Curious then that the idiom has come to mean what it does. It seems to have originated during World War II, popular among combat pilots, who when discussing what they’d do when they arrived home would often speak of farming. If they were killed in the line of duty, survivors would euphemise their absence by saying they’d gone ahead and bought the farm early.
A poll of friends and relations has revealed two things, however. Everyone I spoke with understood the vernacular sense of the phrase; none had any idea where the moribund usage might have originated. The phrase has endured far beyond that disconnect – what might that enduring reveal about our culture and its values?
Three of my four grandparents were raised on viable, working farms, and the fourth, a banker’s son, grew up in town but was required to participate in the cultivation of seasonal vegetables, the care of laying hens and a milk cow, plus a host of other chores in the maintenance of what we might now call an urban homestead. Both grandfathers saw active duty in World War II – one in the trenches of Europe, the other on a minesweeper in the South Pacific. Both were among the fortunate who returned home mostly unscathed, at least physically. If either made it through the war dreaming of farms, neither managed to realise those dreams.
My parents both grew up in towns, though my father spent summers helping his grandparents with the harvest and haying. By the time my siblings and I came along however the family farms had mostly been absorbed by large agribusiness, and we didn’t even grow vegetable gardens. The disconnect was complete. The immeasurable wealth of an embodied knowledge that might have been passed down through the generations was lost. We were disinherited.
The disconnect was complete. We were disinherited.
We grew up with the idea that food came from boxes and cans, the occasional restaurant. The daily bread we’d been taught to pray for came pre-sliced and wrapped in plastic. I never questioned this or thought much about it. I ate my bologna sandwiches with nary a thought for where any of the constituents might have come from.
At that time a row of prolific Bradford pears grew along the fence in my mother’s backyard – a small orchard, in fact. The trees bore such an abundance of fruit we tended to see it as a nuisance, the way it fell to the ground and rotted and attracted bees while we routinely complemented those bologna sandwiches with pears canned in heavy syrup, served up with a dollop of mayonnaise and a sprinkling of cheddar which came pre-grated in plastic bags.
In my family, in nearly every family I knew, there was no connection between food and its living source. Food came from the grocery store. Processed and packaged to survive many miles on trains and trucks burning fossil fuels. To state the obvious, food does not grow on those shelves, in those trucks, in those processing plants. Given time, we could trace every item in our diet back to a farm, to a seed, to the life of the soil and to the sun.
Any number of tributaries have fed into my growing stream of awareness as to the nature and scope of the problem. A seven-year stint as a whole-grain baker, where production began with the grinding of wheat on a stone mill, brought me into numerous conversations about our culture’s broken and unjust food ways. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals further clarified my understanding of the criminally destructive and unsustainable practices of factory farms and conventional, broad-acre agriculture. An apprenticeship in Rowan White’s Seed Seva program followed, along with a permaculture design course.
Then in 2018 a young man was shot and killed in our neighbour’s driveway; in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, an elder lamented that in most parts of our city it was much easier to purchase firearms than fresh tomatoes. That heartbreaking truth set me and my family on a course that led to the founding of a community garden and eventually to purchasing the farm, all in hopes of contributing to the reversal of that horrifying trend.
In the early morning, I slog north and east through the lowest-lying field. This mucky bog results from the previous occupants’ ill-advised scheme to ‘control nature’ by razing the native cypress and draining the slough to create additional grazing land. The process involved regrading a more or less flat sward and has led to the formation of several deep gullies along the eastern boundary. Into these gashes our predecessors dumped old refrigerators, washing machines, bald tyres and assorted car and tractor parts, along with various other ‘labour saving’ innovations and detritus that mark our allegiance to the cult of progress and the prodigal wastefulness of the upgrade cycle.
To say the least this is the mark of a culture of decadence, denial, and death. But what would it take to reverse that? To embrace generative practices and processes?
I make a circuit west through paddocks that feature a patchwork of snarled bramble thickets and rutted up wallows where feral hogs have savaged the ground. I pass among the ruins of seven or eight tumbled down outbuildings: a dilapidated hay shed, a rotting goat pen, a caved-in barn, a pair of lean-to shelters sagging under the weight of twisty vines and time.
The original farmhouse, once replaced, became a hay storage until the floor collapsed. Now the back room hosts a pair of black-headed vultures who’ve built a nest in the corner; they come and go through a broken windowpane.
Our permaculture training, which requires that we look to sustainable and flourishing ecosystems as the template for patterned designs, has also taught us to call the site ‘degraded’. Here is good, rich alluvial bottomland in the Pearl River watershed put to hard use over the decades – the pastures chronically overgrazed, the growing zones abused by the conventional inputs of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and NPK fertilisers until it was abandoned around the turn of the century.
But those vultures have found refuge here. And a barn owl swoops out from the windbreak of honey locust and cedar that marks the edge of the near field. A pileated woodpecker, heard but not seen, chuckles from the deeper woods east of the discontinued railroad tracks. A blue heron rises up from the pond to glide out over the field, where on a separate outing, I spied upwards of a dozen wood storks laying over on their northerly migration. So I hear again Wendell Berry’s suggestion that there are no profane places, only sacred and desecrated places. And I wonder what it will take and what it could mean to restore, to reconsecrate, this place?
What will it take and what could it mean to reconsecrate this place?
The Choctaw peoples who originally inhabited this particular watershed practised and celebrated enduring food ways that brought them into harmonious, collaborative, and reciprocal relationships with their surroundings and with their more-than-human neighbours. As Margaret Zehmer Searcy records, the traditional ‘Pleasure Dance’ involved movements that mimicked ‘shaking corn in a basket’ and various other activities associated with the growing and gathering of food. As Searcy goes on to note, the fact that ‘these dances [and stories and songs] were associated with pleasure and that they involved food-getting activities is significant,’ revealing the extent to which the Choctaw viewed themselves as integrated members of a wider ecosystem. What would it take and what would it mean – to what extent is it even possible – to recover such precolonial, pre-industrial ways of being in the world?
Guided by principles rooted in long, loving observation, we are learning to listen to the story the land is always already telling about itself. We are paying attention with the idea of accelerating the natural cycles of regeneration. We are engaged in the slow and sometimes tedious, sometimes exhilarating process of breathing new life into the place.
This we view as a necessarily cooperative effort: our beekeeper friend with his 30 hives; a collective of neighbours preparing to run a few cows in the northwest pastures; a paroled convict planning to cultivate microgreens; a climate refugee from Sudan and his American partner gearing up to develop a pastured poultry operation; some educators exploring the possibility of chartering a farm-forest school on site.
We’re in this process of dreaming a farm back into being in the hinterlands of the ruined provincial capital in our remote corner of the crumbling empire. We hope and intend to develop a food forest of fruit and nut trees with more seasonal beds in the zone close to the house plus various rotational grazing animals; we envision artist’s retreats, trauma workshops, and hootenannies; a place to grow more fully embodied, more grounded; a place to cultivate community as well as the land. Granting the grand and idealistic nature of the vision, we resolve to work within whatever limits reality may impose, taking it one day at a time and doing the next right thing as we move toward flourishing within the context of a deep inhabitation of this particular locale.
We’ve christened the place Nahala, a Hebrew wird which has no precise equivalent in English. It means something like homestead or inheritance of land. As I understand it, contrary to the conventional concept of ownership in our dominant culture, the original Hebrew carries strong connotations of a dynamic place to which we might belong, a place to be of and in.
In a poignant appeal, Barry Lopez enjoins us all to ‘embrace fearlessly’ our burning world. Buying the farm and entering into the stewardship of this place is our way of answering that call, of hurling ourselves into that embrace, if not fearlessly then at least fiercely. It is an act of defiance and a work of recovery. An entrance into a long process of restorying ourselves in connection with older, more viable foodways than those we inherited in our post-industrial, technocratic, instant-everything, on-demand age. Of remembering what we never should have forgotten, of recovering what we never should have lost.