The need of being versed in country things

I’ve just reread Donald Hall’s Here at Eagle Pond. I’ve been reading a series of books lately that have their feet on the ground. My novel has land at its heart — acres and roots and mud puddles — and Hall loves a New England that moves me too, the hay drying in the sun, the people who remember who lived in that 1800’s saltbox when it was built, the people who work with their hands.

It always surprises me how much I disagree with him. I care about so many of the same things. Rereading him now, when I have lived in New Hampshire and left it again, I often felt homesick. His New Hampshire is a stubborn back country — the winter is cold, families work or starve, and the names on the civil war monuments are the same ones on the mail boxes.

Yes, I know these people, and this spirit. I know people who live within a mile of the place where they grew up. I know people who seek out their elders for their stories and memories, play music with them, tell stories of the Shaker sisters who taught them to cook. I know people who live on odd jobs, a man who has walked across frozen lakes with six-inch nails in his pockets, to haul himself out if the ice gave way. When Hall says his community lives where it lives because it wants to, and that it rejects commercialism and migration, he is partly right.

I love the independence and obstinacy that keeps contradance music alive. And Hall recognizes some of its costs, in rusted trailers and a lack of zoning laws. But he does not recognize all of them. And in upholding their strengths, he limits the meaning of country.

He says, simply, that his counry was created by Protestant Americans after the civil war. He brings into his understanding of country life a set of values, what he calls the country of the church dinner — a value for hard work, for family, for place. But many of these values, otherwise applied, have grown industries and cities. A love for land and an ability to live on it takes many shapes. And 18th century farming clearcut the whole state of Massachusetts.

Reading him raises a vital question for me: what does it mean to live in the country, to live with the land. How can a community be rural and vital at the same time? Country matters vitally: country Hall wants to keep hold of. At the heart of these essays, in his return home to his grandparents’ farm, he is trying to preserve a place he loves, in the face of a world he feels does not value it.

And reading him frustrates me because his definitions keep him from answering fully enough to help me. He doesn’t need to persuade me to hold onto the country. I want to know how. He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t want change of any kind. He wants country to be exactly as it is on the one-family dairy farm. He can be disingenuous in its defense — New Hampshire has a wide tolerance for eccentricity, but it is not, as he claims, diverse. It is also not young. A vital past is a fine, rich thing, but without a vital future, it’s a Shaker museum.

I want to live in the country, and I want to feel alive doing it. I want to know how to help other active, intelligent people live where they love. I don’t want to change old milltowns into mid-town Manhattan to do it: I want the country to be country, wild and fertile and animal and uncut. I don’t think intelligence, a desire for useful work I can do well, and a need for earth under my feet are incompatible.

Those of us who love the country and love to think should stick together; I agree with Donald Hall that we need each other, because others who do not love what we love can so easly take it away and not even know they have. If we are going to keep the country alive, I think we need to see it as here and alive already and kindle it slowly and steadily. The only ways I know how to do this are slow, one light at a time.

One thing we will have to do, and he does: we will have to want it. We will have to teach people its value and hold on to others who want it as much as we do.

Hall actually says the opposite, and this I do not understand at all: “It turns out that the fulfilment of desire is to stop desiring” (18). He’s quoting Sam Johnson, whether he knows it or not, and I’ve written a whole thesis proving him wrong. He proves himself wrong, in the same essay. He loves his place achingly.

He desires it ardently in every page: that’s why he’s writing. The fulfilment of a desire increases desire, deepens it and roots it until it takes over — and delights in it, laughs in it. You ask any couple who have grown into love over time, and not out of it. And when you have realized a desire, when you have held it long enough to believe it is yours — then you will fight for it.

I began these thoughts the last time I reread Eagle Pond; here, for anyone who likes circles, is the beginning of the thread.


“Oh, and I finished Donald Hall’s String too Short to Be Saved. I read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Rural Life last week, and it followed on naturally. I had a merry time relishing and disagreeing with them by turns, so much that I reread Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall 40 years later, to keep on with it. I love the country too; I fear much of what they fear and value, often, what they value. So it astonishes me how often, when they air their convictions, mine don’t match. A lot of it amounts to — my faith in the country is complicated but optimistic, and I don’t think the country year ends in October and begins in April.

A for instance. String is a series of essays on Hall’s summers with his grandparents in northern New Hamshire. He concludes: “the reality of the suburbs had allowed me exile in the nostalgic order of the farm. Hatred of living anarchy became love of dead order.”

It isn’t that simple, even in his essays. He starts out chasing two escaped heifers into a thunderstorm, and he’s going to tell me farms have no anarchy? He complains endlessly (so do I) of the sameness of the suburbs, and he claims they have no order. I get, and I defend, his belief in the importance of having time to settle, of connection with the past and with place. There’s a reason I didn’t go to school in Idaho. But the country is not so dead, so ordered, or so immune to the sameness he complains of. And find me a more anarchic part of the country than northern New Hampshire, while you’re at it. He often talks of the versitility and independence of country people, the barter, the explosive town meetings — his town still didn’t have zoning in the 1980’s. What he loves in the country is both a rhythm of work and an independence of spirit amounting to anarchy. What he hates in the suburbs is both a dreary homogeneity and a dreary beaurocracy.

God knows, I know New England farming is a hard proposition and an upstream battle against the economy. If it is not going to fail, farming here may have to change beyond recognition. But the larger premise that a life connected to the order of the land is impossible I do not accept. I love New England farming. It’s one way of living on the land; but it is hardly the only way. It can do more harm than good. It clear cut all of Massachusetts before the civil war; it stripped wild populations of plants and animals; it takes a hundrd hour week in haying season.

He spoke of 100 years of mountain farms as the pinnacle of New Hampshire history and 2000 years of Abenaki as a danger that the Frensh and Indian war relieved. This frustrated me increasingly. It frustrated me because it is all out of perspective. Even more, because it obscures a key argument that I think he wouldn’t disagree with. We can, and I say we have to, evolve new ways of matching step with the land we live in. That doesn’t have to mean wholly rejecting the past or wholly clinging to it: it has to mean recognizing it. I think anyone who cares enough and has guts enough can learn the land, the way I think anyone can learn to shovel. People may learn different elements of it in different ways and to different extents: how to build on it carefully, how to eat from it, how to heat with it, how to clean it. I know 95 percent of the population farmed in 1900 and 5 percent farms now; I know country kids may reach middle school without knowing where carrots come from. So teach them. This matters to me because I think it’s my job, as I think it’s his. If I want to help people to reclaim the land, I can’t reject any part of its current order.”

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