Our hidden wound
From Gene Logsdon (1992)
I’m a hayseed, I’m a hayseed,
and my ears are full of pigweed.
How they flop in stormy weather—
gosh oh hemlock, tough as leather…
—From a children’s rhyme heard in the Midwest in the 1930s and forties.
Most of us grew up in a society where farmer was often merely a synonym for moron, and I am quite sure that many farmers are still haunted by feelings of inferiority laid on them by this kind of urban and urbane prejudice. In fact, I suspect that many of the most competent farmers among us continue to expand their farm empires not out of greed or an insatiable desire for wealth, but because they feel compelled to prove again and again that, by God, they are not inferior to anyone. They want to cram that fact as far down the throats of their boyhood taunters as they can, and, sadly, they spend their lives doing it.
In my high school days in the late forties, supercilious town girls routinely claimed that milking cows caused hands to grow too large and rough and the reason farmers had big feet was that they went barefoot too much. Lord help the girl who wore a print dress made from a grain sack, although the dresses were as pretty as any. A boy who came to school with chicken manure on his shoes, as could easily happen, or with the smell (real or imagined) of the cow stable on his clothes, instantly became an object of derision. Wearing bib overalls, which, ironically, are all the urban rage right now, brought automatic jeers, and after a while we refused to wear them, even at home. When the school lunch program came along, country children whose mothers packed a lunch for them, believing for some strange reason that parents, not the government, should feed their children, were restricted to a separate part of the lunchroom, and this separation soon carried with it a stigma not unlike the segregation of blacks in “their own place.” Farm work was in all cases put down as “nigger work” and it was too bad, we were told, that redneck country kids were condemned to it. One of our textbooks, with all good intentions, I’m sure, had a chapter entitled “Farm Folk Are Human, Too.” My mother, half-amused and half-dismayed, showed that page to my father. He took one look and hurled the book across the floor.
We farm kids came to school possessing intricate and valuable knowledge about manual arts, food production skills, and the ways of nature—all of which our urban counterparts desperately lacked, as is now apparent from the actions of well-meaning animal rightists and overzealous environmentalists; yet most of the teachers not only ignored this treasure trove of information, but belittled it as having no relevance to life. Kamyar Enshayan, of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Ohio State University, calls this “paradigm negation” and says that rural students coming into the university are still treated as if what they have learned at home, from tradition or through farm experience, is of no importance. “This is, in fact, the way colonial powers always treat their colonies as a way of stripping them of their identity and destroying their independence,” he says. “Farmers don’t yet realize it, but rural areas have become no more than colonies from which cities are sucking the wealth.”
In high school we accepted the urban prejudices against us in a solid, simmering silence that erupted into rebellion only once that I recall—a violent, bloody fistfight in the lobby of our local theater. The fight started when a “townie” called one of us a “clodhopper” once too often.
It wasn’t so long ago, really, that that kind of prejudice was perpetuated all over America. We who are now in our forties and fifties bear the scars of these prejudices as part of what Wendell Berry, the poet and farmer, calls “our hidden wound” in his book by that title. And we know, like the blacks know, that the prejudice is far from gone: it has only become more slyly silken in its displays. Though the scars have healed, they ache whenever the cultural weather shifts.
Some farmers flaunt the prejudice by wearing dirty clothes to the bank to borrow a quarter of a million dollars. Others over-compensate by dressing up to look “respectable” for the banker. That’s also why they get the car washed every time they’re in town. Some want to be called “agribusinesspeople” rather than farmers even if it does take half an hour to get that word out. Almost all of us are suckers for the “urban counterpart” argument. Salespeople know that a good way to get a farmer to buy their product is to hint that it will enable us to live “more like your urban counterpart.” Those who follow that allurement to its logical conclusion become urban counterparts, because it is patently impossible for a farmer to live like a city person.
How many generations does it take to heal the scars of prejudice completely? I wonder. I have a notion that prejudice is never eradicated, just transferred. When the “hillbillies” moved into our county from Kentucky during World War II, the focus of urban prejudice switched to them because they were even more “rural” than we were. Nursing our wounds, we farmers, who should have been sympathetic, joined with the townspeople in inflicting the wound on them. When the Mexican fieldworkers came, another segment of society colonized out of its own farm traditions, the “hillbillies” joined us, glad no longer to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Although there are hardly any blacks in our county, they are still referred to broadly as “niggars” by more than a few whites including most farmers; and “niggars” are still thought to be oversexed beyond control. I suspect, in fact, that farmers tend to hold on to such hoary racial prejudices in retaliation against their own hidden wound. Misery loves company.
Our county has just come through a nasty school consolidation fight in which, as usual, the bureaucracy won and the farmers lost. The school in the village of Harpster was closed (along with another township school). Being on the task force that undertook to study the matter, I was involved up to my ears (how they flop in stormy weather) in that battle. I had all the available figures pertinent to the school closing, and those figures did not show that there were any savings to be had by closing the Harpster school. Nor was there any proof that consolidating the schools meant better education. (In fact, nationally, more and more evidence points to quite the opposite conclusion.) Not even population decline could be cited as a reason for closing the Harpster school, because the area was gaining population. But argument was futile since the state of Ohio, like most states, is committed to consolidation. And latent in that policy is a contempt for rural people. Wayne Fuller, a professor of history at the University of Texas, has soundly documented this contempt in his recent book The Old Country School. In order to gain control of the independent school districts, professional educators undertook a campaign, beginning in the nineteenth century and intensifying in the twentieth, to discredit country schools in the eyes of state legislators. The professionals, often bluntly, said that farmers were too ignorant to be capable of running schools. Fuller points out that in most cases, the farmers’ ideas about education turned out to be better than the professional educators’, and that in following the latter’s course, we now have a large percentage of our population that can’t even read intelligently. My friend Craig Bowman who with his sons farms about 4,000 acres today, was a leader in both of the futile fights to save Harpster’s high school in 1960 and its elementary school in 1990. He nods when I tell him about Fuller’s book. “One reason we lost those battles, especially in 1960, was that many farmers half-believed that those yahoos in the state education department knew more about what was good for their children than they did, and they wouldn’t stand up to them. Of course. Society trained them that way.”
Even in our rural county, teachers encourage students not to think of themselves as coming from Harpster, or Marseilles, or any of our little villages or townships, but from the Upper Sandusky School District, which is perceived as a nobler root from which to spring. “Big is better” is a myth behind the myth that country people are somehow second-rate. And that may be why farmers so readily embraced the slogan “Get big or get out.”
But it is not necessary to blame education for the prejudice against farmers, since television, the real educating force in America, reinforces the myth with one prime-time show after another. The bigotry is not even veiled. Night after night, one dramatic episode or another will follow the adventures of a character who just had to get out of a “backward” rural area in favor of the, tah-dah, City. Getting out of rural areas for fame and fortune persists as a story motif even though it flies utterly in the face of reality. The competent farmers and businesspeople who stayed in our county are at least as financially successful as their peers who went to the city, and they don’t have to pay $300,000 for a $90,000 home, either. As one refugee back here from the big city says: “As for the cultural advantages of the city, who needs the traffic hassle? Electronics brings ‘cultural advantages’ to one’s home, wherever it may be.” (The “cultural advantages of the city” is another side of the prejudice against farmers. Why does no one speak of the cultural advantages of the country? For example, is a well groomed, ecologically kept, sustainably fertile farm any less cultural, any less artful, than paintings of fat angels on church ceilings?)
I am sure that the reason for the prejudice so many farmers exhibit against the Amish (the most biased like to infer, with a snicker, that Amish women are oversexed, like black people) is that their lifestyle unwittingly jabs at our hidden wound. The Amish remind us of ourselves fifty years ago, when we lived much like they do now and were ridiculed for it. And it is embarrassing to us that the Amish prove we could all make a decent living in farming by not trying to live like our urban counterparts.
What is so curious about the inanity of prejudice against farmers is that it exists right alongside the opposite prejudice: that farmers are the moral backbone of society. Farmers, of course (including the Amish), can be just as ornery as anyone else. This overly favorable image gains more credence the farther it is removed from agriculture. The wealthy townhouse dweller who has seldom been anywhere except Manhattan and Bermuda (and, as a result, is far more provincial than most farmers), thinks of the “man of the soil” as a kind of yeoman saint in overalls, working without surcease in the peace and quiet of God’s country to feed the world. This image lasts until said townhouser builds a million-dollar home in the country and the farmer next door starts spreading manure. The age-old contempt quickly returns and any farmers who must try to “feed the world” next to suburbs are not even allowed to work in their fields after dark.
The prejudice against farmers carries far from the farm. A New York City magazine editor cannot keep from displaying just a tad of superiority when talking about the work of a farm writer like myself. Usually it is more than a tad. When a Camden, New Jersey, columnist reviewed my book about Andrew Wyeth, which I wrote in 1970 while I was an editor at Farm Journal, she wrote most kindly but expressed surprise that such writing could come from someone who worked on a farm magazine! We farm writers, nursing our wound, aid and abet that prejudice ourselves: invariably, when one of our associates leaves our ranks for work in another field of journalism, we say that he or she graduated to a higher rung on the ladder. Why is Time more important than Farm Journal? It is difficult for the urban mind to swallow the fact that a renowned poet and essayist like Wendell Berry, or an accomplished musician like Elmo Reed, is also a bona fide farmer.
This low opinion of our work causes many farmers to see their land as nothing more than a factory or mine or “resource” from which to extract money. They remain unaware of its exquisite beauty, its natural wonders, and its potential as a sanctuary for the recreation of the human spirit. They ignore its natural pleasures in favor of faraway vacation spots: the same farmer who gasps in awe at a redstart in Cuba (once it is pointed out to him) does not know that the same bird visits his Ohio farm every spring and fall. The farmer who destroys the wild sanctuaries of his own farm uses the money to hunt and fish in Canada. He dines lavishly in gourmet restaurants on food that is not nearly as “farm-fresh,” “free-range,” or “organically pure” as the meats and vegetables he could grow in his own backyard and barnyard. Eschewing the good life of his own farm, he eschews the good life of his own neighborhood. His barn is no longer full of laughing, romping children or grandchildren, his hillsides no longer echo the happy cries of sledders, his pond no longer draws the swimmers and ice skaters of his community. There is no community. The neighbors have all gone to the city. The village churches and schools and taverns and inns that once were scenes of far more delight than the boring, manufactured uniformity of tourism are boarded up.
If we farmers deny the magnificence of our own rurality, how can we blame urban society for treating us the same way?
See also Gene’s Just What We Need: Faster Tractors
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming