The great American story for at least 100 years has been a tale like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman Major Molineux”: the rube who comes to the city and loses his innocence. Like Jack in the fairy tale, we are eager to trade in the family cow for a chance to get fabulous wealth. The change from an essentially rural way of life to urbanity has had enormous consequences, not least of all on our literary taste. In simpler times, Xenophon was a popular author. Along with Plutarch’s Lives, the Bible, and a set of the Waverly Novels, you could not escape seeing copies of the Anabasis or the Cyropedia on the shelves of comfortable country houses.
Xenophon would have been pleased with his rustic success. Of all serious writers, ancient and modern, he was the most devoted to rural life. He not only wrote more earnestly about hunting than either Trollope or the creator of Jorrocks but also composed a major work on the problems of managing a country household. In that work, the Oeconomicus, he records a conversation between the younger Cyrus (whose attempt to win the Persian throne made a soldier out of Xenophon) and the great Spartan general Lysander. When Lysander complimented the prince on his gardens, Cyrus insisted that he had planted them himself and added:
Whenever I am well, I never dine before I have worked up a sweat either in military exercises or. farm labor.
We are not all so rich as Cyrus, a son of the Great King of Persia, but in the 20th century it generally costs money to work up a sweat The price of running shoes and health club membership alone could clothe a farm family for a year, but the rich city-dweller will pay almost any price to enter the new elect of the almost-young and healthy—the living dead of runners and workout artists, whose body movements are controlled by something less complicated than a brain.
For a sweat that only the very rich can afford, consider buying a farm from a family facing foreclosure. By all accounts we may be the last generation to understand the phrase “family farm.” Most of the talk about saving the farm concentrates on the marketplace: What do we owe the farmers who feed us? Defenders of the family farm insist that massive farm programs are necessary if we are going to feed ourselves, that individual farmers are an essential to our economy.
I wish it were all true, but some form of agribusiness took over food production in the earlier mercantile empires of Rome and Byzantium. We are experiencing the same destruction of the yeoman class, and our civilization is already beginning to feel the consequences. I do not mean the loss of simpler manners and morals we associate with rural people. Much of that simplicity is now a convenient fiction-perhaps it always was. After spending a good part of my life in or near-the country, I cannot honestly declare that country folks can routinely be expected to display better morals. They do have less time and energy (to say nothing of money) to cheat at cards or marriage; most of them have a better-developed sense of right and wrong—or at least of consequences: forget to milk the cows and you have problems. But, in the end, farmers are nothing more than run-of-the mill sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. It would be a mistake to expect too much of them.
But in a larger sense, farmers have laid the foundations for our civilization. The American Revolution was fought, after all, by farmers mostly, not by the lawyers, politicians, and service industry personnel who seem to set the tone these days. The United States remained an essentially rural and small-town society well into the 20th century. What else explains the peculiar moralism and religiousness which has been commented on so often? There is no point in referring to the Puritans, who were never a very large part of the population. Southern Baptists, Germans in Missouri, Norwegians in Wisconsin all came from quite different societies, but they shared a set of commitments-principles would be too strong an expression-to their family, their church, to a way of life that can only be described as agrarian. Now most of their children can sing (with Hank Williams):
I left my home out on the rural route
I told my pa that I was stepping out
To get the honky tonk blues . . .
Oh Lord, I got ’em, I got the honky tonk blues.
Even with wealth and fame, Williams could never quite heal the breach he had opened when he left the land to go out honky-tanking. He died in his Cadillac, full of pain pills and liquor, divorced from the impossible woman he loved-a myth for modern man.
The conventional answer was given by Henry Mencken in response to the Southern agrarians. Farmers were turning into proletarians and “the sooner the change is effected, the better.” But it is fair to ask if there was ever a civilization that was not fundamentally agrarian in its best days. The average Athenian citizen in the age of Pericles lived in town but got up early and walked out to his farm. The most exemplary Roman hero was Cincinnatus, who (like General Washington) returned to his farm after saving his country from an invading army. Even in the urbane age of the Antonines, the gentleman farmer remained the Roman ideal. Pliny’s letters reveal a way of life—a mixture of literature, public service, and farming—that would have pleased both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams-both of them farmers down to their dirty fingernails.
Even England remained doggedly country at the height of her mercantile glory. A man might make his money in trade, but he was expected to buy a place in the country and acquire the manners of a gentleman. The reality of England was “a nation of shopkeepers,” but the ideal lay somewhere between Squire Western and Squire Allworthy.
What happens to a culture that becomes thoroughly urban? Athens became a university town; Rome—already in Pliny’s time—was described by Juvenal as a sewer (it has never been thoroughly drained); and England—well, even a kind man has trouble saying nice things about the old sod—a living museum with an immigration problem. Whether we like it or not, ours is the greatest civilization on the face of the earth these days. We may not be, in Berkeley’s phrase, “time’s fairest children,” and I pray we are not the last, but if Athens was an education for Greece, the American way of life has set the standard for modern times, and that way of life has been, until very recently, more deeply rooted in the soil than almost any country in the civilized world.
Even in the city, Americans cannot entirely shake off the manure from our running shoes. Living in the Midwest, I am appalled by the amount of time my neighbors spend mowing their lawns, raking leaves, and clipping hedges. “Don’t they have anything better to do?” is my guilt-ridden response. The results are rarely happy—sterile clipped lawns, as neat as astroturf and almost as life-like. But the aesthetic poverty makes their devotion all the more remarkable.
It is possible to see the whole suburban project of postwar America as an effort to combine urban affluence with a more rural way of life. Spacious lawns with room for a bit of a garden—on curving streets with names like Appletree Lane—were designed to convey the feeling of a rustic village. In many cases, the comparison is ludicrous, but in some older suburban communities, life was pleasant. Children could roam the streets in safety, play baseball at the playground; parents arranged cookouts and pool parties. Even now, when commuting is made more difficult by two-income families, the suburbs continue to attract more residents than they are losing.
It is easy to mock what T.S. Eliot described as: “decent godless people: / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls.” But we should recall C.S. Lewis’ response: that ordinary working people have a natural desire to create the sort of decent life that is virtually impossible in the cities where they work. How can we make fun of their struggle to live well, especially on aesthetic grounds?
A trip to the hardware store in spring can be an exhilarating experience. Paunchy middle-aged men are lined up with sacks of seed and fertilizer; others are checking out the latest model lawn and garden tractor. The excitement of combat against cutworms and caterpillars is mixed with the air of expectancy that usually surrounds the last weeks of pregnancy. There must be some deep compulsion to get our fingers dirty and to plant little fields of fruitless grain, wherever we find ourselves. Edward O. Wilson suggests we are recreating the vistas of our primal past in the African savannas, but Eden was also a garden, so we are told, and ever since the fall man has expended great efforts to restore that lost world of unfallen nature.
Even before we hunted, men and women had learned to gather fruits and grasses, to grub in the dirt for succulent tubers. Rooting and grubbing are as much a part of our nature as pairing off and raising families. Urban civilization subjects both impulses-agrarian and familial-to serious strains. We turn away from parental responsibilities and indulge our taste for the bizarre and unnatural or-and this is hardly any better than perversion—we pursue a career of erotic adventurism. Like spoiled boys who refuse to give up marbles and go to school, we nurse our adolescence into old age and become first evil and then ridiculous.
Human nature is resilient, but not infinitely so. Culture requires cultivation, tending-tilling and weeding-even more than a field of corn. We are capable, as a species, of almost limitless advances, so long as we get the basics right. But uprooted from the soil, we are like the giant Antaeus, whom Hercules could destroy only by lifting up, tearing him loose from the earth that gave him strength. Almost 60 years ago a number of poets and scholars in the American South published a jeremiad, I’ll Take My Stand, warning against the perils of a rootless, industrialized society. The criticisms of Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom have been expanded upon by such diverse writers as Jacques Ellul, Richard Weaver, and Wendell Berry. But in the declining years of the 20th century, it seems less likely than ever that Western man will have the wits to reclaim his inheritance.
We have invested so much of our self-esteem into the material signs of progress that we cannot heed the evidence of our own hearts. If we are so satisfied with the works of our hands, why do we spend the happiest part of the year on vacation, getting away from a world that has only one face to show us—our own? But however tired we grow of all this civility—the solitude of one species talking to itself—we cannot admit that the very wealth of creation reflects in some way the abundance of nature’s God. We systematically destroy the habitats of countless wild creatures, but our loneliness compels us to take birds and beasts into our houses and give them endearing names. The man who lives only for his month in the Maine woods or trout fishing in the Rockies will sneer at the suggestion that there is something wrong with a country he has helped to make so unlovely.
It is fashionable for Conservatives to dislike the Roman tics, especially those who have read Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism. Romantic poets like Scott and Wordsworth had at least one great lesson to teach the men of the Enlightenment: reason and science were not the bread of life. We may smile at Wordsworth for pretending to believe:
One impulse in a vernal wood
May tell you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.
But if nature cannot be your teacher, what can? The Old Testament sees God in a burning bush and upon the waters. Will we see Him in a nuclear reactor? C. S. Lewis (in Pilgrim’s Regress) made the case for romanticism as a necessary stepping stone back from modernism. By “worshiping” nature, we will, at least, escape the idolatrous adoration of the machines we have created with our own hands.
The agrarian dream was unquestionably a lost cause even in the 1930’s, but the vision that lay behind the dream is part of a perennial wisdom, a wisdom that recognizes that man cannot be happy estranged from himself. If we consider man only as we know him now, Homo americanus 1986, we must acknowledge that gardening remains his most common hobby, that hunting and fishing are among his favorite sports—to say nothing of camping, hiking, and bird-watching. It is scarcely utopian to suggest that we confront this fact of life head-on and recognize that even we retain some elements of pre-lapsarian man.
“Cultiver noire jardin” was Candide’s conclusion after surveying the follies of the human race. That may be the best possible advice in this not quite the best of all possible worlds. Gardening compels a man to reground himself in the endless rhythms of the seasons and the cycles of flood and drought. Nine to five the old man wears a suit and sits in an office taking calls and dictating memos. His children, dragooned into working beside him, catch a glimpse of the primeval father. How can a son grow up to accept responsibility, to know what it is to be a man, if he never learns to share in productive work at his father’s side? How will a daughter learn to tell a real man from the look-alikes being turned out of colleges and MBA programs every year? But if, when father comes home, he reassumes some of his ancient dignity by grubbing arsy-versy in the garden, his children may learn to regard him as something more than a grunt and a checkbook.
It is increasingly difficult for children to grow up in a fragmented society. Their time is divided between home, school, clubs, lessons, between the sense of reality they acquire at home and the fictions they hear in school. Neither gardening nor rural sports can put all the pieces together, but they can provide the setting for families to live, for a change, as families.
Is that the remedy for every social ill—a 20′ by 20′ garden plot? Hardly, but it is preferable to the inevitable alternatives. Modern man, being what he is, will search for political solutions to the problems he has created. We already hear the cries for more research, new programs, bills that must be passed if we are to save the family or prevent teenage suicide. Hire more counselors, arts administrators—all right, even horticultural consultants—to support the family. This is the grand illusion of our time: that what men and women cannot do for themselves, either individually or acting through natural communities, other men and women-far away from the problem—can. As Andrew Lytle has said more than once, “The opposite of love is not hatred. It is the addiction to power.”
The gardener builds up a partial immunity to the drug. He learns to love his own bit of land more than the rest of the world put together. To that extent, he is more inclined to pay attention to his own affairs. He loves his own land-his plot, his neighborhood, his country—too well to be seduced by any ideology. Rural America was isolationist—sometimes dangerously so—and cheered Calvin Coolidge’s answer to a wise guy who wanted to know what he did with his time: “I minded my own business.” What will become of this rural nation now that we have turned over its governance to the residents of the dullest imperial capital since Hattusas? I think we know.
The gardener also learns, sometimes painfully, the limits to his own power. Karel Capek summed up the gardener’s political creed in his remarkable little book, The Gardener’s Year, published only a year before I’ll Take My Stand!:
A man who has a little garden inevitably becomes a private proprietor; then not any rose grows in it, but his rose; then he does not see, or say, that the cherries are already in flower, but that his cherries are already in bloom. A man who is a proprietor enters into a certain kind of relationship with his neighbors; for instance, as regards the weather, he says, “We ought not to have more rain / or that “We have had a nice shower.” . . . But it is equally true that it awakens frightfully strong selfish instincts of private enterprise and property. There is no doubt that a man would go to fight for his faith, but still more willingly and fiercely would he fight for his little garden. The man who is the owner of some yards of land, and is growing something on it, becomes in fact a rather conservative creature, for he is dependent on natural laws, a thousand years old; do what you will, no revolution will hasten the time of germination, or allow the lilac to flower before May; so the man becomes wise and submits to laws and customs.
Diocletian, after he retired from governing the Roman Empire, devoted himself to growing cabbages. Too many of us, these days, would rather rule the world-or, at least, the U.S. We read the papers, watch Dan Rather, and brood over Lebanon, over Libya, over the Senate race in North Carolina. We are like the man in Rasselas who was afraid to go to sleep, because he was convinced the stars might fall if his attention wavered.
The American Empire, like the empires of Rome and Britain, will have its season, but it will be a short one if we refuse to mind our own business. There is no simple political remedy for mass society and for the increasingly totalitarian way of life that Western nations are busy inflicting upon themselves. The best advice, however, was given by Gabriel Marcel, who recommended small-scale associations of friends, neighbors, and workmates. The more we depend on ourselves and each other, the less will we be inclined to rely on the masters to whom we have bound ourselves. It is the gardener’s wisdom to make his own yard beautiful and productive before presuming to advise his neighbor on soil pH; to cultivate his garden before making the world safe for democracy.