Years ago, as a newspaper reporter inspired by Klinkenborg’s book, I spent a summer periodically visiting a dairy farm in Saratoga County, N.Y., describing the hay crop and the family that depended on it. The experience confirmed my belief that farmers, even the most laconic, are among the best talkers. Few are given to romanticizing their livelihood and most are constitutionally allergic to bullshit, the metaphoric sort. They live too close to the soil and weather, and the vagaries of the economy, to prettify things or make a lot of excuses. It’s an unforgiving way to earn a living, and whining gets them nowhere. In his first chapter, Klinkenborg writes:
“The scene at the VFW renews the sensation you get as you drive across Midwestern farmland. However the terrain tips and rolls, however the fences and runoffs mark a field, whether the soil carries soybeans, sorghum, corn, oats, or alfalfa, the black earth has only one purpose: getting the crops up.”
I’ve also been reading the poems of Timothy Murphy, a farmer who lives in the Dakotas. In his work I hear a farmer’s bluffness and stoicism. I like his “Elsewhere” (Very Far North, 2002), and everyday see its lesson confirmed:
“A goose in the yard yearns for a barn,and the penned bird, to go free.
The returning salmon yearns for the tarn,
from which its fry will flee.
“Elsewhere…what is the lasting charmfor the creature in misery?
A fisherman longs for the land-locked farm
its tenant would trade for the sea.”
Never content with our lot, never grateful for our gifts, we gaze longingly and resentfully at the other guy – this is human nature, a state of aggrieved entitlement, most recently and loudly embodied by the Occupy crowd. Samuel Johnson anatomized it in The Rambler #63:
“That all are equally happy or miserable, I suppose none is sufficiently enthusiastical to maintain; because though we cannot judge of the condition of others, yet every man has found frequent vicissitudes in his own state, and must therefore be convinced that life is susceptible of more or less felicity. What then shall forbid us to endeavour the alteration of that which is capable of being improved, and to grasp at augmentations of good, when we know it is possible to be increased, and believe that any particular change of situation will increase it?”
Spoken like a true (eighteenth-century) farmer. In an interview in the euphoniously named Shit Creek Review, Murphy is asked if he has a “perfect reader” in mind when he writes. After acknowledging some of the poets he admires and would like to please, he says:
“…I value the farmers who read my farm poems, the hunters who read my hunting poems. They can’t read as poets would, but they have a depth of shared experience the poets lack.”
That hits home. How long is it since you’ve read a poet, or any writer, who possessed “a depth of shared experience” with his subject and his readers? You’re likely to learn more about the facts of life and death, and hear more good hard-headed sense, from a farmer. Murphy’s “Failures of Promise” is collected in The Deed of Gift (1998):
“A flock of crowsfrozen in the snow.
found a road-killed ewe
found a road-killed ewe
A drowsy bear
dragged a leg-shot deer
to its deadfall lair.
The lamb in the ewe
and the fawn in the doe
were devoured unborn,
and November snows
buried the standing corn.”