LATE one afternoon in the second week after the hurricane of September 21, 1938, a Vermont dairy farmer and his oldest boy, aged thirteen, near neighbors of mine, were putting a crosscut saw through the butt log of an uprooted roadside tamarack of notable girth. In the angle of an outcropping ledge his second son and his oldest daughter, of eleven and ten, were raking together the last coals of a three-day brush fire. All the rest of the great tree was in a neat stack of split four-foot lengths hard by, and perched on it were the three younger children, watching. The youngest, who was six, was counting the double strokes of the saw in a singsong chant; the number was well into the seventh hundred.
It was the place and hour of a funeral ceremony, though there was nothing to say so to the casual passer-by.
When the cut began to bind the saw, the farmer stopped to spread it by driving in a wedge. Before resuming he asked the seven-year-old girl to hop down, run across the road to the house, and fetch his spectacles. ‘And you might try to get your mother to come over a minute —if she can find the minute.’ His sawing partner said, ‘Come on, Dad!’ but the man continued to stand watching a side door of the house. The seven-yearold, who had gone at a leggy run with flying pigtails, reappeared walking very sedately; she was carrying his spectacle case. Her mother, after the space of untying an apron and dropping a piece of split maple into the range, emerged behind her. By the edge of the road she overtook the child, who was pausing to let a car shoot by.
The car, however, slowed down and stopped just short of them. The woman took a tentative step toward it, but was checked by its license plate —a New York one. It was a smart coupé containing complete strangers to her — a man of forty-plus and a woman of thirtyminus, who was surveying her with a sort of cool amusement. (The man seemed to be staring at the group across the road.) The farm woman flushed and crossed in front of the car, feeling all at once hatefully stiff, draggled, and aware of her not too badly splayed old kitchen shoes.
The saw swished through the resinous wood for the last time. The cut gaped at the top, swallowing the wedge. ‘Nine hundred and eighty-four!’ the six-yearold shrieked; then he added, chop-fallen, ‘I wanted it to get to a thousand.’ With a cant hook the farmer rolled the log a half-turn, exposing the immense circle of the fresh cut. Only his wife was conscious of the rumble of low gears as the New York car got under way toward the village.
All six children and their parents were now together in an awed cluster, admiring the set of wavily concentric brown growth rings, as handsome and almost as complicated as the contour lines of the Geological Survey maps on their diningroom wall. The farmer put on his hornrimmed reading glasses and, using the awl on his pocket knife as a fine pointer, started counting from the heart of the tree. Every tenth number he spoke aloud, and long before he pronounced ‘One hundred!’ his wife had forgotten her late momentary discomfort.
‘A hundred and twenty-six years old, I make it,’ her husband said. ‘That means it has been standing here since — let me see — since the War of 1812; would that be right, Henry?’ (This to his eleven-year-old.) ‘Well, it was a good-sized tree when your great-grandfather was married; we know that. I can’t remember the time when anyone wanting to be directed here was told anything but “the place with the big tamarack across the road.” It’s a great landmark gone — a great landmark. That elm just beyond it, now: you see that it’s a big tree, and yet you hardly noticed it was there before.’ He sighed. ‘The old place will never seem quite the same again.’
His wife, who had also been doing mental arithmetic, said: ‘It was a year older than all eight of us put together. It makes you feel queer to think of that, doesn’t it? — as if one of us didn’t amount to very much.’
The eight-year-old, Nason, burst out: ‘Say, Dad! You ought to write that in to the Boston Globe. This must be the oldest tree in Orange County. I bet it’s the oldest anywhere — and the biggest.’
Before the older ones could fall upon him with scoffing, the father said quietly: ‘Well, not quite, Nase — not quite. Some of the white pines that are down, over by the south boundary, are pretty sizable — pretty old, too, I guess; we sh’ll be looking into that, come winter. As for age — well, over there on Moosilauke, up at the tree line, there are spruces not over fifteen feet high that they say were growing when Columbus discovered America — only he didn’t, according to what I read here and there.’
He thought a moment. ‘When Dr. French drove across this summer he took some pictures of the redwood trees out in Humboldt County, California; he’s making slides of them, and you’ll see them in the high-school projector one of these days. About the best of his pictures show the butt log of a tree that fell a few years back. The largest diameter, twenty-two feet from the ground, was thirteen feet, eight inches, Nase: the width of our dining room. The whole tree measured three hundred and eleven feet tall — pretty near three times the height of the tallest timber you and I ever set eyes on. They got 95,000 board feet of lumber out of it. It would take a grove of near a hundred tamaracks like this one to equal that. The tree was just over twelve hundred years old by the rings.
‘And that, Nase, was just an average healthy young redwood — about a third grown. One in its prime would date from before Christ, and a really old one from the time of Moses. Some of ‘em measure thirty-odd feet in diameter — the width of the Grange Hall and more.’
Young Nason, when he recovered, whistled and wanted to know when his father was going to take them all to see such a tree. The dairy farmer smiled somewhat wryly at his wife and said: ‘I’d give a finger, but — it’s not likely to be this fall.’ He sighed again. ‘All of which milks no cows, I suppose.’
‘And bakes no gingerbread,’ his wife added, and fled guiltily into the gathering dusk.
At the hotel in the village three miles along — an enormous and very comfortable hotel in the manner of 1885 — the driver of the New York car amiably signed the register and settled down to kill the forty-five minutes he must wait for the dining room to open. He killed them with a portable typewriter on his knees, by rattling off some fluent paragraphs of an article based on the notes he had gathered in four counties in two days. It was to be a follow-up article summarizing the effects of the hurricane and the measures planned for coping with them, and it would be a feature in the next Sunday issue of a great metropolitan daily. In preparation for it he had interviewed all sorts of official persons from Governor Aiken down to the harried local managers of light-andpower stations, and he meant his survey to constitute as reliable a picture of the whole situation in northern New England as it was possible to draw at that juncture. When he rejoined his wife in the lobby he was feeling uncommonly well pleased with the article, the trip, and himself.
His wife, after they had congratulated themselves on the prospect of getting ‘back to civilization’ the next day, asked casually: ‘Why did you stop at that place a couple of miles back?’
‘The place where a farmer had all his kids slaving away on that big hemlock? Plumley was the name; I noticed it on the mailbox — H. Plumley. Oh, it just crossed my mind that it mightn’t do any harm to pick up one sample of what the typical small farmer is up against, just for good measure.’
‘Why didn’t you talk with them, then? We had the hour to use up anyway.’
‘I had more stuff already than I could crowd in. And then well, you never have much luck with such people. They’re as bigoted, narrow, and ignorant a class as we have in America; their minds are sealed and riveted against everything on earth except what they’ve always known. Springfield and Boston are still Sodom and Gomorrah to them. It’s much better, when you want anything about farms and farming, to go straight to a County Commissioner or someone like that, who sees the picture whole and has some idea of how to arrange the facts and how to talk to civilized people.
‘Talk about your farm problem! There is one, all right, out in the real farm belt, but here in the Northeast the only farm problem is the farmer, and he is an insoluble one. We find him just as he was a hundred years ago — mean, miserly, pettifogging, suspicious, soreheaded about everything from the weather to the Government, and generally sodden with the crass stupidity that buffaloes the gods.’
He said much more, all by way of embroidering the same theme; and I, alone at a neighboring table, got the benefit. He talked infuriatingly well, but with a heat that seemed a little astounding in a man of his obviously superior general cultivation. Had he been bitten that week by some Orange County farmer’s watchdog? Or had he merely been too much shone upon in early youth by that dazzling luminary of American bucolic culture, H. L. Mencken of Baltimore? We of the crossroads have learned to expect something like his attitude in the breed of tourists who toss empty beer tins from their cars into our standing hay and honk their peremptory horns in our driveways until someone comes out to assure them that, yes, this is the road to Montpelier. But here was one whose detestation of us rustics was merely, or primarily, a specific form of his concern for American civilization at large. He represented, not the worst, but something above the average of what we may reasonably hope for in the city’s attitude toward the country. His was the voice of the city’s intelligent criticism; and any more tolerant or sympathetic attitude would be exceptional and nonrepresentative — a minority report of slight influence.
Naturally I had an impulse to illustrate the regional barbarism that repelled him by stalking over to his table and asking him a few of the many questions that were in my mind. He was pouring his contempt on a whole class of people whom he knew but casually, as an outsider, whom he meant never to take the slightest trouble to know better, and with whom by his own profession he could not communicate to any advantage. It happened to be a class of people that I hold in admiration and affection based on lifelong knowledge. Among them, with gratitude for the privilege, I hope to make my home for the rest of my days, after years of exile in the metropolitan centres that he identified with ’civilization.’ I wanted to ask him,
then, which emotion had the greater inherent probability of being well rooted in the knowable facts: his negative contempt arrived at by snap judgments or my affection grown in daily intimacy. Where, in all sobriety and detachment, would one look for bigotry, narrowness, ignorance: in a reticent people expending its whole mind and strength on realities foreign to his realities, or in a clever itinerant news-gatherer who knew all about this people without ever having sown where it had sown or reaped where it had reaped?
And the great public disaster that he had come to make vivid to a million city readers: what was it but the sum of individual disasters to this very people — the last source of information he had had even a passing impulse to tap, and had left untapped after all?
But these promptings are not obeyed, these things not said, not done. (Would it be better if they were, sometimes?) I took it all out in imagining a few of the fine things that might have been said; also in helping myself, as I passed through the lobby, to a glance at the register. The name signed was one familiar enough to me in printed by-lines. Its owner ranks high in the metropolis as an alert, trustworthy, rather sympathetic commentator on affairs outside the cities in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
And later that evening — for the pressure of outside hostility does at least compel us to make the most of our own compensations and resources, does promote a solidarity of our own I dropped in to compare notes with my friends the Horace Plumleys for half an hour that somehow became an hour and a half. In the end I found myself involved — as an intent listener only — in the so-called violin sonatas of Händel. The violinist was Kenneth Plumley, the afternoon’s assistant sawyer; he has a seemingly noteworthy flair for mathematics and the mathematician’s predilection for stringed instruments. The stand of pine that was laid waste in September was to have squared his first two years at M. I. T.; its loss, I fancy, had something to do with the added lines in Mary Plumley’s lovely, tired face. Some of them smoothed out while she was playing for her son on a piano beginning to go tinny with age and use, but always kept (for, in town or country, your fiddler has an Ear) impeccably in tune. Could the D major sonata ever have justified its existence more perfectly than by the momentary removal of such fines from such a face?
This was doubtless a bucolic notion of the uses of art, beneath the contempt of any serious æsthetician and possible only to so backward and outmoded a culture as ours; but at the moment I could not seem to care much. Even now I am not quite persuaded that G. F. Händel himself would have found that form of tribute so obnoxiously banal —especially if it were to come to his at tention that in Vermont his music is very creditably played by the only symphony orchestra in the world that has ever been completely supported by a rustic population.
The country dweller encounters in a year a good many such samples of the city’s attitude toward him as this chance one I had just collected. But no one of us has ever yet collected so many such indices as to become at all reconciled to them, or to the deep and jagged social fissure to which they point.
We happen to love, not only our region, but our country — the whole because it includes the part, the part for being included in the whole. Thinking of ourselves as equal participators in an American unity, we are appreciably damaged in our self-respect whenever we find the urban majority surveying us as behind an impenetrable barricade of misunderstanding and class antagonism. We remember that we, next to the Indians, are the oldest inhabitants, and this circumstance lends a further irony to our being looked upon pretty much as the newest immigrant was by many a generation ago — that is, as the hopelessly unassimilable element in the population.
We cannot dismiss these unhappy encounters from our minds. We cannot shrug them off as America at large shrugs off the misconceptions, grotesque or funny, of the visiting foreigner who inspects us for six weeks, sees what he is looking for, and goes home to record his preconceptions as brilliant discoveries. The city is too much with us for that. It is, in fact, omnipresent in various forms — tourists, ‘summer people,’ summer camps, winter-sports enthusiasts, wouldbe purchasers-for-a-song of our cherished heirlooms, impersonal institutions such as the mail-order house. The city person comes into our homes in our magazines as the author of soft-boiled stories in which our quaint simplicity defeats the city slicker or of hard-boiled stories in which the rural neurotic murders the wife of his bosom with an axe. The city person buttonholes us in mail-order advertising copy that means to be deft flattery and is nine-tenths clumsy patronage. He embodies the accepted delusions about us in cartoons, editorials, movies, sometimes in federal legislation. Obviously we cannot get away from him anything like so easily as he can get away from us; we cannot be near him without sensing his attitude; and we cannot sense his attitude without being forced into an unnaturally self-conscious, quasi-defensive counter-attitude — one that may express itself in any guise from sheepish inarticulacy or evasiveness to surly, truculent manners and the keeping of vicious watchdogs.
You can scarcely expect any people to be quite comfortable or quite themselves under the supercilious regard of strangers who think of them solely as a race of barbarians infesting an incomparable region to the loveliness of which they were born mole-blind; speaking (through the nose) a gross dialect of English; smelling perpetually of stable and sty; going to bed, for some insane reason, about when brighter folk are beginning really to wake up; ruining their digestions, teeth, and tempers by an appalling diet (as cold pie for breakfast); regarding every innocent enjoyment as wicked; sneering coarsely at all taste and all urbanity; sweating their children without pity from the moment they can toddle until they finally run away to the city to be barbers; willing to sell their souls any day for an extra quarter — unless they think they can get twenty-six cents by holding out.
On the way from my friends’ house to my own that night some of these reflections, with others old and new, were playing themselves over in my head in the fashion of a Händel theme with variations; and for the hundredth time they arranged themselves around the central and afflicting paradox of town versus country in the America of these days. It is a paradox that has beset me for most of my life thus far; I have found it harrowing to contemplate from either side, though more so from the rural side than from the urban; and I have little hope of living to see the end of it, though I know it must some day end, as all paradoxes and problems do. The conundrum is simply this: that I he more rapidly the present physical urbanization of the country proceeds, the more unbridgeable grows the moral chasm between country dweller and townsman. The two share constantly more of the details and apparatus of living, constantly less in point of view and underlying purpose.
Why? How can it be? What, in logic and common sense, can reconcile the undoubted citffication of our hamlets with their increasing spiritual alienation from the towns? If both tendencies are truly going on at once — and there is no country person but vividly experiences both of them all the time — the explanation can only be this: that the country, however fast and steadily it broadens toward the city, cannot do so half so fast as the city narrows into itself.
And that is assuredly the fact. In this century we have reared our first great mass of Americans who are urban and nothing else. Multitudes are now born to almost complete independence, and hence oblivion, of night and day, winter and summer, storm and calm, rainfall and drought, seedtime and harvest. They have no vivid experience of the ways in which all civilized existence, even theirs, is dependent upon exacting work done by someone, somewhere, on raw materials with hand and brain working together. If they think casually now and then of where their food comes from, their clothing, their fuel, the paper in their books and journals, it is second nature to them to conjure up polished machines wondrously whirling under the supervision of toil-exempt experts. Because all that they eat, wear, use, and amuse themselves withal can be replaced almost instantly if they have the price, everything that they know of foresight and cunning is concentrated on the ways and means of having the price. They enjoy a conviction of living at the centre of things, of being the privileged beneficiaries of man’s conquest, his virtual abolition, of nature by technology. And whatever life is unlike theirs they conceive as going on in outer Bœotian wastes where benighted and clodlike folk are clinging to mediæval ways and fighting off the progress that would liberate them.
The times have bred a race in part contemptuous, but in greater part oblivious, of nearly everything that we country people live by and for — a race incapable of understanding us and of even wanting to get itself understood by us. The phenomenon is a relatively new one. When America was 90 per cent agrarian the remaining 10 per cent understood very well that it was the tail and not the dog. In the long period of the national letters from Cooper to Mark Twain, a writer who did not have a pretty complete and sympathetic knowledge of farm, forest, and forge could scarcely have thought of himself as a whole man. Holmes, in his day a very definition of urbanity at its American best, expressed himself instinctively in such metaphors as his famous ‘tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.’ When city persons went into the country they expected to learn at least as much as they taught. It is only within recent decades that the city man’s interests have become so shrunken as to preclude all openminded curiosity about those whom he is now pleased to call the yokelry.
The phenomenon is new; and to some of us it appears to be as dangerous and disruptive as it is new. The clash is one of philosophies in the broadest sense. In any long view it far transcends, say, the topical misunderstanding known as ‘the class war.’ It is, indeed, a clash of the very sort that could but eventuate in civil war if the antagonists happened to be solidly aligned across a sectional boundary instead of being inextricably intermingled at every level by a great cityward flow of rural population and a smaller amount of migration from the large centres farmward. Seldom in history can two populations have interpenetrated each other so freely while their two cultures remained so non-interpenetrating. The breach is portentous enough to justify a latter-day novelist-historian in calling our urban and our rural folk what Disraeli, a century ago, called England’s rich and her poor: the Two Nations.
Every attempt I have ever made to dig down to the taproot of the misunderstanding between townsman and rustic has brought me inexorably against that all-inclusive phenomenon, Time. These two are unintelligible to each other on the basic question of what Time — that is to say, life — is for. One’s use of the calendar is the other’s waste of days. One’s play would be the other’s work, and dismayingly hard and thankless work. One’s meat is, temporally speaking, the other’s poison. What stands between them is twenty-four hours a day — every day.
We find the disparity in connection with the forms (or illusions) of pressure denoted by hurry — hurry being by general consent the characteristic disease of life in the modern city and the great cause of its neuroses. The city hurries by the single motion, the minute, the hour, the day; but you will never get it out of the small villager’s head — which is often not so simple a head as it is called — that by the year, the decade, and the lifetime the city is going in circles, like a kitten making itself dizzy by chasing its tail.
The countryman himself is likely to give you a feeling of godlike leisure in the smaller units of time. He will lean on the fence and talk with you; he works at what seems a tortoise’s pace to the city fellow who, for the fun of it, offers to pace him for a morning (and is stopped short before noon by a fine new set of blisters); and yet at the end of a year you perceive that he has somehow got through an incredible amount of fearfully variegated work, with everything snugly notched into its appointed time. One of his small secrets is that he has long ago been instructed by his own blisters to work at the tempo he can keep up by the year until the years have made a lifetime. A greater secret is that he gets his sustenance as he goes along, out of the thing he is doing and out of his personal way of doing it. He is not straining forward toward some dreamed-of interval of leisure and diversion to be earned by doing things faster than he can savor.
A Yankee poet, a singer too little sung who amuses himself by camping for ten days of every year in an old-fashioned Manhattan hotel and making small clinical studies of the metropolis, put in a day riding on buses and then quizzed a starter about the official schedule between two points. ‘ Our allowance is forty-three minutes, sir.’ ‘And your drivers make it how often?’ ‘Oh, pretty often, sir — after midnight and before eight in the morning.’ My friend’s timed passages had varied from fifty-seven minutes to an hour and twenty-five. ‘And that,’ says my poet friend, ‘is the low-down about the efficiency of New York life, business, and transit, and the reason why we hicks can never get mixed up in it without going mad. Everyone is doing everything by a purely fictitious mathematics: two and two make seven, thirteen from twenty leaves twenty-five. The people all have twice the engagements for every hour that it is humanly possible to meet; and an unanswerable reason for keeping you waiting an hour and a half is supposed to be exactly as good as seeing you on the dot. If one of us ran his affairs the way they run theirs, he’d be on the town in three months.’
That is a picture of the city man in his own bailiwick. Behold him in ours: —
I am swinging along the road toward the village. A new pearl-gray sedan overtakes me, complete with elderly city business executive and his youngish wife. He lowers a window to bark: ‘Hey, how do I get to Colburn’s?’ I start describing by the one unmistakable landmark the extremely obscure left turn he must make after a specified distance. He says: ‘Never mind all that. I happen to be in a hurry.’ I say: ‘Then I am afraid you will be a long time arriving. Well — your first left, then your first right, and in a third of a mile you’re there.’ The million-dollar executive nods, says, ‘Now we’re getting somewhere!’ and leaves me in an odor of scuffed rubber. And I know very well what will occur. He will pass the blind turn and take the very conspicuous left turn a furlong beyond it. After miles of watching for that first right he will be at the lonely dead end of a grassy cart path up in the foothills. He will drop down half a mile in reverse, looking for a place where a pearl-gray sedan can be turned around, and there will be incidental observations on these dumb natives that can’t answer a plain question without mixing you up in a lot of maundering details about red barns with cupolas on them. And to this man in his legions it really seems that, tearing along mischosen roads and getting more lost with every turn of his wheels, he is Doing Something—‘getting somewhere.’ To stand still for forty seconds and put his mind on the detail that would save him an hour is his idea of wasting time.
That is the sort of thing the country person can never see the sense of. To him it is sheer madness to live as if you were forever in the throes of missing a train — especially an imaginary train that never ran — or as if you hated what you are doing and were holding out only to get rid of it and on to the next thing that you will hate. And yet this country person keeps his engagements on time. He meets his appointments with the seasons. Every October his cellar is full of food, his shed stacked with dry wood for the winter at hand and green wood for the winter following, his loft supplied out of his own woodland with hard and soft lumber for repairs. Year by year he builds up the productivity of his land, the quality of his herd, the efficiency of his equipment. Most of his individual acts are not only performances, but also promises: they would be unintelligible except in the light of events months or years ahead, as when in his prime he sets out a pine plantation that will perhaps educate his grandchildren.
A year, the city hustler’s æon, is the very smallest unit of time that can mean anything in the rural scheme of continuity. It is a commonplace to a good farmer to refuse, say, an advantageous sale of trees to the telephone company (though he is hard pressed for cash) because in eight years or ten one of his barns will need rebuilding above the plates, and in his mind he has those trees earmarked for the rafters. All of the present has so much meaning to him because so much of the future is in it.
His clock being the sun’s cycle, with the seasons for its ticks, it is interesting to watch the quality of his smile at summer time, daylight-saving time — ‘fast’ time, he calls it. Partly this is a Joshua’s attempt to dictate to nature — which also smiles — and partly a city man’s device for tricking himself into doing for his own good what farm and village have always done. The practical effect is that village establishments mostly open by ‘fast’ time and close by standard; for mere legislation can no more subvert a farmer’s daily program than it can a cow’s, and no one can tell him that his shopping must be d,one by a clock set ahead. It is going to be interesting, by the way, to see the new Wages and Hours provisions cope with this sociological quirk as it affects the unreckoned, unpaid overtime of village clerks who serve the farmer.
The countryman has within himself, then, the city person’s very conviction of residing at the centre of things and not on the negligible fringe. But he has this conviction with a deeper calm and without contempt. Living by the deliberate pulsations of the universe, he is certainly a little out of rapport with the world of, say, publishing, in which nine tenths of the three-months-old books are as dead as if they had never been born; or with the world of fashions in dress, which in this winter of 1938-1939 is describing something or other as ‘the greatest fashion news since the dirndl’ —of last spring, if you please, and now long extinct. But he has the compensatory feeling that a popular theologian once embodied in the phrase ’in tune with the infinite,’and he knows as well as Wordsworth ever did how a man’s days can be bound each to each by natural piety.
And how, in the end, is a unity to be brought out of this disparity? I have been asked this question a good many times, but I have never had the temerity to say more than ’You tell me.'
The city man has, of course, an answer satisfactory to himself. He does not admit the existence of two irreconcilable cultures. To him it is a simple question of a culture confronting a barbarism, and he thinks it inevitable that the barbarism shall gradually be absorbed into the culture. He puts his trust in such factors as our improved means of communication (which in many respects notoriously fail to improve communication itself), the growing centralization and standardization of the rural school system, the increasing part played by science and mechanization in agriculture, the future of ‘chemical farming,’ the reforestation of poor or marginal farmlands, the combination of family farms into efficient corporative units, the colonization of rural regions by city folk seeking summer homes or going in for subsistence farming, and so on — in short, the aforementioned gradual urbanization of the countryside.
All of which is reckoning without the innate character and tenacity of the people so lightly disposed of. There are still some twenty million Americans to whom the one-family farm has never become a business measured by its profits. It is the passionately preferred setting of all that they mean by the good life, and no more profit has ever been necessary than the invisible margin required to carry it on. Many of this people’s children, to be sure, adopt other ways of living: if they did not, the farms would soon be split up into parcels too tiny for subsistence. But the parental idea is shared by enough of the children to perpetuate the status quo and its social problem for at least another generation. The 4-H Clubs flourish increasingly, and so do many looser organizations of rural youth for the intensive study of farm problems and the practice of farm activities; such vigorous junior groups are, at the very least that can be said, a rural equivalent of the town’s Boy Scout troop. Many of these younger ones will in their turn marry early and bring up children likely to share the same unyielding philosophy. No breed in the temperate zone can be more nearly impossible to standardize than that which has created the household farm and been created by it.
There are those who expect to see the replenishment of our civilization, the evolution of a new and more homogeneous American culture, through the gradual emergence of a Farmer-Labor party on a scale to dominate our political life and presently to re-create our social. I notice, however, that the proponents of this hope are chiefly worried about enlisting the farmer’s vote in the real or fancied interest of labor rather than of the farmer himself. Social domination is the last thing he is interested in, anyway. What he wants is to let live and be let live.
As for the increasing suburbanization of rural regions, — which is bound to go on while the feasible commuting radius continues to lengthen, — what it accomplishes is not rapprochement, but simple displacement. Where the tendency has gone the farthest, as along a great part of the New England seaboard, what we face is a reduction of the American countryside to a dismal counterpart of the English, only with the English yeoman farmer wiped out. All the more desirable land has gone into the country estates and playgrounds of city folk, and the natives who have not escaped to the towns have become apathetically resigned to impoverished dependence and servility — or, what is quite as vicious, to profiteering on visitors for four months of the year and frowsting for eight. What has happened is just a physical extension of the city. By it the urban beneficiary and his young gain so much air, light, and elbowroom; by it the countryside loses so much independence, productiveness, and self-respect. There is no reconciliation or compromise of interests: there is mere appropriation. To anyone who happens to see in it the appropriation of the more by the less important, such regions are a heart-rending spectacle.
In the course of some village errands that I had to do after writing thus much I ran into Mary Plumley. She looked, somehow, inexplicably keen and elastic as compared with a few weeks back, and I remarked that she gave the appearance of having just come into a fortune. She said: ‘I have. Horace pitched into the sugar bush this morning.’
The Plumleys had had a sugar orchard of some nine hundred prime trees. In an average year these maples were good for sixty-odd cents of profit apiece, and that is a lot of supplementary income — more than the entire net income of many a farm family that never dreamed of pitying itself. The hurricane felled over four hundred, incidentally crushing the sap house flat and wrecking the evaporator; and naturally the four hundred made the surviving five hundred impossible to get at. Horace, in the prolonged apathetic daze that is always the most appalling consequence of widespread disaster, kept saying such things as that he was done, through, finished, licked. He could never get enough out of those maples to square a fifth of the cost of handling them. They could rot into the ground for all he should ever be able to do about it. He would never touch sugar again, and he did not know how they were ever going to get through another year except by selling the place to summer people who had been pestering him about it.
And now Ilorace had tackled the sugar bush. He will clean up two or three trees at a time, as, with Kenneth or without, he can work them in. Whenever he can scrape together the cash he will hire extra labor, two or three days or a week of it at a time. He hopes to have the town tractor now and then to help him with the upheaved stumps. Soon he will be skidding logs, hauling cordwood, burning brush. By the first sap run he may be able to get at nearly half his remaining trees. When the frost is out he will trim around the young shoots that, a long generation hence, will replace his losses. A year from this spring he will probably have regained the use of all his standing trees.
When I asked his wife what had suddenly brought this grand thing to pass she said: ‘Why, it was Henrj’s doing as much as anything. Henry’ — the eleven-year-old— ‘kept pestering his father. He wouldn’t let up on him for a day or a meal. He would say: “What fun is this place going to be without a sugar bush on it? D’ you think when I grow up I’m going to fool around with a place that hasn’t got a sugar bush? ” He was pretty impudent about it at times — and pretty funny.’ She added: ‘Of course, Horace would have got around to it anyway, sooner or later.’ And that was strictly true. When your Yankee farmer begins to vent himself in chronic bitter talk about all the reasons why nothing can possibly be done, he is not far from the moment of taking hold as if those reasons did not exist.
So, one of these springs when I am a doddering ancient (I come of long-lived folk) and Horace and Mary Plumley are getting pretty well along themselves (they are in their middle thirties) and Henry is a man with sons perhaps a few years older than he and Kenneth are now, there will again be better than nine hundred trees dripping sap into Plumley buckets. And there will have been kept alive, if only in that one small nucleus, a something not material that I, for one, had just as soon never see my country trying to get along without.