Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

The Disappearance of Agrarian Life

leave a comment »

               

About thirty years ago when I was teaching at a small college, I came across a document designed to trace migratory patterns of Americans.  It was a survey to determine the linguistic practices of students and, thereby, to learn where the ancestors of the students had come from.  The instructions for filling out the survey said, “For many things in daily life, people in different parts of the United States use different words.  As Americans moved westward, they brought with them the terms used in their home states.” 

The survey consisted of items beginning with a description of an object followed by a list of different terms people might use to name the object.  For example, one was “SHELF OVER FIREPLACE: fire board, mantel, mantel board, mantelpiece, mantel shelf, shelf, clock shelf.”  Each student was asked to circle the term used in his home to describe that shelf.

All of the entries were fascinating to anyone who loves language.  Here is one of my favorites. “A VERY HEAVY RAIN THAT DOESN’T LAST LONG: squall, flaw, down-pour, cloudburst, lightwood-knot-floater, goose-drownder, gully-washer, trash-mover, toad-strangler.”       

Recently, when I looked at my copy of the survey, I began to notice something else.  Many of the objects considered “things in daily life” by the authors of the survey may be familiar to people of my generation, but they are practically unknown to today’s college students. 
   

I am speaking now of the items in the survey having to do with farm animals and farm implements.  Here is a partial list of things in the survey needing a descriptive term (I have left out the lists of possible terms in order to save space): SMALL PILES OF HAY IN THE FIELDS, PLACE WHERE COWS ARE ENCLOSED, SHELTER AND YARD FOR HOGS, VESSEL FOR CARRYING FOOD TO HOGS, SHAFT BETWEEN TWO HORSES HITCHED TO A FARM WAGON, BAR TO WHICH A SINGLE HORSE IS HITCHED, BAR FOR TWO HORSES, IMPLEMENT WITH TEETH FOR BREAKING CLODS AFTER PLOWING, SOUND OF A CALF BEING WEANED, SOUND MADE BY HORSES AT FEEDING TIME, CALL TO HORSES TO URGE THEM ON, CALL TO CHICKENS AT FEEDING TIME, HORSE ON THE LEFT SIDE IN PLOWING, SECOND GROWTH OF HAY OR CLOVER.   
   

There is no date on the document, but it seems probable that it was written in the 1950’s or earlier. Before mid-century the United States was an agrarian society; that is, most people lived on family farms.  And much of the farming was done using horses and mules.  In rural areas, even people who were not really farmers still typically raised a garden and had chickens, a cow, and a few pigs.
   

This survey’s words that evoke life on the farm and life in rural America reminded me that the nation’s agrarian culture has essentially disappeared since World War II.  Of course, tractors have replaced horses and mules.  Also Corporate farms have, to a large extent, replaced family farms.  It is an irreversible trend.  But the disappearance of that agrarian culture has had some unfortunate effects on the American people.   
   

One effect is that each generation is more alienated from nature than the last.  It’s not surprising that people who live in closed, air-conditioned apartments; who ride to work in closed, air-conditioned cars; and who work in closed, air-conditioned buildings can go through life without realizing that human beings are inextricably bound to the natural world.  Many of us are out of touch with natural processes, and we show it in our disregard for the health of the earth.
   

Another effect is that most of us have lost the sense of freedom and independence that growing our own food and providing our other material goods can bring.  Until mid-century the family farm made the owning and bearing of firearms an unselfconscious continuation of a tradition going back as far as the Revolutionary War.  During the Great Depression firearms helped farmers feed their families as they had served Americans for two centuries.  
   

The founding fathers didn’t imagine it could be otherwise.  Jefferson thought that the United States would continue to be an agrarian society for a very long time.  In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”   And of urbanization he said, “The mobs of great cities add just so much support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”
   

In the United States, democracy with its most meaningful liberties is owed largely to the freedoms made possible by an agrarian society.  But under the pressure of urbanization and accelerated population growth, increased governmental regulation will make the decline of many liberties inevitable.

Advertisements

Written by polemicscat

July 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: