Nights are pitch dark here.  Looking up at a wonderfully clear sky, I think of how few places today permit stars.  The sickly yellow-brown blur of cities has killed the most glorious God-given beauty of all.  With the stars has gone reverence, too, and maybe at least partly as a result of the same.

With all the technology, with all the pronouncements of advances, all the hype over things we own and with which we insulate ourselves in our hedonism, with all the self-congratulatory boasting about today’s “higher standard of living,” we no longer have the sheer staggering beauty of stars, a majesty so startling indeed that they awe to silence and wonder.  How many today have had the privilege to live this experience?  I offer a prayer of thanks for the blessing of stars.

The standard of living in our unhealthy day of enforced consumerism is measured by the number of commodes in a house, the number of house telephones, televisions, Jacuzzis and hot tubs, home offices to house computers and their assorted paraphernalia, the number of cars, the number of bays for them in the garage, the size of the swimming pool.  Gadgets galore is the foundation for this rawly materialistic way.

As I watch their stately progress, I conclude that, without stars, man should never be proud of his much-vaunted achievements.  Without them, such a “standard of living” should be emblazoned in red: IMPOVERISHED or DEPRIVED.  No number of television, movie, or computer screens can even faintly seek to measure up to them.  And it is far more than being culturally deprived.  It is the basic bedrock impoverishment of the most serious sensory kind.

So my rural nights, and those of many farmers, are still dark, very dark, and lit with the dancing brilliance of stars.

The nights here are quiet but for tree frogs, cicadas, and the whippoorwill.  Even their sounds aid sleep.  The dawn comes gradually, gently, in this land.  The very first greying brings me slowly awake.  No jolt of a menacing alarm clock, so aptly named.  The light prepares me.  All the high beds in the farmhouse are positioned to face east.  The tall windows that reveal curtainless the movement of stars now bring in the new day.  The songbirds that gather and raise about the house are awaking, too.  They give such odd waking-up sounds.  I guess it is their yawns.

During the long summer growing season of the South, I wake at six.  Having fallen asleep the night before at nine or nine-thirty—not too long after dark has come—I’ve had a full eight hours of rest.  I’m in good spirits, eager for the new day.  It’s so full of promise.  Through its patterned routine, it is continually varied and new.

The tall, old farmhouse, with doors and windows opened wide, breathes the cool of morn.  I have no air-conditioning, am not hermetically sealed.  There is no plastic, no vinyl siding to capsule me in.  There are no storm windows and doors.

The routine is an ambitious one, but does not seem so.  A good country breakfast, and I am at my chores.

It will be a hot day, so I am glad to be about the business of raising food from the ground.  The sun climbs in the sky.  I work till ten.  Tomatoes are coming in.  Okra must be picked each day, or it will cease to bear.  Squash, too.  Beans, too.  In the heat, the plants hang stoically on.  They remind me of my Southern people.  They survive.  This summer, the rain has been plenty.  Even this late in the season, the purple dark skin of the eggplant is taut and shiny from the moisture within.  The split-oak baskets are brim full.  They make the shoulders ache to carry them in.  There will be plenty to give to the neighbors up the road, and more to can, swap, barter, and sell.  Now, maybe some work with the hoe to chop that summer grass in the furrows, the grass that is likely the result of a seven years’ seed.  (Farmers know what I mean.)

My cotton shirt is moist with sweat or, if I work much past ten, wringing wet.

Time to go in to the welcome of shade and the cool of lofty, tall rooms.  Good dishes of clean food revitalize.  I do not forget to bless my food.  The old miracle of being able to feed oneself from a seed and the soil is never far from my mind.  I think how the smallest taken-for-granted things of life are miracles, too.

I relish my meal, raised without man-made poisons or chemical fertilizers by my own hand and with the God-ordained sweat of my brow.  My sweat has dripped from my body.  Its minerals have enriched and become a part of my soil.

Time to catch my breath and sit down.  I pick up the pen.

The bright sheet of paper looks almost as glorious as the shine of stars.  The possibilities that wait for what might be put on it are almost as mysterious as they.  Do the words come from out there where the stars reside?  I cannot understand why a famous painter of our time has said that he dreaded the blank canvas or why the celebrated author has declared he felt depressed at the sight of a new page.

Earlier, while doing the duties of farming, I had been thinking things through.  Some ideas, some words, some phrases—I had been moving them around, adjusting, rehearsing, forming, reforming, organizing in my mind.  The rhythm of my work is accompanied in harmony by the rhythm of words.

I begin.  Today, the ink flows effortlessly, like the great river that moves silently beyond the feet of my fields.  Like the handheld plow across the row, my lines move arrow straight.  They stop and turn at the edge of the page, the edge of the field.

I write through the heat of the day.  I sit in my boxers, without shirt, under the big ceiling fan.  Its blades make a gentle swooping sound.  The chintz window curtains blow in, blow out.  No screens restrain them.  They are free to move at their will.  It has reached 95 degrees outside.  It is an Upcountry Carolina August, and the dog days.  Less breeze than usual stirs.  I work till four or five.  A simple but big supper gives a time to reflect and relish my food, and I rest awhile.  It satisfies that the meal on the table has been grown and harvested all in one place, in one seamless way.  No breaks and rendings on wheels of trucks or tumblings in bins, in the progress from seed and soil to the table at suppertime.  Once again, I give heartfelt blessing over my bounty of food.  I remember those who came before me and dig in.

Now after supper, there may be some mail to be answered, perhaps some bills to be paid.  Or a little reading—a kind of dessert that tops the blackberry cobbler, made from fruit picked in grandmother’s berry bucket in the waste places on the edges of my fields.  While I picked, I thought of her and my mama when we had gone out on such outings before.  I telescope time.  The false linear, scientific progression of it is completely vanquished and belied by memory.

Six-thirty or thereabouts, well fed and rested, it is time to go back to the fields, to the necessary chores.  The August sun is lower in the sky.  The day is cooling a little now.  “The heat’s back is broke,” old farmers would say of this time, and now I can work some more.  I fetch in the pail of milk cooling beneath the springhouse floor.  I see how the rich Guernsey cream has risen to the top.  I bring more vegetables in, tidy up the barn, spread compost on the soil soon to be tilled up for the planting of the fall turnip greens.  A good two hours, maybe three, and it is time for bath and bed.  The time has turned darker than grey, past what the old folks called early candle-lighting time.

I have no shower.  I sit and soak.  My muscles thank me for the rest.  The place’s one major mechanical luxury is the pump of my well.  It is an old one but does duty still.  The well itself strikes deep into the granite bedrock and brings forth cold water unadulterated by man.  It has its own crystal taste from the stone.  I can distinguish that taste readily.  It is the taste of my soil.

It is time for bed.  I am reflecting upon something I have read some time before.  The words are Andrew Lytle’s.  I remember him as one of the Agrarians who also farmed.  Today, I am thinking of his shrewd cultural observations, his words.  One such surmise comes particularly to mind.  He gave the mark of the Southerner that distinguished him from those men of colder climes.  He noted that, in first meeting, the non-Southerner would usually ask, “What do you do?”  The Southerner asks, instead, “Where are you from?”  Mr. Lytle went further.  The real Southerner—that is, he of the soil—enquires, “Where do your people bury?”  That is the sum total of it all.

Last Sunday evening, introducing two of my country friends for the first time from across the geographical separation of some 20 miles, I noted that they proved Mr. Lytle true.  They started straight in by saying where their people, close and extended, lay in the ground.  They soon found that their families shared the same sacred sod, and all was immediately right with the world.  Their smiles were sincere.  They beamed recognition faithful and true.

But I reflected then how proud of them I was that evening as they took Mr. Lytle one step further.  After quickly finding out who they were and how they were connected on (and in) the common sod of Kelly’s Chapel burying ground, they moved swiftly to pledging how they would help each other to keep this spot in the long-growing-seasoned South weed-clean.  Ola Jean said she is good with a hoe.  Ronnie volunteered his expertise with a weed-eater and a fire-ant remedy.  The talk was easy and flowed as if they were old childhood friends.  “It’s so tacky to see cemeteries overgrown, their tablets knocked down,” Ola Jean concludes.  Tacky, but so thoroughly modern, I think to myself.  Who cares for the dead? these moderns ask.  They had their time!  Now it’s mine!  Yes, the self-pampering, self-aggrandizing, self-congratulating Me Generation writ large.  Me, My, and Mine, their favorite words, gathering up all the things of the world to their breasts in material quest . . . a debasing of the word, the old Holy-Grail-striving gone secular sour and bad.

Ronnie has tips on how broken marble can be cleaned and repaired.  He will get his sons and some few more of the family and will help Ola Jean.  They will meet bright and early next Saturday morn.  Ola Jean will bring ham biscuits, peach cobbler, tomato sandwiches, potato salad, and more to feed the crew.  They will use their common great-great Uncle Johnny’s big flat marble sarcophagus tomb as a dinner table to spread a red-checkered table cloth on.  I figure, if I can get ahead in my chores, I might come along.  I like Ola Jean and Ronnie.  Their values are healthy; their priorities, sound.  No retiring solitary Thoreau passing through a place to get books from the sojourn, I long for community, and seek out society and company.  I have made certain that my future has become inseparably entwined with that of this place.  On this good soil, I have taken my stand.  As my writing, farming friend Mr. Berry loves frequently to say, “What I stand for, is what I stand on.”  I can say no better than he.

Such is the life, big things and small, of the writer-farmer.  He prays the thread of his fabric runs true enough, warp and woof, solid and lasting and strong, a cloth made on the old over-shot loom in the quiet of his great-grandmama’s notched-log loom room.  He has time to back off and see the fabric’s design.  It is sturdy, white linen, made from the flax grown on the place.  It will last longer than nails.  In his own way and time, he gets things balanced and thoughtfully done.  “Wholistic living,” the modern academic might say.  The ancients knew and, without jargon, said it better, too.  Today, he has had four or five good hours of writing in the white-hot heat while Sirius blazed.  Today, he has furnished his own energies, clean calories, to stoke the body’s furnace, from the sweat of his brow—a good seven hours’ worth at this time of the year.  In that way, he has seen those calories through from seed to the pot and the pan.  He thinks how such satisfaction is now rare in this assembly-line, one-specialized-cog per person, time and land.  Seeing it through from start to finish, he can take pride in his work, what he has done.  He thinks, How oddly like writing a novel, a poem, or play.

Yes, he has put in a good 12-hour day and has had, besides, chance for reflection and stretches of time lined with the quiet of a kind of constant prayer, prayers of petition, of thanks, of celebration, of praise, and now he is tired.  His mind is emptying for sleep.

He sleeps as if drugged, but no Zoloft or Sominex for him.  His conscience does not nag.  He has not had to prey off another, not had to flatter falsely, cheat, wheedle, dissemble, or lie.  He has had to curry the favor of no one.  His thoughts have not been on the feverish necessity of purchasing things for buying happiness, for upping his standard of life.  He is perfectly satisfied with what he has and desires no more.  He validates his own lifestyle and uses no consumerist measuring stick from media values and ads.  His has not been or ever will be a cash-register evaluation of life.  He has not been at the mercy of machines—no machine-culture for him!  He has had no stress and jangle of city’s noise.  He has had neither fool to annoy, nor made himself into one.  He has been independent enough of all but his God.  Yes, Mr. Jefferson was right, he concludes.  “Dependence begets subservience,” he had said.  So had William Byrd, Virginia planter years before him, too.  Alexander Hamilton was fatally wrong and paved the way of subservience and dependence in the frightening, consumerist, planned-obsolescent power state, run by banks, corporations, and their bought government elite, whose policies have made farmers such as him close to extinct.  He is not ignorant of the ways of the world but, for a while, puts the thinking of them aside.

As he drifts off, a prayer moves on his lips.  “Save man from the results of his own folly,” he prays.  In the country’s real dark, he half opens his eyes.  Through the high, many-paned windows of his second-story room, his last waking sight is of stars.