Sometimes I think I do all my deep thinking in anecdotes, especially favorite anecdotes. For me, they do a much better job of encapsulating wisdom than a saying, even a pithy one. Some I return to again and again, and on occasion I’ll see something new.
One I like comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy, which describes a year or so in Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood. At the end Almanzo is offered a chance to apprentice with the carriagemaker in town. Pa Wilder tells Ma about the offer over supper, and Ma is not too enthusiastic about the idea. [Emphasis added]
“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”
“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—”
“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to be nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—he’ll hever be able to call his soul his own.”
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”
“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” Mother cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”
“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy’ll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”
I love Ma Wilder’s defiant opinion here that the farmer is king because, unlike a merchant or laborer, he does not have to truckle to other people for his living. On my more idealistic days I like to think that this was the prevailing opinion in 1830—but, if so, how far we’ve come!
But I’ve always been uncomfortable with the suggestion of rugged individualism here. Often those who champion agrarianism for its emphasis on self-sufficiency are accused of putting too much value on not needing to depend on others. And sometimes the accusation is valid. Is self-sufficiency merely the route to personal sovereignty, the blissful state of being able to say to anyone and everyone, “You’re not the boss of me!”?
I was talking this over with Chris on our latest long drive, and suddenly it hit me. The good of self-sufficiency lies not in being free to say no on a whim, but in being free to say no when necessary. Self-sufficiency puts a man in a position where doing the right thing will not cost him his living.
I went back and re-read the passage from Farmer Boy, and was pleased to see that this thought is in there.
Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.
He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.
“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.
Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.