Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Versed in Country Things – Invitation to the Simple Life

Jigs Gardner

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.

Part One

In December 1961 my teaching contract was not renewed, which meant that in six months I would be without a job and salary, and since I had a family to support, I began looking for another job. The possibilities were uninteresting, and my heart really wasn’t in it. I liked teaching, but I was increasingly irked by the academic milieu, and the prospect of a lowly job (I would never be more than an instructor) in a second-rate college was not alluring. We had a friend in northern Vermont, now a farmer but once a colleague at another college, who, having often urged me to quit teaching and move north, was full of schemes for us to make a go of it there. We had been impressed, on our visits, by the pastoralism still predominant there in the neat small villages in the narrow valleys. Willie’s farmhouse was on a gravel road back in the hills bordered by stone walls and shadowed by majestic elms. Broad fields rose gradually beyond the orchard to a wooded ridge. A team of horses, a small herd of Jersey cows, a flock of hens, and two pigs filled in the bucolic picture. His sister Ann Woodwright, married to a local farmer, had a farm a couple of miles along the road, an esthetic blockbuster. The small house, snugly built long ago of squared timbers, wainscoted and plastered within, blended country plainness with restrained sophistication. The white walls were stenciled with a few pale red and blue flower designs; the polished black cast iron range gleamed darkly (there was a sleek modern kitchen around the corner); in the big bedroom upstairs Bible verses celebrating marriage were stenciled in a continuous dark blue line along the wall above the baseboard, around and over the door and windows; there were small touches of color and decoration here and there (but never too many) that charmed the eye. The milk from their small herd of Jerseys was sold to the creamery in the village; they employed a hired man; Bob Woodwright tapped a sugarbush and sold excellent syrup; much of the work was done with horses; they were building a handsome new barn. Furthermore, all these people read books and magazines, listened to (and made) music, were informed about public matters, and could spend time to sit over a cup of tea and talk to a visitor. In short, everything said, “This is a Beautiful Life.”

As winter gave way to spring and the job offers didn’t improve, Willie’s urgings were more and more tempting, so I wrote and asked him to look into places to rent. One weekend in May, we went north to see what he had found. This was long before the Vermont boom, so there were plenty of country places — house, barn, fields, woods — standing empty, renting for twenty to thirty dollars a month, livable places where a few animals could be kept, just what we were looking for. Of the several houses we looked at that day, nearly all were possible, but the last one had the near-perfection of the Woodwright place.

On a remote narrow road that clung to the edge of a steep hillside, it was an old story-and-a-half farmhouse vertically sheathed in silvery-gray barn boards. The bank of windows across the front looked out across the hillside and valley below to a range of hills. The owner, Ralph Corbin, had left suddenly the fall before to take a job overseas, and everything had been left as if he had just stepped out. We peered through the windows into a book-lined study and then into the main room: barn boards covered two walls and a third was papered with topographical maps of the region. The furniture was sturdy, simple, good-looking. A tiny kitchen area with woodstove, sink, shelves, and counter occupied a corner with a pantry next to it. One door led into a bedroom, another to a study and to bedrooms upstairs. The former kitchen wing was now the mudroom and storage area, and beyond it a large room had been added to house a print shop with a foot treadle press, stacks of paper, fonts of type, and other implements of the printing trade. A mudroom is a large vestibule where outdoor gear, like boots, are kept.

The barn was perfect for us: a small stable set up for one cow and some hens with ample room beyond it for a horse or pig. The stone foundation walls of a much larger barn were visible, sheltering the garden area and plantings of rhubarb, red currants, perennial herbs, and old-fashioned tall hollyhocks. There was a small fenced pasture on the hill behind the house, a large hayfield, a nearby brook, and a wood beside and above the house. Water flowed by gravity from a spring a half mile away in woods beyond the hayfield, piped directly to the kitchen sink with secondary lines to the stable, and to a small brick box built on the edge of a hollowed-out ledge, a tiny pond beside the house. The box served as a refrigerator, a miniature spring house, there being no electricity. There was a privy (regular seat, two windows, cement catchment areas with cleanout door) attached to the barn, and finally, pretty flower gardens along the front of the house. I will have some hard things to say about Corbin before I’m done, but I must say that he and his wife had an eye for beautiful simplicity that made living there, despite our trials, an enduring pleasure. It was already rented for the summer, so we leased it, beginning September first, for two years for $270.

The most important thing, what became a key to another world, was revealed in the print shop when Willie picked up a thin booklet and handed it to me. “Corbin wrote this; you might find it useful.” It was called “Towards Simple Living.” The name will probably alert most of my readers, but it meant nothing to us; we were complete innocents. We were attracted to Corbin’s place, and we wanted to get away from academic life, and that was all that was in our heads. We weren’t accustomed to looking ahead, we weren’t careerists, we weren’t even prudent. To say that we were unworldly is the understatement of the year; we were better described as anti-worldly. We had no idea what we were doing or where we were going. You would think that a booklet describing a way of life based on this house would be a powerful influence on our lives, and it was and it wasn’t, as I shall explain in a moment. First let me describe the booklet.

It introduced us to a concept, a way of thinking and acting, an informal movement and a collection of individuals — all wholly bogus — that would shadow our lives as a sort of parallel universe hovering over us, a veil obscuring to onlookers our real lives, even today. Corbin made all the claims I would later recognize as hallmarks of the genre: That by living the Simple Life he avoided the harassing complications and rampant materialism of modern life; freed from the drudgery of earning money, he had time to cultivate the higher aspects of life; by foregoing what the world was pleased to call riches, he acquired spiritual riches, and so on. For example, when his wife scrubbed sheets in the tiny pond beside the house, Ralph sat under an apple tree and read poetry to her, surely a much more edifying, more spiritual act than driving to a laundromat in town. The tone was smug, condescending, even contemptuous. In time, in a couple of years, I would realize that Corbin was a bush league Scott Nearing, but then I knew nothing.

You would think, given our ignorance, that we would be easily duped, but we were saved by an education that trained us to think critically about the printed word, and we found the tone off-putting, and all the simpering about the virtues of his life made us uneasy. We came away as agnostics, neither believing nor disbelieving, but we were interested and curious, wondering if our move might have more meaning that we thought.

I have said that we were innocent and imprudent; that, too, is another understatement, but its full meaning will come out in our story. It is enough now to tell you that I was about to turn 29, Jo Ann was 27, and we had four children, Seth, Jesse, Nell, and Curdie, aged from 7 to 2. Our assets were a cow, a dozen hens, the produce from our summer’s garden, and $300.

On Saturday evening of the Labor Day weekend in 1962, we drove north in a truck, three or four cars accompanying us, from Massachusetts to Corbin’s place. Our companions were former students and friends come to help us get started, and the trip was regarded as a gay lark. One of the group slipped ahead and lit the lamps, so when we arrived and walked into the house, into the warm yellow light cast by the oil lamps, it was as if we were being welcomed to a new life already prepared for us.

Breakfast was barely over next morning when the cow, brought from the Woodwrights, arrived in a truck, and I, sensing that my friends expected me to demonstrate my farmerhood, casually led the cow up to the pasture behind the house. Standing there for a moment, looking down on the farm, watching smoke rise from the chimney, I did feel like Farmer Jigs surveying his domain. As I started back, an old green pickup drove into the yard.

When I got down to the house, the driver, a dirty, strongly-built man who looked 45 or so, but was in his late 30s, with tiny, almost slanted eyes and closely cropped hair, was grinning at some joke evidently not shared by the others, who were watching him with unsmiling faces.

“I was just asking whether they thought you’d last the winter, heh heh.”

I was to know Phil Otis for nine years, and I doubt if I heard him make more than half a dozen straight statements; everything was couched in mocking negatives pointed by the “heh heh” that was more a dying wheeze than a chuckle. I became so used to his manner that I hardly noticed it, but he certainly did his best that morning to deflate our spirits.

“I spilled a quart of milk on the running board last Christmas and it stayed frozen there till May, heh heh.”

He delivered these happy gems like a morbid standup comic, one line after another, until I managed to interrupt the gloomy flow to find out that he lived in the dark house we could see on the other side of the steep gorge that split the hill, directly opposite us but somewhat lower, across half a mile of space. I asked him, thinking of his dire predictions, if he had painted it black to absorb this sun’s heat.

“There’s damned little heat for it to absorb. That’s tarpaper sheathing; it isn’t finished yet, heh heh,” he said shortly, as if he were put out by the question. As he got back in his truck he said, “Corbin never stayed the winter, you know, heh heh.”

I dismissed that as more of his dismalness, because I was sure Corbin said he lived there year ’round.

We were unloading our household goods when another pickup appeared bearing a ruddy-faced farmer, Elias Turgeon, a school board member there to discuss the enrollment of our two boys in the first and second grades of the village school. They would have to walk eastward down the hill a mile and a half to the highway to meet the bus; the other way, up and over the hill westward to the village, was two and a half miles and a bus couldn’t drive up the hill in winter because of wind and ice. Before he left, he told us some of the history of the Corbin place where his family, the last people to really farm it, lived in the 1930s.

We finished unloading the truck just as another visitor came, a woman driving an old jeep with a heap of baskets in the back. She was small, with graying hair pulled back into an untidy bun, wearing khaki pants and a faded flannel shirt. Where were we from? What were we doing? What were our plans? There was no finesse in her approach; she just cornered me on the porch and interrogated me in a strong Brooklyn accent. Her attention was distracted, however, by the sight through a window of the table set for lunch. When the food began to be laid out, her questions became so perfunctory and she paid so little attention to my answers that I invited her in for lunch.

I must have known her full name once, but all I can recall is “Mrs. B.,” the name by which everyone knew her. She said she had a summer place down on the highway where she stayed from May to November, when her husband came to fetch her home. It was hard to pry that much out of her; she was as secretive as she was nosy. She ate a lot, but made it seem much less by the way she picked at her food, asking questions all the time. Was the food organic? Munch munch. Did we read Organic Gardening? Munch munch. Did we know about the happy Hunzas? It was impossible to kid her. She was humorless, pursuing her whacky queries in a loud, edgy voice, ignoring our little jokes.

At the end of the meal, still reaching for any tidbits in sight, she announced that she had come to harvest the garden planted there by the woman who had lived here in the summer, implying by a muttered jumble of words that Mrs. Allen had promised it to her. This was delivered as she was going out the door, and she moved so fast that she was gathering her baskets at the jeep before I could catch up with her.

“Mrs. Allen left this note for me,” I said holding it out.

“I don’t have my glasses,” she said over her shoulder.

I went ahead, blocking her way. “It says she’s coming by next Saturday to pick the garden, and she asks me to keep an eye on it.”

Mrs. B. peered to either side, estimating her chances, but finally she turned, said something about a “misunderstanding,” climbed back into her jeep, and drove off. I was amused. As I finally learned nearly two years later (and it was Jo Ann who had to teach me) it was a mistake to treat her as a joke; miserly greed is heartless.

The task of milking the cow loomed at the end of the day. Although I had worked on farms for years, and I knew the theory, I had never done it. Nor did I have the muscle. My forearms would get so tired that I could use only one hand at a time, frequently changing, and it was a couple of months before I could milk with both hands simultaneously. That evening I took more than an hour. Luckily, Aster (all the Woodwright’s cows had picturesque names — it was part of the scene) was an old, in fact very old, cow who didn’t take offence at my manhandling of her teats as a younger cow would. Done, I thought at last, turning her back into the pasture. But I had doubts, so I went after her and milked her right there in the pasture. Eventually satisfied, I started for the house, but again assailed by doubts, I turned back. Even Aster had her limits, and when she saw me coming she fled right out of the pasture — not difficult, since the fence was a ruin. Our friends caught her and held her on the front lawn for the third milking. I’ll spare you the details of two more assaults on the poor cow, once back in the stable and once tied to the pasture fence, but I secured all her milk.

When we tried the milk the next morning we were disappointed: it had a slightly dirty taste, not sour, but just not the wholesome flavor of fresh milk. Well, we said, that’s our luck — some cows taste better than others. When Willie came by that morning to see how we were doing and learned about the milk, he reached for a cup off the shelf, took my arm, and headed for the pasture.

“There’s nothing wrong with Aster’s milk. I’ll show you.”

He held her collar and told me to milk a little into the cup. Fortunately, he was on the other side, so he couldn’t see me straining. My performance in the stable that morning was an improvement, but it was still an alarming sight.

“What in hell are you doing?” he asked impatiently.

“All done,” I said, struggling to my feet.

“Why’s your face so red?”

“Sunburn.”

He took a sip and handed the cup back. “Nothing wrong with that.”

I tried it and it tasted fine.

“Let’s see your milk pail.”

The dented old galvanized bucket was clean enough; I had scrubbed it meticulously before I used it, but as Willie pointed out, it had seams and there would always be dirt in seams no matter how hard I scrubbed — we needed a seamless bucket. Which is how our porcelainized diaper pail, cover and all, became our primary milk bucket, remaining so for over 30 years. We had no trouble with the milk after that.

Next installment: the “Simple Life” continued.     *

Monday, 06 February 2023 12:34

Waiting for the ’60s

Waiting for the ’60s

Jigs Gardner

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.

To return to America after spending 30 years in another country is to experience, I learned, the Rip Van Winkle effect: those who have stayed put have become accustomed to changes that accumulate incrementally over the years, changes that, to Rip, are dramatic and startling. It may be that such a viewpoint can alert us to the significance of things whose familiarity has dulled our perceptions.

I went to a meeting of the Men’s Monthly Reading Club with high hopes and some doubts. Would it be a genuine literary, even intellectual evening, something I hadn’t enjoyed since I left the academic groves in 1962? I was only slightly acquainted with the members, but I knew they belonged to that wave of people who have moved to the countryside over the last several years, men in their 40s and 50s who seem to be semi-employed (or semi-retired), or who have fluff jobs with government agencies, well-off people who do not make their living by physical labor. I suppose “yuppies” would be the term. For the last 40 years I have been a farmer, most of that time on a remote farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, working with loggers, fishermen, and other farmers, men of substance in their own sphere. But they were not literary or intellectual, and when we moved back to the U.S. in 2001, I hoped to meet men who were, but I was disappointed. Friendly and charming as the yuppies were, they seemed shallow, hollow, their conversation nothing more than politically correct received attitudes. I was being unfair, I thought; I had spent very little time in their company, I hardly knew them, and besides, surely members of a reading club had to have literary interests.

The meeting was at Mike’s, and he led off with a “funny” New Yorker story, embarrassingly bad, which made him laugh so much someone else had to finish reading it. Everyone agreed it was hilarious. I kept my own counsel and told myself to be patient; this was just the beginning. Charlie read passages from a ’60s book about house-building — profound insights into the Zen of a two-by-four, and bits from Thoreau. Charlie said how basic, how elemental building was, and Bruce said it expressed one’s self, and Mike said one discovered one’s self. Bruce read an incomprehensible manifesto (I think) by an architect, which he couldn’t explain. That fell flat. The next reading, a diatribe against religion from an old Whole Earth Catalog, touched the chords of memory: How it awakened nostalgia for the heady days of the ’60s when they were in their teens, probably envious onlookers, a time that still speaks to them, as they fondly recalled, of excitement, of freedom, of experiment and open horizons. So, this is what my big intellectual night out comes down to, I thought disgustedly. As I listened sourly to another trite New Yorker story, my patience snapped.

“It’s a cliché from beginning to end. By the third sentence you know everything that’s going to be said, everything that’s going to happen,” I snarled.

The protests that followed their shocked silence were muted but insistent and I, thinking we were finally having a literary argument, robustly replied until I realized they were tying to make me understand (without quite saying so) that criticism was never to be voiced. Well, you can hardly have a collective wallow in ’60s nostalgia with a carping critic in your midst.

I had no intention of going to another meeting, but they were stuck for a place to hold it and I felt I owed them something for the original invitation, so they met in our kitchen. I opened with a reading of the concluding pages of Roger Kimball’s “Architecture and Ideology” from the December New Criterion, thinking such a fine piece of writing would impress everyone, especially Charlie and Bruce, the architects. The argument, its opinions and judgments, seemed so unexceptionable that I never gave a thought to its impact on the club members.

Big mistake. I had not taken these men seriously, I had not thought about the implications of their attitudes revealed at the last meeting. Kimball condemned the absurdities of two faddish architects, in the process enunciating a humanistic standard, a double sin: he expressed a judgment, and it wasn’t politically correct. Of course, that wasn’t the way Charlie and Bruce put it. What they said, and they said it vehemently, was that no ideas, no matter how absurd they might seem to Roger Kimball and me, should be condemned. In effect, the concept of a critical standard was itself anathema. So criticism was allowed — but only of criticism and the critical spirit. As the evening wore on, I thought of the work I could be doing, and I swore this would be my last meeting. My hopeful expectations had been foolish; men like this were never literary or intellectual, they always picked up their opinions and attitudes (they can hardly be called ideas) from right-thinking middlebrow sources, but in the past their views, I recalled, were not so uniform. Their conformity, the like of which I’ve never seen before, really struck me. Their ’60s nostalgia was telling too — all their well-worn thoughts were minted then. I had the eerie feeling that I was on a dusty stage set, listening to speeches from a play closed long ago.

How apposite that image would prove to be at the next meeting, to which I went eagerly after Mike told me a publisher would be there (I would impress him with my reading and then he’d ask if I had any more like that at home, and then . . . he turned out to be an editor of children’s books.) I was surprised to see Father Miller (“Just call me Bob”), the recently retired pastor of the Episcopal Church, and I wondered what he would read. Mike read another drearily “funny” New Yorker story, but the general quality of the readings seemed better, although certain ’60s themes — the evils of capitalism, environmental disaster, consumerism — made their appearance. Then Father Miller took the floor.

“As some of you know, I just got back yesterday from Washington where I participated in the gigantic anti-war rally.”

“Good for you!”

“Terrific!”

“Way to go!”

“Now I want to read an editorial from The New York Times that gets it just right.”

The editorial predictably praised the rally, but Father Miller was most pleased by its assertion that the crowd represented “mainstream” America, and he kept reverting to that conceit. His listeners nodded vigorously; it was very important for them to think they were representative of American society, but I wondered at their credulity when the only speakers Father Miller could recall were those famously mainstream figures, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I don’t suppose they realize what a small percentage of the local population they represent, nor do they know how disliked and resented they are by the country people. Then Father Miller made a snide remark about President Bush, and that was the signal for what I can only describe as a general frenzy as everyone loudly added their near-hysterical denunciations. Listening, what I heard was a yearning for the glory days of the past, but their words had the studied quality, combined with bizarre deviations of an imperfectly remembered script: the media are in a conspiracy to keep the truth from us by playing down the anti-war rallies; the media are controlled by three or four people (nods, dark looks, murmurs); where’s Teddy Kennedy now, this should be his moment.

These men have never recovered from the ’60s, which is why their thoughts are so childish — if their rallies don’t garner as much attention as those of the ’60s, there must be a media conspiracy — and they are desperately conformist because they sense their sudden vulnerability. Bush was despised as the antithesis of their beau ideal Bill Clinton; now he is hated as the architect of the patriotic, militant response to terrorism. They greatly fear the ’60s aren’t coming, and they are right — they died on 9/11.

Meanwhile, Mike announced that he’s getting a teepee, and he thinks it will be big enough for club meetings.     *

“’Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” —Thomas Paine     *

The Diogenes Club

Jigs Gardner

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. This essay was written in 2005, during the second presidential administration of George W. Bush.

Back in the summer of 2003 I still had occasional contacts with the yuppies. Mark asked if I’d heard about the meeting set for later in the month when plans for “a sort of political group, the Diogenes Club,” would be concerted. “There’ll be music and maybe poetry readings, drinks, just an informal affair.” I asked about the name. “Well, we’re looking for an honest man to back for the election, one who hasn’t already sold out.” That last remark sold me; I had to go.

Mark, however, drew back. “Oh, but you’re a conservative.” I smiled. “So what? I’m still interested. . . . But why don’t you work with the Democratic Committee in town?” He waved his hand in dismissal. “Oh, they’ll be following the party line and we want to make an independent choice.” We talked about the various Democratic contenders, and then the conversation drifted to other things, but when we parted I reminded him to let me know when the meeting would be.

I heard no more, and I forgot about it until a couple of months afterward, when I noticed, in a poster advertising a pro-Palestinian speaker at a local library, these words: “Sponsored by the Diogenes Club.” Later, there were the same words on an announcement of an antiwar rally. Recalling the conversation, turning it over in my mind, I saw much that illuminated yuppie thinking. Readers will have noted already the hypocrisy of the club’s name: If you’re seeking truth you don’t confine your search to only one political persuasion; being conservative does not preclude knowledge of the truth. But there is more than hypocritical partisanship here, more that bears on the question, for example, of liberal media bias. That charge, whose validity was so obvious in the recent presidential campaign, is always denied, with varying degrees of sincerity, by the culprits because, I think, the charge is poorly stated and quite misses the real enormity of what’s going on. I had a discussion with a lefty minister a couple of years ago that is pertinent. He had been trying for some time to convince me that modern agriculture was a Bad Thing, and on this occasion produced an article from The New York Times, but I stopped him, saying that the paper’s point of view compromised anything it would publish on farming. “In fact,” I said, “I could easily write the article without even seeing it.” He was taken aback, speechless for some moments, until he blurted out that The Times “didn’t publish lies.” I explained that that wasn’t the issue, that The Times, like every other publication, had a point of view which influenced the way it perceived and reported things, and that no point of view had a lock on truth. He could not take it in. Everyone he knew read the paper, everyone relied on it to publish the Truth (I heard the capital in his voice), so who was I to challenge it? It took some time to get him to admit that publications, like people, have differing points of view, but that was as far as he would go. The argument, however, was revealing (to me at least). Media types laugh off the liberal bias charge because they genuinely believe they’re publishing truth; anything to the contrary must be fabricated by villains who, deep down, know the truth (how could anyone not know it since it’s so obvious?) but for partisan reasons won’t admit it.

Mark’s statement that they were looking for a man “who hasn’t already sold out” was ignorant, because it showed a complete lack of understanding of politics, and self-righteous, because the words imply superiority to the political process. Politics (to state the obvious) in a democracy is the way different points of view are represented and reconciled, and no one can be a player unless he has “sold out” in the sense that a politician always represents a point of view, often more than one when different issues are considered. If he did not already appear to be sympathetic to certain points of view he would not be nominated or even considered for nomination. To Mark, “selling out” means representing points of view Mark doesn’t like. To think like that and to be so blind, is childish.

Whence this infantilism? These men were mesmerized by the ’60s (roughly the decade 1965-75) when they were in their teens, and they like to think, as they utter the old clichés and pantomime the creaky routines, they are reenacting these stirring times. But as Karl Marx pointed out, when history repeats itself it does so as comedy, as farce. To understand why these successful, affluent men in their 50s are so childish, we must examine the ’60s. It has always seemed to me that analyses of the period have been weak because they have not sufficiently considered its origins. I think it can be traced ultimately to the Romantic revolt of the late 18th century against Enlightenment rationalism, but for our purposes we need not go back that far; it will do to glance at the period just before World War I, when so many young artists and writers were bewitched by radical attitudes (not systematic ideas), which were reflected in their work on into the ’20s and ’30s. When I was in college in the early ’50s much of the modern literature taught then was marked by cynicism about middle-class values and about America in general. No professor (in the English Department at any rate) disagreed with the indictment; in fact, I think they took some pleasure in jolting the “bourgeois” certitudes of their students. Understand me: these were not the radical professors of a later time; thoroughly bourgeois themselves, their classroom poses were little more than a way of asserting their superiority to their students and to boobs outside the privileged academic groves. But the poses had consequences, not so much for the students, not then, but for themselves and the institutions in which they worked. When, a decade or so later, radicalism erupted among students and there were sit-ins and takeovers and whatnot, the faculties and administrators were, almost without exception, unable to cope. Not only had the students thrown in their faces the lessons they themselves (half seriously) taught, but their belief in their institutions and in America itself had been so hollowed out by decades of cynicism that they were incapable of mounting the sort of defense the moment required, a defense that would have been convincing only from men who were intellectually and morally sure of the bona fides of their institutions and their country. The result, as we all know, was the capitulation of the academy and its subsequent corruption and decline, at least so far as the Humanities are concerned. I am interested, however, in another aspect of the situation: the disappearance of adults.

A friend, recalling his college years in the ’50s, said that although he didn’t like some of his professors and thought a few incompetent, he respected them as adults. When he read critical comments on his papers, he was ashamed and took the lessons to heart. But in the ’60s adults in that sense were in short supply or wholly absent. We can see this phenomenon at large if we recall the general response at the time, reflected in the media. How many times were we exhorted to listen to “the kids” who were “trying to tell us something.” How many times were we told this was the brightest generation of students ever. So there was no one around, no one who would command respect to tell the ’60s people they were ignorant and childish. They and their acolytes have gone on, have grown up (without maturing) into middle-aged men still thinking as they did when they were adolescents. Not all of them, of course; experience has wised up many, but I think it fair to say that much of a generation of a certain class of men were permanently infantilized by the failure of an earlier generation to be adults in a time of testing.

Although we still live in a world created by the ’60s, the rise of conservatism and the shrinkage of liberal hegemony shook the confidence of yuppies even before 9/11 — hence the extreme conformity, something that astonished me when I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 2001 after living 30 years in Canada. Not only did they share a unanimous opinion on every imaginable issue, but they shunned anyone suspected of different views. Shortly after a yuppie noticed a picture of President Bush on our kitchen wall, one of her friends, a regular buyer of our farm products, stopped in to buy some bacon, and while I sliced it, making small talk, I saw she was very nervous. After she had hurried out the door, my wife wondered why the woman was so scared. Well, it might have been anything, but since she never came here again, I’m pretty sure it was a case of that feeling liberals claim when they say they’re “frightened” of President Bush, or of the “religious right.” If you do not subscribe wholly to their point of view, you are not just someone with whom they disagree, you are a beast, a troglodyte poised to do some hideous but unspecified crime. This conformity, clinging ever more closely to like-minded comrades while nervously shunning perceived opponents, has intensified since 9/11, and the recent election shows the workings of the Diogenes Club and its thinking. The same arrogant assumption of the monopoly of truth and its corollary that anyone with a different point of view had to be a villain or a benighted fool was a major factor in the defeat of the Democrats, not only because it got people’s backs up, but because it prevented Democrats from taking the President and his supporters seriously, prevented them from seeing that his point of view was substantive and that it was shared to a significant degree by a majority of Americans. If you think your opponent is a liar and a fool, there’s no need to engage his ideas. Politics then becomes nothing more than a Michael Moore orgy of vilification, shadow boxing in the dark while your opponent walks off with the prize. Belief systems in decline always face this problem: quiet self-confidence gives way to bluster; opponents amiably dismissed become hated and feared bogeymen; insufficiently warm comrades are seen as traitors (so the media was accused of conservative bias); and, finally, circulating lies in the cause of truth, as Dan Rather did, becomes a righteous duty.

As if this were not enough, a significant portion of the Democratic Party, like the denizens of the Diogenes Club, were fatally afflicted by the ’60s, rendered forever childish in their public judgments, so the prospects for renewal and revival, which are dependent on relentlessly honest self-criticism, itself a function of maturity, look bleak.     *

“It is hostile to a democratic system to involve the judiciary in the politics of the people.” — Felix Frankfurter

Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Significant Knowledge

Jigs Gardner

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.     *

Letters From a Conservative Farmer — A Country Adolescence

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Some readers may remember National Review back in the days when William Buckley edited it. Its composition was markedly different from what it is today — all politics, all the time. Buckley had room for a cookery column by Nika Hazelton, a countryside column by Bill Rickenbacker, and other excursions outside the realm of politics, because he believed that being conservative meant much more than a mere political allegiance. A conservative should be interested in as much of life as he can apprehend.

These letters, unpretentious essays, are offered in that spirit. They also have a didactic purpose, because I fear that conservatives are not as well informed about what goes on in the countryside these days, ignorant of the forces that are seeking to mold the countryside to their designs.

We have been farmers (of a sort, as you shall learn) since 1962, first in Vermont, then for thirty years on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and now in the Champlain Valley in New York. These essays are based on our experiences of the last forty-eight years, as well as some earlier ones of mine.

A Country Adolescence

(I learn a conservative moral lesson and unconsciously assimilate a conservative ideal.)

When I was in my fourteenth year, in the spring of 1947, we moved to a small saltbox house in what was then rolling farm country in central New Jersey, to an area called Waln’s Mill, and there I lived, when I was not away at school, for nearly the whole of the next four years.

The house, humble, homely, comfortable, shaded by tall tulip trees and white oaks, seemed to grow naturally out of the small clearing backed by dark woods, halfway up a hill that rose gradually from the creek bottom. In the front, across the dirt road that ran below a bank, the land fell away, on one hand opening a vista of swampy meadows sweeping down to the great trees bordering the creek, and above us, of hayfields stretching up the hillside, of hedgerows and distant woods. Right down the middle of the view was a farm lane that began across from our house, winding its way between the fields to disappear around a far bend.

At first, just being in the countryside filled my days and my imagination: A screech owl in the woods behind the house; swimming in the muddy creek; a marsh hawk gliding back and forth just over the meadows; stepping on what appeared to be a dry hard cow pie; a huge snapping turtle in the creek bank mud; vultures soaring in the summer sky; wild strawberries so plentiful in the roadside grass that we made jam and even ice cream; the smell of country rain; dewy cobwebs in the grass; hiding under the bridge from Jerry, the runaway bull.

Lanes, woods roads, chance forest openings have always been temptations to me, as if I had an obligation to explore them, to see where they ended up. And there was the farm lane right in front of me, dusty, still under the summer sky, latent with purpose and movement, quickened for a few minutes each day with the passage of Mr. Crow’s old black Ford pickup. Going away from me, the truck got smaller and smaller, emerged from a dip where a stream ran, passed the weathered empty tenant house (latent itself with its missing life, still under a shadowy elm, its rhubarb patch struggling in a sea of witch grass) and then around the bend, glimpsed once more through a gap in the honeysuckle that swarmed over the fences, leaving at last a drifting dust cloud and the final dying noise. But I did not follow it to its end, not yet, not then, perhaps because I knew there was a farm at the end of it, the source of the cows pasturing in the meadows. Because of the haying in the hillside fields, the farm finally became for me the image of, the definition of farming, a symbol that derived some of its great power from the ignorance of the city boy who conceived it. I would not casually stroll up the lane into the field of force generated by that symbol.

We lived in that countryside, but we were not of it; we didn’t make our living there, we were only onlookers. On summer evenings we sat on the lawn to watch Mr. Crow’s farmhands drive the slowly moving herd out to pasture after milking; on fine afternoons, while the men were haying in the field across the road, we played badminton; awakened at dawn by the clang of milk cans being loaded onto the truck at the end of the lane, we turned over and gratefully went back to sleep. It was I who established a connection, however tenuous, with the countryside. It came about because, in our area where small-scale general farming prevailed, farms did a little of everything: Raised grain; shipped milk; raised poultry; sold piglets, vegetables, eggs, honey, and fruit; grew tomatoes on contract for canneries; and so on. Mr. Crow’s regime belonged to the 19th century, maybe even the 18th. He milked twenty or so Jerseys, but the stock was poor and inbred (Jerry being the only sire), the hayfields were not regularly plowed and fertilized, and the pastures were largely wasteland. He lived in a handsome, rambling farmhouse built in the early 1700s, with his farmhands, two or three elderly men like himself who did what had to be done to maintain the farm from day to day, and little else. On dark winter days when sleet beat against the windows, they lay on the hearth before the wide fireplace, drinking cider from the barrel in the cellar and spitting tobacco juice into the flames. These men, in fact, were really much more than farmhands; they were countrymen of a type now vanished, sturdy, self-reliant men who could turn a skillful hand to any country task: Axmen who could fell a tree and hew it into beams to build a barn; honey-gatherers who calmly hived swarms of wild bees; husbandmen who could train a green horse to plow; slaughterers and butchers; tool makers and menders; veterinarians who could heal wounds and deliver difficult calves; weather prophets; hunters who knew how to set snares and where pheasants nested. Much of their time was spent hunting, fishing, and trapping, and we would often see one or another — tall gaunt men in rough clothing, crossing the meadow toward the creek with a long fishing rod, or passing along the hedgerows, rifle in hand.

On a still August evening one of the hands, out hunting woodchucks, a tall shambling man, stepped across the road from the hayfield to chat with us as we sat on the grass watching the dusk come up out of the meadows. I sat to one side watching him — he introduced himself as Bub Archer — fascinated by his strangeness, his difference from anyone I knew. His face was rough, weathered, deeply tanned, slab-sided with a prominent Roman nose, and he chewed tobacco! I actually saw the plug in his cheek, and now and then he turned and spat behind him. He told stories about his many hunting adventures, and Mother remarked that he must’ve begun at an early age.

“Oh, I was a little smaller than the shaver here, maybe I was eight or nine,” he said, smiling at me.

I blushed and looked away; I knew I was small for my age.

Bub turned up the next evening with a joint of cooked woodchuck, wrapped in a bit of waxed paper, and nothing would do but we must try it. I remember him standing tall under the low, sloping kitchen ceiling, laughing, showing his tobacco-stained teeth, as we gingerly tasted the meat. It was, just as Bub had said, rather like pot roast.

So, I became a hunter. Not because of the meat, you understand — that was just a pretext. It was the figure of Bub Archer, my Deerslayer, that inspired my adolescent imagination, and although I spoke to him only two or three times after that, I needed only that meeting to send me forth to the woods and fields with my Model 68 Winchester single shot .22, morning and evening, wearing cut-off dungarees and a pair of moccasins, hunting knife at my belt. In those four summers I killed only one woodchuck, soon after I began, but I persisted because it was more than a material quest, and like all such enterprises, something of a mystery, at least to me. Of course, there was the fantasy of the hunt and the woodsman in the primeval wilderness, and there was the wonderfully keen pleasure of solitary observation, all my senses alert, alive to everything around me, but I also think that this satisfied, for the time being, a wish to make some connection with the countryside.

By next summer, Mr. Crow’s leisurely regime was gone — he had sold the farm to a young couple, the Davises, and the farming pace picked up. There were more cows, the fields were plowed and planted, and there was an air of bustle about the place. We began buying our milk there — ten cents for a two-quart jar of Jersey milk with thick gobs of cream floating in it. And for me, the agricultural era was about to begin.

One muggy afternoon when thunderheads loomed on the horizon, Bob Davis drove into our yard, anxious for help with the hay harvest. Apprehensive as I was, fearful of the farm and of my own ignorance and inexperience, how could I refuse? For the next couple of hours I staggered alongside a flatbed truck, heaving up hay bales. When it was all safely mowed away and Dot Davis brought pitchers of milk and big platters of sandwiches out to the barn floor, I fell on the food voraciously, shaking with hunger and fatigue. I had never done any real work in my life. Walking down the once-forbidding lane, jingling 70 cents in my pocket (35 cents an hour), I sensed the significance of the experience and I felt the beginning of pride.

Bob had regular hands, but during that summer and the next two I was often hired for specific jobs, like handling bags of grain on the combine, or picking tomatoes, or pulling tassels from hybrid corn. I was not paid much, but I knew I wasn’t worth much, something brought home to me when I worked alongside Dean, a local boy my age, another temporary hand. He was slightly built, but having been raised to it he knew how to do a job of work. When we picked tomatoes, Dean, despite my best efforts, always finished his row first, well ahead. We were not really competing; Dean was just doing his job as he always did, moving right along at a steady clip without pause or wasted motion. It seems odd that I was no more than mildly chagrined by his obvious superiority, but there were special reasons for my lack of rancor. For one thing, Dean was a fine boy, quiet, polite, modest, friendly, trustworthy. For a wonder, he never scorned my poor efforts nor flaunted his ability, as other boys would’ve done. For another, although I wanted to have some relation to the rural scene in which Dean so admirably fitted, the wish was not deep; I knew I was an outsider, that I belonged to another scene, that in the fall I would return to boarding school, and eventually I might go on to college, moving into a world where I could not foresee that my ability to pick tomatoes or buck bales would matter at all.

My favorite job was combining. Bob drove the tractor, while I stood, swaying on a platform in back of the combine, bagging the grain as it came down a pipe. Combining took forever. Often, we would be at it all day, even till dusk. I loved it, riding around and around the field, out in the sun, like the grain handler of the world. Sometimes when we worked late, folks from our house would drive out to the field with bottles of cold beer, and we would all sit on the flatbed truck and drink beer and laugh and talk, and in the dusk we could feel the coolness coming up from the creek bottom.

Bob grew tomatoes on contract for a cannery in Trenton, and I would go with him when he took in a load. The day before, several of us would load the ’38 Chevy flatbed with a great pyramidal pile of baskets of tomatoes. At three o’clock the next morning the truck would slowly grind along the lane, lights on in the misty pre-dawn darkness, and I would run across the lawn, jump down the bank, and scramble into the cab. He left so early in order to get a good place in the line, but there was always a long line ahead of us. Sometimes it was midnight before we were unloaded. We spent the day napping, chatting with other farmers in line, talking about all kinds of things, smelling the pervasive odor of canning tomatoes. It was, more often than not, a dull way to spend a day, and I was not paid for it either; I was just along to keep Bob company. But only once did I miss, and after the truck had left me behind, just waking, I jumped on my bike and pedaled the fourteen miles to Trenton. Why did I go?

Like all thoughtful, serious men, Bob had a strong, subtle sense of humor, and I suppose I looked on our relationship as all larks, although I respected and admired him, without consciously thinking about it, for depths that at 14 and 15 and 16 I could only sense, not know, not name. But they came to the surface for a moment during my last summer there, just before I turned 17. I had taken advantage of the cannery trips to ogle the girls we saw on the streets, remarking coarsely on their charms to Bob. The last time I did this, and you’ll understand in a moment why it was the last time, Bob, who always spoke deliberately in a voice that was not deep, but which seemed to come from far inside him, quietly rebuked my coarseness and then went on to ask if I did not intend to preserve my virginity until marriage? That had been his sexual code, he said.

The effect was devastating. At once I felt very small, very callow. What made such a great impression was his depth contrasted to my shallowness. When he spoke gravely, as he did then, I felt the words as natural growths, consequences that flowed inevitably from an extraordinary breadth of character imbued with experience, knowledge, and wisdom; they were not words of the moment off the top of his head, conventional clichés. Bob was the first person to address me on such a level with such piercing conviction, and the impact was terrific. And there was more, something moving in the way he spoke to me. I think Bob was really shy, not given to glib expressions of his moral sentiments, so it cost him something to overcome his reticence to speak across the gap that separates all of us from each other, and I felt that in the delicacy with which he spoke.

Some years ago, one of my sisters surprised me by asking if was Bob Davis who had inspired me to become a farmer. I had not thought of the Davises for years, and now, thinking back, I could say with surety that farming never entered my head as a possible occupation then. Statesman, general, actor, lawyer, author, senator, yes, but farmer? Any form of manual labor (I did not know then how much intellectual labor farming demanded) beyond a teenager’s summer job was not part of my world. It was not that I thought I was too good for it, but simply that in my class and situation only certain occupations were even conceivable. Besides, there had been other, much more recent influences, farmers I had worked for in New England. Thinking about them, recalling how and why I had respected and admired them, I realized they were of the same species as Bob: grave, humorous, sage men of great integrity, whose lives seemed to me a credit to humanity. Yet they were unheroic, unsung, ordinary men of what was quickly becoming an antique rural world, citizens of the Republic. General farmers all, they provided me with a pattern of farming as well as behavior and character.

I knew none of this at the time, and I gave up that life without a qualm. In the last year I lived in New Jersey, before I went away to college, I was hardly ever at Waln’s Mill. Living in the northern part of the state, I worked as a golf course greens keeper that summer, and spent my evenings playing miniature golf with my dopey girlfriend. Meanwhile, the fireflies were thick in the creek bottom, there were oats to be combined and hay to be made, a marsh hawk hunted the meadows, and the boy with the .22 was missing from the hedgerows and fields. I shake my head when I think of it, but it had to be done; I had to turn away from that life to seek what I thought was my fortune in what I thought was the world, and it was fitting that I should do it lightly, without a backward glance. I had to go away to come back — not to the same place, I mean. I never returned to New Jersey, but I did become a pokey general farmer and more than half a century after I first met Bob Davis, I realize that I have been trying unconsciously (and with indifferent success) to model my character on his.

Nevertheless, it would be nice to go back to that one rural place. I put down my pen and daydream that some of the family still live at Waln’s Mill. What I’d really like, I guess, is that it should be the summer of 1950 again, and I can feel the rhythm of the combine, chaff flies up golden in the sun, and I can hear Bob say, as I climb into the old truck at 3 a.m., “Well, well, and how’s Jigsy this morning?”

“Liberty must at all hazards be supported” —John Adams.   *

Letters from a Conservative Farmer — The Old Red Mill

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I have before me a cookbook, The View from Grandma’s Kitchen, given to us by Vesta Kempton. Since it has a 1978 copyright, and we moved to Canada from Vermont in 1971, Vesta must have mailed it to us. Her inscription, “Lest we forget our mill,” is a testimony to her regard for us and our friendship over the years. The book features a drawing of the mill, a description of cider pressing, and a recipe for making one of its most unusual products, boiled cider, of which Jim and Vesta Kempton were once the only producers in Vermont.

Circumstances led us to meeting them during the 1960s when we were running a small private school for boys who couldn’t be educated in regular schools (don’t ask; just accept it as a given). We had five boys who lived with us in addition to our four children. We had driven about the countryside for several days, gathering apples. There were a number of empty farms in the area, and it was surprising how many apple trees were left to drop their fruit in the grass. We soon gathered a truck full of apples, far too many to be processed in our small hand press, so I set forth one morning heading south where I knew there were commercial presses. I stopped at a few beside the road, but they were no more than larger versions of my own hand-operated mill.

In South Northfield, I came to the Old Red Mill. There was a stand beside the road that sold cider and apples and, down by the creek, perhaps 30 yards away, was the mill. There I met Jim Kempton, ready to do business. I had to carry the bags of apples up a short steep stairway to a small room with an opening in its floor, into which I poured the apples until Jim closed the opening with a sliding door. The apples fell through a chipper onto a rack covered by a nylon cloth. Jim folded the ends of the cloth over the apples, put another cloth-covered rack on top of it and reopened the sliding door.

This procedure continued until Jim had a sufficient stack of chopped apples (about 10 bushels of apples), then he began pressing the racks upward, pressing out the juice. It took about one bushel to make three to four gallons of cider. When that was done and he had pressed the last bit of juice, he released the pressure, lowered the stack of pressed apples, and then shook the pressed apples, or pomace, out the window into the stream. When I was present, I shook the pressed apples into boxes and carried them home to feed the pigs.

     

The whole procedure was such a happy arrangement for both of us that I often went there whether or not I had apples. We helped him gather and press apples and we ate at each other’s houses. Just before we left for Canada, we drove down to say goodbye and found Jim and Vesta desperately trying to press apples and at the same time boil down cider to make the rich syrupy boiled cider that they sold to manufacturers of mincemeat. Of course, we had to pitch in. All the children and students helped with the pressing while I boiled the cider to make the syrup. The whole enterprise was a fitting farewell.

The Old Red Mill, I later learned, had a long history. The water-powered mill, which drew power from the Sunny Brook that borders the property, was built in 1898 at a time when there was a well-established water power industry in Northfield. It was used as grist mill and feed store. In the 1930s, a water-powered cider press was added to the original building. By the mid 1940s the mill was shut down until Jim and Vesta bought it at an auction in 1944. They operated it as a grist mill and also made shingles until sometime in the 1940s, when demand declined. They were still producing cider and boiled cider when we met them. As I calculate, they probably retired a few years before the cookbook was published in the late 1970s.

The line drawing in the cookbook is a faithful rendition of the Old Red Mill as I recall it: a simple one-and-a-half-story clapboard structure with a distinctive cupola-like tower projecting from the south gable end. The stand was to one side and featured baskets of apples, jars of syrup, and pumpkins in season. It is no longer operated as a mill, but the building still stands.

Boiled cider is now widely available, sometimes even mixed with maple syrup. If you get yourself some, try this boiled cider pie.

Boiled Cider Pie

1 cup boiled cider syrup (if you can’t find it or want to make your own, boil down 4 cups fresh cider in a heavy saucepan until you have a cup of syrup)

3 eggs, separated

1½ tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup sugar

1 cup milk

1 pastry shell

Combine cider, egg yolks, sugar, milk, flour, and melted butter. Fold in beaten egg whites. Roll out chilled pie dough, enough for a bottom crust. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes, then at 325 degrees F. for 30 minutes.

Adapted from The View from Grandma’s Kitchen, Janet Beyer, Phyllis Higgins, 1978.   *

Letters From a Conservative Farmer — A New Series

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Some readers may remember National Review back in the days when William Buckley edited it. Its composition was markedly different from what it is today — all politics all the time. Buckley had room for a cookery column by Nika Hazelton, a countryside column by Bill Rickenbacker, and other excursions outside the realm of politics, because he believed that being conservative meant much more than a mere political allegiance. A conservative should be interested in as much of life as he can apprehend.

These letters, unpretentious essays, are offered in that spirit. They also have a didactic purpose, because I fear that conservatives are not as well informed about what goes on in the countryside these days, ignorant of the forces that are seeking to mold the countryside to their designs.

We have been farmers (of a sort, as you shall learn) since 1962, first in Vermont, then for thirty years on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and now in the Champlain Valley in New York. These essays are based on our experiences of the last forty-eight years, as well as some earlier ones of mine.

A Country Adolescence

(I learn a conservative moral lesson and unconsciously assimilate a conservative ideal.)

When I was in my fourteenth year, in the spring of 1947, we moved to a small saltbox house in what was then rolling farm country in central New Jersey, to an area called Waln’s Mill, and there I lived, when I was not away at school, for nearly the whole of the next four years.

The house, humble, homely, comfortable, shaded by tall tulip trees and white oaks, seemed to grow naturally out of the small clearing backed by dark woods, halfway up a hill that rose gradually from the creek bottom. In the front, across the dirt road that ran below a bank, the land fell away, on one hand opening a vista of swampy meadows sweeping down to the great trees bordering the creek, and above us, of hayfields stretching up the hillside, of hedgerows and distant woods. Right down the middle of the view was a farm lane that began across from our house, winding its way between the fields to disappear around a far bend.

At first, just being in the countryside filled my days and my imagination: A screech owl in the woods behind the house, swimming in the muddy creek, a marsh hawk gliding back and forth just over the meadows, stepping on what appeared to be a dry hard cow pie, a huge snapping turtle in the creek bank mud, vultures soaring in the summer sky; wild strawberries so plentiful in the roadside grass that we made jam and even ice cream, the smell of country rain, dewy cobwebs in the grass, hiding under the bridge from Jerry, the runaway bull.

Lanes, woods roads, chance forest openings have always been temptations to me, as if I had an obligation to explore them, to see where they ended up. And there was the farm lane right in front of me, dusty, still under the summer sky, latent with purpose and movement, quickened for a few minutes each day with the passage of Mr. Crow’s old black Ford pickup. Going away from me, the truck got smaller and smaller, emerged from a dip where a stream ran, passed the weathered empty tenant house (latent itself with its missing life, still under a shadowy elm, its rhubarb patch struggling in a sea of witch grass) and then around the bend, glimpsed once more through a gap in the honeysuckle that swarmed over the fences, leaving at last a drifting dust cloud and the final dying noise. But I did not follow it to its end, not yet, not then, perhaps because I knew there was a farm at the end of it, source of the cows pasturing in the meadows, cause of the haying in the hillside fields, the farm that finally became for me the image, the definition of farming, a symbol that derived some of its great power from the ignorance of the city boy who conceived it. I would not casually stroll up the lane into the field of force generated by that symbol.

We lived in that countryside, but we were not of it; we didn’t make our living there, we were only onlookers. On summer evenings we sat on the lawn to watch Mr. Crow’s farmhands drive the slowly moving herd out to pasture after milking; on fine afternoons, while the men were haying in the field across the road, we played badminton; awakened at dawn by the clang of milk cans being loaded onto the truck at the end of the lane, we turned over and gratefully went back to sleep. It was I who established a connection, however tenuous, with the countryside, and it came about because, in our area where small-scale general farming prevailed, where farms did a little of everything — raised grain, shipped milk, raised poultry, sold piglets, vegetables, eggs, honey, and fruit, grew tomatoes on contract for canneries, and so on — Mr. Crow’s regime belonged to the 19th century, maybe even the 18th. He milked twenty or so Jerseys, but the stock was poor and inbred ( Jerry being the only sire), the hayfields were not regularly plowed and fertilized, and the pastures were largely wasteland. He lived in a handsome, rambling farmhouse built in the early 1700s with his farmhands, two or three elderly men like himself who did what had to be done to maintain the farm from day to day and little else. On dark winter days when sleet beat against the windows, they lay on the hearth before the wide fireplace, drinking cider from the barrel in the cellar and spitting tobacco juice into the flames. These men, in fact, were really much more than farmhands; they were countrymen of a type now vanished, sturdy, self-reliant men who could turn a skillful hand to any country task — axmen who could fell a tree and hew it into beams to build a barn; honey-gatherers who calmly hived swarms of wild bees, husbandmen who could train a green horse to plow; slaughterers and butchers; tool makers and menders; veterinarians who could heal wounds and deliver difficult calves; weather prophets; hunters who knew how to set snares and where pheasants nested. Much of their time was spent hunting, fishing, and trapping, and we would often see one or another, tall gaunt men in rough clothing, crossing the meadow toward the creek with a long fishing rod, or passing along the hedgerows, rifle in hand.

On a still August evening one of the hands, out hunting woodchucks, a tall shambling man, stepped across the road from the hayfield to chat with us as we sat on the grass watching the dusk come up out of the meadows. I sat to one side watching him — he introduced himself as Bub Archer — fascinated by his strangeness, his difference from anyone I knew. His face was rough, weathered, deeply tanned, slab-sided with a prominent Roman nose, and he chewed tobacco! I actually saw the plug in his cheek, and now and then he turned and spat behind him. He told stories about his many hunting adventures, and Mother remarked that he must’ve begun at an early age.

“Oh, I was a little smaller than the shaver here, maybe I was eight or nine,” he said, smiling at me.

I blushed and looked away; I knew I was small for my age.

Bub turned up the next evening with a joint of cooked woodchuck, wrapped in a bit of waxed paper, and nothing would do but we must try it. I remember him standing tall under the low, sloping kitchen ceiling, laughing, showing his tobacco-stained teeth, as we gingerly tasted the meat. It was, just as Bub had said, rather like pot roast.

So I became a hunter. Not because of the meat, you understand — that was just a pretext. It was the figure of Bub Archer, my Deerslayer, that inspired my adolescent imagination, and although I spoke to him only two or three times after that, I needed only that meeting to send me forth to the woods and fields with my Model 68 Winchester single shot .22, morning and evening, wearing cut-off dungarees and a pair of moccasins, hunting knife at my belt. In those four summers I killed only one woodchuck, soon after I began, but I persisted because it was more than a material quest, and like all such enterprises, something of a mystery, at least to me. Of course, there was the fantasy of the hunt and the woodsman in the primeval wilderness, and there was the wonderfully keen pleasure of solitary observation, all my senses alert, alive to everything around me, but I also think that this satisfied, for the time being, a wish to make some connection with the countryside.

By next summer, Mr. Crow’s leisurely regime was gone — he had sold the farm to a young couple, the Davises, and the farming pace picked up. There were more cows, the fields were plowed and planted, and there was an air of bustle about the place. We began buying our milk there — ten cents for a two-quart jar of Jersey milk with thick gobs of cream floating in it. And for me, the agricultural era was about to begin.

One muggy afternoon when thunderheads loomed on the horizon, Bob Davis drove into our yard, anxious for help with the hay harvest. Apprehensive as I was, fearful of the farm and of my own ignorance and inexperience, how could I refuse? For the next couple of hours I staggered alongside a flatbed truck, heaving up hay bales. When it was all safely mowed away and Dot Davis brought pitchers of milk and big platters of sandwiches out to the barn floor, I fell on the food voraciously, shaking with hunger and fatigue. I had never done any real work in my life. Walking down the once-forbidding lane, jingling 70 cents in my pocket (35 cents an hour), I sensed the significance of the experience and I felt the beginning of pride.

Bob had regular hands, but during that summer and the next two I was often hired for specific jobs, like handling bags of grain on the combine, or picking tomatoes, or pulling tassels from hybrid corn. I was not paid much, but I knew I wasn’t worth much, something brought home to me when I worked alongside Dean, a local boy my age, another temporary hand. He was slightly built, but having been raised to it he knew how to do a job of work. When we picked tomatoes, Dean, despite my best efforts, always finished his row first, well ahead. We were not really competing; Dean was just doing his job as he always did, moving right along at a steady clip without pause or wasted motion. It seems odd that I was no more than mildly chagrined by his obvious superiority, but there were special reasons for my lack of rancor. For one thing, Dean was a fine boy, quiet, polite, modest, friendly, trustworthy. For a wonder, he never scorned my poor efforts nor flaunted his ability, as other boys would’ve done. For another, although I wanted to have some relation to the rural scene in which Dean so admirably fitted, the wish was not deep; I knew I was an outsider, that I belonged to another scene, that in the fall I would return to boarding school, and eventually I might go on to college, moving into a world where I could not foresee that my ability to pick tomatoes or buck bales would matter at all.

My favorite job was combining. Bob drove the tractor, while I stood, swaying on a platform in back of the combine, bagging the grain as it came down a pipe. Combining took forever. Often we would be at it all day, even till dusk. I loved it, riding around and around the field, out in the sun, like the grain handler of the world. Sometimes when we worked late, folks from our house would drive out to the field with bottles of cold beer, and we would all sit on the flatbed truck and drink beer and laugh and talk, and in the dusk we could feel the coolness coming up from the creek bottom.

Bob grew tomatoes on contract for a cannery in Trenton, and I would go with him when he took in a load. The day before, several of us would load the ’38 Chevy flatbed with a great pyramidal pile of baskets of tomatoes. At three o’clock the next morning the truck would slowly grind along the lane, lights on in the misty pre-dawn darkness, and I would run across the lawn, jump down the bank, and scramble into the cab. He left so early in order to get a good place in the line, but there was always a long line ahead of us. Sometimes it was midnight before we were unloaded. We spent the day napping, chatting with other farmers in line, talking about all kinds of things, smelling the pervasive odor of canning tomatoes. It was, more often than not, a dull way to spend a day, and I was not paid for it either; I was just along to keep Bob company. But only once did I miss, and after the truck had left me behind, just waking, I jumped on my bike and pedaled the fourteen miles to Trenton. Why did I go?

Like all thoughtful, serious men, Bob had a strong, subtle sense of humor, and I suppose I looked on our relationship as all larks, although I respected and admired him, without consciously thinking about it, for depths that at 14 and 15 and 16 I could only sense, not know, not name. But they came to the surface for a moment during my last summer there, just before I turned 17. I had taken advantage of the cannery trips to ogle the girls we saw on the streets, remarking coarsely on their charms to Bob. The last time I did this, and you’ll understand in a moment why it was the last time, Bob, who always spoke deliberately in a voice that was not deep but which seemed to come from far inside him, quietly rebuked my coarseness and then went on to ask if I did not intend to preserve my virginity until marriage? That had been his sexual code, he said.

The effect was devastating. At once I felt very small, very callow. What made such a great impression was his depth contrasted to my shallowness. When he spoke gravely, as he did then, I felt the words as natural growths, consequences that flowed inevitably from an extraordinary breadth of character imbued with experience, knowledge, and wisdom; they were not words of the moment off the top of his head, conventional clichés. Bob was the first person to address me on such a level with such piercing conviction, and the impact was terrific. And there was more, something moving in the way he spoke to me. I think Bob was really shy, not given to glib expressions of his moral sentiments, so it cost him something to overcome his reticence to speak across the gap that separates all of us from each other, and I felt that in the delicacy with which he spoke.

Some years ago, one of my sisters surprised me by asking if was Bob Davis who had inspired me to become a farmer. I had not thought of the Davises for years, and now, thinking back, I could say with surety that farming never entered my head as a possible occupation then. Statesman, General, Actor, Lawyer, Author, Senator, yes, but Farmer? Any form of manual labor (I did not know then how much intellectual labor farming demanded), beyond a teenager’s summer job, was not part of my world. It was not that I thought I was too good for it, but simply that in my class and situation only certain occupations were even conceivable. Besides, there had been other, much more recent influences, farmers I had worked for in New England. Thinking about them, recalling how and why I had respected and admired them, I realized they were of the same species as Bob: grave, humorous, sage men of great integrity, whose lives seemed to me a credit to humanity. Yet they were unheroic, unsung, ordinary men of what was quickly becoming an antique rural world, citizens of the Republic. General farmers all, they provided me with a pattern of farming as well as behavior and character.

I knew none of this at the time, and I gave up that life without a qualm. In the last year I lived in New Jersey, before I went away to college, I was hardly ever at Waln’s Mill. Living in the northern part of the state, I worked as a golf course greens keeper that summer, and spent my evenings playing miniature golf with my dopey girlfriend. Meanwhile, the fireflies were thick in the creek bottom, there were oats to be combined and hay to be made, a marsh hawk hunted the meadows, and the boy with the .22 was missing from the hedgerows and fields. I shake my head when I think of it, but it had to be done, I had to turn away from that life to seek what I thought was my fortune in what I thought was the world, and it was fitting that I should do it lightly, without a backward glance. I had to go away to come back — not to the same place, I mean. I never returned to New Jersey, but I did become a pokey general farmer and more than half a century after I first met Bob Davis, I realize that I have been trying unconsciously (and with indifferent success) to model my character on his.

Nevertheless, it would be nice to go back to that one rural place. I put down my pen and daydream that some of the family still live at Waln’s Mill. What I’d really like, I guess, is that it should be the summer of 1950 again, and I can feel the rhythm of the combine, chaff flies up golden in the sun, and I can hear Bob say, as I climb into the old truck at 3 a.m., “Well, well, and how’s Jigsy this morning?”     *

     

“Liberty must at all hazards be supported.” —John Adams

Versed in Country Things — Spring and Summer

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This essay is republished from 2006 about a time many years ago when Jigs and Jo Ann were working a farm in Vermont.

There is a special quality about spring in northern New England that makes me value it more than springs I have known in both warmer and cooler climes. Farther south, the season lacks impact; the transition from mild winter seems effortless, almost commonplace, while much farther north there is no spring at all, only a dreary, sodden, shivering interval between snow and haying time. But on our hillside spring was a signal event, a deliverance that seemed almost miraculous after the long, dark, cold months of winter, when the frozen silence gave way to sound, movement, light, color, warmth. Spring’s career, from its first signs in mid-April to the end of May, when maple leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, moved and exhilarated us, and not solely because of the contrast with winter. Its essence was a paradoxical fusion of power and fragility, of swelling force and tenuous delicacy. Looking out our front windows at the woods falling away from us steeply down the hillside, we saw, against the bare gray crowns of beech and maple, and deep green almost black spruce, we saw at first a slight green, yellow-green lighter than chartreuse, the beginning of the leafing-out of the poplars, tall and slender, scattered by twos and threes on the lower reaches of the hill. A haze about the branches, then patches of color, then a growing mass, retarded or quickened by the weather, precarious, tender, but with the strength of a flame burning across the hillside. It was all like that, light colors, evanescent, tentative, every advance stealthy, moving so slowly that each moment was savored, but not so slowly (as farther north) as to be imperceptible. Beneath all phenomena, cold days as well as warm, cautious tendrils and subdued hues, there throbbed the current of life, the driving force of spring.

Corbin’s [the former owner of the farmstead] tiny garden, which I easily spaded up while the children extracted the roots of weeds, was just below the old barn site, and having absorbed the stable drainage for decades, the soil was deep and dark. But that was only a small part of the southward-sloping land, protected on the north by the stone wall of the terrace on which the barn was built. The rest, untouched for years, was heavy sod stiff with clumps of orchard grass. It would have to be plowed, along with a potato plot out in the Big Meadow.

In some way that I can no longer recall, I learned that a man named Eldon, who lived a few miles away on a road as remote as ours, might do the plowing. Somehow I also knew that he was a “little simple,” which could mean anything, and could certainly be applied to myself. So, on a cool gray morning in the first week of May I set off with Seth and Jesse, back on their old school bus route, down the steep hill to the highway, a rollicking trip, scattering the gravel as we ran. After the bus came, I walked along the road past Toonerville, a settlement off the road, a few houses in a field, and then I crossed the highway and turned onto the road to Eldon’s, so little traveled that it was spared the muddy ruts of the season. After more than a mile I came to fields, then a barn, and finally a small, unpainted farmhouse, its warped clapboards weathered to shades of gray. When I turned the corner of the house, there was Eldon tinkering with his tractor, one of those small Fords so popular after the war. After the usual wary greetings and formulaic remarks about the weather, we admired the tractor, a model I knew from my first farm job in New Jersey when I was fourteen. I could see that Eldon was proud of it and pleased with my praise. He was in his thirties, tall and gangling with long arms and large hard hands, a chin receding into a prominent Adam’s apple, pale blue eyes behind rimless glasses, and thick brown hair recently trimmed by the bowl and scissors method. His face and hands looked raw, roughened and chapped by weather, but the general effect was softened by his ready, shy smile, the only visible sign, I suppose, of his simplicity. I may say here that Eldon’s limited intelligence was never a problem in any of my dealings with him over the years — he worked for me, I worked for him, and we both worked together for a local farmer — but his speech, ah, that was another story. Perhaps because he lived in a remote area where he saw few people, he had an extremely thick Vermont accent, the strongest I ever heard. Being practically toothless didn’t help his articulation. And he spoke in short, rapid phrases, so if you weren’t on the qui vive and missed the first words, you were lost, just getting up to speed as the last garbled sounds flashed by. I might understand half of what he said. I was always a little uneasy when I said “yes” to anything; to what was I assenting? Usually I said only “Arr” in a noncommittal, sagacious manner and hoped for the best.

He took fright when I told him what I wanted, shying away, rolling his eyes. It wasn’t much, I said, pacing off an area, plus a potato patch. He mulled it over, looking down at his boots. He said something I couldn’t make out, but the way he said it led me to venture “ten dollars.” Now he scratched his jaw. Then he fired off something else in which I made out “potatoes,” so that must be about the patch out in the field, maybe whether it was included in the ten dollars. “Yes,” I said firmly. He smiled and nodded decisively. He’d be by at the end of the week if it didn’t rain.

If you have never done it, you can have no idea how difficult it can be to do really fine plowing. I didn’t know myself until I began doing it with a team in the 1970s. Assuming the plow is basically all right, the most crucial aspect is the setting, the adjustment of the depth and angle of the plow so that it always turns the sod over evenly at the correct angle. Nothing in farming can be so heartbreaking as bad plowing, especially if you’ve tried everything to make it right, and nothing can be so satisfying when it goes well. Small as the job was, Eldon took some thorough hours over it, positioning the plow precisely for each furrow, anxiously watching the ribbon of dark sod emerging behind the moldboard, turning the tractor carefully in the confined space. The potato patch went faster because the soil was lighter and there was plenty of turning space. Just as conscientious about discing, he went over the ground again and again until it was a fine tilth. I helped him load the plow on top of the disc when he was done, and then I counted ten one dollar bills into his hand. Folding them meticulously, he tucked them into one of those little snap purses that country people of both sexes used to carry. That was a lot to pay in 1963 for a job like that, but he had to travel eight miles all told and he put in five hours of first-rate work. I was well pleased and told him so. Settling himself in the tractor seat, Eldon smiled at me and repeated that rushing jumble of sounds with “potatoes’ in it that he had uttered when we struck the bargain. I caught more this time but not enough. I cupped my hand to my ear. Again, I said. “And once more?” Which is how I learned that I had agreed to go to his place on the morrow to help him plant potatoes. Concealing my astonishment, I acted as if it were an understood thing. Oh yes, yes, of course, see you tomorrow morning. I felt like an ass.

Willie turned up in the evening and we went out to look at the job. The garden was a fine sight, but the potato patch, lying out in the wide expanse of the Big Meadow, surrounded by last year’s weeds, everything dull and grayish in the twilight, the potato patch was startling, a sudden dark wantonness, inviting, suggestive, rich with promise. We walked around the edges, careful not to trample the fine soil; we kicked gingerly at the dirt, we crumbled it in our hands. Willie was impressed. He asked me what I paid, and when I told him he was sharply annoyed. It was greenhorn idiots from downcountry like me, lavishly throwing money around, who drove up local labor costs and made life difficult for real farmers like Willie who were trying to make a living here. Now Eldon and people like him would expect ten dollar bills to be showered on them every time they lifted a finger, etc., etc. By the time he was done exposing the consequences of my feckless behavior I was sheepish, nearly as disgusted with myself as Willie was. Those with more sense than I about worldly matters, and that’s practically the entire human race, always make me feel like a fool. Thank God I hadn’t told him about the potato planting.

The next day, sunny and warm, I walked down the hill and went along to Eldon’s. We sat on the porch steps, a bag of potatoes between us, two empty bushel baskets at our feet, and cut potatoes into pieces, each one with a couple of eyes. It is hard to believe — or at least it was to me — how large a part potatoes play in the diets of old-fashioned country folk. Fred Brown, telling me once of the calamity when his family home burned down, especially bemoaned the loss of their entire potato supply, which seemed odd to me, until he added that it was a hundred and fifty bushels.

Eldon’s mother (a fine lady with all her wits about her) had tied some doughnuts to strings suspended from the porch eaves, and chickadees came and went, hanging upside-down, pecking energetically. Eldon talked to them in a crooning voice, “Snow bird, snow bird.”

We planted in a field that sloped down to the road across from the house, shadowed by bare-branched apple trees along one edge, working steadily up one row and down another, Eldon dropping the potatoes while I followed, pressing them into the soil with my boot, hoeing dirt over them. It was one of those satisfying tasks completed in one movement — when we were done, we were done. The straight rows, evenly spaced along the rising ground, dimpled with the small hills I had made, came as close as reality ever can to the ideal lines of a Grant Wood pastoral scene, and Eldon and I stood in the dust of the road and looked on our work with great contentment. Walking homeward, I thought I might not be such a fool after all.

The half-mile of road from our house out to the road that ran over the hill to the village was impassable from mid-April into May, so bad that the mail driver couldn’t make it in his jeep and we had to put up our mailbox at the end of the road. Even in May, after traffic was resumed, there remained some danger spots, traps for the unwary, and several cars got stuck. Two were memorable. The children had made themselves a playhouse in the woods where they had tea parties (a place they recalled, with great nostalgia, for years), and one Saturday afternoon they came running to report a car stuck in the road with a man asleep in it! And so it was — but he was dead drunk. I got the car out and left it parked farther on, beyond any mud holes. The driver never stirred, but he revived by the end of the afternoon, because I saw the car go rattling by the house and down the hill. Who he was I had no idea, but it was another one of those seemingly trivial encounters with someone, like Otis and Mrs. B, who would later play a significant part in our life.

I was working in the garden one afternoon a few days after the plowing when an old acquaintance appeared. He was a traveling salesman, and since he was in the area he thought he’d pay us a call — but his car was stuck down the road. I told him to visit with Jo Ann while I dug out the car. Two hours later I gave up and went home to milk Aster. At least he had towing insurance so he could get the garageman in town to pull him out in the morning, and he had planned to spend the night with us anyway. After a delicious spring supper of dandelion salad — dandelion greens wilted in a pan with chopped boiled eggs, bacon, and potatoes — and after we put the children to bed, Jo Ann and Jack and I walked up to the farm at the top of the hill, where Jack made his arrangement with the garageman over the phone and also called his wife. He had been very anxious about the call, insisting that she’d be distraught if she didn’t hear from him. What he actually said, and he said it many times, was that she’d “go ape.” Now, I thought, as we strolled homeward in the deepening dusk, anxieties are soothed and all will be well. The air was cool, but not too cold to silence the tree frogs, the only sound in the stillness that enveloped the hillside. It was a lovely time for a leisurely walk. But Jack was uneasy. The darkness and silence, which he remarked several times, bothered him so much that he made it seem not merely unusual but amazing and unnatural, perhaps even frightening. We stopped beside the car while Jack touched it here and there, caressing it I might say, and I assured him again and again that the road was rarely used. I didn’t tell him (I wouldn’t be so cruel) that virtually its only patrons were drunks on the way to and from Toonerville. We put out safety reflectors and went back to the house. My plan was to sedate Jack with home brew, and I did my best, but he kept rising from his chair to peer out the windows at the darkness, averring that he couldn’t get over it, that his wife wouldn’t believe him, and so on. Next morning he could hardly sit still enough to eat breakfast, and he was out of the house, pacing up and down the road, a full hour before the tow truck came.

Poor Jack, we said to ourselves as we waved goodbye. How his visit revealed the gap between our present life and the middleclass ways of our old friends! For every daffy sentimentalist who went gaga over our Beautiful Simple Country Life there must be many more who, if they could but catch a glimpse of it, would be as appalled as Jack. And how insensibly we had come to accept this life! A year ago, we, too, would have been intimidated by the absence of bustling human activity, and now we were taken aback by Jack’s reaction, and contemptuous, too: his visit made us smug. We weren’t in love with a car; we didn’t need the comfort of the surrounding herd. This sanctimonious theme runs through all Simple Living books, including Walden, and I can only say that despite the insights given us unwittingly by Willie and the Woodwrights, despite our growing skepticism about the Simple Life, we were still dupes of the myth and the attitudes it engenders. Granted Jack’s foolishness — that didn’t make us morally superior.

I don’t suppose it will be a surprise to my readers to learn that my ignorance about Aster was not confined to the technique of milking. I knew she was not a youngster but her age meant nothing to me even when, as I eventually learned, she was at least thirteen. Cows that old are often hard to breed. They come in heat all right, and they can be inseminated, but they don’t settle (i.e., conceive). Bob Woodwright had paid the breeding fee of three dollars, for which I got two more tries. The long-suffering inseminator came out five times, and on the last occasion in April he said firmly that he wouldn’t come again until we had the vet examine her. But she fooled us; that time she settled. We could look forward to a calf next February.

We took down the sap buckets, pulled the taps, scrubbed everything, boiled the taps in soapy water, dried everything in the sun and stored it all in the barn. The fireplace materials I stacked in the woods for next year. In mid-May I finally hooked up the water to the sink in the house. On May 25 two things told me summer was at hand: we saw Otis’s truck parked at his place, and there was enough grass to put Aster out on a tether.

Although there were still frosts in early June, the garden was planted and thriving in rich soil sheltered by the barn terrace wall. The loamy soil warmed up rapidly, encouraging quick growth from the start, important in the ninety-day season of northern Vermont. I’ve never seen a better garden spot, with handy small conveniences: a shed beside the garden for tools, a cold frame, and attached to the print shop, a tiny greenhouse about five feet square. Kneeling by the door in the shop wall, I could reach in to cultivate my flats of seedlings, started in the house. Heated only by the sun, sufficient in such a small structure, it was covered by a blanket at night, and there I produced healthy, stocky plants that transplanted with no setbacks.

Thinking it would be a treat for the children, I built bunks along one wall in the hayloft, lined them with grain bags stuffed with hay, and there they slept all summer.

After the Christmas jam sale, my next pathetic money-making scheme was to advertise on a bulletin board at Tweedy my services as a tutor for the summer, but the only taker was a former student of mine, Paul Farrar, a frequent weekend visitor during the year. When he drove up in his station wagon in late June, he had with him another student, Morris, known as Momo, a scholarship boy who had ingratiated himself with his rich classmates at Tweedy by playing a variety of knowing roles novel in that preppy milieu — the cool, streetwise guy from New York, the inside dopester, the sardonic comedian. There was an initial pretense that he would be a student on the same footing as Paul, but it soon became clear that he had no money and was only looking for a place to sponge for awhile. We were a little taken aback, but after all he could work for his room and board as Paul was doing and forego the tutoring.

Unfortunately, the Simple Life was only one of my stupidities, and not the worst, either. I discovered in Corbin’s study a miscellaneous collection of the writings of Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, and a hodgepodge of Lefty periodical literature of the 1930s. It would be nice now to claim that I was corrupted by books, but it was not so — I was already a Lefty of sorts, very unfocussed. What Corbin’s library did was to accelerate and concentrate my development. At that time the very faintest hints of radicalism were just being whispered at Tweedy, and Paul, along with a few others, was infected. We thought of ourselves as anti-Communists, Marxists of the pre-1917 variety, and we read the then scanty Lefty press with what we imagined to be a knowledgeable eye, eagerly following news of the just emerging New Left.

The morning after the boys arrived I took Momo on a tour of the farm, winding up at the top of the Big Meadow, where we stood for a moment, surveying the panorama. Knowing what I’ve just told you, you will understand why I was not flabbergasted, not so flabbergasted as you might have been in June 1963, when Momo announced out of the corner of his mouth that it would be a good place for guerilla training. I have to admit, though, that I was a little startled.

“Guerilla training?”

“Yeah. I know some of the top cats in Progressive Labor who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”

Only of course he didn’t say “Progressive Labor,” he said “PL,” and of course I understood him. That he knew some of the top cats was a revelation. I might have accepted that and even the possibility of digging fox holes in the garden (If I could swallow Marx, why balk at that?), but Momo’s demeanor during this small scene was too palpably phony: peering warily over the topography, piggy eyes narrowed, jaw set grimly, General Patton surveying the Siegfried Line. He had been flexing his poses for an undiscerning audience of college boys, hence a tendency to over-act. So, instead of resting content with his performance on the hilltop, he staged another, even stagier routine as we were walking back through the woods. Frowning, biting his lip, and staring down at the ground, he told me about his “dilemma”: should he, or should he not, come the imminent revolution, shoot his parents, who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips”? I tried to dodge the subject by saying that it was a delicate personal matter, but he was having none of that.

“It’s not personal,’” he pointed out sternly, “It’s a matter of revolutionary justice!”

This haunted Momo for several days, or rather, it haunted us as Momo thoughtfully placed himself in our line of vision, scratching his head, chewing his fingernails, furrowing his brow, staring out the window. The Yiddish theater, reborn in northern Vermont. Finally Jo Ann sensibly told him to go ahead and shoot the old folks and stop agonizing about it. That produced massive sulks, a regular reaction whenever he suspected we weren’t taking his ridiculous routines seriously. Thus we learned, for the sake of peace, to keep our smart aleck remarks to ourselves.     *

Writers for Conservatives, 3: Scott Nearing on “Living the Good Life.”

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of The St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The editor has chosen to republish this essay after 14 years because of its continuing relevance today in light of the Green New Deal.

Instead of describing a first rate writer who has enhanced culture, I am going to devote this third essay in the series to a man who wrote over 50 books and innumerable articles but was a mediocre writer; a man to whose home thousands of admirers traveled to express their admiration — but he was a thoroughly bad person; a man whose death, in his 101st year, was solemnly recorded on the front page of The New York Times, yet he was an ardent hard-line Communist who worked all his life against his country. It sounds like a strange subject, but I hope it will shed light on matters that are presently very dark in conservative minds.

Scott Nearing (1883-1983) achieved some éclat on the left when he was fired from a university teaching job during World War I for advocating pacifism, but despite his earnest efforts during the rest of his life that was as much recognition as he would ever wring from the comrades. Monthly Review, the ostensibly socialist (but actually Communist fellow traveling) magazine, acquired his newsletter, World Events, and as part of the deal Nearing had a column with the same name in MR. At one point when the editors solicited readers’ views, they learned that “World Events” was the magazine’s most unpopular feature. Why was such a stalwart comrade so disliked? One major factor was his rigid, outspoken Stalinism. He was a Stalinist almost before Stalin was, in 1925, and after his hero died he transferred his allegiance to Chairman Mao, and when the Great Helmsman was gathered to his fathers, Nearing’s last messiah was Enver Hoxha, the Albanian tyrant. He believed and regurgitated every Communist lie and line. This could only be discomfiting to lefties, who prefer the softly-softly approach on the principle that more flies are caught with honey than vinegar. When he was challenged, in a public debate, on the subject of the Soviet slave labor camps, he coolly defended them on the ground that the inmates were thereby saved from the evils of drink, gambling, whoring, and all the other manifold sins lurking in capitalist societies. You can imagine how lefties liked hearing that. Almost as important, he was unbearably self-righteous. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he and his second wife Helen were absolutely repellent. If you have any sensitivity to language, it is impossible to read anything by them without sensing the presence of mean, smug, sanctimonious, humorless bastards. I shall insert quotations from interviews with the Nearings or from their book, Living the Good Life, to give the reader the flavor of his precious pair.

“He cited Elbert Hubbard’s . . . objective: ‘Do the best you can in the place you are and be kind.’ And Helen Nearing said, ‘I think Scott’s done that in his life, plus.” —Hartford Courant, June 7, 1981

But finally, in the ’60s, the Nearings found their audience, and within a decade Scott was a venerated Wise Man in the mainstream press. This astonishing development came about in this wise: in the 1930s the Nearings moved to Vermont to live the “Simple Life,” but here we must pause to dispel the fog of myth surrounding those words. While it is possible to live a simple life in the country — I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years — very few people have ever done it from choice because you have to enjoy hard labor, few conveniences, and a low income. The capitalized Simple Life, however, is a different breed of cat entirely. Its essence is phoniness. Everything about it is a pose. The main pretense is that one’s income is solely derived from one’s labor, usually the sale of farm products, but in fact there’s always a trust fund or something similar in the background. There follows the pose that one is not materialistic, that one’s life is more elevated, more spiritual, closer to Nature than the lives of all the rest of us Yahoos grubbing greedily in Consumerland. Simple Lifers are always very vain, and the point of their poses is that it empowers them to flaunt their supposed superiority.

“Instead of the hectic mad rush of busyness we intended a quiet pace, with time to wonder, ponder, and observe. We hoped to replace worry, fear and hate with serenity, purpose and at-one-ness.” Living the Good Life

“Hence, we fenced, irrigated, terraced, planned, constructed, marking ourselves as odd, queer, over-ambitious and perhaps even a trifle un-neighborly by setting up standards of performance which were far removed from those accepted and followed by the neighborhood.” Living the Good Life

It was perfect for the Nearings. They collected around themselves a few followers, pretended that their maple sugar business was their “cash crop,” and Scott continued to produce his simple-minded Commie books and articles. In the mid 1950s they wrote together a book about their Simple Life, Living the Good Life, but it had only a modest sale among the nut cutlet and hand-woven place mat crowd until the mid ’60s when the hippy homesteader phenomenon erupted, and then it became the Sacred Book for the movement. There were very good reasons for this. For one thing, the book contains no useful information about how to life simply and self-reliantly in the countryside. Other authors often make the mistake of thinking such instruction is what its readers want, but in fact, the better the information, the less popular the book. Nothing destroys the romance of the Simple Life like realism about practical matters. It is much more profitable to hymn the praises of Simple Living in such a way that the readers feel they are a select band of initiates superior to decadent conventional society.

“. . . where could outcasts from a dying society live frugally and decently, and at the same time have sufficient leisure and energy to assist in the speedy liquidation of the disintegrating society and to help replace it with a more workable social system?”Living the Good Life

“. . . it was a way of preserving self-respect and of demonstrating to the few who were willing to observe, listen, and participate, that life in a dying acquisitive society can be individually and socially purposeful, creative, constructive and deeply rewarding.” —Living the Good Life

Nearing was a master of sly intimidation:

“It would have been quite possible to live in the Vermont hills as one did in the suburbs of New York or Boston, by going frequently to market in nearby towns, buying to meet all one’s needs in the shops, using fruits and vegetables loaded with poisonous sprays and dusts and far removed from their production source, plus the processed and canned output of the food industry. Such a procedure was followed by several families in the valley, as long as they could afford it. Meanwhile they paid the usual price in lowered vitality and ill health.” —Living the Good Life

The seeming target here are his neighbors, but since the reader has committed the same sins (as who hasn’t?) he is implicated, but precisely because it is by indirection, the reader can escape censure, assuage his guilt by lining up with Nearing, joining him in condemnation of his neighbors.

He worked his greatest appeal by self-serving attitudinizing:

“The foods we chose to live on were those that had the simplest, closest, and most natural relationship to the soil.”

“Raised bread we never baked and seldom bought. We got the same or better nourishment (and far cheaper) from the whole seed grain unprocessed.”

 

“We often had a one-day exclusive apple diet to revivify and cleanse the system.”

 

“Most of them were in for a shock. No coffee, no cereal, no bacon, no eggs, no toast, no pancakes, or maple syrup. Just apples, and sunflower seeds, and a black molasses drink. Such a fare sent many a traveler on his way soon enough.” Living the Good Life

This works by endowing what one would think of as neutral acts with a strongly moralistic tone, so the believer can think he’s superior because he doesn’t eat “raised bread,” or because he’s a vegetarian, or just because he lives in the country, and so on and on.

Finally, there was an identity of temperament between Nearing and the famously indulged baby boomers who became ’60s People and at last Yuppies, a tendency to sanctimony and self-righteousness; no one ever accused them of humility or modesty. Naturally they were drawn to Nearing — they recognized a blood brother.

He and his wife were written about, photographed, and interviewed hundreds of times in all kinds of publications, not just countercultural country magazines but also the conventional middlebrow press (The New York Times, People), and every piece was gushingly reverential. Ads appeared in hippy homesteader rags “Leaving for Nearings on 25th. Have room for 2.” There was a time when money could be made by arranging tours and chartering busses.

For his old tiny audience he kept up the Stalinist ranting, but for the new multitudes he obscured his views, sensing that reporters would happily cooperate with his subterfuge in that blend of ignorance, sentimentality, and liberal irresolution characteristic of journalists when the subject of Communism is broached. All the ghastly realities of Communism were blinked away so as not to dispel the warm glow emanating from the presence of such a venerable Wise Man, a living legend embodying rustic myths at their rosiest as well as uncompromising, unconventional radicalism, a double whammy, each one composed of layer upon layer of sentimental, vicious lies. History and myth, class and character met in the figure of one extraordinary crackpot.

“Nearing said that as one goes from one republic to another inside the USSR, one finds ‘quite different points of view, except that in Russia generally people are collectivist and outside of Russia generally people are individualists.’”

“Scott Nearing has been to Russia 9 times since the revolution of 1917, and the changes there, he says, ‘are fantastic.’ Changes in dress, conduct, transportation. ‘You mention it . . . they’re still making changes.’ —Hartford Courant

I would not be surprised to learn that most if not all of the foregoing is news, and outlandish news at that, to readers who may be thinking it’s past and done, quite irrelevant to today’s concerns. I suspect that the shenanigans of the ’60s were so alien and absurd that conservatives dismissed them without much analysis. And some ignorance is due to lack of strong cultural awareness. But the ’60s, even as they are expiring, still animate yuppies, as in their vanity causes like Greenism (the believer is morally superior to the rest of us Nature destroyers) which conservatives have yet to understand. The National Review recently praised (with a few caveats) a book celebrating “countercultural conservatives” who eat “organic” food, embrace Greenism and home schooling, are wary of capitalism, and are repelled by consumerism. Sound familiar? Not to the reviewer, who obviously knows nothing of the cultural history I’ve been recounting. His strictures are no more than a feeble defense of mainstream conservatism. For instance, when the author claims that capitalism destroys the environment, all the reviewer can say is that “the environmental record of heavily regulated economies isn’t better” Ye Gods! Doesn’t he know anything about the devastation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? What’s really wrong with the book is that every one of its claims is false and pernicious because the author’s reasoning, his way of judging truth, has been corrupted at the root by the central motive of yuppieism, self-regard. Like the Nearings, like their earlier avatars the ’60s People, everything yuppies do or say is calculated to inflate their self-esteem, to puff up their egos. When a yuppie scorns materialism what he sees in his mind is images of fat slobby proles prowling Walmart aisles contrasted with a vision of himself, trim in his jogging outfit, selecting tasteful items in a classy Vermont boutique. So it goes with all the author’s causes. “Organic” foods, as study after study has shown, are no different from food produced without that imprimatur; if their consumption didn’t make yuppies feel superior (as Nearing did with his whole grain bread), their sales would be negligible. Home schooling, a good idea when it’s real, has become another casualty of yuppie smugness. Instead of actually teaching their children, they get together with other yuppies to conduct content-less classes a couple of times a week. The point is to inculcate yuppie values, and most of the teaching is “enriching” activities akin to what used to be called field trips. They learn nothing except to regard themselves as superior to kids who attend the local schools.

Another ominous sign is the author’s praise of Wendell Berry, a figure similar in significant ways to Scott Nearing. I should explain that most of the hippy homesteader magazines of the ’60s and ’70s, small country monthlies for the most part which were essentially harmless (I wrote for several), died when their readers left their yurts in the woods, but some survived to become today radically reactionary rags, filled with paeans of praise for “organic” farming and the rest of the causes, and hysterically vicious denunciations of modern agriculture, capitalism, and U.S. foreign policy. Berry, posed in the mainstream press as a folksy countryman (remember Nearing) concerned with the “excesses” of modern farming (a phony subject lately fashionable among ignoramuses), and he is one of the loudest voices in this reactionary chorus.

The point of this essay has been to show how analysis of prose and the ideas it embodies can shed light on current issues. The Nearings sleep in Abraham’s bosom and the so-called back to the land movement (phony from the start) they supposedly inspired is long gone, but the vanity, the desperate need to constantly assert one’s superiority to other Americans, a cardinal motive in the lives of the Nearings and their followers, so obvious once we look closely at the prose, continues to animate yuppies (Jonah Goldberg, in an article subsequent to the review mentioned above, correctly identifies the countercultural conservative cause as “narcissism”). Think, for instance, of the insufferable smugness of National Public Radio. That’s why it is impossible to argue reasonably with them about their causes. The impulses behind their attachments are irrational, and fewer motives are stronger than self-regard.

The essays in this series serve these purposes: to inform conservatives about writers and books that will give them pleasure; to broaden and deepen the culture of conservatives by acquainting them with diverse points of view largely undefiled by contemporary decadence; to demonstrate, by literary analysis, how to read more carefully. Here the first two purposes have been set aside, but I think I have demonstrated the value of literary analysis. You will not soon forget the obnoxiousness of the Nearings, nor, I hope, what it tells us about yuppies and their causes.     *

Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Negative Elements

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of The St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

                                   

This happened years ago when we lived in Cape Breton. A car drove in the lane and a young couple got out, Helga and David, who had read some of my essays in a country magazine, and wanted to meet me. I’m always pleased on such occasions, but I must admit they’re pretty rare. It was about lunchtime, so we invited them in.

While we were fixing lunch they told us they had moved from British Columbia to Halifax a few months ago to look into farming possibilities. They wanted to find out if it were feasible to live in the countryside and 1) avoid becoming “petty bourgeois,” and 2) “be socially active with other progressives.” I realized then that we were just another stop on their list of “progressive elements.” I was not as appalled as you might think. I had listened to plenty of nonsense like that back in the ’60s when I had been involved in lefty politics in Vermont — but this was the 1990s and Cape Breton, and it was so absurd that it was laughable. But Helga and David were not the kind of people to be jollied along. They were determined and serious, a grim, very grim pair.

They had been taking short courses (introductions to their subjects, not intended for regular students) at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, where one of our daughters graduated, so we were not surprised by his denunciation of the aimless life of the students there. I remarked that what they objected to was, in fact, the life of the rural working class. Given the situation in the poor and backward Maritime provinces, there was nothing surprising about it.

Helga jumped in, claiming that in British Columbia the local papers printed articles and letters protesting American foreign policy, promoting organic gardening and so on, while the Halifax papers were all about things like Billy Graham’s latest crusade. Yes, the Nova Scotia situation looked unpromising, but there were positive elements everywhere if you looked hard enough. I saw that it was useless arguing with them; they didn’t listen — these were obviously old pros.

Then David mentioned, as a positive element, the fisherman’s strike the previous year, and I remarked, with obvious disgust, that their union was led by a Communist. Now there were many things to say about that strike, but the leader’s politics was not the most important thing, and I realized as I said it, that I was testing David, but I did not ruffle his old pro feathers. “So what’s wrong with that?” he said.

Before I could answer, he went on to discuss a book about the strike, one of the worst books I have ever read about a labor struggle, the sort of account in which the workers are romantically sentimentalized, everyone else is villainously sentimentalized, and the whole point is the glorification of the author. Helga remarked, “Of course, the author is a bourgeois journalist, but in its sympathy for the workers it strikes a positive note.”

Sentimentality about the working class is a way of lying. It is practiced by those who regard workers as someone else, a group of people distant from themselves. The social realist shares with everyone the godhead of essential humanity. The sentimentalist denies change to those below him on the social ladder, hence must lie about them: to tell the truth about them and then to deny the chances of change would be too black indeed. The sentimentalist must have a pretty world around him in which to exercise his superiority. When the sentimentalist observes the working class (always from a distance), he comes away more convinced than ever, that “they” are fine where they are and he’s fine where he is, which is what really matters.

Beneath the sticky surface of every sentimentalist there is a hard-hearted mean-spirited son of a bitch.

I thought these things as David spoke, and when I glanced up he said, with a condescending smile, “Don’t internalize your feelings, articulate them.” I turned a thoughtful countenance upon him and said, “There’s nothing to say.” He was taken aback. I suppose he thought I would argue lefty politics with him.

They left soon afterwards, and Helga said bitterly as she passed me, “We thought you were progressives!”     *

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