Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Reputation
Understand me: we did not seek it, for some years we did not know we had it, and in the end, as you shall see, we had to pay for it.
This occurred to me as I was looking through some old files, seeing essays I had published in the hippie-homesteader magazines of the 1970s and ’80s. I was surprised by the editorial introductions — they were almost gushing. How did that happen?
Hippie-homesteaders were people in their early twenties who wanted to “go back to the land” (in the popular phrase of the day), an illusion, though I’m sure most of them didn’t know it. They were satisfied with the appearance, and many people encouraged them. In those days it seemed as if every newspaper and magazine in the country published stories about courageous couples charging off into the “wilderness” (I have seen a Massachusetts college town so described!) to build a cabin, plant a garden, and begin a life of “self sufficiency.”
Such people appeared in northern Vermont, where we lived, in the mid-1960s, but some of their forerunners had turned up on our doorstep a little earlier because the farmhouse we rented belonged to a bush league version of Scott Nearing, guru of the “back to the land” movement, and they came to see us, as I realized much later, because they thought that I, living in the master’s house, might be a sage, too, with words of wisdom for them. If I had realized that I might have tried to put on a show, but I couldn’t make them out, and like any disciples, they were inarticulate. I always asked them what they wanted, how could I help them, but I got nowhere so they went away disappointed.
But they saw what they took to be the rudiments of the Beautiful Simple Country Life (BSCL) — we milked a cow, we had a flock of hens, we were raising a pig and working a horse, there were two large gardens. So, unbeknown to us, the myth of the self-sufficient Gardners was born. We knew nothing about it because we had nothing to do with hippie-homesteaders or their supporters and admirers. These were people who, despite pretensions to the contrary, had trust funds or other sources of plenty of cash. They were quite out of our class.
Nevertheless, they came to our door, all those people who admired the BSCL, and they kept coming (or writing) over the years. Nothing came of their appearances because they could never explain what they wanted, not clearly knowing themselves. I always asked them but they didn’t give me a straight-forward answer because, I think, farm life really baffled them. They had fantasies about it — they told us they were going to grow grain and weave their own wool and milk goats and build yurts — but since they didn’t really know anything they didn’t ask questions. They didn’t ask me what my forage crops were, or if corn could be grown so far north, or what was our calf mortality, or how many cows we could winter, or were four horses enough for a 100-acre farm? They looked at things, they avidly told us what they were going to do, and they went away. And still our reputation spread.
We never impressed Cape Bretoners that way, probably because they had given up what we were doing a generation ago, and the BSCL had no attractions for them. They thought we were just eccentric rich Americans. Or maybe we were drug dealers, a pervasive theme in the credulous countryside. Responding to the gossip, two policemen disguised as hippies, came to our farm to investigate. I was up in the woods so Jo Ann dealt with them. Understand that she is even more naïve than I am in such matters, so when the “hippies” asked to busy some “grass,” she sold them a selection of herbs.
A few hippie-homesteaders turned up in the 1970s, but the Cape Breton environment was so unforgiving that most of them soon went back to the States. We encountered them again, however, when we ran a youth hostel for a few years, and by then they had become very knowing. They subjected us to such remorseless grilling that I finally posted this notice in the kitchen:
We do not keep goats. We do not weave. We eat white sugar and white bread. We are not vegetarians. We do not eat sprouts. We’re not self-sufficient.
Although we didn’t come up to their standards, there we were year after year persisting in our ways. The following story, I think, will show something of the feeling about us. There was a hippie-homesteader couple from New Zealand living nearby who were forever planning to live the BSCL, and finally one spring declared they were going to travel around the island visiting other hippie-homesteaders to get the definitive lowdown. Returning in the fall, they were disgusted: as they scornfully announced, “You’re the only ones on the island doing what you say you do, but you do it for MONEY!”
How many hippie-homesteader magazines there were at the height of their flourishing I cannot say, but there were four prominent ones in the Northeast — in Nova Scotia, Maine, Vermont, and Ontario — that printed our work, and they were a godsend because they paid very well. Our involvement with them was a little delicate, as you can imagine, and this story illustrates the dilemma our reputation finally created. One of the magazines commissioned us to write an essay about raising an orphan lamb from birth to its final disposition.
I did most of the extensive research, reading books and government pamphlets, interviewing sheepmen, and so on, while Jo Ann wrote the introduction about the nature and occurrence of orphan lambs, citing the rhyme “Mary had a little lamb.” Since there was slaughtering and butchering involved, and we knew neither hippie-homesteaders nor their magazines were realistic about such matters, we wrote to the editor to tell him the essay mentioned blood and his readers might not like it, but he dismissed our concerns. When the piece was finally done (we were rather proud of it), we were still worried, so I hitched the mare to the express wagon and drove three miles to a phone to speak directly to the editor, who was again reassuring.
Of course, when he read the essay he was horrified, insisting that we cut out all the slaughtering and butchering, which we could easily do, but what was much worse was that he directed us to insert cutesy bits throughout, making the whole thing a travesty. A serious, helpful essay about how to perform successfully and efficiently a task of animal husbandry was to be turned into a silly entertainment. What I had written implicitly respected the readers; the editor’s version was contemptuous of them.
We didn’t reply at once — $1500 was a lot of money to us, and we hated to turn it down. It was the cutesy bits that stuck in our craw. We had not thought much about our reputation (although we knew by then we had one) but we knew it was comprised of forthright honesty and integrity. To write what the editor wanted would be a repudiation, not just of our writing but of ourselves. So we turned it down.
We went on writing for other such magazines, but not for long, because as soon as the hippie-homesteaders tired of their pretensions and became yuppies in the late 1980s, the magazines were doomed — the audience vanished and the magazines died. It was an interesting, instructive period, those fifteen or so years, and we learned much about writing, about ourselves, and about our relation to the times. Without all that experience we would not be the individuals or the writers we are today. *