Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Island Farm by Arthur Versluis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 163 pages
• Publisher: East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000
• Price: $19.95
• ISBN-13: 9780870135453
• ISBN-10: 0870135457

A glorious experience, this “house sitting” on farmland in West Michigan, living in a 125-year-old Victorian house and walking the fields morning and evening. I was enjoying my stay in the country at a friend’s home while he was gone on extended travels and exploring not just the open acreage around the house, but the fields of books on his bookshelves—every room full. Ah, another book lover! What to pluck from his shelves to read on a country evening? And then I found Island Farm by Arthur Versluis.

Interestingly enough, the author’s name was the same my friend had given me as neighborly contact in case something came up at the country house for which I might need assistance. Versluis is a Grand Rapids, Michigan author, a professor at Michigan State University, a scholar and prolific writer. I was intrigued to learn about my new neighbor’s perspective on this beautiful land where I had taken residence, however temporary. Was that his house I spied through the wood and across the field? Just barely perceptible behind the line of evergreens? I sensed something of a kindred spirit, and settled in to read the book.

Little could rouse me from the book from that moment onward. An unfortunate duty to go in to the office, interrupting my reading, but I carried the book along for any spare moment between. My next two evenings were lost in its pages, and when done, I had that sense of grief one feels upon concluding a remarkable experience.

Island Farm is a mix of memoir and musing, a philosopher’s hoeing of fertile ground. Versluis has written the book about his family farm, although it might be most any family farm. It is an "island" because it is land surrounded by tamarack swamp, but also because it is a shrinking area in the midst of urban sprawl, the cancerous growth of suburbia and what we call “civilization.” It is an island in a stream of blind and blinding consumerism.

The farm that the author’s father has maintained has been in the family for many generations. Ancestors are noted in those solemn sepia-toned photographs where no one seems to smile, but stands very still for the slow capture of the camera. This is history—of land, of family, of a way of life we have very nearly lost. Versluis digs deep but expands wide, drawing from the farm in both literal and metaphorical tangents.

We begin my entering a coffee shop. Not Starbucks, mind you, with all faces taking on the bluish glow of reflected computer screen, not looking up even when blindly reaching out for paper cup and bringing it to lips. No, this is the country coffee shop, where farmers gather for their morning mug, fathers and sons, cousins and pals, community. Here, people are disconnected from wires and connected instead with each other. They speak to each other about the day ahead, about their work and about community concerns.

So goes the theme of this love story between man and his land. It is the story of the deepest, most rooted kind of connection—human and nature, the wild and the cultivated, the life cycle begun and completed, over and over again.

In the name of “progress,” we have nearly destroyed all family farms in America, substituting factory farms and industrialized, overproduced and often genetically manipulated foods. All in the name of speed, quantity and profit margin, however erroneously. But, the author warns, nature balances. The more we try to manipulate nature, the harder the backlash. Such backlash can come in environmental changes, obviously, but also cost us in spiritual and emotional health, too. One of the greatest losses of turning all farms into factories, Versluis writes, is the loss of our connection between generations.

“We are hastily building a world in which generations do not know their forebears, families have no roots, and children do not grow up but merely grow, like weeds that struggle to survive in the cracks of pavement. Little wonder that to them others’ lives are cheap, since their own, in dissociated urban or ex-urban squalor, are so barren. There is in America a profound rootlessness, even a kind of centrifugal force, driving people away from their forebears.” (pg. 17)

The paving over of America, the loss of our farms and the farmers who tilled them, is nothing less than a symbol of what it is that the American lifestyle has sacrificed. “Island Farm,” Versluis writes, “signifies an understanding of these truths.” What originally made this country so inspiring, so quick to rise, was our individuality, tethered to nothing. As we stand today on such shaky ground, this same truth shows its uglier underbelly. We are tethered to Nothing. We belong to nothing. We have cut away our own roots.

“Americans, I think, want to live as though they have no ancestors, no obligations, no responsibilities; it is part of the national character, and though this attitude generates that refreshing perpetual newness so entrancing to those who perceive themselves as entrapped by tradition, it has its consequences. We hear much talk about ecology and ‘saving the world’ nowadays, but frankly, it is only talk, for so long as people choose to live as if they are disconnected from one another and from the past—and is this not the genesis of the so-called ‘American dream?’—there is no such thing as an authentically ecologically balanced way of life, and there is no ‘saving the world.’” (pg. 18)

When we lose our connection both to our past ancestors and to our future generations, we can do nothing but indulge in self-aggrandizement and expect others to pay for it. None of us exist as if pulled out of thin air. We build upon what has come before us, with always an eye for how to improve on the world for those that come after us. When we forget this, we each end up living our lives inventing the wheel all over again, rather than improving on the wheel passed on to us. Or we leave it in ruins, giving no thought to our children’s children and that they will then have to invent the wheel all over again for themselves, along with having to clean up our mess.

Versluis sees our American fascination with mobility as our downfall. We are always leaving, always going somewhere else, with little regard for what we are leaving behind. We have created a disposable society. Everything we do can be tossed out with tomorrow’s trash, but the trash is piling up to the sky. We require connection to our past and our future, connection to our roots, if we are to build something enduring.

Another loss that has gone along with the loss of the family farm and its lifestyle, its lessons, is the value of work. The farmer’s children learned how to work, and that good, hard work produced results. They picked those berries even as the rains came on. They picked them even when they got tired. Perseverance mattered. One considers this as the suburban child whines that he is sooooo bored with that new video game … living in a country that has developed an attention span that doesn’t outlast the blink of an eye.

Gone, too, is our sense of community. The farmer knew when he needed help who to ask, and one never denied help. In the modern world, we live in a state of ultra connection, wired to everything yet out of tune with ourselves and others, missing true human connection.

We long, too, for the wild, even as we fear it. We dream of risk even as we are mired in meaningless routine.

Versluis writes of a time on the farm when a python got loose, and the delicious sense of danger as a result in the community. Something is unleashed in our imaginations when we consider living on the edge of danger, watching for the snake in the grass. Yet increasingly, we live in a world in which we are trying to eliminate every possibility of it—wrapping ourselves in a cocoon, isolating our children from taking even the smallest risk. We fear strangers, we fear germs, we fear boredom, we fear the unknown. And oh, we fear nature and we fear dirt. Instead, we have sold our very souls for control … control of a world that ever eludes us. Versluis' message is to, now and then, let the snake go free.

“We have lost something. Wildness means that there is also danger: there are creatures in the woods that we can’t control, that emerge from a sphere we can enter truly only when we leave behind our carefully defined squares and boxes.” (pg. 40)

Not that Versluis doesn’t understand the need to wander, to travel, to explore. All the more important, he writes, to know where is one’s home—that oasis, that safe place from where one can go outward with courage. Once we understand our rootedness, we can take wing. Once we lose our rootedness, we are blown away by every wind.

“Ultimately, a farm is sustained in the human community by its inward value; it subsists by our care, as on nature’s and God’s grace. A farm isn’t a factory, and it isn’t disposable … A farm is a place where people grow, each year, to understand more deeply who and where they are. A farm means connections: if soul is joined to the body by a silver cord, we are each joined to one another and to the land in countless intricate patterns of silvery sublunary strands, ties that join us to everyone else and to every living thing we are bound to care for. There are those who would say that freedom comes from the absence of responsibility, but in truth freedom comes in the fulfillment of responsibility, through which we become who we really are.” (pg. 42)

Versluis very nearly slides into writing prose poetry as he tells the stories of the characters who come to work on the family farm. The drunk who sobers up enough to pick a crop, or the woman who rants and raves yet gets the job done and then disappears again—these are the unforgettable people who bring color to life and true individuality. Farms build character, but characters can still find a place on a farm where they fall away everywhere else. Not that we want to encourage lives of suffering, as some of these are, but rather a tolerance for the misfit, an appreciation for difference. Even as modern society talks “diversity” like newfound religion, we in truth have built a world that rewards conformity—in thought, in physical appearance, in lifestyle. The farm, by its very nature, has no room for such silliness.

The author has nothing against progress. Indeed, his point is that we need this kind of connection if we want true progress. People need roots to grow just as plants do. He questions our understanding of civilization.

“Machinery and convenience are too often mistaken for civilization nowadays, but in fact civilization can be measured only by whether we live in harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine.” (pg. 71)

He questions our destruction of the wildness in nature, of wilderness, of a more organic and sustainable way of living. We have thrown away our own history, and in so doing, may well have thrown away our future.

Consumers clamor for perfect fruits and vegetables as if such things were manufactured rather than produced. We want every apple to look, taste, feel the same, with no understanding that with such demands, we are demanding a world of factory farms, food that can be grown perfect and uniform only by heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, even genetic mutation. We have lost the wide variety of flavors in heritage foods, choosing instead foods grown to endure long distance transportation.

How did we who like to think of ourselves as individualists become such conformists? Himself a teacher, Versluis points the finger also at American public education. Today’s teachers complain of unteachable students, bullies in the classroom, violence in schools, falling grades. Versluis observes:

“Little wonder that most of us became hellions—where else was there a challenge? When one is surrounded by a ‘system,’ the only recourse for the independent-minded is to violate it … Undoubtedly the public school system in America has its functions, but education is mostly not among them. One is being prepared to be an American consumer, left adrift in a sea of students who have as few clues about where to go or what to do in life as oneself. The overpopulated classes are far from intellectually challenging, and so one longs for escape from this morass of mediocrity, seeking it aimlessly in juvenile pranks and alcohol, in drugs and violence, in sex and whatever else one can concoct to do that would crack the shell.” (pg. 84)

Nor does this end with the juvenile. We grow into drones working in cubes, working at jobs rather than finding our work at which we excel. Versluis writes about the difference between an “occupation,” which implies merely occupying time so as to earn a paycheck, and doing our work, using our brain and muscle to create something enduring, of value and meaning, which gives back to us a sense of accomplishment. We want to see where we fit in the greater scheme of things, not to merely be a cog in the wheel that churns toward what we do not know and cannot tell.

Standing on that hallowed ground where he knows his roots, Versluis sees a herd mentality around him that is driving us over a cliff to our own destruction. The Nothing, he calls it. That vacuum where there is no culture, no context. Even much of our modern day literature, he writes, is a waste of paper. Even our writers have forgotten how to write words that last.

This slim volume belies the deep layers of meaning inside. Island Farm is much more than the loving story of one family’s farm. From this rich soil grows and expands a metaphor for all life, for all humankind. True to his word, Versluis has created a meaningful work that calls out to be read again and again. There are in these pages many truths that resonate deeply, offer important lessons, and quietly urge us to consider that in all our small and daily decisions in how we lead our lives—we are gradually creating a future that is bleak, a future of Nothing, devoid of all flavor and color and character.

Arthur Versluis is Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Michigan State University. He is author of numerous books, including Magic and Mysticism, The New Inquisitions, Restoring Paradise, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance, Wisdom’s Children, and American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. He has published articles on topics ranging from comparative federalism to Christian esotericism. Editor of the journal Esoterica, he is also co-editor of JSR: Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

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