Monasticism

Periodically I run across folks writing on the internet who aren’t too impressed with the idea of seeking a life that is more simple, separate, and deliberate, especially if it involves agrarianism. The most common criticism leveled against such thinking is that it represents “creeping monasticism,” a pietistic withdrawal from a world that we are called to be in but not of. The challenge is: what about the command to be salt and light?

Those who charge agrarians with creeping monasticism aren’t thinking any more deeply that the anti-homeschooling folks who raise the issue of socialization. First, it doesn’t take more than a little bit of empirical study to find out that the communities that are pursuing an agrarian lifestyle are plenty involved with the world, whether it be their unbeliving neighbors or the folks they transact their business with. Even the Amish, whose commitment to separation is extreme, still interact with the “English” on a daily basis, and don’t take measures to do otherwise.

More distressing, though, is that the charge of creeping monasticism can be refuted by a very simple thought experiment. Most of the folks pursuing this lifestyle think of it as a rejection of modern ways, of stripping away layers of modernity that have been added to our lives over the past few hundred years. Two questions: Was the agrarian way of life lived by our forefathers an obstacle to Christian living and witness for them? and, Has the three hundred year shift from agrarianism to industrialism led to a Christian way of life that is more effectively salt and light to the world?

Put another way: are we doing a better job than the Puritans?

Readability tests

I found this online readability test via Dave Black’s weblog. Use it to estimate the readability of your weblog.

For the three tests run, the first test says this weblog is written at an eleventh-grade level, roughly equivalent to the Wall Street Journal; the second test says it is at an eighth-grade level; and the third tests puts it smack in the middle of the range it recommends that writers aim for. (I like ranking alongside the WSJ.)

Hot dogging

Chris and I have spent a fair amount of time in music classes that involve group instruction. Inevitably there will be someone who is less interested in learning than in hot dogging, i.e. showing off for the class and especially the instructor. We always laugh about it; the instructor is always so much more accomplished than the students (why take the class otherwise?) that it isn’t very likely anyone will impress him.

The funniest episode was at Augusta last year, where Chris signed up for a “Fiddle From Scratch” class, designed to help start students who had absolutely no experience on the fiddle. One of the students had had some small amount of training, and set himself up as Mr. Know-It-All for the week. We laughed about it every night. What exactly did he expect the instructor to think? “Wow, you are by far the best Fiddle From Scratch student I’ve ever had! In fact, you’re practically good enough to be in the Beginning Fiddle class!”

It’s not just in music classes where we run into this attitude; any group lecture that features a Q&A will usually bring it out. When we were at the Hedge School last week, we skipped the final session that was entirely Q&A because the “questions” we had heard from the audience were mostly pontification about the bad old north that seemed designed to impress the lecturer and the folks putting on the school.

Sadly, there is a very easy way to impress the teacher that isn’t often used: listen to what he says, and do what he tells you. We’ve tried to instill in all our kids a high level of docility, or willingness to be taught. We teach them to instinctively defer not just to the authority that comes from office, but the authority that comes from being wise and knowledgable about a subject. A few times over the past couple of years we’ve had music teachers tell us that they love having us for students, simply because we listen to what they tell us (especially direct criticisms), take it to heart, and act on their advice. That’s heartening for us, but it’s also depressing to think that they encounter such an attitude so rarely that they go out of their way to thank us for it.

Agrarian puzzles

I was talking with a friend yesterday who asked me how much I thought Joel Salatin’s vision was driven by his Christian faith. I replied that I didn’t know, because much of what he advocates is plain common sense, easily embraced by the rankest of pagans. Even the stay-at-home and multigenerational aspects could be driven less by a covenantal sense of the family and more by pure common sense, since those things are key to the agrarian lifestyle.

It did get me thinking, though, about exactly how close my own vision is to Salatin’s vision. Specifically, there are a few things about Salatin’s model that don’t quite make sense to me. The most important is the focus on producing income. I agree that if you want to produce income through farming, Salatin’s approach is by far the most sensible. But I’m not sure my own understanding of the good agrarian life would place so much emphasis on income. I suspect that the emphasis would be more on subsistence, on supplying one’s own needs directly, with extra income being a small part of the equation.

A more troubling difference is Salatin’s focus on adding value. Part of me thinks that this is one of his more ingenious observations, that the more you can “process” your product the more you can charge for it. An example he uses is eggs; he says that you can charge three times as much for an egg if you put it in a pound cake rather than selling it on its own. Another example is his son Daniel, who gets ten times as much for his maple syrup by using it to make maple donuts as he could get by selling it as syrup.

Another part of me is bothered by this. My agrarian sense tells me that it is better for me to make my own pound cake than it is to buy one from someone else. If I think that an agrarian lifestyle is as good for my neighbor as it is for me, then being in the pound cake business depends critically on my neighbors not getting the agrarian message.

If the goal is an agrarian community, then the sort of farming that Joel Salatin recommends is only going to be a moneymaker during the transitional period. Eventually you won’t be able to sell your chickens, eggs, pound cakes, or maple donuts, because people are growing and making them for themselves. So do we have to count on a certain large number of people (i.e. our market) never getting the message? Do we have to expect our market to be non-local, since our neighbors will never be interested in buying our goods? Do we only expect to make money at farming during the transition to an agrarian community, planning to make our living in a different way once the transition is complete?

Little Britches

Our current readaloud is Little Britches by Ralph Moody. We read it once before, a few years ago, and I think we’re enjoying this second reading even more. It is the first in a series of books in which Moody recounts his childhood and early days. In this book, eight-year-old Ralph moves with his family in 1908 to just south of Denver to try their hand at ranching.

Life was difficult, and the attempt failed for reasons out of their control. But the family made an amazing amount of progress in the two years they worked the ranch. It is fascinating to read the details told in a very matter-of-fact way from an eight year old’s point of view. Some of Ralph’s adventures would stop a modern mother’s heart; his own mother wasn’t too thrilled, either, but she took them in stride. Even so young a boy as Ralph was expected to be nearly a man, out of necessity as much as tradition, and it’s exhilarating to see him measure up to expectations.

The best part of the book is Ralph’s relationship with his father, Charles. Charles was extraordinary in Ralph’s eyes, and it’s clear to an outsider that he was a good and gifted man. But Charles’s greatest accomplishment was living righteously under difficult circumstances and in full view of his family. There are several episodes where Ralph behaves foolishly and unrighteously; it is his father’s example and authority that shame him and bring him into line, and the result is a great leap forward in maturity for Ralph.

  • Ralph accidentally kills a pheasant in a trap, something the family has been told is a major crime in Colorado. Charles sends him to town—alone!—to find the sheriff and confess his crime, which he does, reluctantly but deliberately.
  • Ralph develops a craving for chocolate, and steals and hides a chocolate bar his mother bought for baking. Part of his excuse to himself is that he has been earning much-needed money for the family, and so he is entitled to some of the family’s goods. His father catches him, but rather than punishing him he asks if Ralph would rather keep his own earnings separate so he can buy such things. This shames Ralph to the core, who then begs his father to leave his earnings as part of the family savings. His father says that he has always wanted to consider Ralph a partner, but can’t be a partner with a sneak. Ralph promises never to do such a thing again, and they seal the partnership with a handshake.
  • One December Ralph and his father are working off taxes by driving wagon loads of gravel to build a road. Ralph gets to a rough spot crossing a stream, his father right behind and watching, and out of frustration begins to whip the horses with the reins. His father jumps out of his wagon and endangers his health (he had TB) by wading through the freezing stream to Ralph, then grabs the reins and admonishes him to never, ever abuse a horse again unless he wants to be similarly abused. He then manages to amaze Ralph by getting the horses and wagon unstuck from the streambed.

Charles Moody was an admirable man, but from these stories it is clear that every father is likely to have many such moments of truth when working side-by-side with a son, and that it is within the reach of all of us to be so admirable in such moments. The key, though, is working side-by-side with a son, depending on him to contribute tangibly and significantly to the family welfare. I doubt such moments will come to the urban father whose involvment in his children’s life is mostly having the highlights recounted to him at the dinner table after spending the day away at work.

Compost

We went through the three trailer loads of composted manure that the Ellises so kindly gave us and put it on half the garden ground that needed it (carrot and sweet potato areas didn’t need any). Jerome has been purchasing some high quality compost made from race horse manure that is delivered from Lexington, and so we arranged to buy a small portion of that from him. He brought part of it over on Tuesday after lunch, and we covered about a third of the remaining area; Chris and I will fetch the rest later. We also planted the first row of carrots in the carrot patch; we’ll add a row every three weeks or so.

As we worked we talked about a book I had lent him, called Meanwhile Next Door to the Good Life, written by a woman who homesteaded next door to Scott and Helen Nearing for about ten years starting in the 70s. The Nearings were major figures in the back-to-the-land movement at the time. They had begun homesteading in Vermont in the 1930s, worked at it for twenty years, self-published a book about the experience called Living the Good LIfe, then pulled up stakes and moved to Maine to do it all over again. The book sold poorly in the 1950s, but in 1970 they reprinted it and it took off, eventually selling 200,000 copies.

The Nearings’ farm in Maine became a magnet for all kinds of free-spirited people who were interested in various aspects of simple living. Two of them were Jean and Keith Heavrin, who had read Living the Good Life and decided to homestead for themselves. While looking for land in Maine, they decided to drop in on the Nearings, who took a liking to the Heavrins and decided to sell them a thirty-acre piece of their farm.

The good news is that the Heavrins really made a go of it, establishing a thriving homestead that required only $2500 or so in cash income to operate (maybe $10,000 in post-Jimmy Carter dollars). Many other people came and did the same thing, organic farming guru Eliot Coleman and his wife being two of them (they lived on the other side of the Heavrins). The bad news is that they were all deeply infected with the free-spiritness of the times. At one point the families are thriving and growing, much to their own amusement, since they were the types who not long before had told themselves they could never bring children into such a troubled world. A few years later nearly all of the marriages/relationships had broken up and the participants had wandered off.

Jean Heavrin did not escape. Keith informs her one day that his outdoorsy woman pal (a lesbian) has become much more than just a pal. What shocked me at this point in the story is that, after a couple of months of coming to grips with the situation, Jean decides that as much as she enjoyed it homesteading didn’t really mean all that much to her, and so she leaves the place in Keith’s hands and moves into a house in town. A small house, granted—but homesteading is over, and she never even thinks of going back to it.

When I read the book I knew I had to give it to Jerome, not just because it had information about his hero Eliot Coleman, but also because Jerome was part of the same back-to-the-land movement, albeit in a remote part of Washington state. And it certainly gave us something to talk about. We compared his experience to hers, and talked about the importance of a solid Christian marriage to such an enterprise.

We also talked about how the movement failed because it attracted a sort of person who was drawn to the benefits but not much interested in working to obtain them. Jean Heavrin (now Jean Hay Bright) makes the same point in the book, pointing out a fundamental lie at the heart of the Nearings’ claims about homesteading, namely that it could be done with fairly little labor; the Nearings’ formula was four hours for “bread labor”, four hours for individual pursuits, and four hours for socializing. Jean Hay Bright says that she and Keith proved that what the Nearings proposed could in fact be done—but only by devoting themselves totally to the homestead. Other folks were attracted by the eight non-labor hours in the Nearings’ formula, and tended to reduce further the time spent on “bread labor” by substituting welfare and food stamps; all of them failed. Jerome told the exact same story about his own experience.

Just for completeness I am now reading the Nearings’ two books Living the Good Life, about Vermont, and Continuing the Good Life, about Maine. The Nearings were ardent Communists, which makes their writing ponderous and quirky and arrogant. Many of their pronouncements you can hardly believe they could make with a straight face. Some of them are sheer hypocrisy, as Jean Hay Bright explains. It’s hard to believe that this stuff inspired a generation of free spirits. But even so, there is a lot of useful information in them. The Nearings were hypocrites in some things but far from frauds. They really accomplished most of what they claimed to have accomplished, and much can be learned from their experiences, if not from their example.

Coffee apologetic

Once I heard a radio preacher speculate that the history of man has rolled steadily downhill since Adam’s day, i.e. that Adam was as sophisticated as any man could be because everything he knew came straight from God, and that human history has been mostly a matter of forgetting what Adam knew. It’s a wacky theory, I suppose, and it certainly isn’t very postmillennial. But I like the idea that the degenerate cultures of the world were the result of willfully forgetting God’s truth; it certainly describes the arc of the past 500 years, from the Reformation to today.

I also like to think about Adam getting lots of information straight from God, rather than figuring it out for himself. One of the things that I am certain Adam learned directly from God was how to make coffee. Think about it. First you take the berries of the coffee plant. Then you separate the seeds from the pulp and discard the pulp. Then you dry the seeds. Then you cook the seeds until they are burnt. Then you grind the seeds to a powder. Then you boil the seed powder in water.

Then you throw out the seed powder and drink the water.

What would have led Adam (or anyone) to figure this out on his own? Surely while walking in the garden in the cool of the day, God turned to Adam and said, “Listen, you’ll have to trust Me about this ….”