Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Farming and Philosophy 3

In the last few weeks, I've had occasion to recall the following passage from Berry in The Way of Ignorance:

"One may begin as an agrarian, as some of us to our good fortune have done, but for a farmer agrarianism is not enough. Southern agrarianism is not enough, and neither is Kentucky agrarianism or Henry County agrarianism. None of those can be local enough or particular enough. To live as a farmer, one has to come into the local watershed and the local ecosystem and deal well or poorly with them. One must encounter directly and feelingly the topography and the soils of one's particular farm, and treat them well or poorly. If one wishes to farm well, and agrarianism inclines to that wish above all, then one must submit to the unending effort to change one's mind and ways to fit one's farm."

So often, it seems, farming is done the way it's done because that's the way it's always been done. In fact, this tendency to be "stuck in a rut" seems both deep and wide in agrarian communities, and points to an important sense in which such communities are conservative by both nature and tradition. What works, works; it is what it is. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sometimes, however, we aren't able to see what doesn't work, or isn't working, precisely for the way certain things work.

Enter William James, one of the founders and popular voices of American pragmatism, who once wrote that habit is "the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent." The radio program On Point with Tom Ashbrook recently did a show on James, which in turn made me think of Berry - perhaps in one of his more flexible moments - and again about the relationships between agrarianism and pragmatism. Have a listen to the show here, if you're interested.

All this is to say that it is quite difficult to maintain such a flexibility, such an open, experimental orientation to your plans, especially when they are painstakingly constructed in advance and often involve financial investments. Indeed, sometimes it seems that farmers - myself included - are especially prone to fall into the habit of Thoreau's "worldly miser" in "Walking," who failed to see that "heaven had taken place around him, and did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise."

To avoid such paths, I offer the following passage from James' essay "The Sentiment of Rationality" as an antidote, as well as an amendment to what are ongoing notes toward a more radical agrarianism:

"Philosophers long ago observed the remarkable fact that mere familiarity with things is able to produce a feeling of their rationality. The empiricist school has been so much struck by this circumstance as to have laid it down that the feeling of rationality and the feeling of familiarity are one and the same thing, and that no other kind of rationality than this exists. The daily contemplation of phenomena juxtaposed in a certain order begets an acceptance of their connection, as absolute as the repose engendered by theoretic insight into their coherence. To explain a thing is to pass easily back to its antecedents; to know it is to easily foresee its consequents. Custom, which lets us do both, is thus the source of whatever rationality the thing may gain in our thought."

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE Lila and Daisy and how much they love each other.

    Another good post. Also, I'm going to call you this week, finally!