansion there was, was effectually stifled, since the agricultural journals depend almost entirely for their existence on large agribusiness concerns and these are the firms that pay for the advertisements. Of course, if people want to go to the cities and try to find work, no one is going to stop them. If one looks at the hideousness of much of city life, the unemployment, and the violence, one might just wonder. There has been almost no forum in which abstract questions could be raised about the value of the farmer’s work to himself, and until very recently few if any courses in organic farming in American agricultural schools. They are now in every such school. The position of organic farming clashes at very many points with the trends induced by agribusiness and their continuous expansion of individual acreages. There are very good reasons for a smaller size of farm and the deeper personal attitudes that it invites. We have also seen in the 1980s a fearful decimation of farms simply because the price of land suddenly declined; and so did the farmers’ security with banks, who promptly foreclosed them for debts incurred in the expansion of acreage and machinery which, now on the books, they were unable to pay when the security was called in.
It is staggering to look at the farming success of the Amish, mostly on farms of from sixty to a hundred and twenty acres, a success acknowledged by non-Amish farmers almost everywhere. It is based on the fact that farming is highly prized enough among them as a way of life to encourage their young people to go into it, instead of being warned that any such idea is sentimental nonsense. In fact, because their religion forbids the use of motor-powered machinery in field work, an entire Amish industry has developed in very skillfully altering tractor tools for use with horses and constructing new horse-powered equipment.
As I look back, it is the color and drama of that American farm life that haunts my imagination. In the first place, the contrast with Ireland is very sharp. I had never seen anything remotely like the stockyards in Chicago, which Carl Sandburg was thinking of in the words “Hog butcher for the world.” A young man like myself had seen Irish markets and fairs, amusing enough and full of cunning and cheating, when one was part of the inside of them, but their exterior was unimpressive—just village streets crowded with cattle and sheep held in corners and isolable spots by men and boys. And with the slow advance of would-be buyers with apparently endless bids, refusals, rebids, and final acceptance going on for hours, even the big Dublin market on the North Circular Road (as discussed in Joyce’s Ulysses) was a collection of pens with buying and selling techniques very similar to the village fair. The auction rings of the continent, now all over Ireland and even then in much of America, did very little in the disposal of the vast numbers of cattle, sheep and hogs from all over the Midwest and brought to Chicago by rail and trucks in the forties. Every day of the week from Monday to Thursday in Chicago one would have in the yards ten to fifteen thousand cattle, five thousand sheep, and up to thirty thousand hogs. These animals were nearly all finished for slaughter and were being sold by commission men to factory officials. They were ranged in place over a huge acreage. Because of the size, the buyers all rode horses, and because this was America, they wore complete cowboy attire—boots, hats, and all. They rode up and down the pens and then when the agents of the commission firms stood waiting, a buyer would ride up and say, “What do you want on this bunch of cows” as he flicked one or two of the worn-out milk cows with his long whip. “Ten cents” would be the answer (cattle were always sold by the pound). “Is eight cents any good to you?” “Not now, Joe,” was the answer. And “Then I’ll look in on my way back” and off he cantered. The ethics of the buying and selling were very strict. If the man could get more than eight cents, he would, naturally. But the buyer was also absolutely bound by his eight-cent offer. He couldn’t, as it was done again and again in Ireland at the time, reduce it to seven or six cents if later in the day the seller had not been able to get beyond the eight. On the seller’s part, he dare not lie. He could not for instance tell the buyer that he already had nine cents unless he really had it. The buyers talked to one another and would find it out. If caught out in such a lie, the buyer would naturally appeal to the agency to punish the liar, and after two or three such incidents the seller lost his job. In the whole proceeding everything depended on an agreed case of truth-telling.
In a huge building at the center of the yards was a board with constantly changing radio reports outlining the top prices of all kinds of animals obtained in a series of other cities—Omaha, Kansas City, Buffalo, and the like. The mass of riders leaving their horses to be held outside and crowding in to look at the flashing screens were a blend of old and new in a utilitarian setting that was stunning to the like of me, especially when the utilitarian aspects of such a scene were charged with a conscious flamboyance, as in this case the dress. The yards are gone now, of course; their site in the city finally became too valuable not to be sold for development. But other cities still have markets substantially like the old one in Chicago, though I think never so outrageous in size or in atmosphere.
I was introduced to the yards by one of the most interesting men I met in Lemont, the little town and district in which my first farm was established. His name was Louis Jacobs (always pronounced “Louie”), a Lithuanian Jew who came to America (and to Lemont) in 1910. First he bought and peddled junk with a horse and cart, and then rose to regular transportation with a team of horses and wagon, and finally to two trucks for carrying livestock to the yards and doing a certain amount of dealing himself. He also rented any farm vacant for a while, getting someone unemployed (and usually slightly shady) to do the work until it was sold again. He had a little house in town and was himself funny and appealing in a very special sort of way. There was a convent in Lemont with a farm run by nuns with some male help, and they used Louis to do their trucking. He told me one day that Mother Superior had spoken to him and said, “Mr. Jacobs, I saw you last week trucking stock on a Sunday and that isn’t right.” “No,” said Louis, “but you know, Sister, that isn’t my Sabbath.” “Ah, but Mr. Jacobs, I saw you trucking livestock on the day before.”
He told me another event in his early days in the village. He brought his team to be shod by the blacksmith. The blacksmith was a very large and muscular German, who said, “We want no Jews here.” Louis said, “You shoe horses for money. Why is the money from my horses no good to you?” I suppose something in the young Jew, slim but immensely tough, impressed the man, for he said, “Younker, I’ll do a deal with you. We’ll wrestle. If you win, I shoe your horse; if I win, out with you and don’t come in here again.” They wrestled and Louis won. He was, many years after, still immensely strong, though he never looked it exactly. The smith who shod his horses, when Louis offered him the money, said, “You don’t owe me anything. The fight makes it quits, and then you can come in again if you like.” Louis was a friend of the smith till the end of his days. The smith said to me one day, “Did you ever hear of how I came to meet Louis?” And he then recounted the whole story, word for word, as Louis had told it to me. Louis was friends with the man’s sons and grandsons. I knew them all. One said to me once, “The best Jew I ever knew.” In the yards he was invariably known as “the Jew from Lemont.” I was introduced to Louis’s favorite commission man, called Kelly. Kelly said, “You see the Jews and the Irish, we always get on well.” And the reference was always made to a great Chicago shoe store called O’Connor and Goldberg.
It was no real surprise to me, living in Lemont in the 1940s, to hear of the much more open anti-Semitism of Louis’s days in his home country. Even in the 1940s, Lemont was full of first- and second-generation Germans, and the anti-Semitism was also fairly explicit in the Polish and Lithuanian-derived people. These people had a long and bitter record of it in the countries from which their parents or grandparents came, and kept the inherited prejudices alive, especially since there were almost no Jews around to disprove or justify the prejudice. Louis won almost all of his detractors over—I think for two reasons. The first was, quite simply, his incurably cheerful and good-natured optimism. He believed entirely in the American dream; and his own life, until the last few years of it, gave him confidence. But the second reason was somehow different and more tangled. His father had been a small cattle dealer in Lithuania. Louis told me of anti-Semitism there that was hair-raising in comparison with anything Lemont would show. I think Louis had become quite sure that there would be no society without anti-Semitism. He didn’t react to the blacksmith’s dislike with any surprise. But he felt that in America if you were tough and hard-working you would always succeed. He was clearly pleased at the blacksmith’s challenge to a personal contest. That was a chance which he regarded as both fun and different. And of course he was quite right. What he thought about America gave him a conviction that it was the individual that really counted, that if you fought well (as in the deal with the blacksmith) or if you drove fair bargains and got rich in a regular way without help and without annoying people too much, Americans would finally think of you as one of themselves and either forget or downgrade all the traditional ill will toward Jews with which their particular national affiliations had loaded them. He was so good-humored and so secure that jokes about (and frequently against) the Jews which his associates, now genuinely new friends, still would throw at him left him quite undisturbed. He very often jokingly played his alleged Jewish role to the life. It all seemed to me admirable.
In the last few years of his life, he lost much of his modest little fortune through trusting a thoroughly stupid brother-in-law named Morris who wanted to set up a slaughterhouse and processing plant in Lemont to avoid the taxation and labor cost of the city. This man was a kosher veal butcher. He underestimated the cost of building, and the building of the factory staggered and was not completed for a year or two. Worst of all, the brother-in-law, used to buying calves in the yards by bargaining for a price per pound, had been rendered quite safe in his deals because the scale was at the end of the corridor and the calf’s weight was there to be seen. But when Morris went around the country and tried to buy calves on site, it turned out that he was entirely unable to guess weights at all. He could miss the weight of the calf by as much as thirty or forty pounds, and his buying proved a complete disaster. The money Louis had lent him vanished and never reappeared. Louis retained just enough to live out his life with relations in the city, his wife having died—as I really believe, out of despair, because it was her brother who had destroyed Louis’s fortune.
One last Louis story, a funny and a touching one. I went to Europe on a six-month sabbatical in 1950, and needed someone to run the farm in America for me. Of all odd choices the one I made was the weirdest. Allan Bloom, my then beginning graduate student, later so famous—author of The Closing of the American Mind—was chronically hard up and, poor chap, thought that he would really like living in Lemont with a car that carried him to Chicago for his university work. That winter was famous for its cold and snow. Allan ran out of money and eventually ate up all my chickens and ducks, but he looked after the sheep all right, and, most importantly, managed to survive himself in the cold of what must have been one of the worst winters ever. Later, to my great pleasure and a little to my surprise, I found he had won golden opinions from all the neighbors, and that they genuinely liked him—though this was not at all a hard thing to do. Among other connections he got to know Louis and his wife well, and took over my job of making out Louis’s income tax for him (Louis couldn’t read or write when he came to America and had never learned, though he spoke Yiddish, German, Polish, and Latvian). When I returned, Mrs. Jacobs, who never liked me as Louis did, said to me, “Don’t get me wrong, but you must see that I would be glad to have a nice Jewish boy do our taxes.” Louis at once said, “All right; but I trust Dave as much as any Jew I’ve ever known.”
Of all the farm operations in which I have taken part, my favorite is plowing—and with horses. Even a tractor, instead of a team, does not destroy the charm of that work, though it grievously lessens it. I have owned, at one time or another, three small or medium-sized farms, one in Illinois, one in Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland, and one, my present one, in Cavan in the northeast of Ireland. My plowing was restricted to the first two. In Cavan, the land is altogether too “heavy,” as it is termed, that is, too wet, which means that you are unlikely to get it plowed and worked up for sowing without rain interfering and even less likely to get your grain harvested for the same reason. My last plowing venture was something out of the common. It was in India, where I plowed for an hour or two with a team of oxen, the only time in my life I have handled cattle as work animals. There is so much written nowadays about the drudgery of old-fashioned farming, drudgery from which mechanization has freed us. The fact is that during nearly all of my lifetime, most heavy farmwork was done by animals under man’s supervision. It was not a matter of hard manual work at all—only the difference between having animals supply the power or an engine. And the union of man and animal in an elemental task such as turning the sod and sowing the seed is a power job comparable to the other great traditional tasks such as sailing a boat or making something of wood. Plowing with horses in America was never hard work. You sat on an iron seat above the plowshare. The setting of a hole in the ratchet controlled the depth of the plowing, and your three good horses and you moved steadily up and down the furrow and the earth turned turtle under you. There was about it all an ecstasy of its own and its own peace.
Of course there was, and still is, digging by hand in gardens and suchlike. And, in urban populations, there is still a fair share of people who like the occupation, thank God. But still the rhetoric continues, enforcing the conviction, now almost always acquired at second hand, that oil has saved them from drudgery. As though driving work animals was drudgery and driving the tractor was not; and caring for animals after the workday was drudgery, but filling the tractor or repairing it was not. Hobbies, sport, and pets are of course the preferred forms of spending one’s activity and gaining pleasure. The delight in plowing and the partnership with animals in it is as old as Hesiod as he gives directions for the strength of the tree-formed plow ready to resist the power of the oxen as they struggle with a hard spot in the furrow, or in Aeschylus’s Prometheus, who gave man work-animals to be his substitute in the heaviest toils. It is there in Breughel’s picture of the fall of Icarus as the plowman follows his mule with the little wheel in the plow in front of him already invented to hold the plow effortlessly in place at the depth desired.
As long as one is young, it does not matter much whether you ride the plow, as one used to do in America (and the Amish still do) or walk behind it as in most of Europe, providing you have this little wheel. You are then free of the effort of holding the plow at a certain depth against the pull of the team. Indeed, if your horses are well trained enough, and the ground not too heavy, there is no need of the plowman behind the plow at all. I remember about thirty-five years ago in Normandy watching a boy plowing with his black Percherons, and walking alongside the horses that did not even have a rein. They were tied from bit to bit with a loose rope on the inside trace horse, which was used only when the boy was going to lead them home. When they came to the end of the furrow, he would tip up the plow (they used there a reversible plow exactly like a similar, much larger tractor plow today), shout firm commands to his team, and round the horses would go.
The beauty of those days of plowing was startling. I am thinking now particularly of the Wicklow farm. Our plowing was usually done in March or April, though sometimes also in fall or late winter, when the ground was not hard frozen. In a typically early spring day, one walked just fast enough to keep warm, and the gulls and the rooks followed in the furrow to pick up the worms, and the sun would come breaking up the little touch of hoarfrost. I can still relive it and delight sharply, almost with pain at its loss, for I will never enjoy it again. There is no plowing to be done on my Cavan farm and rather less in Ireland every year anyway. Grain farming is beginning to be centered in the New World and in enormous units which make the use of very heavy machinery economic. Ireland is really best suited to a grazing system and the raising of livestock, and, if the general farming of the past is diminishing, it is at least more interesting to manage animals on a small farm than cultivate the featureless huge “fields” like those to be seen now even in England, near Cambridge.
Of course, the joy of horse-plowing depended largely on the quality and training of your team. Plowing is hard, but not extremely hard work for horses, as long as either the land is light or, if it is heavy, you have enough horses on your team to deal with it. I recently saw an Amish farmer plowing very heavy land with a single sixteen-inch plowshare and four horses ahead. No one was being unduly strained, man or horse. Plowing is preeminently a matter of the rhythmic engagement of strength, and rhythm is something horses are really attuned to.
I remember a mare of mine in Ireland whom I trained at two years old and kept till her last days at seventeen. I hunted her, drove her in the trap, even did a little show jumping with her and every kind of farmwork. But I think she loved plowing most of all. She was superb at it. Her name was Patsy, and she was a relatively light “half-bred” horse. She learned her plowing from a sour old work mare called Anne, a constantly disgruntled old lady, perpetually grumbling with flattened ears and not above nipping you if you came in front of her. But she, too, loved plowing and she was able to impart the mystery to Patsy. For the plow must move very slowly and steadily to keep the furrow even, and this particularly in Wicklow is a matter of trusted cooperation between man and horse. For in Wicklow, every arable field has stones, anything from small, sharp rocks weighing twenty pounds to monstrous instruments of destruction of a quarter-of-a-ton weight. Every Wicklow farmer is constantly at war with stones, hauling them out with picks and shovels or tractors or, as a last alternative, dynamiting them. These men will tell you only half in jest that the stones continually grow again. What happens is that gradually the topsoil gets thinner; some of it is moved to one side or blows away and another stone somewhere reveals itself.
Clearly, if your plowshare hits one of these things, especially the large ones, it snaps. (It is indeed equipped with a removable point, so that doesn’t matter much, though it is a nuisance if it continues happening as it does with tractor plowing.) The horses move very slowly and are wonderfully aware when the stone is under their feet, at which point they stop before the plowshare hits it. Devoted old horsemen always say that they feel the stone, maybe six inches under the earth. I think that the sensitivity lies not directly in the feet but in an unusual awareness, a second or two before impact, that there is a slowness or unwillingness of the plowshare to make its way.