Whom the Land Loves
IT is a terrible thing to fight the soil.
The Puritan forefarmers lived in perpetual conflict with Nature. They ‘wrested a living from the soil.’ They were never reconciled to being farmers. Each farmhouse had its shelf of books — and they were not about agriculture. Every family tried to put one son into the ministry. The daughters had a term at the nearest female academy, where they lived chiefly on apple pies from home, and studied Latin grammar.
The New England farmers took and took and took from the land, and they hated the land they looted. The land held back more each year. The struggle grew fierce. Abandoned farms all over the country are the result. The humans fled from the conflict. The soil had — nervous prostration!
In all the talk about the repopulation of eastern farmlands by European peasants no one has considered how the soil itself feels about the matter.
The land likes the change.
I have been watching the gradual revival of a Connecticut countryside, settled when chimneys were built of stone, and long considered worn out. This land has gradually come back into bearing under the new peasant ownership, although the newcomers know nothing of scientific, intensive farming, and use no costly fertilizer.
Why is it ? I have my theory. The land is at peace with the men who tend it. It can put its mind on its work. The poor, tired, disconsolate fields are dug and seeded and combed and sheared by friendly men and women, and the soil is gradually recovering its health.
Ondia Ocif lives at the top of the low green slope that stretches gently upward beside our house. He is a Slav, slow in motion, well on the way to being stoopshouldered, and looking older than he is. A lump of something not gum bulges one cheek. He started as hired man to a New Englander in this same neighborhood — and now he owns four .farms.
One of these farms is a half mile from us, down the road we go for berries. It includes a wonderful old orchard, where we sometimes find enormous white puff balls. Ondia’s black-and-white Holstein cattle keep the green grass like a lawn. The ancient twisted trees are pink and white domes in spring, and in the autumn they are heavy with mellow apples. In the winter, their lavender limbs are silhouetted fine as seaweed against the snow-field. The land slopes in low hills, and each shoulder is topped by a stone wall so high as to be notable even in Connecticut, and so skillfully laid that hardly a stone has fallen. The walls were built, I am told, for grapevines.
This must once have been a home to dream of—a squat gray house, embowered in turn in pink and white, in summer green, and in autumn reds and yellows and purples. The house burned down, the grapevines died, and the stone-wall builder went. to the poorhouse. After a time Ondia Ocif bought the place for thirty-five dollars.
The newcomers can buy up land cheap like this, because they are on the spot, can work the land, and have cash in hand thriftily hoarded against the chance. The children of the pioneers, if they have not left the neighborhood, cannot manage any more of the stubborn land and have not the money with which to buy it.
Three nephews and a niece of Ondia Ocif own farms within easy riding-distance. One nephew, Andrew Gerig, is reported to have a mile and a half along the Housatonic River. We go there to fish, and it is a heavenly spot. Gerig bought one farm, and later added the Merwin place, which was considered a large farm in the old days. I can’t give the number of acres, but it took Billy Ryan four days to go along the stone walls each fall, putting back the occasional rocks that had fallen. Billy Ryan used to come across the mountain every year to do the job for Mrs. Merwin. Now both are dead, and the Slavic man, with his seven sons, makes the rounds.
Mrs. Merwin got to be a very old lady before she died, and lost all interest in the farming. The roofs of two of her four houses fell in, her cows were dry, and her horses spent idle years in their pasture. Gerig got the great Merwin home, with its huge chimneys and tiny-paned windows, in time to save it. He lives a mile away, in a more comfortable house, but he is quite as enthusiastic over the vacant old house as are the artists who sometimes try to buy it of him. He will not sell. He keeps the roof whole and the windows in, and dreams of living there himself some day.
The Piscura connection is the other neighborhood clan. Fourteen Slavic nationalities are connected by blood or marriage in this family. I have learned a few of t he difficult names, by letting the children write on my typewriter when they come to see me; and I hope to master them all before immigration is again unrestricted, and more relatives come from Europe to buy farms.
The Piscuras have many children. The schoolhouse was so inadequate last year that the little Slavs had to be put on half-time. It was enlarged to double its size this fall. As I sit at the head of our road in the morning, waiting for the postman, these young students pass me in giggling, side-glancing groups, and I wonder idly which of them put the dead cat in our well. Dead, at any rate, by the time we got her out. Oh, very dead indeed.
It seems a little strange to me that we, descendants of the original immigrants, are so much less at ease in the country than are these later comers. We are too conscious of our separation from the soil, even in our enjoyment of earthy sights and smells, truly to belong. I think the dusty roads must love to feel the bare footfalls of these scurrying children’s feet. These little blond-headed things, in blue overalls or pink gingham dresses, slip into the picture as do the squirrels and the wrens.
The two clans are in a state of mild continuous feud, which breaks out in warning off from right of ways and posting trout-brooks. Family life in individual households is raucous and sometimes unkind. This is no more to the soil than is the eternal enmity of corn and weeds, and hawks and chickens. The quarrels surge over the bosom of the earth, but are not directed at her. Plants, birds, varmints, and humans are all at peace with the soil that gives them their living. Only those animals who, in the pride of intellectual understanding, try 10 separate themselves from the soil by whose grace they live—only those arouse her enmity.
When the rain stopped just before sunset, one autumn afternoon, we started down ourroad to gather bittersweet. We walked between walls of yellow and crimson and bronze leaves. At a break in the foliage, I looked across the swamp, where the wild ducks were calling, up to the pasture, where Ondia Ocif’s cows were slowly eating their homeward way. The young Russian farm-hand, who speaks no English, had let down the bars for them. He stood in the centre of the green slopes, his blue denim suit vivid in the slanting lemon sunbeams. His hands were folded in front of him, and he was chanting a long loud song, as the cows fed slowly toward him. There was the red cow, the all-white cow, and the black heifer, the heifer that had just had a calf by a young bull she had grown up with, and the Holsteins, with udders hanging down as big as rooms, all feeding placidly with heads toward the singer.
‘He is singing to the cows!' I gasped. ‘Is he crazy, or is it the new cider?'
‘It is not unusual in Europe,’ my husband assured me. ‘I’ve heard men chant like this in Serbia, out on the hillsides among the cows.’
Our happy land is giving better crops to men who sing the cows to the barn, than it gave the forefarmers, who argued foreordination and predestination. The pastures are green late in the summer, the corn-stacks high, the cows come into the barn with their calves, mortgages are paid off, and milk travels in motortrucks.
Across the mountain from our home, the Italians have come in, and with them have come color and music and heaps of brown-eyed babies. Trim lawns, shiny paint, and orderly houses have disappeared. New England farmfolks were always trying to get into their houses away from the hot sun, the drizzling rain, or sharp winds. The old houses have no verandahs; only occasionally a small Georgian porch. The Italians live all over the landscape.
One family I watch with the greatest interest. Their house formerly belonged to a New England woman who was a wonderful cook. She made pumpkin pie, with whipped cream on the top, that was worth a half day’s journey to taste. She lived indoors, among white paint, green chenille portières and handpainted plaques, and she was a very unhappy woman.
The Italian family have already ruined her beautiful lawn. They built a table of sawhorses and planks under the great maple trees right in front of the house. They eat there, and all their social life goes on there, in full view of the road. Between meals the mother, in faded cotton dress and apron, lies on the grass as if it were a bed, with her two youngest babies rolling about her. The whole family act as if they had reached home after a tedious journey.
The men have started in clearing the fields all over again, and piling up the walls; for in a hundred years new layers of stones have worked to the surface. But they don’t take the heavy toil as resentfully as the forefarmers did. My great-uncle Jotham, who went to California in forty-nine, and learned there that land could be turned into real estate instead of corn lots, used to tell his children that the reason his fingers were short was because he wore off the ends building stone walls. After fifty years he still hated the memory.
The Italians take farming more easily. One Sunday morning the neighborhood was awakened by music. An Italian farmer, looking like a brigand with his fierce black hair and red sash, was sitting in a chair in front of his house, playing an accordion. One of my great uncles had three organs in his parlor for church music; but I can’t imagine him — or any other real New Englander — playing on the lawn while waiting for breakfast. I think that that Italian farm will prosper.
These slow-moving, hard-working folk, who worry so little about their souls, make good farmers. They do not fight the land; they live with it and tend it. Under their patient nursing, the soil is gradually recovering its health.