Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Significant Knowledge
The late Jigs Gardner was an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner wrote from the Adirondacks. These early essays, some of which were written decades ago, are of timeless quality.
[Written soon after it happened, in the late 1980s]
Imagine the scene: I am shoveling shavings into the team wagon, stooping over in my patched overalls and faded flannel shirt to scrape the barn floor clean, now and then climbing into the wagon to tread down the mounting heap. The sleek young man who owns the new barn, the new tractor, the new hydraulic log loader, the new portable saw mill, the used planer (only 10,000 dollars) that made the shavings — the young man who owns all these sophisticated machines and who is something of a hippie, belated celebrant of the ’60s — nods at my horses and says:
“Pretty soon we’ll all be using ’em,” adding the explanation, “Global Warming.”
“Oh, baloney!” I answer forcefully, continuing to shovel.
He looks reproach; I have failed to play my part. He moves away to the back of the barn to admire his expensive machinery while I finish cleaning up the shavings.
It is a scene rich in irony, and I think of that as I sit atop the load, driving the team homeward, but what really strikes me is the young man’s ignorance, something he shares with other Greens. They appear to know nothing, literally nothing, about their situation in this material world, where we are all wholly dependent on an unfathomably complex, pervasive structure composed of things and thoughts, matter and spirit, called “civilization,” as old as the first tool-using man, as new as a hydraulic log loader. As individuals we choose or reject bits and pieces of that structure (most of it becomes part of our lives without our conscious knowledge) but in the history of the species, such choices are meaninglessly trivial. We create, maintain, and add to the structure, and it sustains and carries forward the life of the group. It is not possible for an individual or a group to dismantle a significant portion of it. Were that to be tried, our lives would be catastrophically disordered and impoverished. Quite innocent of the ramifications of civilization, innocent even of the incredible implications of what he is saying, the young man fatuously predicts the resurgence of horsepower.
The obvious ironies — that an affluent owner of sophisticated machinery should condescend to remark my use of horses as a prophetic gesture; that I, to all appearances a rare specimen of the nearly extinct race of hippie-homesteaders, should be granted Green approval by a veritable apotheosis of inappropriate technology — are not the cream of the jest by any means. There is a deeper irony: my wife and I, who have been living the much-touted simple life for so many years, are ardent champions of everything Greens deplore, preaching the virtues of capitalism, technology, nuclear power, and so on. Our life has taught us, by the kind of hard experience unknown to any Green, the importance of the forces of development in the modern world. When you cut 25 cords of firewood by hand, you appreciate a chainsaw; when a cow is down with milk fever, you are thankful for up-to-date medical research; when you own woodland, the knowledge of contemporary forestry is a boon. And we know that behind those specific things is the structure of civilization, that neither the saw nor the medicine nor the forestry are isolated entities, that they are fruits of human reason and imagination impelled and energized by a dynamic civilization.
We, too, once were Greens, but knowledge, along with the realism of our life, cured us.
The specific incident grew out of a conflict over the use of herbicides in the forests. We had always supported the Greens in their continuing battles with the local pulp mill over forestry practices, but on this occasion I noticed in one of the group’s mailings a citation of a study that had long been discredited. I was uneasy. What did I really know about the herbicide? Or even about forestry? Beyond the glib slogans of the Greens what did I know? That was the beginning of the end of my Greenism, a point of view so ignorant and irrational that it can only thrive in a closed atmosphere of cocksure ignorance.
So, I began my search for knowledge, and that led me to the forest ranger for our area. How many books and technical articles Mike brought me to study over the next years, how many miles of highway and dirt road and logging trail I traveled in his company, I cannot guess, but it added up to a lot of knowledge, scientific and technical. As I thought about the kind of knowledge Mike had, and the kind I had, I began to see a hitherto unobserved distinction: I shared with the Greens class status (middle and upper middle) and a similar education (college, major in the humanities or social sciences). I like to think that when I went to college 60 years ago, liberal arts education was a discipline of the mind, a training in mental rigor and clarity, but we know that today it is little more than a prolonged exposure to fashionable attitudes. Mike the forest ranger, however, came out of the working class/technician tradition; he had a good high school education plus a one-year course in forestry school. Furthermore, there has been a parallel divergence in the fields of technical and liberal arts education, because knowledge in practical areas has burgeoned. To understand forestry work today requires a mastery of technical detail almost unimaginable a generation ago. As liberal arts education has become ever more nebulous, forestry (or agriculture or mining, etc.) studies have become more rigorous and complex. It is not surprising, then, that Greens should have fanciful notions about how to manage endeavors like forestry, nor is it remarkable that middle-class people in general, those who do not do the technical work of the world, should be taken in so easily by their absurd claims.
Mike’s knowledge was a revelation, and I stress it here because I don’t think it is widely recognized: we do not realize the knowledge and competence that the farmer, the forester, the fisherman, et al., in their millions must have for society to function as smoothly as it does. We are all familiar with the form of knowledge that lies behind this: theoretical science. We know that in highly complex affairs we require expert guidance from people who have worked long and hard to acquire and develop knowledge about matter that is so abstruse that it must be translated for us. We value science and, despite some ambivalence, we trust scientists. But we don’t know enough about, we don’t appreciate enough about, the knowledge of the people who do the work of the world.
I have put so much emphasis on this issue because when I saw how knowledge functioned in forestry, I remembered an obvious truth that had been suppressed, even denied, during my Green years: all civilization is ultimately based on our control and manipulation of nature. The story of mankind’s ascent from the cave dwellers can be told in terms of that growing mastery. Of course, nature is so vast and so complex that whatever control we achieve is always partial and tenuous. Wishing always to improve our lives — making them longer, healthier and freer, less burdened by labor — we must ever work for the knowledge that will extend our control, although that is not quite the right word. The more we study crops and their pests — for instance, the more refined our methods become for promoting the crops and diminishing the pests — our intervention becomes more selective and effective. Instead of control, it should be more precisely defined as a growing ability to use nature for our own ends. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that in struggling against entropy, against the natural tendency to let things slide, in struggling for a more orderly, more productive world, we strive against nature, but in the tactics, the details of how we go about it, we can only work with nature.
When Greens demand that we remake our societies “in harmony with nature,” they reveal their ignorance; everything we do is in harmony with nature — how could it be otherwise? What they want is the abandonment of sophisticated knowledge in favor of primitive forms.
The wealth created in the West since the end of World War II made us care about clean air and water, and it also gave us the means to fulfill such desires. Knowledge, wealth, and improved practices go hand in hand. Actual improvements in the environment are solely due to growing affluence. Greens, however, believe that wealth is the problem, not the solution. They say that we must lower consumption, dismantle modern industry, and retard technological development. In other words, it is only by reversing the tide of knowledge, it is only by becoming poorer that we can live environmentally pure lives!
And that’s why the sleek young man with the expensive machinery could feel enlightened when he told me everyone would be using workhorses soon. *