Thursday, December 06, 2007

heavy horses

I finished my marathon read through essays by Wendell Berry--pretty much everything I could get from our county library (which was a lot). I'll admit that I did quite a bit of skimming in the later volumes. His writing is good, and he always has something worthwhile to say. But the themes and positions are similar enough throughout that it gets easier to follow his arguments on the fly, the longer you spend with his work.

Along the way, I also read Worms Eat My Garbage, a classic manual of vermicomposting, and the Seventeen Traditions, by Ralph Nader--a good book about lessons he learned growing up, though it makes me feel like a failure as a parent. (I'm formulating a general principle, that anything that doesn't make you feel like a failure as a parent probably isn't worth reading.) It's a very good book, regardless of what you think about his politics--and easy to get through, so if you don't like it, at least you won't waste much time. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Ralph, and since I don't expect any of my favorites in the two major parties to survive the primaries, if he runs again, I'll probably vote for him. I agree with the criticism I read somewhere recently that, although his positions are fundamentally right, his major weakness is that he has too much trust in government to solve the problems. Incidentally, in case anyone cares, his family's background is in fact Eastern Orthodox (or so he claims in the book--I already knew he was Lebanese), but they went to a Methodist church when he was growing up. His hometown doesn't appear to have an Orthodox parish, so that might be some of the reason; but I also get the impression of his parents that they wanted their kids to fit into the American landscape as much as possible.

One interesting thing that happened in the midst of my reading Berry--I had to take a friend to the airport before Thanksgiving. I've got out of the habit of listening to music in the car, and when I do, it's usually something Orthodox. But in this case, I figured my friend would appreciate something to listen to, and probably not Byzantine chant. So I put in a Jethro Tull CD. Yeah, I know--go ahead and start heckling. But I really like a lot of their stuff. I think the prominent flute in a rock band is an interesting twist, and I've always been a sucker the medieval schtik. On the way home, the song "Heavy Horses" came on, which I'd heard before, but in the context of reading Berry's work, I was struck anew by its message:
Iron-clad feather-feet pounding the dust,
An October's day towards evening,
Sweat embossed veins standing proud to the plough,
Salt on a deep chest seasoning.
Last of the line at an honest day's toil,
Turning the deep sod under,
Flint at the fetlock chasing the bone,
Flies at the nostrils plunder.

The Suffolk, the Clydesdale, the Percheron vie
With the Shire on his feathers floating--
Hauling soft timber into the dusk
To bed on a warm straw coating.

Heavy Horses move the land under me.
Behind the plough gliding--slipping and sliding free.
Now you're down to the few,
And there's no work to do:
The tractor's on its way.

Let me find you a filly for your proud stallion seed,
To keep the old line going.
And we'll stand you abreast at the back of the wood,
Behind the young trees growing.
To hide you from eyes that mock at your girth
And your eighteen hands at the shoulder.
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry,
And the nights are seen to draw colder,
They'll beg for your strength, your gentle power,
Your noble grace and your bearing.
And you'll strain once again to the sound of the gulls,
In the wake of the deep plough sharing.

Standing like tanks on the brow of the hill,
Up into the cold wind facing,
In stiff battle harness chained to the world,
Against the low sun racing.
Bring me a wheel of oaken wood,
A rein of polished leather,
A Heavy Horse and a tumbling sky,
Brewing heavy weather.

Bring a song for the evening,
Clean brass to flash the dawn
Across these acres glistening
Like dew on a carpet lawn.
In these dark towns folk lie sleeping,
As the heavy horses thunder by
To wake the dying city
With the living horseman's cry.

At once the old hands quicken,
Bring pick and wisp and curry comb,
Thrill to the sound of all
The heavy horses coming home.
Now, I should clarify. Berry never argues (nor would I) against all mechanization. What he does advocate, however, is the best equipment for the job. He defends, for instance, his preference of a pencil over a computer for his writing. That particular essay was written when PCs were just becoming popular, and it seems to me that there's a lot more people can do with them now. Not to say that you can't still get by without one, but personally when I look at my use of the computer and what it would take to do the same things without it, I'm not sure the equation balances quite the way his did. His point was simply that a pencil and paper is much cheaper, much more portable, much less dependent on fossil fuels, and it gives him a feeling of connectedness and fulfillment to write his own letters. He argues similarly in other areas that, if something needs to be done, it should be done with the least resources and expense necessary for the best output. In his farming, he uses horses, but he also uses a tractor. For some work, horses are the only sensible way to go. Because their energy is directly linked to the natural cycles of a well-run farm, they're generally the more efficient option.

Horses are just one example, of course, but they make the point well. The modern trends of farming highlight the modern mindset. Fields are made as large as possible, worked with machines that run on petroleum, in such a way that they absolutely must be fertilized with petroleum, to produce crops that will be shipped all over the world using petroleum. Seeds have to be manufactured to stand their abnormal conditions, so they must be bought. Livestock is considered a separate operation, and is also managed in large quantities, which makes it less efficient to use the "waste" that results. Resources are acquired, used up, and waste materials are produced. This is a destructive process that fails to replenish itself. He contrasts it with a more traditional, more conservative approach that recognizes and flows with the natural cycles of life. Small farms raise crops and livestock together--each feeds the other, so that artificial inputs are minimized. The soil is carefully maintained for repeated use. Most of the energy comes from the sun through plants, not from expendable petroleum reserves. The family is sustained by its own efforts, with extra to sell or trade for what it cannot produce at home.

Farming is where these conflicting approaches can be seen most clearly, but we all participate. We've accepted the norm that our food comes from money, without concern for the real costs involved. We're less capable of taking care of ourselves and less aware of the effects of our actions. We consume, but we do not produce. Now we've become a nation of consumers, with a massive trade deficit and diminished skill and resources to provide for our own needs. He ties this in with our national security concerns, as we continue to depend on foreign investment, foreign oil, foreign products. It all comes back to the systems we've embraced and the lie that more and better technology is always the answer.

Will we get our act together before "the oil barons have all dripped dry?" Or will it require a catastrophe of our obsolete way of life to force us back to a more sensible approach?

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