The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 24: 2 March, 2012

KYPP Nugget: Celebrating Ourselves

The Romance of the Mundane: Background Research

At present, the best known of our mid-20th century authors is the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; she published at least 8 books of poetry and three plays. Born in Maine in 1892, she lived at Steepletop in Austerlitz from 1923 until her death in 1950. The site is still open to the public (and is home to a pretty amazing wild flower meadow).

John Cowper Powys was an English novelist and is perhaps best known for his ‘epic’ novels Wolf Solent and Glastonbury Romance; he lived along Harlemville Road from 1934-1938. For more on him, including excerpts from his diary, please see our blog.

Arthur Davison Ficke (1883-1945) was apparently a well-known poet in his time but has now slipped into obscurity. Examples of his poetry, together with a short biography, are available on-line. He spent at least part of his life in a house along Phudd Hill Road and is buried on the property together with his wife.

Alan Devoe lived around Phudd Hill from 1938 (when he moved into the house vacated by Powys) until his death in 1954, at which time he was living in the current Dufault house on Hickory Hill Road. Devoe was an editor (he worked many years at Readers’ Digest) and published numerous nature articles and several books. The books which touch most explicitly upon his life here are Phudd Hill (1937) and Our Animal Neighbors (1953), co-authored with his wife Mary. The local bird club, The Alan Devoe Bird Club, is named in his honor. Excerpts from some of his work are also available on our blog.

James Agee posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, although his best known work may be Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an account of life amongst Alabama sharecroppers. He apparently lived part-time at his HIllsdale farm from 1948 until his death in 1955; he is buried at the farm.
My thoughts regarding the professions of an agrarian society come in part from seeing the apparent tensions and synergies that can develop as non-farmers and farmers interact in our modern landscape. The issue of farmer access to land and extensive non-farmer land ownership is a key one for the future of agriculture in our county and exemplifies some of this complexity. Some believe that the only land tenure system which will permit truly vibrant agriculture is one in which farmers own their land or, at the least, use land owned by a agriculture-focused governmental or non-governmental organization. Others believe that long-term, agriculturally-productive relationships between private, non-farming landowners and farmers are possible, and they can point to some apparently successful examples of such relationships. Programs such as CLC’s Farmer Landowner Match Program are meant to facilitate such interactions.

Another spur for these thoughts is historic: at the peak of Columbia County farming (in terms of land actively being worked), the Columbia County work force was roughly 1/3rd in farming, 1/3rd in manufacturing (including home industries), and 1/3rd in retail and services. Clearly, this was what we would have called an agrarian society but just as clearly not everybody was farming (although much manufacturing and services were probably linked to agriculture).

Composition of the Columbia County workforce. (Click on image to zoom.)

This leads to the open-ended question of what would a modern, agrarian society look like? How can we re-define professional roles to encompass the workings of such a society? This is a broader question then ‘how do I support local agriculture?’; it is more the question, ‘how am I part of local agriculture, whether I am a farmer or not?’
Celebrating Ourselves:
The Romance of the Mundane.

by Conrad Vispo
Our County’s art culture is not new. Between about 1925 and 1955, several well-known writers made their homes in east-central Columbia County: Edna St. Vincent Millay, a hard-nosed poetic sprite, lived at Steepletop from 1925 to 1950; John Cowper Powys, a heavy-browed author of ‘serious novels’ lived at Phudd Bottom from 1930 to 1934; Arthur Davision Ficke, a once-famous poet of intimate relations (including affairs with Millay) lived up the road from Powys and down the road from Millay; from 1946 to 1955 James Agee, reporter-novelist, owned a farm by a swamp a few miles to the south; and Alan Devoe, editor, naturalist, and namesake of the County's bird club, followed Powys at Phudd Bottom and later migrated a mile or so along the road.
To read their poems, novels and journals is sometimes to wonder at the world they lived in with its writers’ soirees and artistic preoccupations, evidently often detached from the matrix of rural culture around them, albeit drawing inspiration from it and sharing a common humanity with it. As I walk some of the same rocky hilltops these artists strolled and described 70 or so years ago, I feel a bit as if my backyard were a historic Shakespearean set and I a stagehand checking the props. The truth, of course, is that we all share this stage set and are all actors in each other’s plays. More generally perhaps we are, all of us, heralded and unheralded poets, mechanics, farmers, bankers, teachers, nurses, doctors, etc. part and parcel of this landscape, whether or not we clearly see our roles.
Although not a farmer, I work on a farm. The last decade has seen a major revival of interest in local farms, farmers and foods. There have been farmer calendars, a burst of farmers' markets, a regular series of farm festivals and conferences, a new role for agriculture in the County’s identity, and a new social focus on farmers. This is appropriate. Food is central to our existence, farming is one prime determinant of our landscapes' health, and too little attention and respect were granted farmers and farming at the end of the 20th century. While I begrudge them none of their new glory, just as Millay, Powys, Agee and the rest were heralded muses and yet in some ways only eloquent reflections of the culture around them, so too are farmers but a group which modern society, in an attempt to define itself, has granted at least the trappings of a leading cultural role.
If we seek a new definition for the future of our county’s landscape, then it seems important to continue to value our agricultural wealth but also to more greatly value ourselves - the mundane masses of non-farmers who create that social matrix. Can we envision a rural reality that pushes each of us to ask of ourselves, what are my lines in the script? What is my part in a rural culture which has explicitly defined the ingredient of agriculture but which is still groping to cast the rest of us?
Let’s not humbly bear our mundaneness, but rather creatively seek new visions of ourselves. Farmers alone do not make a rural culture; at the mid-19th century height of Columbia County agriculture, the workforce was divided almost equally among those in farming, retailing/services, and industry. Those earlier authors of our land fiercely and artistically defined themselves and clamored over their individual identities within a circumscribed world of literati. We do not perhaps need such individual egos, but if we are to define a new, agriculturally-inclusive way for society, then we are going to need to proudly carve a new social space for each of our professions and walks of life: who is the doctor who tills the land, and the farmer who teaches the child? Who the poet-forester and who the grocery clerk who leads the grain to market? Who the realtor who envisions how property can be sold but also how a land can be brought alive? Who the urban émigré who brings new ideas to share and new ears to listen? Who the old timer who brews a cunning soup of rural reality and urban spice?
If the literati created a circle of re-enforcing values which defined their roles and celebrated their successes within an artistic sphere, then we need to seek a definition of our rural culture that grants each of us a role in the new vision and grounds for celebrating our contributions to it.