:: By David Grene
In a meditation on choosing the farmer’s life, Chicago classicist David Grene, who died in 2002, explored the pull of the land.
In the 20th century, my interest in farming and Greek and Latin literature hardly seemed likely to be tracks which would have many followers or even engage much interest. Small farming, we are continually told, is in decline, and personal farming, which is the only kind I care about, is generally small farming. Classical literature, once so important to education, has been largely superseded both by training of a more technical sort, for those who think of education solely in terms of preparing to make a living, and by the host of more modern branches of learning like psychology, sociology, and so on that seem more pertinent to the existing world. I do not think that either of these trends, so regularly and so glibly presented, is quite as true as it pretends to be. The continent of Europe is still mainly characterized by small farms—by farms of less than 100 acres. In the United States, where farms are much bigger, the overwhelming proportion is still family farms. And though it is true that classics has been pushed rather into the background in education, there is a strong feeling in most sophisticated circles everywhere that the beginnings of our civilization and its recovery in the Renaissance ought to be part of modern man’s knowledge. Above all, as I see it, the way of life for individuals and knowledge that supports that way of life lie open now to choice—far more than they ever did in the past when, till a very short time ago, such choosing was the privilege of aristocrats or very rich people. I am convinced myself that the main excellence of modern life is its capacity to allow choice in the creation of crevices into which one can move and live at some depth. To do so, one must abandon the idea that one’s earnings must be the top amount possible to obtain. Crevices are rarely as richly endowed as that. Whether you will affect many other people or only a few seems to me almost a matter of chance; but with a decent share of self-respect and some solid personal tastes and the capacity to enjoy them, one can be fulfilled and happy. At least, one does not find oneself constantly mouthing second-hand sentiments caught from other people’s lips. I can say honestly that I have found quite a lot of farmers both here and in Ireland, and here and there in my short travels elsewhere, who have just this sort of life and feel this sort of values. And in university education, if one can turn one’s attention from the arid professionalism which afflicts, most unfortunately, the study of literature in universities, the emphasis on method and categorization of art, and the silly rat race of promotion, depending on too early and too frequent publication, there is a real thrill in the deepening of one’s knowledge and understanding, and, almost miraculously, in sharing it with a substantial minority of students and colleagues.
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 20 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 now 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 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 18th-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, 12 to 15 cows, why don’t you rise to be chiefs of your profession and have 30?” 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.
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 such like. 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.
Adapted from Of Farming & Classics by David Grene, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2007 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Growing up in Dublin, David Grene began studying Latin and French at age 8 and Greek at 10; after earning an MA from Trinity College, teaching at Harvard, and script-doctoring in Hollywood, he arrived at Chicago in 1937 as a lecturer in classics. It was a rocky start (at one point, President Robert M. Hutchins left a note in Grene’s file stating, “This man is not to be fired without consulting me”), and in 1938 Grene bought a farm outside Chicago, figuring he might need another means of support. But he kept his day job for the next half-century, gaining fame for his translations of Greek tragedies and Herodotus’s History.
In 1947he became one of the five founding members of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. There, -as Robert Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef distinguished service professor in Social Thought and the committee’s chair, wrote in the foreword to Of Farming & Classics, “He could always be counted on to keep the Committee on its straight and narrow path, which in the Committee’s case meant insuring that we were never on any straight and narrow path.”
Grene, noted Pippin, was devoted to teaching as well as to the committee: “When I first became chair, I was astonished to discover that, for quite a long time after his official retirement, David, into his 80s by this point, had been teaching four courses a year for the Committee on a completely voluntary basis, just out of love for teaching, for his students, for the books taught, and for the conversations that such teaching produced.”—M.R.Y.