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“Why risk with men your hard won gold*?

Buy grain and sow your Brother Dust

Will pay you back a hundred fold—

The earth commits no breach of trust.”

Hindu Proverb, Translated by Arthur Guiterman.

It is astonishing how many people there are in cities and towns who have a secret longing to get back into quiet country places, to own a bit of the soil of the earth, and to cultivate it. To some it appears as a troublesome malady only in spring and will be relieved by a whirl or two in country roads, by a glimpse of the hills, or a day by the sea; but to others the homesickness is deeper seated and will be quieted by no hasty visits. These must actually go home.

I have had, in recent years, many letters from friends asking about life in the country, but the longer I remain here, the more I know about it, the less able I am to answer them—at least briefly. It is as though one should come and ask: “Is love worth trying?” or, “How about religion?” For country life is to each human being a fresh, strange, original adventure. We enjoy it, or we do not enjoy it, or more probably, we do both. It is packed and crowded with the zest of adventure, or it is dull and miserable. We may, if we are skilled enough, make our whole living from the land, or only a part of it, or we may find in a few cherished acres the inspiration and power for other work, whatever it may be. There is many a man whose strength is renewed like that of the wrestler of Irassa, every time his feet touch the earth.

Of all places in the world where life can be lived to its fullest and freest, where it can be met in its greatest variety and beauty, I am convinced that there is none to equal the open country, or the country town. For all country people in these days may have the city—some city or town not too far away: but there are millions of men and women in America who have no country and no sense of the country. What do they not lose out of life!

I know well the disadvantages charged against country life at its worst. At its worst there are long hours and much lonely labour and an income pitifully small. Drudgery, yes, especially for the women, and loneliness. But where is there not drudgery when men are poor—where life is at its worst? I have never seen drudgery in the country comparable for a moment to the dreary and lonely drudgery of city tenements, city mills, factories, and sweat shops. And in recent years both the drudgery and loneliness of country life have been disappearing before the motor and trolley car, the telephone, the rural post, the gasoline engine. I have seen a machine plant as many potatoes in one day as a man, at hand work, could have planted in a week. While there is, indeed, real drudgery in the country, much that is looked upon as drudgery by people who long for easy ways and a soft life, is only good, honest, wholesome hard work—the kind of work that makes for fiber in a man or in a nation, the kind that most city life in no wise provides.
There are a thousand nuisances and annoyances that men must meet who come face to face with nature itself. You have set out your upper acres to peach trees: and the deer come down from the hills at night and strip the young foliage; or the field mice in winter, working under the snow, girdle and kill them. The season brings too much rain and the potatoes rot in the ground, the crows steal the corn, the bees swarm when no out is watching, the cow smothers her calf, the hens’ eggs prove infertile, and a storm in a day ravages a crop that has been growing all summer. A constant warfare with insects and blights and fungi—a real, bitter warfare, which can cease neither summer nor winter!

It is something to meet, year after year, the quiet implacability of the land. While it is patient, it never waits long for you. There is a chosen time for planting, a time for cultivating, a time for harvesting. You accept the gauge thrown down—well and good, you shall have a chance to fight! You do not accept it? There is no complaint. The land cheerfully springs up to wild yellow mustard and dandelion and pig-weed—and will be productive and beautiful in spite of you.

Nor can you enter upon the full satisfaction of cultivating even a small piece of land at second hand. To be accepted as One Who Belongs, there must be sweat and weariness.

The other day I was digging with Dick in a ditch that is to run down through the orchard and connect finally with the land drain we put in four years ago. We laid the tile just in the gravel below the silt, about two feet deep, covering the openings with tar paper and then throwing in gravel. It was a bright, cool afternoon. In the field below a ploughman was at work: I could see the furrows of the dark earth glisten as he turned it over. The grass in the meadow was a full rich green, the new chickens were active in their yards, running to the cluck of the hens, already the leaves of the orchard trees showed green. And as I worked there with Dick I had the curious deep feeling of coming somehow into a new and more intimate possession of my own land. For titles do not really pass with signatures and red seals, nor with money changing from one hand to another, but for true possession one must work and serve according to the most ancient law. There is no mitigation and no haggling of price. Those who think they can win the greatest joys of country life on any easier terms are mistaken.

But if one has drained his land, and ploughed it, and fertilized it, and planted it and harvested it—even though it be only a few acres— how he comes to know and to love every rod of it. He knows the wet spots, and the stony spots, and the warmest and most fertile spots —until his acres have all the qualities of a personality, whose every characteristic he knows. It is so also that he comes to know his horses and cattle and pigs and hens. It is a fine thing, on a warm day in early spring, to bring out the bee-hives and let the bees have their first flight in the sunshine. What cleanly folk they are! And later to see them coming in yellow all over with pollen from the willows! It is a fine thing to watch the cherries and plum trees come into blossom, with us about the first of May, while all the remainder of the orchard seems still sleeping. It is a fine thing to see the cattle turned for the first time in spring into the green meadows. It is a fine thing—one of the finest of all—to see and smell the rain in a corn-field after weeks of drought. How it comes softly out of gray skies, the first drops throwing up spatters of dust and losing themselves in the dry soil. Then the clouds sweep forward up the valley, darkening the meadows and blotting out the hills, and then there is the whispering of the rain as it first sweeps across the corn-field. At once what a stir of life! What rustling of the long green leaves. What joyful shaking and swaying of the tassels! And have you watched how eagerly the grooved leaves catch the early drops, and, lest there be too little rain after all, conduct them jealously down the stalks where they will soonest reach the thirsty roots? What a fine thing is this to see!

One who thus takes part in the whole process of the year comes soon to have an indescribable affection for his land, his garden, his animals. There are thoughts of his in every tree: memories in every fence corner. Just now, the fourth of June, I walked down past my blackberry patch, now come gorgeously into full white bloom—and heavy with fragrance. I set out these plants with my own hands, I have fed them, cultivated them, mulched them, pruned them, trellised them, and helped every year to pick the berries. How could they be otherwise than full of associations! They bear a fruit more beautiful than can be found in any catalogue: and stranger and wilder than in any learned botany book!

Why, one who comes thus to love a bit of countryside may enjoy it all the year round. When he awakens in the middle of a long winter night he may send his mind out to the snowy fields—I’ve done it a thousand times!—and visit each part in turn, stroll through the orchard and pay his respects to each tree—in a small orchard one comes to know familiarly every tree as he knows his friends—stop at the strawberry bed, consider the grape trellises, feel himself opening the door of the warm, dark stable and listening to the welcoming whicker of his horses, or visiting his cows, his pigs, his sheep, his hens, or so many of them as he may have.

So much of the best in the world seems to have come fragrant out of fields, gardens, and hillsides. So many truths spoken by the Master Poet come to us exhaling the odours of the open country. His stories were so often of sowers, husbandmen, herdsmen: his similes and illustrations so often dealt with the common and familiar beauty of the fields. “Consider the lilies how they grow.” It was on a hillside that he preached his greatest Sermon, and when in the last agony he sought a place to meet his God, where did he go but to a garden? A carpenter you say? Yes, but of this one may be sure: there were gardens and fields all about: he knew gardens, and cattle, and the simple processes of the land: he must have worked in a garden and loved it well.

A country life rather spoils one for the so-called luxuries. A farmer or gardener may indeed have a small cash income, but at least he eats at the first table. He may have the sweetest of the milk, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of men and women in America who have never in their lives tasted really sweet milk and the freshest of eggs, and the ripest of fruit. One does not know how good strawberries or raspberries are when picked before breakfast and eaten with the dew still on them. And while he must work and sweat for what he gets, he may have all these things in almost unmeasured abundance, and without a thought of what they cost. A man from the country is often made uncomfortable, upon visiting the city, to find two cans of sweet corn served for twenty or thirty cents, or a dish of raspberries at twenty-five or forty—and neither, even at their best, equal in quality to those he may have fresh from the garden every day. One need say this in no boastful spirit, but as a simple statement of the fact: for fruits sent to the city are nearly always picked before they are fully ripe—and lose that last perfection of flavour which the sun and the open air impart: and both fruits and vegetables, as well as milk and eggs, suffer more than most people think from handling and shipment. These things can be set down as one of the make-weights against the familiar presentation of the farmer’s life as a hard one.

One of the greatest curses of mill or factory work and with much city work of all kinds, is its interminable monotony: the same process repeated hour after hour and day after day. In the country there is indeed monotonous work but rarely monotony. No task continues very long: everything changes infinitely with the seasons. Processes are not repetitive but creative. Nature hates monotony, is ever changing and restless, brings up a storm to drive the haymakers from their hurried work in the fields, sends rain to stop the ploughing, or a frost to hurry the apple harvest. Everything is full of adventure and vicissitude! A man who has been a farmer for two hours at the mowing must suddenly turn blacksmith when his machine breaks down and tinker with wrench and hammer; and later in the day he becomes dairyman, farrier, harness-maker, merchant. No kind of wheat but is grist to his mill, no knowledge that he cannot use! And who is freer to be a citizen than he: freer to take his part in town meeting and serve his state in some one of the innumerable small offices which form the solid blocks of organization beneath our commonwealth.

I thought last fall that corn-husking came as near being monotonous work, as any I had ever done in the country. I presume in the great corn-fields of the West, where the husking goes on for weeks at a time, it probably does grow really monotonous. But I soon found that there was a curious counter-reward attending even a process as repetitive as this.

I remember one afternoon in particular. It was brisk and cool with ragged clouds like flung pennants in a poverty-stricken sky, and the hills were a hazy brown, rather sad to see, and in one of the apple trees at the edge of the meadow the crows were holding their mournful autumn parliament.

At such work as this one’s mind often drops asleep, or at least goes dreaming, except for the narrow margin of awareness required for the simple processes of the hands. Its orders have indeed been given: you must kneel here, pull aside the stalks one by one, rip down the husks, and twist off the ear—and there is the pile for the stripped stalks, and here the basket for the gathered corn, and these processes infinitely repeated.

While all this is going on, the mind itself wanders off to its own far sweet pastures, upon its own dear adventures—or rests, or plays. It is in these times that most of the airy flying things of this beautiful world come home to us—things that heavy-footed reason never quite overtakes, nor stodgy knowledge ever knows. I think sometimes (as Sterne says) we thus intercept thoughts never intended for us at all, or uncover strange primitive memories of older times than these—racial memories.

At any rate, the hours pass and suddenly the mind comes home again, it comes home from its wanderings refreshed, stimulated, happy. And nowhere, whether in cities, or travelling in trains, or sailing upon the sea, have I so often felt this curious enrichment as I have upon this hillside, working alone in field, or garden, or orchard, It seems to come up out of the soil, or respond to the touch of growing things.

What makes any work interesting is the fact that one can make experiments, try new things, develop specialties and grow. And where can he do this with such success as on the land and in direct contact with nature. The possibilities are here infinite new machinery, spraying, seed testing, fertilizers, experimentation with new varieties. A thousand and one methods, all creative, which may be tried out in that great essential struggle of the farmer or gardener to command all the forces of nature.

Because there are farmers, and many of them, who do not experiment and do not grow, but make their occupation a veritable black drudgery, this is no reason for painting a som-bre-hued picture of country life. Any calling, the law, the ministry, the medical profession, can be blasted by fixing one’s eyes only upon its ugliest aspects. And farming, at its best, has become a highly scientific, extraordinarily absorbing, and when all is said, a profitable, profession. Neighbours of mine have developed systems of overhead irrigation to make rain when there is no rain, and have covered whole fields with cloth canopies to increase the warmth and to protect the crops from wind and hail, and by the analysis of the soil and exact methods of feeding it with fertilizers, have come as near a complete command of nature as any farmers in the world. What independent, resourceful men they are! And many of them have also grown rich in money. It is not what nature does with a man that matters but what he does with nature.

Nor is it necessary in these days for the farmer or the country dweller to be uncultivated or uninterested in what are often called, with no very clear definition, the “finer things of life.” Many educated men are now on the farms and have their books and magazines, and their music and lectures and dramas not too far off in the towns. A great change in this respect has come over American country life in twenty years. The real hardships of pioneering have passed away, and with good roads and machinery, and telephones, and newspapers every day by rural post, the farmer may maintain as close a touch with the best things the world has to offer as any man. And if he really have such broader interests the winter furnishes him time and leisure that no other class of people can command.

I do not know, truly, what we are here for upon this wonderful and beautiful earth, this incalculably interesting earth, unless it is to crowd into a few short years—when all is said, terribly short years!—every possible fine experience and adventure: unless it is to live our lives to the uttermost: unless it is to seize upon every fresh impression, develop every latent capacity: to grow as much as ever we have it in our power to grow. What else can there be? If there is no life beyond this one, we have lived here to the uttermost. We’ve had what we’ve had! But if there is more life, and still more life, beyond this one, and above and under this one, and around and through this one, we shall be well prepared for that, whatever it may be.

The real advantages of country life have come to be a strong lure to many people in towns and cities: but no one should attempt to “go back to the land” with the idea that it is an easy way to escape the real problems and difficulties of life. The fact is, there is no escape. The problems and the difficulties must be boldly met whether in city or country. Farming in these days is not “easy living,” but a highly skilled profession, requiring much knowledge, and actual manual labour and plenty of it. So many come to the country too light-heartedly, buy too much land, attempt unfamiliar crops, expect to hire the work done—and soon find themselves facing discouragement and failure. Any city man who would venture on this new way of life should try it first for a year or so before he commits himself—try himself out against the actual problems. Or, by moving to the country, still within reach of his accustomed work, he can have a garden or even a small farm to experiment with. The shorter work-day has made this possible for a multitude of wage-workers, and I know many instances in which life because of this opportunity to get to the soil has become a very different and much finer thing for them.

It is easy also for many men who are engaged in professional work to live where they can get their hands into the soil for part of the time at least: and this may be made as real an experience as far as it goes as though they owned wider acres and devoted their whole time to the work.

A man who thus faces the problem squarely will soon see whether country life is the thing for him; if he finds it truly so, he can be as nearly assured of “living happily ever after” as any one outside of a story-book can ever be. Out of it all is likely to come some of the greatest rewards that men can know, a robust body, a healthy appetite, a serene and cheerful spirit!

And finally there is one advantage not so easy to express. Long ago I read a story of Tolstoi’s called “The Candle”—how a peasant Russian forced to plough on Easter Day lighted a candle to his Lord and kept it burning on his plough as he worked through the sacred day. When I see a man ploughing in his fields I often think of Tolstoi’s peasant, and wonder if this is not as true a way as any of worshipping God. I wonder if any one truly worships God who sets about it with deliberation, or knows quite why he does it.

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as showers upon the grass.”



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