The rural life, richly lived and rendered

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 13, 2013

“More Scenes from the Rural Life” by Verlyn Klinkenborg. 2013, Princeton Architectural Press. 224 pp.

By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
When I was young, Rowan County and North Carolina were still largely rural and still consisted of a great many small, family farms. I don’t have to go on an antique bottle hunt to remember the many small dairy farms, and the small local dairies, that once existed within the county; some of the dairies were small like Graham and others where larger like Rowan. While we as a county, and state, still have a lot of rural area, we have many fewer farms and a vastly reduced population of farmers. Yet, whether one now lives in a city, or maybe in a suburb, for many of us there is a vestigial memory of life as a farmer and a hidden desire that crops up occasionally, saying, as Roy Hobbs did in “The Natural,” “I should have been a farmer.”

Think of all the millions of houses across this country raising only grass and swing sets.
Imagine turning up a corner of those lawns for lettuce and tomatoes.

Verlyn Klinkenborg holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and has spent much of his life teaching literature and creative writing at several colleges and universities, but he was raised in a farming family in Iowa and then California. Although he makes frequent trips to Iowa, Montana, California and other environs, he has lived for a number of years on a small farm in upstate New York. The author of a number of books and articles, the writes the column “The Rural Life” for the New York Times, which is the source for the majority of his current book, “More Scenes from the Rural Life”; and yes, as you can gather from the title, there has been a previous book titled “The Rural Life.” The current book includes columns and comments from 11 years on the Klinkenborg farm.

Someday Americans will learn to judge agriculture not by its intentions but by its unintended consequences.

“More Scenes from the Rural Life” is not a how-to book for the small farmer, though if read closely the reader can certainly pick up a number of hints as to how and why certain tasks are done, though these hints are more along the line of mental, moral and ethical preparation than anything else. They are attitude adjustments designed not just for the armchair farmer but for the armchair American; for one thing flows throughout Klinkenborg’s book, and that is an inherent philosophy of love and care for the land, for the creatures of the world, for the preservation of a lifestyle worth living and re-spreading among a people from which it has vanished. This underlying mental “rurality” of life puts the author in the same alignment as the great agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry and the rising Michael Perry. It is an acknowledgement that life is hard, that life is supposed to be hard, that we make it hard for ourselves and our neighbors, and that it doesn’t have to be.

I keep an endless mental list of things that need to be done. But when a gray day comes, when the horses stand over their hay as though there were all the time in the world to eat it, one of the things that needs doing is to sit still.

“More Scenes” is a recounting of bits and pieces from the farm as Klinkenborg and his wife maintain their kitchen garden, raise their chickens, ducks, and geese, and their annual pair or three of pigs. There are the three horses and, of course, the farm dogs, all of which are as much pets as anything else. There is closeness between man and animal on the farm, where even the animals destined for slaughter bear names and are cared for like family members. The reader unfamiliar with the inhabitants of the farm will discover the finer points of their husbandry, the fact that the pigs are maybe the cleanest of the animals. The Klinkenborgs will work with other local farmers, mostly old-timers, to fill their hayloft with bales for the coming cold season. They will make peace with and share the bounty of the land with those that others might consider unwelcome predators, such as the family of foxes that do in fact take a chicken or two from time to time. The reader will find a mellow function of grace that exists on the acres of the farm, and although the writer will admit to the reader that the loss of a crop, an animal, or an entire season will neither destroy nor destitute this particular farm family, the point is in fact for them, like all farmers, to make a living and a life on their farm.
Klinkenborg takes the reader on greater journeys than just the boundaries of his farm as the reader gets to follow narratives of trips to and through Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, California and points between. In all these travels we see America through the same eyes as we see the farm, and the country we see is not the one that once was and may no longer be the one we want. As mentioned, the author is more than a bit of an agrarian philosopher, but he is not an urban antiChrist who wants to return us to a time and place that we will never see again, a time that some might think of as an idea and an ideal of rural life. The author does, in fact, spent more than his share of time in the city, a large part of it in New York City, so there is no anti-urban bias here; but, in both a philosophical and a political realm, the author more than willingly points a finger at life progress gone terribly wrong. As he drives across his country, through miles and miles of land become both vacant of humans and of diversity of towns, crops and farms, Klinkenborg sees the wrong that has happened to both the land and the country.

Whenever I drive across country, I carry a single question with me, and I ask it over and over again: “Could I live here?” But what I’m really asking when I wonder “Could I live here?” is “Who would I be if I lived here?” But what this question always confirms in me is something I must have understood when my wife and I decided to settle on a small farm in the country. Driving across America, I see place after place I can happily imagine living. And what I notice is that they’re mostly uninhabited places.

I should say that, reading and rereading the last sentence of the prior quote, I almost always get tears in my eyes. I don’t know why, unless it is for something I, or maybe all of us, have lost in the name of progress. But, what “More Scenes from the Rural Life” really is, is a book of joy, and happiness, and fulfillment with life as it is being lived. It is less a monologue than a book of contemplation and it is a book of great satisfaction to sit, to hold and to read. Klinkenborg, in his book, leaves his reader with knowledge of time, and life, worthwhile.