From GENE LOGSDON
Introduction to The Contrary Farmer (1995)
I remember clearly the day when I was twelve, hunting morel mushrooms with my father, when I informed him excitedly that I had decided to take my dog and my rifle and go deep into the wilderness to live. I would build a cabin on a mountainside by a clear running stream, and live out my days happily on broiled trout, fried mushrooms, and hickory nut pie. I would achieve advanced degrees in the art of living, bestowed on me by Nature, and I would know many things not even Einstein or my stupid schoolteacher dreamed of.
I thought that he would approve, since he was forever retreating to the solitude of woods and river bank and farm field himself. But he almost frowned, suggesting gently in a voice that sounded as if he were saying what he thought he was supposed to say, not what he really felt, that I needed to be thinking about making my way in the world and contributing something to it.
Unfortunately I tried to follow his advice and it took me until I was forty-two to realize that I knew what was better for me when I was twelve. And having hunted everywhere for the peculiar kind of freedom I had tried to articulate that day, I came back to my boyhood home-the place of my beginnings-and found it. What I learned in the process was to follow my own mind because worldly wisdom invariably springs from notions that are largely erroneous. The only really good advice that holds up in all situations is: Always make friends with the cook.
For a while, I thought Americans had lost the desire for independence-the kind of independence that defines success in terms of how much food, clothing, shelter, and contentment I could produce for myself rather than how much I could buy; the kind of freedom that examines the meaning of life, not the meaning of cholesterol; the kind of freedom that allows me to say what I think in public without fear that my words will be “bad for business;” the fear that keeps my rich acquaintances in town in silent bondage, trading their freedom of speech for dollars. (Not a one of them will publicly say what they privately believe: that President Clinton is as mad as ex-President Bush for dropping “well-intentioned” bombs on defenseless countries, and so the polls all appear to approve an act of outright terrorism.)
Then I started hearing about other people who were even more independent than I dared to dream: people deliberately removing themselves from the protection of the great god, Grid, because only beyond the blessings of the holy public utility could they find affordable land of their own; and also people, excluded from even that kind of frontier, who were turning ghettos into edenic gardens. I became acquainted with a university music professor who farmed with horses and in retirement manufactured modern horsedrawn machinery; a scientist who discovered that composted sewage sludge protects vegetable plants from disease; a man who homesteaded with his family in an isolated rural area to start a million-dollar business creating beautiful and useful items out of waste wood even while a rare disease slowly incapacitated his muscular coordination; a Vietnamese immigrant who figured out how to use duckweed (green pond scum) to purify wastewater and then made a nutritious protein supplement out of the scum; a rock star who bought a thousand-acre farm and turned it back into a wilderness that produces more food than the farm did; a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who quit his career to become an organic market gardener; a famous cartoonist who built a sewage system for his huge office complex that uses the shit and urine from his fifty workers to grow exotic plants, fish, and mussels, and then discharges pure water back into the environment; a contractor who uses scrap tires, earth, and beer cans to build houses that run entirely on the sun.
The voice of the turtle can be heard again, ringing through the land, as the old Wyandots and Mohegans who once roamed my farm would say-a new surge of creative energy that moves the earth in a direction of self-redemption and sustainability that not the richest PAC nor the oldest institutionalized claptrap can stop.
We are pioneers, seeking a new kind of religious and economic freedom. We flee the evils that centralized power always generates. Our God does not reside in the inner sanctums of cathedrals, but walks with us, hoeing in the fields. Sometimes I see Him checking the bluebird houses for murderous starlings and house sparrows and give Him hell for inventing the nest-robbing bandits. He smiles and reminds me that stupid scientists brought the starling and house sparrow to America, not Him.
We are circumspect about our economic institutions. We do not bank on paper money within marble walls, but invest in sun and soil and sweat and the tools that make sweat more productive.
I think of us as the Ramparts People. In all ages we have camped on the edges of the earth, the buffer between our more conventional and timid brethren and those nether regions where, as the medieval maps instructed, “there be dragons and wild beestes.” It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s fire while the mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit and damns us for shattering its complacency. So be it.
The hickory nut pie is excellent.
“Unfortunately I tried to follow his advice and it took me until I was forty-two to realize that I knew what was better for me when I was twelve.”
That’s where I’m at right now, trying to figure out how to leave my job as a lawyer and become a farmer. Not a hobby farmer, but a real farmer.
Hard thing is, that it appears to be just me. Dragging my family along is proving difficult.
Like : )
If anyone wants to see how the other side thinks, check out the comments to Nicolette Hahn Niman’s articles about sustainable livestock & farming on the Atlantic.
After reading the Atlantic comments, I don’t think I ever felt so filled with hopelessness and despair. Thank you so much for all your hopeful comments. Nice to know I’m not the only one of my kind…
Amen, Little Dipper Farm, and thanks to Mr. Lodgson for posting it here and spurring the enjoyable discussion that has ensued. I couldn’t agree more with Austin’s comments with respect to being risk averse. When I made the decision to pursue a career in medicine ~10 years ago, in addition to finding the work interesting and rewarding, job security was definitely high on my list of things I was considering. I still find it interesting and rewarding work, but there are lots of things that make a career in medicine (and I’m sure in many other “professional” fields) less appealing than in generations past. For example, I seem to spend more face-to-face time with computers than I do with patients. The more I read Mr. Lodgson’s and others’ observations about the mistakes humans can’t seem to resist in agriculture (trying to flog more and more out of the land, season, animal, etc), I can’t help but see the parallels in the way we deliver healthcare in this country. I see the same misguided focus on expensive and nifty was of curing problems instead of maximizing the less sexy and less expensive ways of preventing them, insisting that things that just take time happen quicker (can office visits to the doctor get any more hurried?), failing to account for the costs that don’t show up on the accountants’ balance sheets, etc. But that’s a diatribe for another day. Suffice it to say that the problems in agriculture definitely contribute to (and offer insight into) the problems that I’m seeing in the hospital.
As I continue to learn more about this bizarre and oft unsettling world we live in, I’m realizing that what’s risky is not having the intellectual capital, the natural resources, and the hands-on know-how to procure your own food. Whether it’s a plummeting dollar, bioterrorism or worsening contamination in our fragile food supply, sterile fields, or any number of other calamities we could face, I’m pretty sure eating is going to remain high on my priority list when things go to shit (more to shit). So I’m now viewing my day job as a source of seed money (I can’t resist a good pun either) to grow my farming fantasies to reality. Said fantasies include eventually living completely off the grid (using solar, wind, water power) in a not-so-big house (as opposed to the McMansion or Starter Castles now in widespread foreclosure), growing most if not all of my family’s food (or getting it from neighbors nearby), getting rid of my cell phone and my email address, dying anywhere but in a hospital, and being buried on my own land (preferably not in a casket so I become compost quicker). I appreciate the role other like-minded people, like you all, play in my pursuit of these goals.
In a “nutshell”, The Ramparts People for me is GL definitive piece of writing, his tome, all condensed down into a few paragraphs. It was many years ago I first read this with my purchase of The Contrary Farmer and I was immediatley “sold” on this guy. Since that time I can’t say I have learned that much more, but my conviction on his thesis has never been stronger. When that sad day arrives, and Gene gets to become compost for his farm, he will have already written the perfect eulogy. And if he does no use it, then I think I will “borrow” it….Long Live Gene Logsdon!
I just retired from a rural ED here in Tennesse in October…I was speaking from my experience. It’s a rural ED but we had more than 43,000 visits per year and never seemed to be staffed for that. I was just stating the facts of how stressful it is to be a healthcare worker in that environment NOW. You want to do a good job but there’s no way you can handle the volume. No one was happy, not the staff, not the patients and management just said they couldn’t afford to staff better and that we all needed to suck it up and be more cost efficient. I was constantly worried about someone dying because we couldn’t be in all the places we needed to be in at once. I just think it’s better if people know what they’re getting into before they make such a big commitment, especially if you’re going to contract out a good chunk of your life to do it.
Actually, Betty, I’ve worked in rural EDs where the poor get their care, rural community hospitals and rural community health centers. I find many of the patients to be astute, concerned about their health, good parents, etc. Many of them are the “working poor” who simply can’t afford health insurance. They may be self-employed or work in fields where employers don’t provide insurance. Yes, the work is hard, but I’ve found that’s true of most health care. Many of the frustrations are from bureaucratic boondoggles related to dumb government rules or insurance companies to whom a patient is not a person. You can find drug abuse, domestic violence and ignorance at all levels of society. I always used to tell new employees that when we look at a patient, our thought should be “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Austin, and Jeremy, I think it is cool that guys like you comment on my blog. I would answer every comment if I had time because the commentators are all of my blood. I am, for instance, very much an example of your “deep aversion to risk.” Gene Logsdon
I don’t think rural and poverty-stricken necessarily go hand in hand. I live in a small town of 800 with median income in the 40’s. We could desperately use a local town doctor – not a specialist, just someone to let us know if the care level needs to be elevated or we just need to walk it off.
When I read your post I saw a number of parallels to my own story- I always find comfort in knowing that I’m not the only degreed “professional” who wants to use my diplomas for starting the fireplace and then go tend my animals in the pasture!
I’m an aerospace engineer, to which most folks ooh and ah, but I think starting and succeeding at pasture farming is FAR more challenging (and interesting!) than designing airplanes. I’ve been trying to find an engineering job that isn’t in the heart of a major metro area as a way to transition to farming, but those are few and far between. Oddly enough, I lamented this past weekend that I should have chosen a medical career, as there would be more rural job opportunities. From your post, I see that path isn’t easy either!
I believe the biggest hurdle “professionals” such as ourselves face when considering farming is a deep aversion to risk, which permeates throughout our society. We’ve worked long and hard to get where we are, and in that case have a lot to lose- nevermind that we aren’t satisfied with what we have!
Thanks for sharing!
PS, Yes, it is very cool to get a reply from Mr. Logsdon himself! To whom I say thanks for posting this- it was a refreshing reminder of the book that reawakened my love for farming!
There is a reason that you can get debt forgiveness for working in such an environment. Health care workers don’t want to work in this setting for a reason…the poverty, ignorance, drug abuse, overwhelming numbers of patients you must see, and the way the system sets you up for only failure become numbing. Of course it looks romantic and altruistic from the outside, but it can also kill your soul. I challenge any of you to volunteer in any ED (where the poor must go for healthcare) in any rural, poverty-striken part of this country in these times and then offer this advice.
Thanks for all the replies to my little rant (Betty, Forks Over Knives is now in my Netflix queue). I realized in re-reading my post and the response to it that my current situation probably sounds a little bleaker than I intended. There are aspects of my job that I really love (seeing patients, for example). But the choice between reading about the latest pharmaceutical trial vs reading about how to grow my own nutritious food in an idyllic setting while improving the fertility of land and generally making the world a more livable place is really no contest.
I would absolutely love to marry my two vocational interests by becoming a country doc and have looked in to the loan forgiveness for docs who go to rural health care settings a bit that others have mentioned in their posts. As yet, I haven’t seen too much out there for my particular specialty (though my search has not been exhaustive at this point so I appreciate the leads). The other (probably larger) issue is that my wife, who grew up in a rural town, is not wild about the idea of moving back to a rural setting any time soon. I’m hoping that will change in the next few years (and would welcome tips on how I can influence this). Right now she seems to subscribe to the “pueblo chico, infierno grande” (Spanish for small town, large hell) mentality that can afflict those who come from small towns with a penchant for gossip/drama.
In the meantime, I’m learning all I can about how to do things right so whenever I am able to settle somewhere rural, I’ll be ready to hit the ground running so to speak. I definitely appreciate the input from all who have opined as there is much more for me to learn and consider as I figure out how to best pursue this dream. Lastly, at the risk of sounding somewhat pathetic and potentially making him uncomfortable, I must admit to a bit of thrill that Gene Lodgson not only read, but replied to my post. How cool is the Internet? That I get excited about and consider men like Gene Lodgson, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Sir Albert Howard, Wallace Stegner, and other farmers/writers of that ilk as some of my heroes, is to me, convincing evidence that I’m a ramparts person whose soul will die a slow death if I’m stuck in a city of cement boxes forever. I appreciate hearing from those of you who’ve made it back to the land–gives me a lot of hope that I’ll eventually get there.
PS, my apologies for lengthy posts and my excessive use of parenthetical statements. I’m working on both of those things.
Jeremy, CJ’s advice is right on! As an RN who spent 42 years in all venues of health care, I can tell you that a rural health care setting, such as a community health center, is a place where you can work several years in return for loan forgiveness. Most of them are desperate for doctors, especially primary care and pediatrics. Check with the National Association of Community Health Centers for details. Best of luck to you — you will be much happier and healthier following your dream.
Jeremy T: what a wonderful open honest letter. I would only add, like Betty did in her response to you, that we need good doctors and nurses too, especially out here on the ramparts. Gene Logsdon
Jeremy, maybe you could hasten the process a bit by looking for a rural area in desperate need of a medical professional – the old time country doctor. I’ve heard of some towns that are willing help finance medical education in return for a commitment to settle in, and provide services for, the community once the education is complete. Maybe part of that deal could be some land that has been foreclosed on and in need of an occupant to keep it from returning to forest.
PS Happy Birthday!
Jeremy, I have good news and bad news. First the bad news. I only now have become a full-time farmer (bees and goats) at 58. I’ve been an RN and part-time farmer most of my life. In nursing school I used to dream of being a Christmas tree farmer. I was a good nurse but over 38 years of healthcare meltdown, I grew to hate it and am so thankful to not be part of that world and so grateful to be doing what I love full time. From the passion I read in your post, I don’t think you’ll change your mind either.
The good news! I just watched a documentary called “Forks over Knives” about how a real food diet can stop and even reverse many of our chronic diseases: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, some cancers. In it, the audience was introduced to two doctors who only treated people who were willing to try to reverse their poor health with a good diet, which these doctors taught and supervised. The goal was to be able to discontinue many of their medications. Wow! I thought, now that’s good medicine! How does one sign up for a gig like that?
I can see you in such a small practice, teaching your patients to garden (maybe even a garden onsite), how to shop at farmer’s markets so they can eat delicious, nutritious food–and heal! Now that would be something to look forward to.
I’m hours away from my 31st birthday, 5.5 years into my training as a physician (with another 3.5 years to go–I will be a 25th grader when I finish). I live in a big city where all I can manage are a few pathetic tomato plants in plastic buckets with “soil” I bought at Home Depot, on a concrete balcony in a concrete building in a concrete neighborhood (shudder). I’m 6 figures in debt making loan payments that don’t even cover the interest I’m accruing so despite making payments, the number is getting bigger, not smaller. (Lest that sound too whiny, let me say that I’ve got a good life, it’s just not necessarily the one I want anymore).
I find little joy or excitement reading the New England Journal of Medicine, or Stahl’s Psychopharmacology, but I can’t put down books like All Flesh is Grass, Becoming Native to this Place, The Art of the Commonplace, or The Soil and Health. For Christmas, the one gift I asked my wife for is a subscription to The Stockman Grass Farmer. I recently finished reading Holy Shit and somewhat rhetorically asked my wife, What does it mean that I love reading books about shit? As I continue to read the writings of Mr. Lodgson and others like him, I’m realizing it means that I’m a ramparts person that hitched his wagon to the wrong team (or more probably the wrong machine).
I, along with most of the rest of the people in this country (and many other parts of the world), have not taken to heart one of my favorite medical aphorisms that is more true today than it’s ever been: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We seem to have become so captivated by all the fancy science (and the shiny technological offspring of that science ) we are pouring in to “cures” for our problems that we no longer think much about the dumb things we’re doing to create all these problems in the first place. Getting back to sane agricultural practices on a reasonable scale with Mother Nature as our mentor is imperative if we’re to ever get a handle on the growing dis-ease that seems to be engulfing so many of us. So many of the ills plaguing individuals and society can be traced back to the stupid things we’ve done with agriculture and the subsequent damage done to the soil and the plants and animals that depend on it. Just as diseased plants will eventually recover with proper application of good humus, I believe that many of the diseases afflicting both individuals and society will start to fade away if we can achieve good agricultural practices widely–if we can just get our shit together.
I wish I had realized this 10 years ago before I saddled myself with crushing debt that will likely have me locked into wage slavery for the next couple of decades (boo hoo rich doctor–again not a bad life, just not the one I want anymore). I may not get to my off-grid pasture farm for 20 or 30 years, but I will get there. And like Mr. Lodgson, I will not be buying my farm with loan money.
I agree that it is time to reread all of Mr. Logsdon’s books; they are priceless.
But Gene, I think that your father was right in a way: “…that I needed to be thinking about making my way in the world and contributing something to it.” You have done just that, by your writing. It may have taken you until you were 42 to figure out your way, but by reading your words, I was able to figure it out by 32 (sort of). Thank you!!
CJ: You make some good points. I generally believe that “What you can’t make perfect make as little imperfect as possible”, but tend to think at this point there is nothing but to wait for things to run their course and crash. But both the tea party and OWS want too little. They want to reform the system. In my opinion, our political system became pretty heavily corrupted 100 to 150 years ago and at this time it is really beyond reform. And I would be preaching to choir here to expand on the fact that the way we are doing business (especially agriculture) in the US cannot go on indefinetely. So patching up and retooling the way things are, is pointless. I used to be pretty involved in politics, but now I’m focusing on the one family revolution: returning to core Christian values, living a simpler life, and learning to do more for my self and look for less and less from the economy and the state.
Good idea about how to make good use of Detroit! In fact, I think I read about some urban farmers who was doing just that, without permission I think?
Hey there, it wasn’t scientists who brought starlings and sparrows to the US– it was a Shakespearean cultural club! They made a little project of bringing every species mentioned in The Bard’s plays to live in the United States.
Similarly when cane toads and mongooses were introduced all over the tropics to control cane grubs and rats, it wasn’t typically scientists who were at the forefront– it was usually plantation owners. After a few hundred years of ecological destruction, plus bloody wars to end the plantation system, it can be seen that these folks weren’t the greatest champions of thoughtful foresight….
That was my initial thought as well, but I don’t hear that articulated in any of their interviews nor do I hear of a mass exit from the 1%’s hunting grounds. If they wish to shed 1%’s society, camping out in the middle of it is a confusing message.
Half of Detroit is going to bull dozed under and left for dead, starting a new agrarian society there would be a great start and send the message that they (OWS) no longer wish to play the game – IMHO.
I’ve always liked this piece, and every time I reread it I’m reminded that one of these days I really want to try hickory nut pie. Our hickories are too young and skinny yet to produce. One of these days.
But, seriously: Why do we always tell children what we think we’re supposed to tell them, instead of what we really believe? That in itself seems unsustainable to me: we can’t build a sustainable future on the hope of each generation’s willingness to rebel and climb the ramparts. We have to be willing to rebel without being merely rebellious, to fight a revolution without merely revolving… It takes time, I suppose. We’ll get there.
Ooh, I like it. “Ramparts People.” Sounds a bit more romantic than “the crazy old woman with all the bees and chickens,” even if it is said fondly.
All kidding aside, sometimes I think if we are to save ourselves, that salvation will come from the edges and not from the center.
In my opinion, many in OWS would be happier learning to leave most of society rather than trying to increase their meager allotment from the 1%. Imagine wanting to be more like people who are so poor all they have is money.
(I’m generally pro-OWS)
It quite possible that I don’t understand OWS but it seems to me they are not looking to eliminate the fiat monetary system we have, just shift it so that there is a more equal distribution of the paper money. There not asking that we, as a country, strive to live a more sustainable life, but for more people to have greater spending power. They do not seem to be concerned about the depleting of minerals from our soils, just greater access to technology.
Perhaps it’s the media’s presentation, or my interpretation, of OWS as the second coming of the hippies when it appears OWS (again, my opinion) would consider their movement a success if our lifestyle stayed the same – dependence on economic growth, exponential increases in technology, and growing tomato plants on their 50th story balcony considered going green. There doesn’t seem to be that push to “invest in sun and soil and sweat” from OWS that you speak of.
I’m all for holding Wall Street’s feet to the fire but as long as people to continue to play game, just with a bigger game piece, change will be a difficult process to bring about.
Thanks again for this, both in print and online….
one thing though:
It’s true: God runs in the fields. We spend most of our time in wind, rain, and sun chasing Him. So I’ve been mighty glad to find He condescended to sit in the chapel and cathedrals waiting for us, still as soil, so we could catch up with Him and visit Him whenever we’re too winded to chase Him down the corn rows.
I call it the strange poetry of belief.
Thank you for giving what I’m doing a name, Mr. Logsdon.
A most hopeful piece of writing. Oh, to be able to bring myself to make the jump from working ‘for the man’ to working to live in peace on my own land with it’s ample rewards. I have 16 months to go before I give it a try. My gardens are fertile and I’ve become very good at coaxing super production from my Rhode Island Reds with nothing but whole grains and cabbage. I’m almost ready. No debts. A bit in the bank. Gene, you’ve given me hope that it will come to pass and I can succeed because others have. Keep pushing us to see that it can be done.
I loved this one – thank you!
CJ: I wonder how you arrive at that conclusion. I rather agree with the OWS people, all things considered. Gene
There is a group of folks in Missouri trying to help the “Rampart People”. They call themselves Open Source Ecology, and they are designing, building, and posting on-line the 5O machines necessary for “rampart”-living (eg a tractor, a windmill, an earth-brick compactor). Mechanically inclined people will be able to replicate these machines with scrap metal at extremely low cost.
I think it’s time to go back and re-read all of Gene’s books again…. Today is my 60th birthday and this was a wonderful “present” to open. You’re a gem!
Right up there with living in that wilderness cabin with a dog and wild mushrooms, is the satisfaction of reading something that reinvigorates hope. This piece is satisfaction that large.
I wonder if these statements are the perception of what Occupy Wall Street is about? It seems the more I learn of OWS, the more the movement seems to be the polar opposite of this post.
Lovely. The very phrase “hickory nut pie” makes me salivate. As a kid, I cracked hickory nuts and savored the meat. But what a tedious process. I can’t imagine gathering enough to make a pie that must be a slice of heaven.