In a surprise garden event, the groundhog had bypassed all the ripening vegetables to get to the lamb’s quarters, an edible but common invasive weed. In his book More Scenes From The Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg stands unnoticed for a few seconds watching the voracious eater who has made the effort to break into the garden only to nibble on a weed. He likens the surprising incident to discovering a burglar in your house intent on shampooing the carpets rather than stealing the valuables.
With the arrival of fall, I’ve been working in our vegetable garden and watching the changes that are happening all around us as the days grow ever so perceptively shorter and temperatures begin to drop suddenly in the evening when the sun goes down. There’s been noticeable leaf drop already on our mountain that helps frame the western definition of the Shenandoah Valley. We even had our first fire in the wood stove earlier this week to take the chill off.
My wife Jody gave me Klinkenbourg’s book as a birthday present a few weeks earlier as “light” reading. We once anxiously looked forward to Klinkenbourg’s “Rural Life” column that used to appear periodically on the Opinion page of the New York Times. Some of the charm of everyday life got squeezed out, though, when his column ended a few years back. He’s been likened to Thoreau, but I think he has a lighter and far more humorous side than old “Hank the crank” had.
Anyway, with the fall comes the ringing of school bells, be they for our rural elementary classrooms or those further down the road and across the state line to our closest big institution of higher learning, James Madison University. Summer reading for the pure pleasure of it has now been replaced with “serious” formal instruction. A slower pace when one could take the time to watch that groundhog munching away has given way to driving an hour to get to a classroom to hear of abstract ideas of ethics, as formulated by the likes of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, major figures in the history and development of philosophy.
As I try to remember some of my undergraduate readings and wrestle to untangle the sometimes convoluted sentences to make sense of what these men of the Enlightenment had written centuries ago, I know the reward is worth the effort. It’s just slow reading at times, perhaps because of the style and perhaps because I don’t always have the patience. But I am determined to persevere and know I will eventually be rewarded with a deeper understanding of their bedrock message and logic that has given such a blueprint to follow in our own journeys.
To give me a different focus, though, is to read Klinkenborg in tandem with the likes of Mill and Kant. An academic himself, Klinkenborg is a refreshingly clear philosopher in his own right who also writes of ethics and morality and other concepts of how we all are linked in the important ways that allow us to be guided by our greater angels. If we are to realize how we can become better human beings, perhaps it is just as much through closer ties with our food sources, be they vegetable or animal, as it is through the locus of hair-splitting academic rationalism.
Klinkenborg anchors his life in the “natural” world of a farm where he is continually learning more about himself as he raises his crops and observes and looks after the farm animals under his care. As he tells us how our fates have been interwoven, he sees the rural life as his vantage point to learn not just how to care for the physical well-being of his hogs, ducks and horses, but to cultivate a better sense of his own self in so doing. His springboard takes him into the pigpen, the horse stall, and the chicken coop to be more aware, more attuned with his own responsibilities to his wards as well as to himself. When he speaks of the link and his work to maintain it, “the word that applies… is neither bond nor contract: it is covenant.”
When Jody was back on her family dairy farm earlier in the month for her niece’s wedding, she was carried back to her youth working alongside her dad, mother, two sisters and brother. The farm has passed from grandfather to father to brother and now nephew. Techniques have changed and machinery has become more sophisticated and expensive. But the link to the soil and to the Brown Swiss cattle has not changed. When her nephew took the wedding guests, many of whom were from New York and Connecticut, on a tour of the farm, they were effusive in their praise and wonder. Later, they had the unexpected and exotic treat of nibbling on home made cookies while sipping fresh whole raw milk that had not been pasteurized. An eye-opening moment for many of them who thought of their food in little more than plastic-wrapped styrofoam packages that had mysteriously found themselves in grocery store coolers. Had they been a tad more observant, perhaps they might have even spotted a groundhog or two nibbling on some lamb’s quarters.
We have our own vegetable garden that we have cultivated over the years and enriched the soil with the “black gold” that our neighbor who raises beef cattle brings over in his tractor in the spring and fall. At this time in her life, Jody just wants to grow vegetables, since she has had her fill of farm animals and is no longer willing to put in the time and effort to raise them. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost her touch with our four-legged and feathered friends. Lo and behold, she has become a milker of goats in recent weeks and fills in for the lady who owns them when she has to be away. We’re about seven miles from the two LaMancha milk goats, Tara and Koda, who live on a family homestead tucked neatly back in a hollow along with a young billy goat, Halo, who seems to be sensing a little more each day what his eventual role will be. There are also several horses and a flock of chickens to make up the community. The “girls” know the routine and who gets milked first so the morning and evening chores have no surprises. Unlike us, they live within a pretty structured world where change is incremental and never abrupt.
What’s fun is seeing the links between what Kant and Mill have to say and what Klinkenborg has to add. When he wrote this book, he had been reading The American Gardener by William Cobbett, an Englishman living on Long Island in the early nineteenth century. Cobbett was a champion of farm laborers in England but had left in 1817 in what he called “self-banishment,” fleeing the wrath of the government for his “radical” views calling for political reform that he espoused in his Weekly Political Register.
So just as we should revisit the work of Kant and Mill throughout our lives to reacquaint and refresh ourselves with the power of their ideas and their continuing relevance to our world today, we should also, as Cobbett preached, simultaneously never lose touch with the land itself. We must continue to develop our knowledge and appreciation of the rural life because our very physical survival is dependent on it. Just as importantly, as we keep our minds sharp in following the logic of the philosophers who have shaped our world, we should never forget that we are also defined through our relationship with the animals that we have made a covenant with. We must extrapolate from what we learn not just in the classroom but also in turning the soil that we are sowing not just plants but ideas for generations to come.
In trying to lead a dual life of learning from books as well as from practical experience, though, we should appreciate that it’s much richer and more enjoyable to share this fuller life with those you love. In watching Jody turn the goat milk into chèvre cheese, cook and can our tomatoes for winter when fresh ones are just a memory, and to laugh over the two fat worms that she cut out of our cooked butternut squash last night is a close measure to what I think would make Cobbett smile. From The American Gardener he writes:
“For, count our real pleasures, count the things that delight us through life: and you will find, that ninety-nine out of every hundred are derived from women. To be the object of no woman’s care or good wishes is a sentence the most severe that can be pronounced upon man.”