Culture


There is a song that I was introduced to by my cousin a number of years ago called “Boll Weevil,” which is a remix by Greg Hale Jones of an early 20th Century recording of a song about an invasion of boll weevils in a farmer’s field. The song is sung not by the farmer, but by the farmer’s farm hand, who is reporting the infestation to the farmer, who, by the way, paternalistically refers to the farm hand as “my child.” It is a moving and haunting song that I have listened to hundreds of times, and which is quietly playing in a loop in the background as I type this.

One of the central lines of the song is a question, posed to the boll weevil by the farmhand, “Where is your native home?” I have often thought about this question, both in relation to myself in terms of being at home in myself and in relation to the farm — to the pigs, to the farm’s form and function. As it turns out, it is a tremendously heady and loaded question.Piglets looking

For example, to ask the question of oneself, “where is my native home,” is to ask, where, in myself, was I born, or, more pressingly and substantially, where, in myself, did I come into being? It is, essentially, to ask a fundamental question about oneself, “who [where] am I, at my roots?” Where, when all of the fluff is blown and brushed away, did I come into being? Is my native home my childhood? Is it the moment of my birth? Is it the moment of my first words, or my first obviously intentional act? Is it the first moment that I consciously reflect on myself and feel at home in myself? Can I have native home”s”? That is, can I come into being, fundamentally, multiple times, in multiple homes, and feel and be native to each?

I would argue, somewhat shallowly, that the answer is different for everyone. Some people do find their native home in their childhood. Some people do find their native home in their birth. In my own experience, I have been a person of multiple native homes, feeling as if I have come into being, in fundamentally new and different ways, over and over again, and while I might feel settled and quite native in my current home, I am not fool enough to believe I will not come into being in some new native home sometime in the future, perhaps even tomorrow. But for the time being, I find myself here, completely at home in the nativity of myself as a farmer.

Farm roadMy native home is a certain type of labor, it is a certain type of relationship to my body and the uses and functions of my mind, it is a certain type of relationship to my environment, especially the land and space around me and in which I move and work, it is a certain type of relationship to time and the coming and going of the seasons, it is a certain type of relationship to the weather, it is a certain type of relationship to technology and machinery, it is a certain type of relationship to ecological and political questions and problems, it is a certain type of relationship to the product, the produce, of my labor — the pigs — and it is, perhaps most importantly, a certain type of relationship to their deaths. My native home is a home of ebbs and flows, of hardship and triumph, of ease and adversity, and of life and death.

The farm, in both its concrete and abstract forms, is my native home. It is a place, firm and solid, composed of fields and woods, and filled with pigs and the infrastructure to support them, but it is also an idea, composed of cultural, intellectual, and psychological trappings that give it a shape and trajectory; it is an idealistic vehicle in which I travel, experiencing — living — my life as I go. When I wake up and go out each morning to do chores, I encounter the pigs in their real, concrete manifestations, but also in their idealized forms, as bits and pieces, reflections of myself. The choices I make about and for the pigs are choices I make about and for myself. When I take good care of the pigs, I take good care of myself. When I take poor care of the pigs, I take poor care of myself. I find myself in an intricate web of relationships that give shape and form to my native home, to myself.

Never before have I found myself in such a place. There is something about it that, in nearly a decade, I have not been able to quite place my finger on. It is not that it is special, or that I am at home in something praiseworthy, but, rather, something inscrutable about it makes it a home that is radically and fundamentally different than any other home in which I have found myself residing.

Carrying BucketsI toil, and I oversee the lives and deaths of vivacious, gregarious, highly sentient beings. That I find myself at home in such a place is something of a wonder.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: Zach Phillips

For most of my life, all of my life, in fact, I have had an intense desire to be extraordinary — not just to stand out from the crowd, but to be the crowd’s meaning and purpose, and the one that gives it direction. Before you convict me of tremendous arrogance, please let me explain that over the years I have come to understand that this desire is the manifestation of a psychological pathology. The degree of intensity of the desire is not “normal.”

I have worked for years to overcome, to quiet, this desire, and in the recent past — the past two years — I have had a great deal of success, on and off, in doing so. I still hear it, but the voice inside my head screaming at me to claw and scratch my way onto the highest pedestal in sight is mostly muffled, even if only by my conscious will to muffle it. In some ways, I am like the schizophrenic who knows that the voices inside her head are not real and struggles to ignore them.

My success in squelching the desire to be extraordinary is part of the reason that I have taken a break from writing for so long. Even now as I type, I struggle, I question my motives, I wonder why, exactly, I am once again putting myself on display. Is every act of public discourse for me a manifestation of this pathology, or is it possible for me to simply gather a few words together and post them to a blog without hoping that somehow they will shine on me like a halo around my head? I do not want to want to be extraordinary, and so whenever I have a desire to put myself on display, I have to wonder, is this me, untrammeled, or am I being pushed along, blindly in the thrall of pathological desire? It is not easy to know. Seeing through oneself to oneself is like looking through a glass darkly. The murky sight makes clarity impossible.

Given this difficulty, therefore, I have been saying no, I will not write that blog post, I will not give that interview, I will not host that farm tour. I even go so far as to say to myself, no I will not read that book, I will not pursue that thought, that line of thinking. This seems like a decision to treat the symptoms rather than the disease, so let me just say that at the same time, I am working on dismantling the structure of the pathological desire as well, to some effect. It will take time, however, as this is an old, old pattern, perhaps one of my oldest. As I said, it has been with me for all of my (remembered) life.

In the meantime, having come quite a long way, I have developed new desires, the strongest one being the desire to live not an extra-ordinary life, but simply an ordinary life. While swinging so dramatically from one extreme to the other might seem pathological in its own right, this newfound desire for an ordinary life doesn’t seem, subjectively or objectively, to be pathological. It is a response, even though I must admit that on some level it is a contrived response — that cannot be denied. But, even in its contrivance it feels to be a genuine response, as oxymoronic as that might seem.

When I began farming, nearly ten years ago now, I was going to be the farmer’s farmer. I was going to change the face of American agriculture singlehandedly with the force and determination of my body and my words. I was going to make it so that people would look at me and my farm as the model of how to farm and how to be a farmer.

Today, that is no longer the case. Today, I just want to farm. Whereas before I took pleasure in the attraction of the spotlight, and in the thrill of doing something new, exciting, and on the cutting edge of a burgeoning movement, today I take pleasure in the rhythmic meter of daily chores, necessary projects, and trips to the slaughterhouse.  I no longer desire to farm in the limelight. I am content to farm in anonymity, seen only by my family, friends, neighbors, and passersby as they drive slowly along the road behind me as I move on the tractor from one part of the farm to another.

Each morning I look forward to the banality of chores, not because they are a means to the end of being recognized as a farmer’s farmer on the cusp of finding and describing an exciting, durable, and generalizable model of farming alternatively, but because they are an end in themselves. Daily chores are the purposive substance of the farm and the sustenance of the spirit of the farmer. It is in the very ordinariness of farming that I have found contentment. This is not to say that I don’t find this ordinariness occasionally boring; I do, but even when I find the ordinary boring, I experience a cool satisfaction in that boredom.

Many years ago, I came across this maxim of Booker T. Washington’s, “there is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple, and useful life.” For years, driven pathologically, I desperately sought to capture this indomitable influence, this seeming superpower, but in the recent past, I came to realize that this maxim, a maxim seeming on its surface to call for steadfast humility, is in fact deeply, and perhaps in some small way, darkly, hubristic in its evaluation of the life that it calls for.  The end of the maxim is not to live a “high, simple, and useful life,” but rather to capture and wield the extraordinary influence garnered by such a life.

While I have abandoned the pursuit of the maxim’s influence, my imagination is still captured by the vision of a “high, simple, and useful life” as an end in itself, for it is the vision of a profoundly ordinary life, a life of humility, of hard straightforward work, of honesty, empathy, compassion, and kindness. I find this imaginative vision made manifest in farming, and I find this ordinary life a life worth living for itself, and nothing more.

When I think about the debate surrounding the ethics of eating meat, I often wonder why it is so difficult for meat eaters to admit that killing animals (to eat their flesh) is unethical? Truly, I cannot think of one sound ethical argument in favor of slaughtering animals for their meat.

The simplest way to put it is that slaughtering animals for their meat is a socially permissible ethical transgression. Societal permission does not make it ethical, it just makes it acceptable. Slavery was for centuries socially permissible (in spite of the fact that there was always a minority standing firmly against it). Did that make it any less unethical? I doubt anyone today would say yes.

As a pig farmer, I live an unethical life, shrouded in the justificatory trappings of social acceptance. There is more, even, than simple acceptance. There is actually celebration of the way I raise the pigs. Because I give the pigs lives that are as close to natural as is possible in an unnatural system, I am honorable, I am just, I am humane, while all the while behind the shroud, I am a slaveholder and a murderer. Looking head on,  you can’t see it. Humanely raising and slaughtering pigs seems perfectly normal. In order to see the truth, you have to have to look askance, just like a pig does when it knows you are up to no good. When you see out of the corner of your eye, in the blurry periphery of your vision, you see that meat is indeed murder.

Someday, perhaps centuries from now, we will know this and accept this as well and as much as we know and accept the evil of slavery, but until that day, I am and will remain a paragon of animal welfare. Pigs on my farm are as piggy as pigness, the ideal form of the pig. They root, they lounge, they narf, they eat, they forage, they sleep, they wallow, they bask, they run, they play, and they die unconsciously, without pain or suffering. I believe I suffer their death more than they.

The grapple of ethics hooks us and we begin to struggle when we look askance. Do, so, please. See through the false legitimacy of the bucolic alternative to factory farming, an alternative that is but another obfuscating layer of the justificatory shroud that hides the ugliness of raising animals to kill so that we can eat their meat. Look and see who I am and and what I do. Look and see who and what the animals are. Look and see what is on your plate. Look and see that society acceptably says yes, Ethics, I believe, universally, unequivocally, and undeniably says no. How can you justify taking a life for gustatory pleasure? It is in looking askance, consciously, that we take the first steps in our evolution towards becoming the kind of beings who do not construct systems and infrastructures whose sole purpose is to kill beings whose sentience and capacity for an emotional and empathetic life we have barely scratched the surface of.

What I do is wrong, in spite of its acceptance by nearly 95% of the American population. I know it in my bones, even if I cannot yet act on it. Someday it must stop. Somehow we need to become the sort of beings who can see what we are doing when we look head on, the sort of beings who don’t weave dark, damning shrouds to sustain, with acceptance and celebration, the grossly unethical. Deeper, much deeper, we have an obligation to eat otherwise.

It might take incalculable generations of being hooked by and grappling with the ethics of slaughter to get there, but we really do need to get there, because again, what I am doing, what we are doing, is wrong.

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