The Duty to Dig


A YOUNG man sat by the roadside, milking. And as he milked, one drove up in her limousine and stopped and said unto him, —

‘Young man, why are you not at the front?’

The young man milked on, for that was the thing to do. Then, with still more slackers in her voice, the woman said a second time unto him, —

‘Young man, why are you not at the front?’

‘Because, ma’am, the milk is at this end,’ he answered.

And the chauffeur, throwing the clutch of the limousine into third speed ahead, drove off, thinking.

But the young man milking had already thought. To milk is to have thought. If ‘darning is premeditated poverty,’ then there is no saner occupation for human hands, none more thought-inducing, unless it be milking. Anyhow, when the Great War came on, I went over to a neighbor’s and bought a cow; I made me a new milking-stool with spread sturdy legs; and I sat down to face the situation calmly, where I might see it steadily and whole. I had tried the professorial chair; I had tried the editorial chair; I had even tried that Siege Perilous, the high-backed, soft-seated chair of plush behind the pulpit. I may never preach again; but if I do, it will be on condition that I sit on a three-legged milking stool instead of on that upholstered pillowy throne of plush.

Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? The flaming flambeaux on the Public Library say, ‘The light is in here’; the Ф B K key in the middle of the professorial waistcoat says, ‘It is in here.’ But I say, let the flambeaux be replaced by round-headed stockingdarners, as the sign of premeditated poverty; and the dangling key by a miniature milking-stool, as the symbol of the wisdom that knows which end of a cow to milk.

Not one of those students in the University who earned Ф B K last year knew how to milk, and only a few, I believe, of their professors. One of these, with a Ph.D. from Germany, whose key had charmed his students across their whole college course, asked me what breed of cattle heifers were. Might not his teaching have been quite as practical, had there dangled from his watch-chain those four years, not this key to the catacombs of knowledge, but a little jeweled milking-stool?

I too might wear a key, especially as I came innocently by mine, having had one thrust upon me; still, as I was born on a farm, and grew up in the fields, and am likely to end my days as I have lived them, here in the woods, this Ф B K key does not fit the lock to the door of knowledge that life has opened to me.

I have read a little on the aorist tense, and on the Ygdrasyl tree; a little, I say, on many things, from the animal aardvark, here and there, to zythum, a soft drink of the ancient Egyptians, picking a few rusty locks with this skeleton key; but the doors that open wide at my approach are those to my house, my barn, and the unwithholding fields. I know the road home, clear to the end; I know profoundly to come in when it rains; and I move with absolute certainty to the right end of the cow when it is time to milk.

I am aware of a certain arrogance in this, a show of pride, and that unbottomed pomp of those who wear Ф B K dangling at their vests, as if I could milk any cow, or as if I might have in my barn the world’s champion cow for butter fats. I have only a grade Jersey in my barn; and as for milking heifers with their first calves — I have milked them, but the boys must break in this one that we are raising for the war. Perhaps I am no longer entitled to wear a milking-stool at the watchchain over my slowly expanding waistcoat. Breaking in a heifer is really a young man’s job.

So I find myself at the middle of my years, stripped of outward signs, as I hope I am inwardly purged, of all vain shows of wisdom (quite too humble, truly!), falling in as naturally as the birds with the daylight-saving plan, and eating ‘substitutes’ as I have always eaten them, only refusing to call them by any such libelous name.

War cannot change the way of things here. It may take my four sons. I had hoped they might be farmers and servants of the public good. In my scheme of things there are no soldiers, although my four sons, nevertheless, have been trained to shoot and to dig themselves in, and are marching straight against some four German lads, if this war lasts long enough. And may God have mercy on the four Bodies! But if they come back from the war, my four will come back here, or somewhere, to the hoe and the milking-stool. They have drunk deep of warm milk, and will never know another thirst so wholesome and so sweet to slake.

War has come, but my garden goes on as it has gone on these fifteen summers — there is a little more of it now, that is all, with a little larger yield of its reasonableness and joy and beans. I have not had to plough up my front lawn, because years ago I provided myself with a backyard and got it into tilth, keeping the front lawn green for the cow. While only a grade Jersey, as I said, the cow is a pretty creature, and just rural enough to give a quiet ruminant touch to our approach, as lilacs would and hens, were we not obliged to keep the hens shut up on account of foxes. Staked here on the front lawn, the cow suggests war-time economy too. Thus tied, she is more than a wagon hitched to a star: for the gods not only do my mowing, but gather up and cure my hay, and turn the clippings into cream. And such cream!

Every cow, of course, gives some skim milk. Mine gives a little, which we need for the chickens, for cooking, and cottage cheese. Life is not all cream, even here. If I speak of gods doing my chores, I will say that they do not milk for me in the mornings, and that it is one of the boys who milks at night. A cow clipping your lawn is poetry and cream too, but it is often skim milk and prose to care for the creature. Milking ought to be done regularly. Get a cow and you find her cud a kind of pendulum to all creation, the time to milk being synchronized twice daily to the stars.

I did not plant war-potatoes on my front lawn, partly because they would not grow there, and partly because, in times of peace, I had prepared for warpotatoes; and partly because I think a front lawn looks better as a lawn than as a potato patch. If thou shouldst

So live, that when thy summons comes to join The innumerable caravan . . .
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon,

should we not all live so that, when war comes, we need not plough up the beds for potatoes, where the portulaca and poppy ought to blow?

This sounds as if I believed in universal military training. The idea is hateful to me, even for six months of one year of a man’s lifetime, being tantamount to war. Universal military training is Prussian, it is BernhardiBernsdorff - Hindenburg - Ludendorff - Von Tirpitz - the Crown Prince - the Kaiser. Spelled that way, it sounds German and un-American. A country full of gardens is not the same as a country full of camps. If I say, in times of peace grow plenty of potatoes, it is because it takes longer to train a gardener than a soldier, to develop a garden than build a camp; and because a garden is an excellent place in which to train for the camp, digging, as in the garden, having become one of the essential ways of war, while at the same time it is the fit preparation for the ways of peace. To get your digging in a camp, however, is to leave the potatoes out of the training and learn only the ways of war.

This war was a shock to me, an awful event for which I was unprepared. But not so unprepared as Mr. Price Collier, who, in his book, ‘ Germany and the Germans,’ published in 1913, says of the German army, —

It is the best all-round democratic university in the world; it is a necessary antidote for the physical lethargy of the German race; it is essential to discipline; it is a cement for holding Germany together; it gives a much-worried and many-timesbeaten people confidence; the poverty of the great bulk of its officers keeps the level of social expenditure on a sensible scale; it offers a brilliant example, in a material age, of men scorning ease for the service of their country; it keeps the peace in Europe; and until there is a second coming of a Christ of pity and patience and peace, it is as good a substitute for that far-off divine event as puzzled man has to offer.

Only an honest believer in universal military training, like the Reverend Mr. Collier or Colonel Roosevelt or General Wood, could have been unprepared to the extent of saying of the German army, ‘ It is the best all-around democratic university in the world . . . it keeps the peace in Europe . . . and until there is a second coming of a Christ of pity and patience and peace, it is as good a substitute for that faroff divine event as puzzled man has to offer.’


I grab a grub-hoe, rush out behind the barn, and attack the earth, the stone walls — anything to calm myself when the universal trainers begin to talk.

No, I was never so unprepared for this war as was Brother Collier, for I have never been able to look at a soldier without thinking, ‘How ready he is for war! readier in mind and temper even than in his gear!’ I should like to see ten million American boys in uniform to-day; but when this war is over, and militarism killed in Germany, I wish to see every American boy ordered for six months to his backyard garden or the farm, there to dig under as compost the militarism that those who believe in war, and those who profit by war, would set up in America in place of the German machine.


Instead of universal military training, I would advocate a hive of bees for everybody, or a backyard garden. A house should have both lawn and garden, even though the gooseberries crowd the house out to the roadside, where the human house instinctively edges to see the neighbors in their new pony-coats go by. Let my front door stand open; while over the back stoop the old-fashioned roses and the grapevines draw a screen. It is between the front yard and back yard that my privet hedge shall run, behind which, as within the veil of some Holy of Holies, only the anointed of my friends, those who keep bees and go a-gardening, may enter. We shall always face a famine, a potato-panic at least, so long as our dooryards are all lawn in front and all garbage-can behind. We have farmers enough, — one to every eight of our population, I believe, — who might produce sufficient raw potatoes; but Aroostook County is barely contiguous to the United States, and such a barrage of frost was laid down across its borders this last winter that, if one brought potatoes out of Aroostook between December and March, he had to bear them in his bosom.

Aroostook County is the greatest potato patch in the world; the American imagination loves to hover over the tubered tracts of Aroostook, the richest county in the world; loves to feel that, not Boston only, but the rest of Ireland, could be fed from Aroostook, were it not for the triple alliance of the cold and the contiguity and a railroad that runs, if not like a broken tooth, then like a foot out of joint, into these remote dreamlands of Maine.

Woe to them that go down to the railroads for help; and stay on engines and trust in empties, because they are many; and in officials, because they are very strong. This country is too big for the railroads; so big that every house has room for a backyard, and has need to turn it into a garden, in order to save the railroads and break the potato combine in Aroostook County.

Let two or three potato-growers get together in Aroostook County, or beef-packers in Chicago, or profiteers anywhere, and a combine is sure to be in their midst. I have not had a potato from Maine this year, or a pound of beef from Chicago. I could have got on without a pound of sugar from Cuba, had I looked more carefully after my bees last summer. I do not mean that I can handle the Beef Trust and the potato pirates and the sugar barons with my humble hoe; or snap my fingers in the face of Standard Oil, and say, ‘Go to, I’ll have none of your 28-cent gas!' But I do say that several million beekeepers and potato-patchers, and hencoopers, keeping busy in their backyards, as I keep busy in mine, could mightily relieve the railroad congestion, and save gasoline, and cut in on the demand for Chicago beef and cold-storage eggs, and generally lower the high cost of living, to say nothing of helping to win the war.

There is this war-use for the backyard surely; but there are older, peacereasons for the garden, both economic and moral, that we Americans do not fully understand. We are overgiven to front lawns. We know neither the economics nor the quiet joys of dwarf fruit trees, and asparagus, and hens. Economy as a moral principle, and productivity as a personal adornment, are strange doctrines to our ears. Our First Commandment is to make money; our Second is to spend it; and if there are any other commandments in our Law and Prophets, they are to make and spend still more money— freely; but not to spend much of it on the backyard. We are not more eager for money than other nations; we only make it more easily, so easily that one of our junkmen died last week worth a million; and so freely do we spend, that, to-day’s papers report a lawsuit between two brothers, who do a hat-checking business in New York hotels, asking the courts to divide for them their halfmillion-dollar pile of tips!

I know of a young man who has made five and one-half millions in shoes and stocks since the war began, while I have made, among other things, 500 cabbage-heads grow in my garden. Which of us has really added to the wealth of the world, he by picking up stocks on the Curb, or I by digging cabbages out of the soil? He gave a million dollars, I hope, to the starving Belgians; I gave what I had — the surplus cabbages; and while there is little substance to be found in a cabbage, still you can live longer on it, if you happen to be starving, than you can on Wall Street stocks, even when the market is strong.

Wealth is not created, not even increased, in trade. When was one pennyweight of gold on ’change by any magic metallurgy of trade made two pennyweight? The magic of the second pennyweight is the metallurgy of the pick and shovel and cradle rocking the shining sands of the Yukon. Real wealth is circulated only in trade. It comes from primal sources — from the gold-fields, the cotton-fields, the cornfields, the fir-clad sides of Katahdin, the wide gray waters of the Grand Banks, the high valleys of the sheeped Sierras, and from backyards, like mine, that bring forth thirtyand sixtyand an hundred-fold.

Those who produce wealth seldom possess it, the work with hoe and axe and drill and trawl being too elemental, too human and limited for that. One must handle money and not tools, to get rich; but though a man employ a million men, he does not by that produce a man or the value of a man, the world owing that debt to a mother. She produces the man; and once produced, he is absolutely nothing but a charge on the universe, except he in turn produce something, not make it — if it be only a bunch of beets.

We need the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker; and, of course, the banker to stay by their stuff; we need the policeman to stay by the banker, the prosecuting attorney for the butcher, the inspector for the baker, the tax-collector for the candlestick-maker; and for them all, the barber, the confessor, and the undertaker. We even need the college professor — at Washington. Society is an organism, somewhat complex, with the farmer at one end, the garbage-collector at the other end, and in between a middle-man, for whom the whole body is fitly joined together; by whom each coördinating factor functions; and to whom every component part and mutually dependent organ is made vitally subservient, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care one for another!

The analogy might be carried further, to find society an organism in process of evolution — evolution so swift that millions of its members are left merely ornamental and idle, like the pineal gland and the vermiform appendix, society’s great affliction. But it is not of the idle I am thinking; nor of any other one class; nor yet of all the classes as one; for, if they were all one member, says Saint Paul, where were the body? For the body is not one member, but many. We cannot all be farmers, but can we not all be gardeners? or nearly all? Cannot, everybody produce some wealth, — two blades of grass for one, — and earn his salt, say, by evaporating it?

The food-problem before the community is not a problem of eating — of saving and substituting: it is a problem of wasting a great deal less and growing a great deal more — not more potatoes in Maine, or more beans in Michigan, but more in Hingham, where there are a few backyards quite fit for potatoes, and many yards that will produce beans. Almost any garden is good for beans, and almost any gardener. Yet beans this spring are about two for a cent!

It is not because there are ‘millions in it’ that I would have the banker plant his backyard to beans, Thoreau planted two acres and a half to beans and potatoes (on a weak market, however), with a ‘pecuniary profit of $8.71½.’ Here is no very great financial inducement to a busy banker, or to a ward boss. Still, who better than the ward boss or the banker could afford a private beanfield?

One should pay one’s way in this world, as I presume a State Street broker thinks he does, who said to me that the price of flour never troubled him. And one should have pleasure in paying one’s way, too. for there are pleasures in gardening as there are in fishing, unless one has been spoiled for them by playing the stock market, or running a railroad, or otherwise helping God manage this ‘automatic basement ’ of his great department store. The number of indispensable men nowadays, men too big for beans, though a natural development of social conditions, is a menace, a grave menace to society. A place in the sun for himself and his bean-patch is room and verge enough for one’s ambitions; and an exchange of seeds and garden lore over the back fence quite as far as one needs to push one’s Kultur.


It is not chiefly the pleasures of gardening, however, nor yet the profits of gardening chiefly, that I am writing about, real as these are and inseparable from the duty to dig —which is my theme. There are those who doubt the wisdom of digging because things can be bought cheaper at the store; and those who question their right to dig when they can hire a man to dig for them; and there are those who hate to dig, who contemn duty, who, if they plant, will plant a piece of fallow land with golf-balls only, and hoe it with brassies, niblicks, cleeks, and spooners, saying with Chaucer’s Monk,—

. . . how shall the world be servèd?
Let Austyn have his swynk to him reservèd.

Golf is an ancient game, no doubt, but not so old as gardening, though golf’s primordial club and vocabulary seem like things long left over, bits of that Missing-Link Period between our arboreal and cave-day past. Except for calling the cows from the meadow, or fighting in war, there is nothing we do that requires words and weapons, tools, instruments, implements, utensils, apparatus, machinery, or mechanisms so lacking in character and comeliness as the words and clubs of golf. The gurglings of infants seem articulate, even to unparental ears, compared with the jargon of golf; and as for billiardcues, baseball-bats, pikes, spades, shillalys, and teething-rings, they have the touch of poetry on them; whereas the golf-club was conceived and shaped in utter unimaginativeness.

Golf is not an ancient game: it has the mark of the Machine upon it; the Preadamites could not have figured the game out. Gardening, on the other hand, if we trust Holy Writ, was an institution founded before the Fall, incorporated with the social order from the start — an inherent, essential element in the constitution of human things, —

Great nature’s primal course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast, —

which civilization doth murder as Macbeth murdered sleep.

Golf belongs to civilization strictly, not to the human race, being one of life’s post-Edenic precautions, like psychopathic hospitals, jails, and homes for the feeble-minded. A golf course is a little-wanderers’ home; and if we must have golf courses, let their hazards be carefully constructed on worthless land, and let the Civil Service Board examine the caddies, whether they be fit guards for the golfers, lest some small boy be wasted who might have tended real sheep on Norfolk Downs or have weeded in a garden.

It is a duty to dig, to nail the Stars and Stripes to a lima-bean pole, and plant the banner square in the middle of the garden. Profits? pleasures? Both sorts will grow, especially the pleasures, which really are part of the profits, till they fairly smother the weeds; not the least of these being a sense of your right to live, which comes out of actually hoeing your own row — a literal row of beans or corn or tomatoes.

Somebody must feed the soldiers; but nobody must needs feed me. It is not necessary that I live, however necessary I find it to eat; eating, like sleeping and breathing and keeping warm, being strictly a private enterprise that nobody but I need see as necessary or be responsible for.

The soldier must carry a shovel nowadays, but he will require a hoe, too, and a pruning-hook, and a ploughshare, before he will be self-supporting. With such a kit war could support war forever, which is the Rathenau plan of war, with everything German left out, consequently everything of war left out. The soldier cannot feed himself. The crew of a battleship cannot be expected to catch their own cod and flounders. They must leave that to the the trawlers, those human boats, with human crews who fish for a living. Men of the navy must die for a living. The captain of a U.S. destroyer, writing to his wife, says, ‘I think that the only real anxiety is lest we may not get. into the big game at all. I do not think that, any of us are bloodthirsty or desirous of glory or advancement, but we have to justify our existence.’

So does every human being; yet an existence that can be justified only by fighting and dying is too unproductive, too far from self-supporting, to warrant. the sure calling and election of many of us. No Grand-Banker ever wrote so to his wife, though he might be returning with all his salt unwet; no college professor ever wrote so, — not if he could get into his garden, — in spite of his pupils, his college president, the trustees, and Mr. Carnegie’s Efficiency Board. Teaching may not justify a professor’s existence, though it ought to justify his salary; so, every time I start for the University, I put a dozen or two eggs into my bookbag, that I may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

I am not independent of society. I do not wish to be independent. I wish to be debtor to all and have all debtors to me. If I ask bread of the farmer, I would not give him in return a stone. He is the last man to want a stone. Yet that is what society gives him for his wheat — the farmer, I say, not the elevator-man; society pays the elevatorman handsomely for the farmer’s wheat. I owe the farmer more than money. I owe him what any beggar on the street, owes me. And here is a nation to-day begging the farmer for a hand-out — panhandling the farmer, a whole world panhandling the farmer for something to eat!

What is the matter with society that this should come to pass? Nothing much, except war and business and the standards they set for society. The trouble with war is that it is busines; and the trouble with business is that it is war; and the trouble with society is that its standards are those of war and business. Society is militant; the Hun is human; and the abhorrent philosophy that he casts into great guns at Essen seems to shape everything down to the American hoe and toothpick. The people who make hoes make war on me; and every time I buy a hoe, I pay so much more for it than I ought, that I would like to use it first on its manufacturers, hoeing them up as I do the other weeds in my garden. And I am a Quaker, too! In spite of the price, I must buy my hoe, and I wish to buy it; for here on my farm I cannot make or raise hoes. But we buy too much and sell too much of life, and raise too little. We pay for all we get. Sometimes we get all we pay for, but not often; and if we never did, still life has so thoroughly adopted the business standard, that we had rather keep on paying than trying to grow our way.

Let the farmer grow his way; and if his existence can be justified, it will be in feeding us. ‘All naval officers ought really to get killed to justify their existence,’writes the naval officer quoted above; wherein, for a moment, the officer’s existence approaches that of the farmer, dying and farming being alike in that they are too personal and elemental to be done by proxy, the farmer, unlike the officer, dying all day long.

Business is a way of living by proxy; money is society’s proxy for every sort of implement and tool. To produce something, however, — some actual wealth, a pennyweight of gold-dust, a pound of honey, a dozen eggs, a book, a boy, a bunch of beets; some real wealth out of the soil, out of my loins, out of my brains, out of my muscles and the sap of the maple, the rains and sunshine and the soil, out of the rich veins of the earth or the swarming waters of the sea — this is to be; and to be myself, and not a proxy, is to lose my life and save it, and to justify my existence.

I have to buy a multitude of things — transportation, coal, dentistry, news, flour, and clothes. I have paid in money for them. I have also paid in real wealth, having given, to balance my charge on society, an equivalent in raw cabbage, pure honey, fresh eggs, and the like, from my own created store. I am doubtless in debt to society, but I have tried to give wealth for wealth, not the symbol of it merely; and last year, as I balanced my books, I think the world was in debt to me by several bunches of beets.

I do not boast of the beets, though they take me out of the debtor’s prison where most of us live. I can face the world, however, with those beets; I have gone over the top, have done my bit, with beets. I subscribed to the Liberty Loans — one, two, three — and wear my buttons proudly. If I have any money my country needs, she can have it — all of it, gladly, easily; the difficult thing to give her is beets. They make you hurt all down your back, and make you sweat (which is good for the kidneys); for, as Kipling might put it, money is only money, but a bunch of beets is the beginning for a good New England boiled dinner.

The local food-administrator has just sent me a gardening blank, to be filled out with information, ‘confidential and solely for the authentic knowledge of those who are compiling the food possibilities of Plymouth County and the state as a war-measure.’ I wish the food-administrator had been the Atlantic editor, that I might boldly tell of all the things we grew here last year, from the calf to the canteloupes, from the asparagus of April around the months, summer and winter, with a garden and vegetable-cellar just like a seed-catalogue incarnated — with peaches, plums, apples, and strawberries-and-cream! My oldest boy cleared $136 on his chickens, besides raising his heart-full of bantams, and getting a first prize of twenty-five cents for one bantam pullet at the Hingham agricultural fair! Our winter beans were a comparative failure, but we shall sit down to our own pork and beans every Saturday night this next year, or I am no gardener.

How do I get time for all of this? To be sure, I was a trifle forehanded and got me a family of boys to start with; and of course, a college professor, whatever you say of his salary, does have some advantages over the business man in the way of vacations; so that my situation perhaps is not quite typical. I do more than the average man can. But I love to do it, and the boys love to do it; and what a man loves to do he will find the place and the time for.

Give me a garden and the wages of hoeing my row. And if not a garden, then a little house of hens, a coop of pigeons, a colony of bees — even in the city I should keep bees, if I had to keep them in the attic or on the roof. Not every one can have a garden, but every one can either plant a tree, or raise one pig, or keep a cow or goat, or feed a few hens, or raise a flock of pigeons, or do something that will bring him personally into contact with real things, and make it possible for him to help pay his way with real wealth, and in part, at least, to justify his existence.