This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2019, issue of the Kearney Hub. It was above the flag on 1A, which is a little ridiculous, but there you have it.
Farm families face historic struggles
I have thought a lot about work recently.
A couple of our daughters decided in the summer that we needed to start reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series, a chapter at a time, aloud.
One would assume I goaded them into this literary pursuit, but in fact I did not. Their choice was merely fortuitous for me. I don’t love reading aloud, but it’s Laura, so therefore I almost look forward to this daily chapter.
At any rate, we’ve just finished “Farmer Boy.”
There is a ridiculous amount of work in that book. Hand planting every crop. Using a scythe, flails and a fanning mill to get the wheat crop in. Pie at every meal. Making candles, soap, shoes, shingles. Shearing the sheep to make yarn, then cloth, then clothes.
Work in 2019 terms feels a whole lot like slacking after a peek into the life of the James and Angeline Wilder family of the late 1860s. At the time, theirs was an affluent farm, and the Wilders put in tremendous effort trying to keep it that way.
In the last chapter, Angeline becomes irate at the suggestion that 10-year-old Almanzo — future husband of Laura Ingalls — apprentice to a wagon maker.
Many people in her position would have leaped at the idea of a seemingly good position for a very young son. Not Angeline.
Reading her words, it’s clear that her definition of independence is all the hard work at the Wilder farm. Need a bobsled? Build a bobsled. Need a ham? Butcher the hog and cure your own. Voilá: Independence.
Work — even the “work smarter, not harder” work of the 21st century — sometimes feels extremely fruitless. This year has been like that.
Freeze, deluge, flood, calving, misery. Plant, deluge, flood, replant, deluge, flood, misery.
There have been days this year when we’ve wondered if we need a new dream along with the second pot of coffee.
Part of the struggle is that, unlike in Wilders’ days, I don’t think that the hard work of agriculture in this era can be equated with independence. The farmer is under the thumb of a wide-world economy, government interventions (for better or worse), machinery that requires a coding specialist, and disconnected consumers.
What, then, is the value of work? When you work, and it all comes to naught, then why do it?
To make sure I wasn’t being ridiculous, I consulted with my youngest sister, Kimberly Heil. She’s at the dissertation stage of a doctorate in philosophy.
She tells me there are two theories of work, which I will here vastly oversimplify.
First theory: The more totally we can be identified with our work, the more praiseworthy we become. Hard work is good because it’s hard and it’s work — the more good, the better. The reason to take a break from working is so that we can go back to work.
Second theory: We work so that we can engage in leisure. Work is a part of our human condition, because some work is necessary in order that we can live.
Guess what. Halfway through “Farmer Boy,” James and Angeline leave the farm and and all the work for a whole week. Also, God took a day off after six days of creating the world. I’m inclined to ascribe to the second theory.
Since the first theory is associated with Marx and the second with Aristotle, I feel comfortable with that.
Now if only a philosophical theory could fix this year. I like to hope we don’t need a new dream — just a new opportunity. And someday, maybe, we’ll take a week off.