The Archaic Arts and Skills

October 27, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Beyond the brilliant red on the maple outside my study, the shots of hunters at both daybreak and sundown indicate fall has well and truly arrived.

Saturday morning was spent in the usual pursuit of running both errands and clearing the slate of farm chores and tasks. Success was not fully achieved in either category. Afternoon found me bushhogging a large pasture of 12 acres. A soothing act as the cut grass reveals the sensual curve of the landscape, it is also a meditative activity, one that allows time for the mind to float along unexpected paths. As I finished in the early evening, the crack of firearms in the distance pulled me back from any reverie. The cattle looked up, muttered something to the equivalent of “humans,” and went back to grazing.

Image Removed

I entered the house for our evening coffee to find that Cindy had baked a platter of freshly made shortbread cookies. For some reason this had me thinking about the pursuit of what in our global consumer culture have been dismissed as the archaic arts. These are arts not clearly connected with the culture of global commerce—which is not to say that they are not connected with commerce, of course.

I have spent my adult life in the mines of the book industry, an art-form-turned-business-model locked in classic overshoot, where the issuance of new works has not yet registered the collapse of readership, where the vein we have followed of new readers has petered and faltered and is near to playing out, where a kid of a nearby farm, 18 years of age, told me recently, without embarrassment, that he had never read a book by choice.

During a short visit with a sister in Arkansas this week, I found her pursuing a similar arc, teaching classical European ballet. She has run a vibrant and popular dance academy for many years, yet she faces the difficulty of capturing an audience for an art form that doesn’t come with tweets and likes. She has the dedicated dancers of the discipline. But in our 24/7 world of digital and visual distractions, where is the audience that can discern an aplomb from an arabesque?

Global culture is a consumer culture. Its goal is growth on a finite planet: a car for everyone in China and India, farmed shrimp from Indonesia on every Iowa farmer’s plate. It is fundamentally a disposable culture: disposable products, people and planet. It has little use for the arts of an enduring culture. The dance that requires long study, the book written a hundred years ago, the technique of preserving soil fertility organically—all are archaic: they don’t require a container ship to deliver them to our door.

There are still niches for the archaic arts. And it is our job to help preserve them, to help them endure through the cacophony and clutter of the modern world. While the era of mass literacy and the literature it spawned may be coming to an end, it doesn’t mean that literacy and the written word are also going to be lost. Audiences for disciplined and focused dance may be in retreat, but the participants are still queuing up to learn.

We on a small farm are learning the archaic arts—harvesting manure to build soil fertility, constructing secure fences that do indeed make good neighbors, planting vegetables that, when they mature, will feed us for a month, creating a plate of shortbread cookies that nourishes the soul—and all connect us with long past practitioners of these arts in ways that Facebook and Walmart never can and never will.

These are the arts that make us more fully a community, a culture, a people.

Reading this weekend: Summer Doorways by W.S. Merwin. And, Simple Living In History: pioneers of the deep future, edited by Alexander and McLeod.

Brian Miller

Brian Miller lives in rural east Tennessee with his partner, Cindy. Since 1999 they have owned and operated Winged Elm Farm: a 70-acre working farm of pastures, orchards and mixed hardwoods. They direct market pork, lamb, mutton and beef to customers in Knoxville and Chattanooga. A native of Louisiana, Brian’s guiding influence in life is to know that everything begins with a roux. Brian blogs at The South Roane Agrarian. He is the author of Kayaking with Lambs: notes from an East Tennessee farmer.

Tags: Reskilling