Gene Logsdon and Friends

Why Do Humans Congregate In Big Cities?

In Gene Logsdon Blog on July 13, 2011 at 7:14 am

From GENE LOGSDON

One of life’s mysteries for me is why country people have inevitably migrated to the cities in every civilization that I have studied. In the United States, where there has been little of the kind of violent upheavals that send third world countries into instability, the reasons for migration to cities seem especially specious to me. Some say we move because rural life is boring or stifling with puritanical overly-conservative life styles. Actually agrarian society has often been shockingly wide open as I tried to point out in Mother of All Arts. What happened to me just yesterday seems appropriate. I was parked along the edge of a country road jawing with a couple who were harvesting wheat. A very long-haired individual, naked to the waist, came flying by on a motorcycle, tresses trailing in the wind. Trying to be funny, I opined: “Well it must have been a man because it wasn’t wearing a bra.” One of the farmers replied, rolling her eyes: “That’s a dangerous conclusion to reach around here.”

Others move to town because they want to escape what they consider the hard work of farming. That is no longer all that true either and I wonder if it ever was. Millions of factory and construction workers perform harder physical work than most farmers do today or ever did. A friend likes to tell how thrilled he was to get off the farm 70 years ago because he had to work there every day milking cows, no weekends off. When he finally got a decent job in town, he found that, to get ahead, he still had to work on weekends.

Sometimes I think the ideal life occurred in Europe (probably other places too) before the two world wars wrecked the old agrarian life there. Unlike in America, where farmers established themselves on homesteads dotted out all over the countryside some distance from each other, European farmers preferred to live in villages, and to go out daily to their farms around the village. There was little chance to feel isolated or bored and lonely because in the evenings they all gathered on doorsteps or street corners or more likely in the taverns, and enjoyed the camaraderie, true social security, pastimes and amusements of communal life. I’d vote for that any day and now of course we have that, in a way, on the Internet. My village community now extends to New Zealand and Australia which is just awesome.

The main reason country people move to town is because that’s where the money is, or so they have always been taught. At some point in every civilization’s history, money becomes the standard by which all things are reckoned, and after that the seemingly simple, laid-back pastoral life is no longer deemed possible. I have watched this happen first hand in our own Appalachia. In some parts of the world migration is physically forced on people by various forms of military or political or economic power. But the mountain people of Appalachia were not exactly forced to leave in most cases. I know personally quite a few of them. Some of them once worked for me when I was running a ditching machine. They claimed to love their mountains and would go back home into the hills every weekend, often hocking their spare tire for gas to make the trip. So why did they go north to the factories?

I think that in some cases, people leave rural homes for quite specific material reasons that are overlooked by economists. I have a theory about Appalachia which I have seen hinted at by only one other author, Richard C. Davids, in his excellent non-fiction book, The Man Who Moved A Mountain. The destruction of the vast forests of chestnut trees by blight in the Appalachians coincided roughly with the Great Depression when the great migration from the mountains to the cities got into full swing. The hill people depended on chestnuts as much as we depend today on corn and wheat. The end of the chestnut meant the end of the hill economy. Could that have been the real reason they left their independent life for the auto factories of Detroit?

I have heard scores of reasons for migration to cities, all creditable, most of them based on reactions to population pressure. But I am still left with an anomaly. If there are too many people living in the country, how do they improve their lot by moving where populations are even denser and competition for jobs even greater? If people are short on food, why would they move to a place where they can’t grow any of their own? Detroit, by the way, is making news today because of a large garden farm being established right in the center of what was once factory fantasyland.

All this migration to the cities seems especially crazy now that we live so much in an electronic world. People still flock to the city for jobs, but the jobs aren’t there anymore. I will probably be ridiculed up one side of Manhattan and down the other for writing this, but I say that the modern large city is a dinosaur, economically and environmentally, and people are slowly beginning to realize it. The extended village is the wave of the future. I look at those energy-sucking skyscrapers and I see very tall tombstones.
~~

  1. Work, money and something Gene talked about in one of his books, to avoid the steriotypical image of a country simpleton.
    Many young people feel that staying in the country is a sign of failure. Too bad, my wife and I are ex-city kids who didn’t find success until we moved to the country.

  2. If you really want an answer to this, here is a good book:. Borsodi, Ralph. This Ugly Civilization.

    You can get it for free online here: http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0303critic/030302borsodi.ugly/030302borsodi.toc.html

  3. For me, I moved back to the city after my divorce. The big old country house was just too lonely with only me in it. Also I wanted to be in a place where there was alot of single ladies to choose from, it seemed the only ladies in the country were old widows or were married.

    But now that I am happily married again, I yearn for the peace and quite of country living.

    I think most people who have moved from the country to the city, know what they are missing, and most like myself, think someday they will return.

  4. Gene….Much has been written lately about the sustainability of life in a truly urban setting in contradistinction to “life” amongst suburban sprawl. It seems the case is being made that urban life inherently uses less or fewer resources than does that same life in suburbia. I accept that argument. However, from the social perspective, I find that life in the small town (about 6,500 in 2010) near where we live on our farm to be far more engaging than that of the 250,000 city/suburb SMSA about 25 miles up the road.

  5. Not to be overly simple, which I am sometimes accused of being, but isn’t the human mind conditioned to want, or be curious about, that which we don’t have? Grass is always greener? There’s probably a reason that coveting made it into the commandments ;)

    That said, my wife and I are planning to move to the country to a small family farm. Life in the city is emotionally and spiritually bankrupt for us. There’s no reason intelligent, well meaning, and hard working people need to live in the city to be “successful,” whatever that word actually means.

    Your blog is great, and I have been enjoying reading it for the last couple of months since I found it on the web.

  6. the sustainability of life in a truly urban setting

    I, for one, don’t accept that. Every article I’ve read, every discussion I’ve heard on the topic suffers severely from systems boundary violations.

    I’m very interested in this topic, and a proper comment would be absurdly long. I hope the following is a decent compromise between being brief and being unsupported…

    1. Failure to account for total foot print, including energy, waste disposal, water, and food, and the additional amounts of all three needed to concentrate them in one place does not constitute sustainability. Many of the people supporting this idea are merely suffering from the idea that food comes from the grocery store (or McDonald’s), that electricity comes from the wall, and that waste goes “away”. For a truly egregious example see “vertical farming”.

    2. Cities amount to “factory farms” for human beings. Many of the same people who advocate urban living and “high density” wouldn’t approve of the same arrangements for hogs or chickens.

    3. In the US, at least in the part of it I’ve run the numbers for, we lack medium sized settlements. Contrary to the concerns about “suburban sprawl” we are concentrated in small areas leaving the countryside largely depopulated. Gene mentions European patterns which seem much more sensible to me. I took the trouble to superimpose a map of Switzerland onto a map of the greater Cincinnati area, then counted and categorized population centers in each area. I’m not a sociologist or a statistician but here is what I found: Switzerland has twice the population in the same area, double the density. But, the largest cities are about the same size. The rest of the people are “sprawled”. The best I can tell the difference is in the middle sized densities and towns. For example, according to my research Switzerland has 91 towns between 10,000 and 20,000 population. My comparison area has 17.

    4. Dense urban areas are antithetical to liberty. I know some Americans no longer care about this. I do.

  7. Fractured families and the human tendency to desire life in common with fellow human beans…on my optimistic days that’s why I think people migrate to the cities….

    One day an old high school friend (now a priest) was showing us a satellite photo of his neighborhood…my husband gasped: “Ugh! Where are the trees!! I could never stand living in the city!” but our friend responded: “Really?! I just see a lot of people!” and was excited by the prospect of so many people to love in one spot.

  8. I moved from city to country and love it. I have often wondered the same as you, why move from the country where you can more easily take care of yourself and live a much fuller life where you don’t have to depend on money for every spoonful of food you put in your mouth? I think alot of it has to do with a long term sinister plot to keep people from being independant (self sufficient). Creating dependency brings down a country. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen over time as we are witness to.

  9. Forgot to add…Gene I think you are absolutely spot on to look to Europe for the way to go. Absolutely. Horse-drawn scale. I am buoyed by the national internet community too…but it is still a strange subsitute…for example, I can’t walk down the lane and hand you a copy of this great book I just read….or learn the changing expressions of a commentor’s face….or cajole chocolate brownies out of this or that blogger in exchange for goat’s cheese. And where is music in all of this? The universal language? The barn dancing, the Holiday plays, the afternoon visits on the front porch?
    There are times honestly when I want to curse the motor car with all my 29 year old wrath. I think it has killed community. We can talk about moral decay all we want…but usually the source is pretty physical, tangible, material.

  10. I am preparing to leave my beloved farm of 74 acres to move to a small town of about 2500 with a 120′ x 60′ lot. Why? Peak oil, the realization that I can not do everything by myself to sustain myself & because my neighbors unfortunately do not have a sense of community that I believe will be critical in the forthcoming years.

    As a Hurricane Katrina ‘survivor’ I have witnessed first hand what a crisis can do to folks & the resulting breakdown of ‘civilization’.

    Why would I leave the country surroundings that I love? Because I am preparing for a life in a very old town where folks managed quite well in the early 1800s & where I can walk to anywhere in town, to the local railroad (Amtrak) station & the town is located on a major river.

    I plan to rip out all the landscaping of the city house lot, with the intent of planting nothing that doesn’t produce food & use chickens, rabbits & fish as my meats.

    Will I mourn leaving the country lifestyle? Definitely. However without the labor pool required to make a farm self-sustaining, one could literally wear oneself out, just trying to feed themselves.

  11. Another quote that comes to mind is one from “Hunger For Justice”.
    Jack Nelson quotes a USDA official as having said there should be a concerted effort to oust small farmers and encourage them to find city jobs… because they are bad for the country. Reason: they make poor consumers. (!!!)

  12. The image of skyscraper tombstones is very accurate. I just moved 4 miles off the farm into a quaint little village with friendly and helpful people. My services as a varmint trapper and animal sitter have been put to use and rewarded nicely with baked goods and tool borrowing. Will have this lawn planted to mostly garden next year and will be in on the bartering system big time. My kids can keep the big city night life.

  13. I say this as someone with agrarian ideals– the most important of which is not being such a wanker that your kids would rather live in a smog-ridden fleabag city than stay with you and take over the farm….

    A good lot of people did it for more independence. For example, in the ’20s a lot of young women left rural areas to go work in factories/offices in the cities. Articles written by their parents’ generation bemoaned the materialism, laziness, filial impiety, and a host of other sins of “kids these days.”

    But what did the letters these girls wrote to each other say? They frequently said things like “I want to go home, but Dad beats me and takes my money.” Who wants to live like that? Joel Salatin discusses other all-too-common examples of bad parenting on the farm in his writings, and places a lot of the blame for rural America’s breakdown on rural America itself.

    Life in old-time rural America was great– *if* you were a man who owned land, or in the good graces of such a person. If you weren’t that kind of person– a single woman, someone without land, or (God forbid!) black, Latino, Asian, etc, you often had a lot more control of your own destiny by leaving. (India, with the caste system, has an extreme example of this need to go far away from home in order to do anything worthwhile if you weren’t born to the right parents.)

    I don’t see anything wrong with people wanting control over their own destiny– it’s pretty much what America’s all about. In instances when agricultural labor pays poorly and farming parents act like King Lear, rural America has a lot of brass to act surprised when cities eat it alive.

  14. Happen to visit the World Trade One site recently. A definition of hubris. There are many reasonable criteria for determining the height of a building but not an arbitrary historical date(1776). A major tombstone.

  15. Here’s how that migration played out for my family. My parents were part of the great migration from the Arkansas Delta to Michigan for work after my father returned from Korea. HIs parents were sharecroppers with not alot of land, so when the sons grew up, there was no place for them on the land and they had to leave if they wanted to have families of their own. First the boys postponed leaving with military service, and then they went to Michigan or California or Chicago. On the other hand, my mother’s parents rented some of their land and owned some. All but one of her brothers and their families stayed on the land–their children and grandchildren are into Agribusiness.

    My parents returned to Northeastern Arkansas every summer during changeover in the factories to visit with family for a month. I remember one year helping them pick cotton so we’d have the money for the return trip. I looked forward to those trips back to visit my grandparents on the farm as if I were going to Disneyland. My parents returned to the South as soon as they retired. As for me, I have recreated a much smaller version of my grandparents’ farm on my little homestead in Tennessee. The biggest compliment I ever got was at the last family gathering in my home when my brother said, “This place reminds me of Grandma and Grandpa White’s farm in Arkansas.”

  16. Oh my, where do i start. Grandparents on a farm in west virginia, where i spent most of my summer childhoods. I am not that old – 52yrs (maybe i am, lol) but i can still remember the horse drawn plow being used. Clothes on the line, canning, chickens, cows, pigs and everything you can imagine that is written about in the back- to- the- land/farm books of today.

    fast forward a little to the sixties and the pepsi generation where people migrated to cities like cleveland and detroit to find jobs in factories and live the so called better quality of life etc. That is where my parents went, yet they still sent me back to the farm most summers with my grandma.

    As a kid even then i could see a world of difference in the quality of life compared to the city, by the way, i was born in Cleveland, Oh. Also had aunts/uncles living in Detroit.

    Trying to make a long
    story short, i watched over the years how these two once great cities that country people left the country for a so called better life, have almost just crumbled to the ground. I will not get into political opinions here, but just to say that even before the crumbling started, i think that country life had a lot more to offer than city life. Yes, the city was a great place to go for entertainment, and the latest shopping excursion – Playhouse Square, the Stadium, Tower city mall, etc. You could always come back home to your little place in the country and sleep without noise, and some sense of laid back security.

    I have had experience in both living situations thru the years. But i have to say one thing that is different these days. In the past, the city people had more common sense than they do now. Chickens were outlawed back in the 60′s/70′s and were replaced by pitbulls and dobermans. Hanging clothes on the line was labeled backward and hillbilly and banned by HOA and some parts of the city and most parts of suburbia. Everything that was once common sense is no longer, and what was once “convenient city living” has now become a struggle to survive. Children are not safe in their own yards or at school, and the elderly are harrassed by both thugs and govt officials.

    Anyway, i ran back to the country in 2008 and thank my lucky stars and the good man above everyday i was able to do that. My grandchildren, like me will have a place to go out in the country and learn what life should be without hassles.

  17. Interesting entry, and something I’ve observed in many ways myself.

    To make a few comments, one thing I’d note is that in rural areas, as you note, there’s often an illusion that people in town are really making it big, and not working. Straddling both worlds myself, I’ve seen that up close and personal many times. I’d desperately like to quit my town job and just raise cattle, but my circumstances so far have not allowed for it, even though that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. My close ranching relatives and friends, however, often believe that I must really have it made. Truth be known, I work far, far, more hours than they do. When they occasionally realize that, I’ll often get the “I don’t know how you do this” comment. Well, I don’t want to.

    That’s all fueled by the concept that money is success. An irony of that is that we now have a weird cycle where we see: 1) Homesteader worked hard all his life to give kid a successful farm/ranch: 2) 1st generation kid worked hard on farm ranch to send his kid to town for a “good job”. 3) Good Job kid worked hard all his life so that he could make enough money to buy a farm in the country. Pretty stupid.

    Added to this, however, is the fact that our economy is such that it drives people into the cities. This sort of economy needs them there. It’s a dysfunctional economy, but that’s what it does.

    Well, guess I better close. I have to drive down to my high stress town job and wish I was out in the fields.

    • What a great bunch of very accurate, intelligent,and even-handed comments. It is obvious that all of you have “been there.” Mellifera, your observations about the dark side of rural family life are especially appropriate. I don’t know how many times I have seen a farm fail because the parents were tyrants of one kind or another. When I write about rural life, I like to play up the good side, and should probably talk about the bad side more often. I have a hunch that alcohol and sex ruined as many family farms as it did urban family businesses. Gene

  18. “Another quote that comes to mind is one from “Hunger For Justice”.
    Jack Nelson quotes a USDA official as having said there should be a concerted effort to oust small farmers and encourage them to find city jobs… because they are bad for the country. Reason: they make poor consumers.”

    On that, it’s interesting to note that there was a real effort to “equalize” rural and urban “standards of living” starting after World War One. That also lead to the migration into towns as it taught rural people that they should have all the conveniences, appliances really, of urban life and that they weren’t making it if they did not.

    Farmers have been, since 1900 or so anyway, terribly self conscious about their images anyhow, and this fed into. They don’t like to look like “hicks” or “hayseeds” and the concept that they weren’t making enough to buy all this stuff fed into their self concern.

    What this effort wholly failed to appreciate is that there lifestyle was far superior in other ways. Much of what city people have is merely a substitute for what they really desire (see Fairlie’s “The Cow’s Revenge”. But farmers bought into the idea. This makes them less economically viable, while at the same time their children learn that they “must have” whatever, and that they can only move into town to get it.

  19. According to Pliny the Elder and other sources the Latifundium (huge estates) during the Roman Empire out competed the small farmers and drove many of the small farmers into the cities. This is sort of what is happening today with the large factory farms here

  20. Although I’m sure the greener grass may have something to do with it, I’ve always wondered if the problem wasn’t two-fold. First, too many members of the younger generation had no prospects at home. The parents didn’t want to break up their acreage or it was small to start with or the laws regarding primogeniture were such that only the oldest son (rarely the oldest daughter, sad to say) could inherit. Much of the appeal of the Crusades was the possibility of land for those displaced children, and America was settled by a lot of those younger sons and daughters. Second, it was/is a rare parent who could relinquish control as Joel and Theresa Salatin have done to allow the children to be fully participating members on the home farm. So the kids wound up as unpaid farm hands for their parents. It’s a rare familial relationship that can hold up under that sort of arrangement, even in the absence of abuse or alcoholism. The children, having less invested, would be more likely to leave. And once much of America was settled, they would often go to the city with the idea of making enough money to buy a farm, either in their old neighborhood or somewhere new. The Amish seem to be one of the few communities who have been able to make family farming of multiple generations a workable proposition, at least from where I’m looking at it, which is on the outside. I don’t know if it really looks that good on the inside.

  21. Why do people go somewhere else? Because humans are thrill-seeking and status-seeking animals. Why the cities? Because there are more thrills and status available there. It’s worse in immigrant countries because the thrill and status-seeking gene carrying people are the ones most likely to leave. Why did farm village life work in old Europe? Because the people who stayed behind were less thrill-seeking. Check out “American mania : when more is not enough” by Peter Whybrow.

    And marketing has made this much worse. Marketing preys on people’s desires for thrill and status to sell things. To buy things, you need money, and average wages have always been higher off the farm (even though you have to end up spending more to live). Every advance in media brings more marketing, so you have to work hard at every turn to keep the marketers at bay.

    There are some advantages to cities, in concentration of resources and communication, but the disadvantages equal things out. Except for the thrill and status seeking, and the marketing playing on them, there would probably be a more equal mix of country and city dwellers.

  22. A farm couple has two children. Those children grow up and marry and stay on the farm. Both of them have 2 children, who grow up and marry and stay on the farm. Those four couples each have 2 children who grow …… and on and on. Doesn’t take many generations before someone has to go somewhere else. Usually that would be to town.

  23. Maybe that’s just me- I live on a farm now and about the only thing I miss about city living is good restaurants within walking distance, or delivery service.

    For people of other generations, it was the hard work. Farming is a hard way to make a living. At least that is what my dad said when he left the farm and went to college to be a chemist. Then he ended up back on a farm for “retirement”.

  24. But David, typically people do tend to die at some point…

    Beth:
    Couldn’t agree more. Children are less invested in EVERYTHING now…so naturally they check out of everything too….”a rare parent who can relinquish control”….so true.
    I’m starting to wonder if the whole modern race of us human beings are just fundamentally completely insecure.

    The economy certainly does funnel people into cities…because it seeks growth and specifially the growth of money…neither have much to do with what’s good for us!
    Unlimited growth? Is that even a real thing? Curcurbits explode at some point don’t they?

    The farther we get from real value, the more distant we become from reality period.
    Perhaps that’s why we’re so insecure. Because literally we are. Not secure.

  25. Thanks Gene, for throwing out a thought-provoking subject and having such a varied readership. It was a joy to read everyone’s thoughts coming from different perspectives. I agree with living in small communities with the caveat that a concerted effort be made to encourage socializing, outside of churches, I must add. A village where everyone has lived there for eight generations is not much different than a gang in a major city at times. They are just as afraid of new people.

    Deb wingert: I hope we don’t live close together, our business models are pretty similar.

  26. You might find some good perspective on a similar idea in Wendell Berry’s great book “The Unsettling Of America”. I believe that book should be required reading in all colleges.

  27. There is definitely a reason this has quickly become my favorite blog! I have often talked about the European village life as being ideal and something that would be great to get back to…and about all the myths surrounding farming – hard work, less money, etc – what about quality of life??? Great post again! Thank you!

  28. I think the author is romanticizing early European farm life a bit. I’m originally from Germany, and my maternal grandmother was born and raised on a farm, and going by what she told me, farm life back in her days was back-breaking work. It wasn’t just milking that had to be done, but daily cleaning of the cow and pig barn, feeding the animals, planting and harvesting grain, hay, and potatoes, weeding, maintaining a vegetable garden, and that was in addition to all the housework that had to be done, BY HAND, if I may mention. Farming may have become easier physically now, but back then a factory job usually was less physically demanding.

    Another factor that drove people out of the country was the level of poverty most people had to deal with and which is hard to imagine by people nowadays. Just because somebody owned land and farmed it didn’t mean they were rich. Most farmers scraped by, being utterly dependent on the weather and their animals’ health, and a single bad year could ruin them. Another factor was overpopulation; in the absence of contraceptives families were large, often 6 children or more, yet only one (generally the oldest son) could inherit the farm, leaving the younger children to have to leave their parents’ farm and seek work elsewhere, usually as cheap farm labor on other people’s farms. Wages for farmworkers were lower than low, especially in comparison with the price of goods. Even then, employment was scarce in the country, so when factories sprang up in cities people flocked there. The city also offered something to people that the country could never offer: a chance to better one’s station in life. In the city one could work hard and rise to a better position in the work force; the next generation may even receive better schooling. None of that was possible in the country; if you weren’t the farm’s heir you’d be nothing than a lifelong farmhand, poor, usually unable to marry for lack of funds, and a physical wreck by the time you turned 50.

    As for the European way of farmers living inside villages and tending fields outside the village, it was not done for a sense of community but for a need of security. In the Middle Ages Europe was broken into hundreds of small kingdoms that were often at war with one another, and an outlying farm would have been easy prey. Living together in a village meant safety in numbers. When communities grew this concept remained the same; one was much safer in a walled village than outside.

    In the United States a different model of country life developed due to the size of the farms possible here; farms or ranches with hundreds or even thousands of acres do not exist in Europe; large estates were only owned by nobility, and still they look small in comparison with what is possible here. Even though, with the advent of modern farm machinery it was simply not a necessity anymore to have so many people working in the country; farms that may have needed 10 people 100 years ago can now be run by 2-3 people, so jobs were lost and people moved to the city.

    So why do humans congregate in cities? There’s a multitude of reasons, but I think life changes too much for just one of them to be the main one.

  29. I think a lot of the appeal of urban settings is in the perceived availability of upward mobility. Let’s just assume some young adult is in the upper 5th or 10th percentile in some skill, maybe, for sake of argument, computer-related, but any would do. A rural region with 100,000 people will offer AT MOST 1/10th of the opportunities that a region with a million people will. However, since large populations tend to attract relatively rare skilled people, even that 1/10th of the opportunities in a rural area will ultimately follow the candidates to the higher concentration of an urban area. The rural area then acts as a support system for factory farming or resource extraction operations and offers a limited selection of relatively low to medium skilled jobs for its residents. Centralized corporate operations controlling the farming/mining/etc. further strip the skilled opportunities from the community because higher level functions are handled nationally. The top of the pyramid which, if it were actually proportional to population, would attract residents to stay. Instead, the non-existent and largely de-skilled top of the pyramid drives candidates away.

    Re-localization may actually lead to a more urban breadth of opportunities as economic functions and businesses need to produce closer to their customers. If rural and semi-rural areas begin to provide vigorous support to their environs then lots of skills will be required and the exodus to urban areas might well reverse.

  30. Anne said:

    “For people of other generations, it was the hard work. Farming is a hard way to make a living. At least that is what my dad said when he left the farm and went to college to be a chemist. Then he ended up back on a farm for “retirement”.”

    I’ve often heard that said, but I think that there’s a lot of self delusion in that. Yes, farm work has hard, but a lot of the “good” jobs in the cities are, quit frankly, harder in stress terms. It’s very hard to convince farmers of that, however.

    Maybe that has something to do with the satisfaction derived from the work, however. Farming is a natural occupation, so it’s instinctively satisfying and it is one of the very few jobs where you see and appreciate the results of your work. A lot of town work is not that way. Most office workers never see the results of their own work, and in some professions the satisfaction element is actually wholly absent.

  31. “A farm couple has two children. Those children grow up and marry and stay on the farm. Both of them have 2 children, who grow up and marry and stay on the farm. Those four couples each have 2 children who grow …… and on and on. Doesn’t take many generations before someone has to go somewhere else. Usually that would be to town.”

    That is very true.

    But to add to it, the migration to the city means that the cities, and the towns, grow and eat farmland in the process. This is increased not only by the natural population growth, but in the case of the US by the very heavy importation of population from elsewhere, which is generally not favored by the native population, but which is winked at by both political parties and excused in the name of labor necessity. And, as the affluent retain their rural instincts, as humans have a rural instinct, some will choose to exercise it by buying “ranchettes” or rural acreages that further destroy real farm ground.

    So, not only does part of the population move to town, but the town moves to the farm, and destroys it.

    A rational nation would guard against this, as it cuts into its food base. But in the US, we do not do that, as we believe the country to be infinitely large and no more populated than it was in 1911.

    As a footnote, an irony of all of this is that cities are the products of farms. Only agricultural societies produce them. The other instinctive human societies, herdsmen and hunters, do not. Therefore, the burden of dealing with cities, and they are a burden, is something that comes upon farmers as an unintended byproduct of farming.

  32. “In the absence of contraceptives families were large….”
    That’s certainly one person’s crosswords take on history. Rural (Catholic) Europe probably welcomed large families for more reasons than just inability to control the wild passions and fertility….sheesh.
    Children used to be considered blessings AND assets, for that matter…not needing daycare because of earlier maturity and importance in the running of the home. Larger families meant older children to help take care of the younger ones…more farmhands, more voices in the Sunday singings….more children to take over when the Grandparents die (because the generations do succeed eachother, come on!)
    Scale is something we have to talk about. There was no place on the farm for a farmer’s sons if he was set up with large farm machinery. It’s not just nostalgia which makes me look back with some longing and respect to draft powered farms.
    I will never forget the day we plowed our CSA vegetable field with our older neighbor and his team of shire horses. To get our walking plow we went on a mini-road trip down south MN and stopped by every old farmhouse with sulky plows, and walking plows and other horse-drawn implements rusting in their yards….needless to say we made not a few new friends, found unlooked for and much needed support and advice….
    When Ken came out to take the reins while my husband handled the plow, the two men and two horses became one team….after a series of mishaps as they learned more about the plow, eachother, and the horses got used to walking in the furrow…two friends and I also took turns behind the plow….traffic stopped to watch an oldfashioned effort….someone from the village down the hill showed up to watch….and we broke for a big boistrous chicken dinner lunch before finishing work on the field that afternoon/evening. The memory of that day still sticks with me, and cemented friendships that simply required some common effort, some historical adventure, some crazy mad wild ressurection of old rusty equipment, and the slow methodical pace of a team of horses, in which you learn your field and its soil damn well….
    the next day Ken offered to come by on his John Deere and disc the field. It was done in the blink of a dusy eye. Just him and the tractor. Not saying we weren’t grateful. But the difference between the two experiences taught me a lot about why we’ve traded draft power for deisel. We’ve saved ourselves all this time so we can fill it with more busy work.
    We’ve lost the real material for building lasting relationships with eachother.

    Wasn’t it you, Gene, who quoted an Amish farmer in one of your books as saying he counts his labor as profit…..?

    Regarding “hard work”. I often think farming likes giving birth. It’s more like “hard work” than like pain….but it involves stretching yourself to your sweating sunburned aching limit. Again and Again. That’s quite different from the stress of an 8 hour job.
    I think people just decided to trade a job that was hard on the body for one that’s hard on the soul. It’s easier to forget about the soul when you first make that decision but later on it eats at you. It is impossible to me that so many men and boys sit behind computer screens all day. No wonder its getting harder to find matches for my single friends! We are having a real shortage here of real men!!

    Our advances in modern technology have been made without asking the question of how much is good for us, how much begins to be bad for us? Technology on farms was accepted without asking those questions….and the same question needs to be asked about size and scale of farms and businesses…..Als with wealth as well. A kind of gentle poverty seems better for families than more than enough wealth. Certainly we see that played out time and again in our own families, neighbors, and celebrities…don’t we?
    But that’s certainly not a mainstream idea: “Pursue gentle poverty”. More like: “pursue unlimited acquisition.”

    And once again….isn’t it incredibly rare to run into someone who counts his labor as profit?

  33. Properly sorting the “cans” from the “shoulds” is one of the great quests of the well lived life. There are obviously many and varied reasons that people gravitate to the city. But to those of us drawn to the husbandry of soil and beast, it is difficult to understand why so many would willingly CHOOSE the urban life. On the other hand, I’m sure my agriculturally rooted satisfactions would appear unintelligibly mysterious to some city dwellers. The goal I guess is to still be able to talk to one another meaningfully even if complete understanding of each other is beyond reach. I may have mentioned this before, but an older neighbor once told me that his father always used to say that most people rust out before they wear out. Much of technology seems, to this dinosaur anyway, to be designed simply to let people rust out as pleasantly as possible. I suspect that a very high percentage of the readers of this blog would abhor the thought of rusting out. Thank you Gene and Dave for providing an interesting place to experience the comraderie of those determined to wear out first. I found your ideas about the chestnut connection fascinating Gene.

    PS I’m loving the “why I farm” posts – what a great idea. Thank you Betty, Beth, Chiara and John. I always enjoy your comments and appreciate the personal insights you have shared in your posts.

    Roof – I got a belly laugh on your “confidence that clean underwear can give” story. I have no idea who you are but we are in the same neck of the woods. I was through Degraff this morning. You need to come to the Garlic Festival at Jandy’s this Aug 21st when Gene is signing books and make youself known. I’ll hook you up with a garlic sausage sandwich. You’ve got an interesting mind.

  34. I was at last year’s Garlic Festival, and had a garlic sausage sandwich, and am looking forward to another sandwich. You probably didn’t recognize me with my pants on. I was there to buy books from Gene. I’m looking forward to meeting you, too.

    You probably noticed the Methodist Church in DeGraff is still for sale………….lot of potential there.

  35. Chiara, you’ve put into words how I feel about things now -”pursue gentle poverty”. Several years ago, I read a passage in the Tao that says “he who knows what is enough will always have enough”. Powerful wisdom.

    Russ, you are absolutely right about wearing out versus rusting out. My Grandfather worked the farm until 2 weeks before he died. He walked up a steep hill to get there every day and never complained. Always seemed his happiest when working. My father is of the same ilk – off the farm at 67 but still has a decent garden at 86, but he is about wore out. I work in a foundry by day and keep a nice flock of chickens and huge garden during my real life. The city is a place I avoid if possible. Genetic predisposition must be at play in our family.

    People who farm, or aspire to farm, have a very different attitude than those that don’t. City folk don’t seem to grasp that their lifestyle is only possible through the products of those that farm the land – they all must eat to live. I feel sad that so many are now caught up in the cell phone and social networking craze and losing touch with the real world of dirt, animals, manure, and hard work. Should the economic house of cards we’ve created collapse, they won’t have a clue on how to get by on their own.

  36. great question, just mine as well.
    I live & Turkey, a country that was self-sufficient in just about everything but coffee up till the 80s & the beginning of globalization for this poor “developing” country. poor in the sense of how much richness of every kind it is losing in the drive to modernize. we’re in the dreary position of an NGO trying to keep alive the rapidly dwindling agricultural plant diversity of the traditional rural cultures.
    My husband could write volumes on life in the village, that is up a couple of decades ago. the incredible social life, entertainments, customs, holidays, the weddings–5 days of intense social ceremonies with participation from villages all around, groupings & regroupings for various activities, meals, music, dancing, flirting.. a friend of ours elected as a village headman complains that with modernized farming & TV, the youth don’t have excuses to court one another any more, they are hardly seen outside their houses!
    Yet the general modernizing line is & has been for decades that life in the village is stiflng, monotonous, conservative, backwards… not to hear Arif tell it. In fact it would seem that life has become more boring with tractors & TVs. piped in water means no more going to the tastiest spring in the evening for water, performed by the girls of the village with the lads trying to outdo one another with witticisms launched from under the oak opposite, perhaps one writing a note to fold into a matchbox & casually let drop in the path back home of his chosen one, she seeing it would feign sudden weariness, put down her water jars for a moment to rest & scoop up the matchbox unnoticed.
    well it’s not exactly free love, behavior in public was circumscribed by custom that looks narrow to the city dweller, but the struggle & often entertainment was to find ways around custom, working alongside it to obtain desiderata whatever they might be. this kept people invested, interested & involved with one another in ways that make city life with its cell phone love affairs look a little facile. youth I work with in a university complain that even smart people are implicated in media definitions of personal life, love, sex, etc. A sense of the authentic is getting lost, they don’t know where the person and the media messages start & stop.
    Even over here the bloom on the social networking rose is beginning to fade. whether it’s googlegroups or blogs or facebook, forms of expression are starting to get repetitive and stale. writing about anything anymore to send it over the net is starting to lose that sense of vast potential it seemed to carry in the early days.
    the strangest halucination is watching an culture like Turkey’s move from a largely ag. economy to services (industry was never more than a small share). services being to a large extent either text & figures suffling or acts people used to perform for one another for free. yet both these far from essential areas of “work”–mostly performed in the sitting position, we should add– is what generates that paycheck needed to keep the urbanized in the city, a chain of middlemen between the country & the city alive, & the system on its feet.

  37. Meryem, what an interesting response! I agree with every word of it but am fascinated to find out that conditions in Turkey are so much like in the U.S. I have a friend who grew up in Iran, and he says the anti-rural prejudice is alive and well there too. Thank you for adding so significantly to my fund of knowledge.
    Annika Johnson, yes you are so right about how hard country wives worked doing all that housekeeping and gardening and farming by hand. But that only increases my puzzlement. The town wives also did all that work by hand and although they may not have done farm work, they often held down jobs in factories and offices. When I was a little boy, my parents lived in an apartment up town where Mom did all that washing, ironing and cooking and housecleaning by hand and on top of that, she and Dad kept a cow in a shed on the outskirts of our village which they milked morning and night and sold the extra cream for a little income. I remember clearly sitting in that barn with my even smaller baby sister, watching Mom or Dad milking. What I remember clearest of all is how much of the time they were laughing. I’m sure Mom had her down days, but it surely seemed that the life we today think of as enslaving was freeing to her. Gene

  38. As I sit here at my desk, two blocks from and twelve stories above Times Square, I ponder this question. Why am I here, in this overcrowded city, far from the real, natural world where peace is. Joel Salatin writes in one of his books “why have a New York City”? I have no answer to that.

  39. I like being near bookstores with LOTS of books. In such a place, just a few minutes walk from my home and work, and near a marvelous electric commuter train, useful for getting to the urban center and all that it has to offer, I discovered my first copy of Gene’s book PRACTICAL SKILLS. The bibliography of that book led me to Gene’s other books, Harlan Hubbard, Wendell Berry, etc.

    I also like being able to make at least part of my living as a classical musician. In this city there are great instrumentalists and singers and conductors, and opera and concert halls, and audiences that will (sometimes) fill them and who are willing to pay for what they hear. I have played in the pit for almost all the great Mozart operas…etc. By the way, Mozart lived in cities.

    Notwithstanding the possible perception that there are no jobs here, I see a lot of people who appear to be working at something or other. It’s true that there are a few homeless people on the street. And it does appear from the newspaper that there is a lot of crime…is it really more dangerous here than in the countryside? I don’t think so. I don’t watch television though so maybe I am not up on the latest facts.

    None of us are likely to run out potatoes in the cellar and starve. We like having electricity and economical heat for our homes and we like being able to walk to to get most of what we need. Though we do of course drive more than we should!

    My children attend excellent urban public schools that are very diverse–they are learning tolerance of those with different values the hard way, day by day. So they are not afraid of black people or Mexicans etc. They have excellent music instruction as well and are making steady if not spectacular progress on their violins. I believe their little violins were made in a city somewhere…or likely the violin maker learned his craft in a city even if he or she chooses not to live there now.

    One this I particularly like is that no one here seems to mind that I am an agnostic and have no use for churches except if they hire me on Sunday morning. But my kids can look in and see what those people are doing on Sunday morning too. That’s OK.

    Since my wife’s parents continue to farm (culinary herbs) we travel often in the summertime to the farm and I love helping out working with my hands on the farm. I try to carry my weight for at least a few days, and I have the utmost respect for the work my in-laws do. But I know that I am not suited for a full time life as a farmer.

    That’s part of my story. Love reading your stuff Gene!

  40. I like being near bookstores with LOTS of books. In such a place, just a few minutes walk from my home and work, and near a marvelous electric commuter train, useful for getting to the urban center and all that it has to offer, I discovered my first copy of Gene’s book PRACTICAL SKILLS. The bibliography of that book led me to Gene’s other books, Harlan Hubbard, Wendell Berry, etc.

    I also like being able to make at least part of my living as a classical musician. In this city there are great instrumentalists and singers and conductors, and opera and concert halls, and audiences that will (sometimes) fill them and who are willing to pay for what they hear. I have played in the pit for almost all the great Mozart operas…etc. By the way, Mozart lived in cities.

    Notwithstanding the possible perception that there are no jobs here, I see a lot of people who appear to be working at something or other. It’s true that there are a few homeless people on the street. And it does appear from the newspaper that there is a lot of crime…is it really more dangerous here than in the countryside? I don’t think so. I don’t watch television though so maybe I am not up on the latest facts.

    None of us are likely to run out potatoes in the cellar and starve. We like having electricity and economical heat for our homes and we like being able to walk to to get most of what we need. Though we do of course drive more than we should!

    My children attend excellent urban public schools that are very diverse–they are learning tolerance of those with different values the hard way, day by day. So they are not afraid of black people or Mexicans etc. They have excellent music instruction as well and are making steady if not spectacular progress on their violins. I believe their little violins were made in a city somewhere…or likely the violin maker learned his craft in a city even if he or she chooses not to live there now.

    One thing I particularly like is that no one here seems to mind that I am an agnostic and have no use for churches except if they hire me on Sunday morning. But my kids can look in and see what those people are doing on Sunday morning too. That’s OK.

    Since my wife’s parents continue to farm (culinary herbs) we travel often in the summertime to the farm and I love helping out working with my hands on the farm. I try to carry my weight for at least a few days, and I have the utmost respect for the work my in-laws do. But I know that I am not suited for a full time life as a farmer.

    That’s part of my story. Love reading your stuff Gene!

  41. “The destruction of the vast forests of chestnut trees by blight in the Appalachians coincided roughly with the Great Depression when the great migration from the mountains to the cities got into full swing. The hill people depended on chestnuts as much as we depend today on corn and wheat. The end of the chestnut meant the end of the hill economy. Could that have been the real reason they left their independent life for the auto factories of Detroit?”

    Sorry I missed this post last year! I re-discovered it while doing research on my pet theory: The demise of the American Chestnut actually caused the Great Depression!

    As near as I can determine, between one and three million people left Appalachia due to the demise of the chestnut — all for big cities that were not prepared for the onslaught. I’m trying to get census data by county so I can correlate with maps of the chestnut’s historical range.

    Other factors: the leather tanning industry was decimated, as it was about 80% dependent on the chestnut for the tannin used in curing leather.

    Chestnut was the premier building wood of Appalachia. Straight-gained, easily split, and hard, it was the most rot-resistant wood available.

    But perhaps the most overlooked reason is also the most speculative: the demise of the American Chestnut actually caused the Great Dustbowl conditions that historians are fond of citing as a contributing factor in the Great Depression.

    In many places, chestnuts comprised three out of four trees in Appalachia. When you take away the climax species tree, desertification occurs. Ekman spirals halt, and evapotranspiration is reduced to a tiny fraction, while water is taken up by prolific pioneer species.

    My theory is that economic distress always has energetic underpinnings. Almost all modern recessions are strongly correlated with oil price spikes. Many great civilizations fell when they decimated their forests. Easter Island crashed when they cut all their trees to serve as rollers for their statues. So I went searching for the energetic cause of the Great Depression, and the demise of the American Chestnut is by far the most plausible energetic reason.

    Now if I could score a nice postdoc so I could afford to spend the next six months writing this up properly…

    By the way, anyone interested in the American Chestnut must read Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, which doesn’t make the Great Depression connection, but which provides many links, hints, and clues.

    • I think you are on to something, Jan. I have always wondered if the death of the chestnuts caused or at least was a ,majory contributing factor to why so many people were hit so hard by the depression. Gene .

  42. “I have a theory about Appalachia which I have seen hinted at by only one other author…”

    Hey, hey, that’s my idea!

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