Sunday, January 25, 2009

Old School

I just finished a book called "See You in a Hundred Years," the story of a New York writer, his wife and their small child who chuck their 21st century stresses and conveniences to live on a Virginia farm in 1900. My wife gave me the book after meeting the author Logan Ward at a writers conference.

The book is about "an experiment" -- as Ward calls it: Can the family live for a year without electricity, indoor plumbing, a phone or a car, while producing most, if not all their food?

I have mixed feelings about such ventures. On one hand I find them fascinating because I love history and because my mother grew up on a subsistence farm in Iowa during the Depression. Since I was a little boy, she told me about the outhouse, the outdoor shower and the pot belly stove that was their only source of heat. The family grew much of its own food (Like the Wards, my grandmother was a fanatical canner her entire life), had a milk cow named Old Boss who had to be led by chain because she ate rope and chickens that produced eggs and were routinely Henry VIII-thed into the pot for dinner.

But my mother's memories are generally not happy ones. She hated the farm, the endless drudgery,the narrowness of small town life and the hardships of the Depression. When idealistic middle class kids went "back to the land" in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my mother laughed derisively. "Just you wait," she said contemptuously. "They'll find out."

She was right. Most communes collapsed as soon as the hippies realized they had to get up at 6 a.m. to milk cows and flush toilets were not part of the program.

So while I am fascinated by "experiments" like the one in "See You in a Hundred Years," they also evoke in me a measure of revulsion and even contempt.

But Logan and his wife, while they were clearly naive and unprepared in some ways, strike a pretty fair balance. Both have living relatives who grew up poor at the edge of the era they are recreating, so they had a decent idea of what they were getting into. And Ward is clear-eyed in his descriptions of the endless hard work, chamber pots, goat droppings and the challenges of farming without pesticides.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book relate to food. Indeed, while I am skeptical of such returns to the past, I do believe that much flavor, goodness and diversity has been lost in the rush to factory farming. The Wards' experiment seems to confirm this. After a slow start, their garden yields a bounty of superior-tasting cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and corn. The goats they keep produce superb cheese and the fresh chicken eggs are tasty and nutritious.

At the end of the book, Logan recounts a conversation with a friend that I think puts the family's "experiment" in the right perspective:

I rattle the ice in my glass and turn to John. "Why bother with past?
He is silent for a minute. "When you think about it, the past is all we have. It's where we've been," he says. "And we sure as hell don't where we're going."
"Then it's a guide for how to live?" I ask.
"I don't think that the past should dictate the future, but it's a good foundation. Passing down culture from generation to generation is one of the things that separates us from other creatures. Personally, I want that link to the past. We find ourselves through the long trail of those who came before us."
Those who don't care about the past are disoriented, he says, showing no regard for the land, for humanity, for themselves.
I have only scratched the surface of this excellent book.

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