A harvest of virtues as well as sustenance
Two new books remind readers how closely most Americans used to be connected to the land.
If spring is the season when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love, summer is the time when a former Midwesterner's heart fills with a different kind of affection – a romance with the land.
For some of us, that romance is three-pronged. First, there is the love of the landscape itself: The way the horizon stretches endlessly, stitching together blue sky and black soil. The way silver silos glint in the sun. The way dairy cows graze in velvet pastures.
Then there is the romance with the bounty of that land, as reflected in the proverbial fruited plain and amber waves of grain. This is the month when the corn is supposed to be knee-high by the Fourth of July, and next month as high as an elephant's eye, at least in the view of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Finally, there are the bedrock values that spring from this fertile land, beginning with the virtues of hard work and cooperation that are required to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops, fruits, and vegetables.
This summer two authors offer reminders of those virtues. In "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," Barbara Kingsolver describes her family's year-long experiment in self-sufficiency. Their locus is Appalachia, not the Midwest, but the values are the same.
She and her husband, Steven Hopp, who grew up in the Corn Belt of Iowa, decide to trade the crowded urban scene in Tucson, Ariz., for rural life on a family farm in southwestern Virginia. There they and their two daughters undertake a novel project: They vow to eat only food they can grow themselves or can buy locally.
There are sacrifices all around, to be sure, but plentiful rewards as well. The kitchen becomes the center of family life. Everyone pitches in.
Ms. Kingsolver watches proudly as her 9-year-old daughter, Lily, turns into a youthful entrepreneur, raising chickens and selling eggs to earn money to buy a horse.
Similarly, her teenage daughter, Camille, helps Kingsolver can tomatoes and perform tasks in the garden. These are hardly skills the girls would have learned in parched Tucson, where food is a trucked-in supermarket commodity, available frozen, canned, or wrapped in plastic.
For Mildred Armstrong Kalish, author of "Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression," rural life brought other lessons. After her father left the family when she was 5, she and her mother and three siblings moved in with her stern grandparents. As she explains, land was plentiful but money almost nonexistent. All generations had to help out. Her grandparents, she states, "taught us how to perform the chores and execute the obligations that make a family and a farm work."
At age 8, she would cook meals for the family. Rather than feeling put upon, she felt honored. At 13, she served as a hired girl for a family with six children.
By today's standards of pampered American childhood, Mrs. Kalish and the other girls and boys in her rural area might elicit sympathy for being overburdened with responsibilities.
Yet far from resenting her rigid upbringing and childhood of hard work, she emphasizes the happiness she felt during that time, calling those early years "quite a romp."
Even the exhausting work of haying had its uses. The children, she says, "did have a proud sense of achievement, knowing that we were doing our part in this important venture."
With all that physical activity, childhood obesity was almost surely not a problem.
Noting that children on the farm were drafted into the workforce early, Kalish writes, "Even the youngest children seemed to have a natural inclination to be useful."
That desire to be useful, which knows no age limit, can be especially hard to satisfy in an era where automation and technology offer push-button ease, and where parents often stand ready to do everything for their offspring.
As Americans have moved from farms to cities, two profound changes have occurred. Younger generations have little knowledge of where food comes from. Many people have also lost an understanding of – and an appreciation for – hard physical labor. The poetic description of the Midwest as the nation's bread basket masks the intense labor and economic uncertainties farmers face.
Kingsolver knows that most families cannot replicate her family's experiment in self-reliance. Likewise, Kalish is not sentimental about the economic strains her family faced.
They understand that there is obviously no going back to a more rural way of life. But both books suggest an intriguing question: In a sophisticated urban and suburban culture, built on the premise of bigger, better, faster, and more expensive, is there value in encouraging a greater appreciation for simpler living, closer to families and the land when possible?
Kingsolver and Kalish both make eloquent, persuasive cases for answering in the affirmative. Sustenance, after all, comes in many forms.