In March of 1977 Fritz Schumacher came to Salina, Kansas (he died in August of that year). We had just started The Land Institute the previous September. Six weeks later our building burned down with all of our books and tools. I had resigned my position in California to begin this work, and what little retirement money we had, had been put into that building. There was really no reason to keep going except that we had some ideas. When Schumacher came in March, we were rebuilding, mostly with scrap materials. While he was there we arranged for him to give a public lecture, during which he told a story about traveling across the United States with some German friends at the height of the Great Depression, around 1935 or 1936 I imagine.
They stopped for gas in a small town near Salina and asked a fellow there, “How are things?” And he answered, “They’re all right.” Schumacher asked him, “What do you do?” “Well, I work on that farm right over there. In fact, I work for the man who used to work for me. I didn’t have any money to pay him, so I paid him in land. And now he owns my farm and I work for him.” Schumacher said, “That’s a very sad story.” And the man replied, “Oh, no; he doesn’t have any money either, so he’s paying me back in land!”
I like that story because at a very basic level this farmer shows us that in a certain sense all we have to do is figure out a way to stay amused while we live out our lives as inexpensively as possible within the life support system. It’s what I call the “Mill-Around Theory of Civilization”: if we can simply mill around and not expend too many resources, then we won’t do much harm to ourselves or the planet. The problem is, how do we learn to quit doing in a manner that uses up the earth’s capital? Or stated otherwise, how do we make our vessel so small that it doesn’t take much to fill it? Should not this be our journey?
I have a friend, Leland, who gets by on five hundred dollars a year. He lives in a six-by-sixteen-foot shack. He began his journey some twenty-five years ago. In some respects, he’s more important to me than Thoreau, for Thoreau’s tenure at Walden was brief. Leland’s idea is that once we start seeking pleasure, we start doing violence to people and to the landscape. He says there’s nothing wrong with the experience of pleasure, but when you start seeking pleasure, violence happens. He believes that my intellectual pursuits, for example, are a form of pleasure-seeking, that they create a kind of violence. He even quit growing his beautiful garden because he thought that too was a form of pleasure-seeking; now he just harvests the greens that grow wild in the yard and lives mostly on wheat. Leland took out Social Security because his wife, who lives in the house—he lives in the shack, less than a hundred yards away—felt she needed three hundred dollars a month to live on. He could get four hundred dollars from Social Security, and she could get two hundred, and because she needed only three hundred, he had three hundred dollars a month piling up in the bank. This money was making him have “creative thoughts” which he thought might start causing violence. So he scratched his name off Social Security and says he’s a free man again. There are other ways to think about living in the world, but Leland is important to me because he’s the most bottom-line person I know. He is very careful not to be judgmental of others. Seeing his example has made me pretty impatient with people who say, “We just can’t make it.”
But that’s not what I came here to talk about. I came to talk about becoming native to this place—meaning, first of all, this continent. I can do no better than to quote Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America. He said that we came to this country with vision but not with sight: “We came with visions of former places but not the sight to see where we are.” Later, in a letter he wrote to me, he said that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we never knew what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing. Dan Luten, the now retired geographer at Berkeley, in a paper maybe twenty-five years ago, said that we came poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. And based on that perception of reality—“poor people,” “seemingly empty land,” “rich”—we built our political, educational, economic, and religious institutions. Now we’ve become rich people in an increasingly poor land that’s filling up, and the old institutions don’t hold. So here we are. We patch things up, give them a lick and a promise, and things don’t quite work.
Well, that’s all true as far as our settlement is concerned. But there is more, for standing behind settlement is conquest, which has left its legacy. Kirk Sale said it well in The Conquest of Paradise, a book I greatly enjoyed. After 1492 there was the gold of Mexico and the gold of Peru. So the conquerors thought (being Christians, believing things had to come in threes) there must be gold somewhere else. (It was a holy idea.) One of these men was Coronado, who was hanging out down in Mexico, married to the daughter of the bastard son of the king of Spain. He and a bunch of second sons out of Spain were mighty interested in finding that third hunk of gold. So in 1540 Coronado started northward from Compostela to Culiacán and followed the Culiacán Valley northward and finally reached an area straddling parts of present-day New Mexico and Arizona. They were looking for the Seven Cities of Cíbola. No matter that there were only six (seven, like three, is a sacred number, maybe because there are seven holes in our head). These cities reportedly had lots of gold. Coronado’s party consisted of a thousand horses and mules, a large flock of sheep, Indians to carry the baggage, and some three hundred Spaniards on horseback. It must have been quite a contingent. They made it all the way up there only to find poor—to their eyes—Pueblo Indians. No gold! But the Pueblo Indians had a slave whom the Spaniards called El Turko because they thought he looked like a Turk. I don’t know where he had been captured, but his people were the Herahay, who lived in the area of southeastern Nebraska and northeastern Kansas. Now, this poor slave was homesick and he wanted to go home. I’ll make a long story short. “There isn’t any gold here,” he said, “but there’s gold up in Quivira.” The easternmost part of the former kingdom of Quivira is about eighteen miles south of where I live in Kansas. The story gets a little complicated here. For some reason Coronado and his men left Pueblo country and lit out toward the plains of Texas. They got over to the Llano Estacado and ran into that dropping off point there. The Turk was telling them, “No, no; north and east of here, that’s where the gold is.” So they thought, “Well, what the heck” (that’s a loose translation), and Coronado picked some thirty men to go with him and sent the others back to Pueblo country. (Most of these young adventurers, by the way, were from some of the finest families in Europe. Most were in their twenties. The discoverers of the Grand Canyon were in their early to mid-twenties. Coronado himself was barely thirty.)
Convinced by the Turk, he and his thirty men took off “northward by the needle” of the compass—which is to say, north and east. Finally they came into the kingdom of Quivira—what is now part of Kansas—and what did they find? Houses made of sticks and straw, tall people, some of whom measured six feet eight inches high. Chief Tatarrax, summoned by Coronado, arrived. The only metal he had was a copper ring around his neck. There they were, frustrated and out of sorts, and Coronado was eventually convinced by his men that they should strangle the Turk. They put a rope around his neck, put a stick through the loop, and garroted him. Thus, the first murder by a European of a native of the central part of this continent happened somewhere between eighteen and fifty miles south and west of where I live.
At that particular time, de Soto was over on the Mississippi building barges. Had those two men and their armies marched toward one another for seven days, they would have met. De Soto died near the terminus of his expedition. Some three hundred years passed before that area would be filled in by settlers!
It is time to draw a long breath here and reflect on this history: the first Europeans in this country came as conquerors of the natives. The settlers who followed, as Wendell Berry says in The Unsettling of America, designated them “redskins” and treated them as surplus people. That designation and attitude are sins for which we have never atoned. Furthermore, by ignoring the wisdom and example of the native peoples, the settlers ensured that their own great-great-grandsons and -granddaughters would one day become redskins, surplus people. The loss of people from the land, the small towns and rural communities that have dried up—to the point that now only 1.9 percent of the United States population lives on farms—means that the new redskins have nearly been exterminated. So few farmers are there now that the U.S. Census Bureau has quit counting them as a category. And now we are all candidates for “redskinhood” because we never really came to terms with the attitude and the institutions—the system of laws, the justifications—that made the extermination of both the natives and the farmers possible.
Another long breath, another take on our history—1776. Here is Thomas Jefferson carrying in his mind the image of the Virgilian pastoral landscape. Jefferson had the idea that nature combined with farming carried with it a certain sort of virtue, an inherent virtue that would inform this new chance on earth. This was the Jeffersonian ideal of the small town and the rural community, informed as it was by his Enlightenment worldview, Jefferson believing in rationalism and giving us the grid and the system of laws. But here we have the reality of a highly diverse continent, an ecological mosaic, the product of a time long before any “Enlightenment mind” would appear. Part of this land would accommodate the Jeffersonian ideal, most of it would not.
To illustrate this, I would like to contrast an experience I had on a ranch in South Dakota one summer with the experience I had growing up on a farm in the Kansas River Valley. It was the summer I turned sixteen that I abandoned myself to the prairies of South Dakota to work on a ranch belonging to my mother’s eccentric and childless first cousin and her Swedish immigrant husband, Andrew. Ina was Andrew’s second wife; his first had been her sister Bertha. Andrew and Bertha homesteaded one-half section of land and Ina another. When Bertha died, Andrew and Ina married and joined their holdings. This was near the Rosebud Indian reservation, and on Sundays I sometimes rode with half-breed kids over those prairies, hearing stories of how their Indian grandfather had trapped eagles on this hill or that. Andrew, Ina, and I would go to White River on Saturday afternoon. These Rosebud Sioux would lie in the shade of the stores, and as the sun moved, they would pick up their belongings and move to the shade of the other side. Out on the ranch I would hear Andrew cuss and swear about how the Indians never did anything with the land. In town the very Indian from whom Andrew and Ina were leasing Indian land had once again charged groceries to their account. Andrew always paid, for to fail to meant that a neighboring rancher would be only too willing to lease the same land next year, perhaps forgetting that he too would be trapped into buying a bottle of whiskey at the liquor store, that he too would have to tolerate coming upon what was left of one of his steers butchered by the same redskins.
I fell in love that summer at a Saturday night dance. She was a beautiful white girl, her magic so overwhelming that I failed to sleep the entire night after I met her. Thirty-five years later when I saw her again, she was seriously overweight, had lost most of her teeth, her slip was showing, and she neither recognized nor remembered me as she lugged one of her grandchildren into the bar. I think it was the same bar where, as a teenager, I learned more interesting content at low tuition than at any time before or since. For it was there that I scrutinized, with the civilized eye of a Kansas River Valley Methodist, drunk cowboys—married or not—hugging and smooching young natives and from time to time disappearing with them into the shadows of the dusty back streets of White River.
The land was mostly unplowed and still is. The horse was central to that way of life then, less so now. Out on the ranch, besides the moon and stars the only lights were from Murdo and Okaton across the river twelve to fifteen miles distant. It was a summer of branding and castrating cattle, fixing fences, discovering dens of rattlesnakes, and catching pond bass. Many evenings on the ranch I’d drive out on “the Point” in a Cadillac coup or the pickup to shoot prairie dogs or to see the hundred head of horses in the bottoms or out on the range; “junk horses” Ina called them, for in the dry 1930s she would pump water for hours for the cattle, only to have fifty to a hundred head of Andrew’s horses show up, run the cattle away, and drink all the water. Andrew justified keeping these mostly wild creatures around by insisting it was horse trading that had made it possible for him to be so solidly positioned. But think of the slack Andrew and Ina enjoyed to be able to afford those hundred head of mostly unbroken horses.
I lived in a small wooden hillside shack set upon steel wheels, a shack Andrew had bought from Millette County, which used it to house the county road crew. It had been pulled by horses, perhaps the same horses used to pull the grader blade. Andrew and Ina lived in a small two-room house with a large attic, whose floor bowed from the weight of such old magazines as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Ina’s True Stories about romance. Some evenings Andrew and I would sit on his steps, which overlooked the White River a half mile away. Andrew would cuss Roosevelt, the Yalta Conference, Indians, and neighbors—everybody but Ike, who happened to be Ina’s first cousin (otherwise I suspect President Eisenhower would have caught it too).
There was no electricity and only cistern water, which was used at least twice, the last time always to water a small backyard garden or the chickens.
With Ina on her buckskin, Dickey, and me on Bonnie or Violet (the names of two girls back home), we rode the range from one dam to the other, where poles were kept with lures so we could catch some bass on the way home. Or we might go to the abandoned school on the school section for some cottonseed cake to distribute as cattle feed somewhere across the nearly four thousand acres of paradise. I didn’t want to go home, and had it not been for high school football in September, I might have stayed. The place became my American dream, and looking back, even though Jefferson’s and Lewis and Clark’s Missouri was only fifty miles away, I now see that little of Jefferson’s vision was there beyond the section lines and the system of laws. His vision of the family farm must have been predicated upon thirty inches or more of moisture per year. Here, the land determined; no yeoman farmer existed. Even so, I loved everything about it. The Indians, the rodeos, the Danish and Swedish immigrants delighted with their land holdings, the rattlesnakes, even the colorful prejudice and how the natives got a little bit even through the butchered steer, the grocery bill, and the whiskey.
In the Kansas River Valley it had been another story. We were farmers there. Hoeing was endless during the summer, what with watermelons, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, strawberries, peonies, phlox, sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, asparagus, etc. It was a relief to put up alfalfa hay or to harvest wheat, rye, or corn (my dad won the county corn-growing contest at least three years). Our farm and market were along U.S. 24 and 40, a two-lane road called the Pacific Highway, a subconscious naming, I suppose, because the nation looked westward. Six children were born to my parents. I was the last in 1936, a sister the first, born in 1914. Dad was fifty the year I was born, my mother forty-two. They were agrarians—fiercely so, I see now—Jeffersonians. They were also Methodist and Congregationalist: don’t waste time, motion, or steps. Don’t drink pop, alcohol in any form, or eat out. The contrast between that Kansas truck farm and the South Dakota ranch was striking. The row crops required cultivating and hoeing. Sweat of the brow, good manners, and quotable scripture went together. And from what I learned in that market, with people stopping in on their trips from coast to coast, I now sense that we were countrymen then in a way that we are not now. There were no bad jokes about either California or New Jersey then; we all inquired into one another’s well-being.
Here was agriculture—row crop variety, of course—which I knew and, I will even say, loved in a certain restricted sense, but it did not compare to the life of the range with the juxtaposition of natives and grassland, ranchers and rodeos. I made up my mind that I would have that South Dakota ranch one day or one like it. But Andrew died of prostate cancer and Ina died of injuries sustained in the pickup she was driving. The ranch was sold and the money willed to one of Ina’s nephews, who within a year paid it all out in a lawsuit due to being at fault in a car wreck.
Football and love kept me in college in what must have been one of the most misspent youths in history. And what smoldered in me were two experiences with the land: that of the sodbusting, Jeffersonian agrarian and that of the cattleman. I preferred the latter.
My great-grandfather entered Kansas the first day it was legal: May 30, 1854, the day the Kansas-Nebraska Act was ratified. Twenty-six years old, he had already been to San Francisco by way of Panama. Fifty miles into Kansas he broke tallgrass prairie sod and set right out to farming his 160 acres, Jefferson style, interrupting normal life to fight against pro-slavery forces with John Brown at Black Jack Creek on the Santa Fe Trail in 1857. But a man who was to become his son-in-law, one of my grandfathers, arrived in Kansas in 1877 with three hundred dollars the day before turning twenty-two. He felt lucky not to have put his money in the bank, for it closed the next day. He thus preserved his grubstake and threw himself onto the Flint Hills grassland of Kansas to run cattle on more or less free grass. By the end of ten years he had enough to go half-and-half with a partner and purchase half of 160 acres of sandy loam in the Kansas River Valley on the second bench, an alluvial terrace high enough above the river bed to assure no more than a flood or two per century. In five years he had bought his partner out.
I was born on that farm, love those soils, love to plow them, love to smell them. Even so, I have wondered why that grandfather, when the grass had been so good to him, would give up his cattle to farm. I think I know the reason: he had come from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A Virginian! An agrarian! He was likely an unconscious Jeffersonian. He played the role and he played it well, for he was a well-off man when he died in 1925. As a school board member, he convinced his neighbors that the new school should be completely paid for in the year it was built. It was a fine, well-built school with two rooms for eight grades. My mother and I both went there. How could the community pay such a debt so quickly? I can’t speak for the neighbors, but I know that times were good on the farm generally and that Granddad never expanded his income by expanding his acreage. It was said of him that no matter what he did, things turned out right. I suspect that the reason this was true comes from something revealed in an offhand statement my mother made once. She said he would lean on his scoop shovel for a half hour or more, watching his hogs eat the ear corn, or lean against the barn door to watch them eat the soaked oats or boiled potatoes or whatever he had raised. As much as it was due to the times, his good fortune was due to a combination of joy, sympathy, art, and love rolled into one and tuned to the demands of his place. Here was the Jeffersonian dream, as imperfect as it was, at its high-water mark. The actuality or reality of that dream has been compromised and in decline at dazzling speed ever since World War II.
In fact, it seems now as if the Jeffersonian dream is, as Aldo Leopold said about conservation, like “a bird which flies faster than the shot we aim at it.” I won’t offer further evidence that the Jeffersonian ideal is receding—that is simply a matter of going through the checklist of environmental and social problems and the irrational patterns of current settlement. Nor will I even attempt an analysis as to why.
The question is, how do we reconcile these two situations on the prairies, scarcely one day’s drive apart at the modern speed limit? What is the lesson to be learned from them about future land use? We need to recognize the reality of the ecological mosaic across the country and to realize that there are some places, such as that South Dakota ranch, where the land determines and other places where human beings can actually make useful and appropriate changes in a favorable environment.
From Oklahoma to Saskatchewan, from east of Denver deep into the Midwest, thousands of small towns and rural communities are dying. Thousands of them! Schools are being closed, churches are being closed. This decline is the consequence of what Wendell Berry talked about in The Unsettling of America, explaining the title’s double meaning: the unsettling of these towns and communities with the migration of people to urban areas has led to an unsettling of the culture at large with its rising crime rate, increasing national debt, increase in soil erosion, and increase in chemical contamination of the countryside. We have to face it: the reward for destroying communion is power: power over nature, power over the indigenous, power over the constantly newly emerging redskins. Rather than looking to Washington, we must start thinking that small is beautiful. One way to effect this change would be to introduce a second major into our universities and colleges. Right now there’s only one major: upward mobility. It’s the major which accommodates the original set of assumptions we settled the continent with, the mind-set that fuels the extractive economy. The new major would be “homecoming.” It would educate people to go back to a place and dig in. We need a new generation of settlers, people who could go into these places with a fundamentally different mind-set, with the skills for what we might call “ecological community accounting.” They would start at the beginning, asking such questions as, “How does one set up the books for this accounting?” We have examples to follow, technological possibilities and idealistic notions from people like John and Nancy Todd, co-founders of the New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International, who inspired our work at The Land Institute years ago; Amory and Hunter Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute; David Orr of the Meadowcreek Project, and so on. It is frightening how terribly underfunded these organizations are, making them so fragile that it doesn’t take much more than a blip before some of them are extinguished.
The Land Institute is running a project in a little town called Matfield Green, located in Chase County, Kansas. We say we are “setting up the books” for ecological community accounting as a necessary step for understanding how to proceed when it comes to revitalizing community anywhere. The book PrairyErth, written by William Least-Heat Moon, is about Chase County. It has a population of three thousand. Eighty-five percent of the county has never been plowed. It has one traffic light (a blinker light, so you don’t have to slow down too much). And in this county is a little town called Matfield Green, with a population of fifty. Matfield Green doesn’t have a lifestyle; it’s too small. It just has the basics: a half-time post office, a church that hosts eight to fifteen people per Sunday, and a beer joint. That’s all there is left.
I’ve managed to purchase several buildings in Matfield Green. Five of us went in together and bought the school, a ten-thousand-square-foot building, for five thousand dollars and gave it to The Land Institute. For the gym we paid four thousand dollars. My nephew bought the bank for five hundred dollars. I bought the lumber yard for a thousand. The hardware store we bought for six thousand and renovated; now some of our interns live there. I bought several houses for a thousand dollars or less, one of them for three hundred and fifty. Now, these are not what you call “top of the line” houses, but we’ve started renovations, putting new roofs on the buildings and replacing rotting stud walls. I’m living part-time in a house there that has cost me—including the purchase price and the purchase of the refrigerator, stove, and everything else in it—less than seventeen thousand dollars. The average homeless person now in New York City costs the city seventeen thousand dollars a year. There are people in that town living on seven thousand dollars a year.
At work on my houses in Matfield Green I’ve had great fun tearing off the porches and cleaning up the yards. But it has been sad as well, going through the abandoned belongings of families who lived out their lives in this beautiful, well-watered, fertile setting (Matfield Green averages thirty-three inches of rainfall a year). In an upstairs bedroom of Mrs. Florence Johnson’s former home, I came across a dusty but beautiful blue padded box labeled “Old Programs—New Century Club.” Most of the programs from 1923 to 1964 were there. Each listed the officers, the club flower (sweet pea), the club colors (pink and white), and the club motto (“Just Be Glad”). The programs for each year were gathered under one cover and nearly always dedicated to a local woman who was special in some way.
Each month the women were to comment on such subjects as canning, jokes, memory gems, a magazine article, poems, flower culture, misused words, birds, and so on. The May 1936 program was a debate: “Resolved that movies are detrimental to the young generation.” The August 1936 program was dedicated to coping with the heat: roll call was “Hot Weather Drinks”; next came “Suggestions for Hot Weather Lunches”; a Mrs. Rogler offered “Ways of Keeping Cool.” The June roll call in 1929 was “The Disease I Fear Most.” That was eleven years after the great flu epidemic. Children were still dying in those days of diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and pneumonia. On August 20 the roll call question was, “What Do You Consider the Most Essential to Good Citizenship?” In September that year it was “Birds of Our County”; the program was on the mourning dove.
What became of it all?
From 1923 through 1930 the program covers are beautiful, done at a print shop. From 1930 until 1937 the effects of the Depression are apparent; programs are either typed or mimeographed and have no cover. The programs for the next two years are missing. In 1940 the covers reappear, this time typed on construction paper. The printshop printing never reappears. The last program in the box is from 1964. I don’t know the last year Mrs. Florence Johnson attended the club. I do know that she and her husband Turk celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, for in the same box are some beautiful white fiftieth-anniversary napkins with golden bells and with “1920 Florence and Turk 1970” printed on them. A neighbor told me that Mrs. Johnson died in 1981. The high school had closed in 1967. The lumber yard and hardware store closed about the same time, but no one knows when for sure. The last gas station went after that.
But back to those programs. The motto never changed. The sweet pea kept its standing. So did the pink and white club colors. The club collect which follows persisted month after month, year after year:
A Collect for Club Women
Keep us, Oh God, from pettiness;
Let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.
Let us be done with fault-finding and leave off self-seeking.
May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face,
without self-pity and without prejudice.
May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.
Let us take time for all things; make us grow calm, serene, gentle.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straightforward and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize it is the little things that create differences,
that in the big things of life we are as one.
And may we strive to touch and to know the great common woman’s
heart of us all, and oh, Lord God, let us not forget to be kind.
By modern standards these people were poor. There was a kind of naiveté among these relatively unschooled women. Some of their poetry in those programs was not good. Some of their ideas about the way the world works seem silly. Some of their club programs don’t sound very interesting; some sound tedious. But the monthly agendas of these women were filled with decency, with efforts to learn about everything from the birds to our government and to cope with their problems, the weather, and diseases. Here is the irony: they were living up to a far broader spectrum of their potential than most of us do today!
I am not suggesting that we go back to 1923 or even to 1964. But I will say that those people in that particular generation, in places like Matfield Green, were further along in the necessary journey to become native to their places, even as they were losing ground, than we are today.
Why was their way of life so vulnerable to the industrial economy? What can we do to protect such attempts to be good and decent, to live out our modest lives responsibly? I don’t know. But we need to engage in this discussion, for it is particularly problematic. Even most intellectuals who have come out of such places as Matfield Green have not felt that their early lives prepared them adequately for the “official” formal culture.
I will quote from two writers to illustrate this discomfort with the reality of rural culture. The first is Paul Gruchow (in Townships, edited by Michael Marome [Iowa State University Press, 1991]), who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota:
I was born at mid-century. My parents, who were poor and rural, had never amounted to anything, and never would, and never expected to. They were rather glad for the inconsequence of their lives. They got up with the sun and retired with it. Their routines were dictated by the seasons. In summer they tended; in fall they harvested; in winter they repaired; in spring they planted. It had always been so; so it would always be.
The farmstead we occupied was on a hilltop overlooking a marshy river bottom that stretched from horizon to horizon. It was half a mile from any road and an eternity from any connection with the rest of the culture. There were no books there; there was no music; there was no television; for a long time, no telephone. Only on the rarest of occasions—a time or two a year—was there a social visitor other than the pastor. There was no conversation in that house.
Similarly, Wallace Stegner, the great historian and novelist, confesses to his feeling of inadequacy coming from a small prairie town in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In Wolf Willow he writes:
Once, in a self-pitying frame of mind, I was comparing my background with that of an English novelist friend. Where he had been brought up in London, taken from the age of four onward to the Tate and the National Gallery, sent traveling on the Continent in every school holiday, taught French and German and Italian, given access to bookstores, libraries, and British Museums, made familiar from infancy on with the conversation of the eloquent and the great, I had grown up in this dung-heeled sagebrush town on the disappearing edge of nowhere, utterly without painting, without sculpture, without architecture, almost without music or theater, without conversation or languages or travel or stimulating instruction, without libraries or museums or bookstores, almost without books. I was charged with getting in a single lifetime, from scratch, what some people inherit as naturally as they breathe air.
How, I asked this Englishman, could anyone from so deprived a background ever catch up? How was one expected to compete, as a cultivated man, with people like himself? He looked at me and said dryly, “Perhaps you got something else in place of all that.”
He meant, I suppose, that there are certain advantages to growing up a sensuous little savage, and to tell the truth I am not sure I would trade my childhood of freedom and the outdoors and the senses for a childhood of being led by the hand past all the Turners in the National Gallery. And also, he may have meant that anyone starting from deprivation is spared getting bored. You may not get a good start, but you may get up a considerable head of steam.
Countless writers and artists have been vulnerable to the “official” culture, as vulnerable as the people of Matfield Green. Stegner comments:
I am reminded of Willa Cather, that bright girl from Nebraska, memorizing long passages from the Aeneid and spurning the dust of Red Cloud and Lincoln with her culture-bound feet. She tried, and her education encouraged her, to be a good European. Nevertheless she was a first-rate novelist only when she dealt with what she knew from Red Cloud and the things she had “in place of all that.” Nebraska was what she was born to write; the rest of it was got up. Eventually, when education had won and nurture had conquered nature and she had recognized Red Cloud as a vulgar little hold, she embraced the foreign tradition totally and ended by being neither quite a good American nor quite a true European nor quite a whole artist.
It seems that we still blunt ourselves by learning long passages from the Aeneid while wanting to shake from us the dust of Red Cloud or Matfield Green. The extractive economy cares for neither Virgil nor Mary Stewart. It lures just about all of us to its shopping centers on the edge of Lincoln or Wichita, Louisville or Lexington. And yet, for us the Aeneid is part of our story. It is embedded in our thought processes as part of Western civilization. Therefore, it is as essential to becoming native to towns like Matfield Green as the bow and arrow were to the paleolithic Asians who walked here across the Bering land bridge of the Pleistocene.
Our task is to build cultural fortresses to protect our emerging nativeness. They must be strong enough to hold at bay the powers of consumerism, the powers of greed and envy and pride. We have to call the shopping malls and Wal-Marts what they are: the modern cathedrals of secular materialism. One of the most effective ways for this to come about would be for our universities to assume the awesome responsibility of both validating and educating those who want to be homecomers—not to return, necessarily, to their original home, but to go someplace and dig in and begin the long journey to becoming native.
Then we can hope for the resurrection of the likes of Florence Johnson and her women friends, who took their collect seriously. Unless we can affirm and promote the sorts of attitudes and efforts that the New Century Club exhibited, we are doomed. An entire club program devoted to coping with the heat of August is indicative of its members being native to a place. That club was more than a support group; it was cultural information-in-the-making, keyed to place. The alternative, of course, is air-conditioning, not only yielding greenhouse gases but contributing to global warming and the ozone hole as well—and, if fueled by nuclear power, to future Chernobyls. As I see it, we can make technology our leading edge or we can make rich cultural information our leading edge. If we choose programs devoted to coping with the heat, we have a chance. But if we choose exercises in human cleverness in the technological realm as our primary focus, then we’ve had it. Becoming native to one’s place means making everything from our domestic livestock to our domesticated plants native too. And this is a very long process.
Finally, I come back to 1542, to Coronado and those thirty or so avarice-driven adventurers who made the side trip “northward by the needle” from the plains of Texas to the land of Quivira, the land that would one day become Kansas. When their guide, a native Indian slave, admitted that there was no gold, Coronado allowed this native of the land to be strangled with a rope twisted about a stick. What was his offense? He had told a series of lies to men made gullible by greed. He was no fool, and he must have known the risk, but he did it anyway, and he did it for one reason: he was homesick. Because he was a slave, the lure of gold was his ticket home. He thought he could outwit them in the end, but he failed. He was not cunning enough to overcome the power of conquest. The homecomer of today still confronts that power.