The Soul of the Farmer

I love Abraham Lincoln.

That’s not strong enough. I LOVE Abraham Lincoln! How can I convey the enormity of my Lincoln love? We named our dog Lincoln. When we assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) our daughter would be a boy, we named her Abraham. I have photographs of #16 hanging all over our house and my office, and I’ve been moved to tears (in public—I know) by his words on more than one occasion.

I carry some of Lincoln’s most famous lines very close to my heart. “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.”  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” I could go on like this for pages because I love Abraham Lincoln and I admire just about everything the man ever said or wrote.

In the latest, unexpectedly flower-centered, chapter of my life, I’ve come to love another Lincoln quote that was unknown to me until recently. He once said about farming that, “No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought.” Isn’t that so true? Labor and cultivated thought. Think about that.

Labor and cultivated thought! Farming is the total package and God gives to farmers with both hands! Is there any other field (sorry!) in which both are so perfectly combined? Thomas Jefferson, of whom I’m also a pretty big fan, once claimed: “I am entirely a farmer, soul and body, never scarcely admitting a sentiment on any other subject.” What a statement! The man authored THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, for goodness sakes, and farming is the subject about which he cares most deeply!

Maybe it’s not so unlikely. These things aren’t unrelated. I don’t want to stray too far into the political-philosophical weeds here, but Jefferson understood natural human equality in Lockean terms, and according to Locke, labor has lots to do with liberty. The argument goes something like this: all men are created equal and free (i.e., all men are equally human and have equal natural rights; no man is born with a natural right to rule others, contrary to Filmer’s divine right of kings theory, so we must choose our rulers—rulers are not born). In man’s natural state, the first thing to which every person has a right is his own labor, which is as much a part of him as are his limbs, Locke explains. The fact of natural self-ownership means that to steal one’s labor or the products of his labor is slavery, and Locke’s labor theory of value means that human labor makes up most of the value of any good or service. (*For more on all this, see John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, 1689). It’s why the American Founders were always going on and on about private property—because it has to do with liberty.

There’s freedom in farming.

I’m certain that all the farmers I know, flower and non-, would agree that farming requires and encourages both labor and cultivated thought, and they’d be correct. Would non-farmers have thought enough about the subject to appreciate the wisdom of Lincoln’s observation?

The recent successes of local food and flower movements suggest we’re approaching the day when people care enough about what they’re putting into and on and around their bodies to know something about the farmers who grow their food and their flowers. That’s wonderful, of course, and it’s pretty new, isn’t it? People haven’t always cared, and farming hasn’t always been the fashionable, Instagrammable thing it is today.

Anyone who grew up when I did (the 1990s, sigh), remembers well the one-liner from the generation-defining movie Clueless spoken by one of the couture-clad, surgically enhanced clique-leaders about the arrival of an out-of-place new student (played by Brittany Murphy): “She could be a farmer in those clothes,” the mean girl remarked disparagingly. Those (clueless) Beverly Hills teenagers didn’t see farmers as cool or even useful. They thought of them as backwoods, uncivilized bumpkins. 

Maybe it wasn’t so much the time as the place. Haven’t city-dwellers, in all their haughty sophistication, always tended to look down on country folk? Then again, I’m not so sure. Most of my peers and I, though thousands of literal and figurative miles away from Val parties and trips to the Galleria, understood the joke. Farming was lame. Farmers were unfashionable. They had dirt on their clothes. They drove rusty old pick-up trucks. At school, the children of farmers, if they managed to avoid taunts along these lines, were at least quite unpopular.

But I went to school in western Pennsylvania, which, I assure you, includes many acres of farmland. American teenagers are woefully prone to taking their cues from Hollywood so maybe we didn’t understand the joke as much as we were instructed by it. Hollywood told us farming was lame and we accepted it, and just like that, a whole generation of kids shut themselves off from the possibility of the farming life and its many riches. What a pity!

Labor and cultivated thought.

There’s a certain kind of person that’s especially suited for farming, isn’t there? And farming fosters certain qualities in those who do it. What are the defining ones? The farmer is industrious. He’s creative. He’s perspicacious. He’s tireless. He’s thoughtful and patient and often extraordinarily kind. How much better off we are when young people recognize these as beneficial. How much better would we be if they thought of farming as satisfying and worthwhile?

There’s something so simple and so magical and so important about the pursuit. There’s also something very American about it. I think it has to do with independence, liberty, and self-sufficiency. Ronald Reagan once commented about America that, “We’re nothing without the farmers. They’re the backbone of this country. And everything we do to help them helps our country and its future.” That’s as true today as it’s ever been.

The 90s are long gone. Where exactly does the American farmer stand today? How is he perceived by those outside his circles? How does he fit into American society? Is his work valued in the ways it ought to be?

Lots of my followers and readers are farmers of one kind or another. I’d love to get your thoughts on this.



Mary Beth McConaheyComment