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Notes from Day Seven: Can old ways become new ways? (Part 2)

Michael Veenema | Interrobang | Opinion | April 8th, 2013

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
Last week I said I would give the last word — my last two columns for the year — to Wendell Berry, who I believe is one of the most important writers of our time. A farmer, a theologian, a professor and an observer of our changing society, he offers fresh insights in the search for a good future. The reason his insights are fresh is that they come from the unique perspective (unique to most modern readers) of someone who loves the farm.

Why is it important to hear from someone who loves the farm? The farm not as an industry dependent on global markets, intense financing, devastatingly expensive machinery and international economic arrangements, but the farm as a family or extended family enterprise; the farm as a way of making a living that requires an understanding of animals, of the natural cycles of water, wind and temperature, of the food needs of the local community, and of the micro-ecosystems that make up fields and woodlands.

I recall once hearing Dr. Cal deWitt, a professor of Environmental Studies, speak at Western University (actually, I invited him). I am not sure if I heard it there or at another venue, but he spoke about the way a farmer he knew cared for his hogs. The farmer rejoiced in giving his animals room to wander in their pens, in providing fresh straw, and in allowing the piglets generous time with their nursing mothers. He said, “They are God's creatures and deserve a decent life.” Amen.

This story illustrates a point that Berry makes in an essay titled “Renewing Husbandry” (husbandry is the craft of personally caring for farm animals so they will thrive over many generations and produce what we need from them). In the essay, Berry laments that our machine-based food industry deprives food workers from feeling good about what they do and, in a completely related development, deprives them of any personal connection with the natural processes that put food on our tables and in our take-out boxes. The pig farmer above felt a connection with his animals and it made him feel good to give them a level of animal dignity. (This enjoyment of the connectedness with the sources of our food is no doubt part of what makes fishermen where I currently live very contentious when they are told to keep their boats ashore.)

Quoting Terry Cummins, Berry writes, “When you see that you're making the (farm animals) feel good, it gives you good feeling too.” Cummins writes about the importance of being able to open the barn door for his sheep and scattering grains of corn to feed his chickens. A farmer, he notes the great satisfaction he gets from seeing his crops, animals, fields, gardens, farm buildings and farm equipment all fitting together.

Such satisfactions are being all but lost to modern farmers whose main reward comes from seeing the bottom line improve. And this may be about the only source of satisfaction still available to current Canadian farmers since the modern farm has destroyed tens of thousands of farm-based Canadian villages and has ruined relations between neighbours who are locked in a tractor-eattractor fight to put each other out of business. Of course, we have saved a lot of labour on the farm. But this means that people who once could have been farm owners (or farm hands) now are employed in mindnumbing assembly lines and beige office cubicles, hoping that the competition in Mexico and Nepal won't put their bosses' companies out of business, and if it does, that the federal government will have generated some other business opportunities abroad.

Last week I asked if the values of frugality, care for the local ecology, kindness to neighbour and other values embedded in a family farm-based economy can be recovered. Can the old ways become new ways?

It seems to me that, as with many largescale changes, many small decisions and changes can add up to something bigger than we could hope for. I suggest looking at two sources for inspiration: the dog and the cottage.

The dog. The other day I met a man who is still in mourning two months after losing his dog to old age. Why do so many love their dogs (or other household pets)? I think that one reason many love pets is that it connects us with the comings and goings of life. You have to feed the dog, groom the cat, and make sure there is water in the dripper for the hamster. You can hold the pet, and given a bit of time, you will learn and love its quirky ways and its need for the morning walk and for adequate health care.

Consider the cottage. People endure heavy mortgage payments, long drives and repair bills to keep their cottages. Why? Isn't it because with the cottage comes a dream? A dream of reconnecting with woods, lakes, a few neighbours and the local racoon population. A dream of disconnecting from our disconnected world where all is machines, manufactured surfaces and manufactured images. The cottage is a place where you might plant seasonal flower beds or an occasional tree, not that you have to recreate the Babylonian Gardens, but that you have the opportunity to love what you have (rather than desire what is almost out of reach — the condition most of us are supposed to live in for the “good of the economy”).

We can't all become family farm owners. But a few of us can. Not all will be able to love pets or make cottage values a greater part of life. But some of us can move in that direction. We can't all support local farm markets. But more of us than presently do can. We all can't get out of the rat race (which, as one saying wryly puts it, no one has ever won) cold turkey, but some of us can. We can't all plant some tomatoes, potatoes and raspberry bushes, but many of us can. We can't all begin to see the world as a place of connectedness and of God's blessing and abundance for us all. But some of us can — maybe even all of us. Have a great summer.
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