Little House on the Prairie

The Earth Only Endures book coverExcerpt from: The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in it

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2007
  • ISBN: 978-1-84407-432-7

Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about the fundamental value of family farms in rural communities are still fondly remembered today. His father was the one of the first settlers in Albermarle county in south west Virginia. Thomas was born in 1743, and when his father died in 1757, he was left 2000 hectares of land, to which he later added another 2000 hectares. After being elected as representative of Albermarle at the age of 26, he then moved to Monticello, where he built a house on a wooded summit, which he said had a “splendid panorama of nature, waves of forest, rolling hills and deep valleys, sharply edged to the west, against the noble background of the Blue Ridge”. He saw in the environment around him “an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman”, and believed farming was an essential part of a virtuous way of life, thus securing dignity and independence.

Sadly, Jefferson would not make money out of farming (though he did from land speculation). At the time, it was often cheaper to buy a new acre of land than improve an old one, and many parts of Virginia quickly soon became degraded. He was concerned more with the moral values of agriculture than the economic, and he is remembered for this agrarian legacy. He idealized those who tilled the land, and believed the progress of agriculture was closely associated with an increase in human happiness. At his retirement, he declared “no occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth”.

It was his strong defence of small-scale land ownership that shaped generations of cultural values about the land. Some commentators have since argued that his agrarian views were no more than archaic and obsolete – they do not fit with many modern ideas of agricultural efficiency. He also advanced agriculture as superior to other forms of subsistence, such as hunting and gathering. But Jefferson wanted farming to promote fundamental values forged by human labour, moral imagination and continued engagement with nature, and he stated that ”these virtues that grow out of the agrarian life are concerned with care and cultivation of self, family and the land”. The life on the land and the varying seasons promoted for Jefferson a spirit of “permanent improvement, quiet life and orderly conduct both in public and in private”.

He also linked these concepts about care for the land to civic independence and political free-thinking: “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to the country and wedded to its liberty by the most lasting bonds”. In 1785, he said, “small landholders are the most precious part of the state”. How things have changed. What would he now make of the closure of more than 200 US farms on every single day in the second half of the 20th century? After Jefferson’s death, though, US farm numbers were still rising, and grew from one million in the 1850s to more than six million in the 1930s. They then fell dramatically to less than two million – all in the name of an idea about a particular kind of progress. And this fall has been echoed in most industrialized countries. Economic efficiency has to mean fewer and larger farms, and if some cultural values are lost as the small farms slip away, then that is simply the price to be paid for progress.

Jefferson’s ideals were later perfectly captured for many thousands of families by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her series of Little House on the Prairie books. Written in the 1930s, they tell the story of Pa and Ma and their three girls, who leave the Big Woods of Wisconsin because they feel hemmed in by too many incomers arriving on wagons, “slowly creaking by”. Wild animals would not stay in a country when there were so many people, according to Pa, so they decided to go west to ‘Indian country’, just as Wilder herself had done on a covered wagon. In the West, they understood that the “land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high, [and] the wild animals wandered”. The family put all their belongings on a wagon, and cross the wide states of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, where “day after day, they saw nothing but the rippling grass and enormous sky.” Wallace Stegner, in Wolf Willow, called this land “an ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain… [where the] drama of landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving”.

The landscape is full of gentle hills, open sunny places, rushing creeks and distant wild animals; of corncakes and sizzling pork frying on the open fire; and of this contented family heading west until they stop to build a house, where there is “nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky”. They make a home of logs, and Pa plays his fiddle to a singing nightingale. Over time the prairie is ploughed, and the land transformed. The Indians, as they are called, end up peacefully riding away further to the west, when they are at first minded to take some revenge for losing their land. Later, the family leaves too, travelling onwards with wagon to resettle again on another part of the frontier.

Aldo LeopoldWhat is striking is the discord between these tender cultural images (after all, some 30 million copies of Wilder’s books were sold and read) and today’s reality for many rural towns in the mid-west. Wes Jackson set up the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, to create a new vision for these emptying prairies. They also have a presence in the small town of Matfield Green which, he says, “is typical of countless towns throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. People have left, people are leaving, buildings are falling down or burning down. Fourteen of the houses here that do still have people have only one person, usually a widow or widower”. The aim of the Land Institute is to find ways to allow people to become native to their places, and in the mid-west this means recreating the tall grass prairie in places and breathing life into rural towns.

This will need stepwise changes in thinking, as past incrementalism has only worked to remove all sorts of people from the land. Sitting in his 75 year old house, “abandoned more times than anyone can recall”, Jackson describes the sad decline of the town’s life: “I can see the abandoned lumberyard across the street next to the abandoned hardware store. Out another window is the back of the old creamery that now stores junk… from a different window, I can see the bank, which closed in 1929 and paid off ten cents to the dollar… Around the corner is an abandoned service station. There were once four! Across the street is the former barber shop.” He says, “this story can be repeated thousands of times across our land”.

Are we content to allow many rural communities in modern industrialized countries to die these kinds of slow death? It is not just happening in the USA. In the Mediterranean countries, the emptying of rural settlements is called desertification: several million farms closed in France and in Japan over the past fifty years. Is there no hope, then, for family farms in the face of continuing global changes in our industrialised farm and food systems? Perhaps, as the best signs of a new kind of progress are coming from developing countries, where many farmers have either avoided these great modernizing pressures, or have found the space in their economic landscapes to innovate and create farming patterns that are friendly to both people and environments.