Between Two Ways

“We can simplify our society–that is, make ourselves free–only by undertaking tasks of great mental and cultural complexity.” (Wendell Berry 49)

It’s a paradox, of course–a truth that seems counter-intuitive, even contradictory. But it’s neither. It’s just true. We are free when our lives are complex. And when we live lives of complexity, we obtain simple freedom.

Berry points out that, during simpler times (when most of us inhabited rural communities), our work was complex. We built our own houses, grew our own food, and made our own clothes. We navigated the world using a variety of skills.

A farmer–if you’ll forgive the cliche–seldom put his eggs in one basket. He had chickens for eggs and meat, cows for milk, and pigs for meat. He grew corn to feed the animals and himself. But he also grew alfalfa and cotton and wheat. He had a series of enterprises requiring various ways of working. He was not a specialist.

He rotated the crops to take care of the land. He knew that, without the land, there was no way to sustain life. His complex way of living brought simplicity that was freeing. He produced all or most of what he needed. He lived in community but independently.

When we moved to the city, we became specialists.

Our list of skills shrank. Our dependence on others grew. We stopped being producers and became consumers of goods others produced.

In the city, the essence of freedom changed and became something less responsible, more self-focused.

The change is something we attribute to advanced technology, to modernity. But it’s more than that. In our consumption, we lost meaning in our lives.

Loss of meaning changes our core beliefs as a people, a nation. The nature of our beliefs relies largely on where we come from. Two sets of beliefs spring from our different worlds, the countryside and the cityscape, and will not reconcile into a single way of thinking.

We can trace the differences in our core beliefs back to people moving from farmland to city.

In the nineteenth century, moving from the country to the city marked a huge shift in how we saw children.

On the farm, children had been blessings from heaven. Once they reached a certain age, they became helpful hands on the farm. One day they would become heirs of the land. Life in that place would go on as it had before.

In the complex life on a farm, everyone who was able worked. Children jumped in to help with chores as soon as they were old enough. And they somehow became older sooner out in the country.

At the dawn of the urban explosion in the city, men worked. Women stayed home with children whose contributions to sustaining the family were non-existent or small. If the man’s work provided a good living, the woman and children did not need employment. If the reward of his work was meager, his wife and children made their way into sweat-shops.

It was difficult to carry one’s own weight. Yet many found meaning even in such a place. They worked to make sure their own children would not bear a similar burden.

As a child, my father rose early and stood on a street corner selling newspapers every day. He never kept the reward of his work. He contributed his earnings to the household.

He made a better life for his children.

Now, we’ve reached a point where it’s hard to imagine a better life for our children. Is there a better place than the comfortable one we’ve made for ourselves?

Seeking more comfort–or for those in a world of pain because of abuse or neglect, some comfort–has brought us the drug crisis and school shootings.

Young people lack responsibility and self-control largely because they are more concerned about comfort than meaning. Yet they seek meaning. And they can never quite find enough comfort.

The long-yearned-for-prize of comfort revealed itself to be a plastic trinket.

In the countryside, fathers taught (and still teach) youngsters how to shoot a rifle and/or shotgun. Pre-teens hunted and fished (some still do), supplementing the family’s store of food. And these children were also prepared to defend the homestead and the livestock against wild animals or someone with evil intentions. Many still are so prepared without danger to their peers.

In the city, guns could have only two purposes–threat or protection. Today in cities where specialization reigns, only the police are supposed to protect. There is no place for private gun ownership in the minds of many city dwellers.

Such issues define our differences. There seems to be no solution in sight.

But perhaps a solution comes in making our lives more complex.

We are a long way from building our own houses, growing our own food, and making our own clothes.

But learning how to do some of the things that make us more independent can make us more responsible, more independent people. We can produce again rather than simply consume.

And by learning production ourselves, we pass along production, and with it responsibility, self-sufficiency, and meaning to the young.

Doing so can help us understand each other. Doing so can help us help each other. Doing so may make all the difference for someone disenchanted with a plastic trinket of meaningless comfort.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Hard Work Way

It’s one of the final rites of summer for us–Ag Progress Days in Central Pennsylvania. We borrow a van and sometimes take two vehicles to haul as many grandkids as we can from our small city to a celebration of the farm life that surrounds us and feeds us.

We had two sets of siblings with us yesterday, the other set grown or already booked with other activities. But the brothers and brother/sister group we had with us this time got along better together than they sometimes tend to do alone. Community builds goodwill.

We started with our usual. Hamburgers and hot dogs at a tent the Methodists sponsor and tend. Then we were off to the Corn Maze.

It’s not just a game, but a multiple-choice quiz about Pennsylvania agriculture. Pick the right answers and get through the maze quickly. Go the wrong way, and your siblings or cousins will beat you to the end.

They went through multiple times–a couple of them going forwards and backward.

Then, we walked past the tractors. Grandpa told them about his first tractor and showed them the very model. Two of the younger ones measured their heights by the tires. That was a moment for pictures.

On the way to Penn State’s Berkey Creamery (another tradition), we drove past a farm where I’d once taken some of the cousins to pick cherries. We had ice cream that day too.

But much is changing now. The apple orchard is overgrown, and a sign announces a coming housing development. Yet another one as the farm landscape shrinks further.

Birds are gathering sooner this year. Watching them wind their way over us as the flock shifts shape is one of my favorite features of fall.

Our traditions remain the same. Nature follows a pattern. But society changes to move further away from the land.

We live on a half-lot in our city. Farming to us is cutting the grass, occasionally growing tomatoes, and tending a row of black raspberry bushes.

The harvest is our nod to a way of life that taught hard work and diligence despite hardship. A way of life that brought society beyond subsistence to prosperity and freedom.

A way of life that still brings satisfaction in one’s own work.

We journey to you-pick farms and Ag Progress to impress upon those who come after us that the hard work way is good.

That planting a seed means harvesting a crop–after time, after storms, after work.

On such ideas, life grows abundant.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered is out in paperback! Get your copy here!

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”