July 11, 2007

Little Heathens and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in The Christian Science Monitor

From today's Christian Science Monitor, from Marilyn Gardner's column, "A harvest of virtues as well as sustenance", with the subtitle, "Two new books remind readers how closely most Americans used to be connected to the land":
If spring is the season when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love, summer is the time when a former Midwesterner's heart fills with a different kind of affection – a romance with the land.

For some of us, that romance is three-pronged. First, there is the love of the landscape itself: The way the horizon stretches endlessly, stitching together blue sky and black soil. The way silver silos glint in the sun. The way dairy cows graze in velvet pastures.

Then there is the romance with the bounty of that land, as reflected in the proverbial fruited plain and amber waves of grain. This is the month when the corn is supposed to be knee-high by the Fourth of July, and next month as high as an elephant's eye, at least in the view of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Finally, there are the bedrock values that spring from this fertile land, beginning with the virtues of hard work and cooperation that are required to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops, fruits, and vegetables.

This summer two authors offer reminders of those virtues. In "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," Barbara Kingsolver describes her family's year-long experiment in self-sufficiency. Their locus is Appalachia, not the Midwest, but the values are the same. ...

For Mildred Armstrong Kalish, author of "Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression," rural life brought other lessons. ...

As Americans have moved from farms to cities, two profound changes have occurred. Younger generations have little knowledge of where food comes from. Many people have also lost an understanding of – and an appreciation for – hard physical labor. The poetic description of the Midwest as the nation's bread basket masks the intense labor and economic uncertainties farmers face. ...

Kingsolver knows that most families cannot replicate her family's experiment in self-reliance. Likewise, Kalish is not sentimental about the economic strains her family faced.

They understand that there is obviously no going back to a more rural way of life. But both books suggest an intriguing question: In a sophisticated urban and suburban culture, built on the premise of bigger, better, faster, and more expensive, is there value in encouraging a greater appreciation for simpler living, closer to families and the land when possible?

Kingsolver and Kalish both make eloquent, persuasive cases for answering in the affirmative. Sustenance, after all, comes in many forms.
Read the rest here.

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