My “Back to the Land” Move

Simon MacBeth May 1 1913

My “Back to the Land” Move

Simon MacBeth May 1 1913

My “Back to the Land” Move

The almost hackneyed expression of back-to-the-land has emanated from the city. Upon examination it wfll be seen to arise from selfish sources. The city man wants cheaper bread and butter. The slogan was not begotten from his intense desire to better agriculture and aid in developing a higher community spirit among the dwellers on the farms. The written of this exceedingly interesting article is well-known in Canada as the removal of his non-de-plume mask would verify. Ho has touched some of the sore spots in rural life not from the critic’s distance, but through the avenue of a personal experience following a commercial life in a metropolis.

Simon MacBeth

AFTER all, farming is not a bit like golf. Of course the two are played in the open air, but that is about all they have in common.

I make this explanation because it was while playing golf that I did most of my talking about going “back to the land.” Most of the fellows in the club were interested in farming, and it is no wonder. There was a hen run at the fifth hole and a market garden beside the water hazard and from the club verandah we had a splendid view of a dairy farm. Every Saturday and Sunday, after tussling with Col. Bogey, we used to sit around smoking twenty-cent

cigars and discussing the kind of farming we would go in for when we finally retired. Not one of us had the slightest doubt that he had in him the makings of a successful and up-to-date farmer. Why, we even used to discuss cow-records and the best methods of feeding so as to produce a maximum of butterfat and were quite outspoken in our criticisms of the kind of farming we had a chance to observe while making a round of the links. I am willing to bet a bushel of seed potatoes that if I dropped in on them to-day I would find them still hard at it and over a couple of highballs could get more expert ad-

vice on the best methods of farming than I have been able to get from the Department of Agriculture in the past year. And yet nothing short of an earthquake will ever send any of these men “Back to the land.” I know because it took a financial crisis that wrecked several trust companies and started a Congressional investigation to dislodge me. When I finally did go I went with all the grace of a tom-cat that ■is being dragged, spitting and meowing, from under the spare bed.

Do you happen to know anyone who has gone back to the land? Of course not. “The land” seems to be the original

“Undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns.”

Some people go, of course. If they didn’t, how could the magazines get the articles they publish telling how to make $1,256.02 in a year by raising chickens and garden truck on a deserted farm with no help but that of a lame horse that is blind in one eye? Now

that I am back on the land I read these articles with the same interest and wonder they used to inspire when I commuted to Upper Golfville, New Jersey. I have never been able to find any of this particular brand of “back to the land” people either in the city or the country and I have never seen a trace of the kind of farming they describe. Do you wonder that I sometimes suspect that I am the only man who ever really went back to the land?

Yes, I am back on the land. What is more, I am here to stay. I like it. As far as I am concerned New York and London, England, are “One with Nineveh and Tyre.” I do not care if 1 never see them again. Coriolanus scornfully told the people of 'Rome that “There is a world elsewhere.” I have discovered that world and it is very good. Let me tell you something about it.

Two years ago I landed on the farm where this is being written, a physical wreck, wijh a nervous system that was frayed at the seams and ravelled at the edges. I came on the advice of my doctor and also of my lawyer. The doctor couldn’t do anything for me and wanted to get me out of his sight. My lawyer wanted to get me out of the sight of my creditors. Between them they convinced me that the only thing for me was the seclusion and quiet of farm life. Since that time I have been living on a farm and doing farm work. During the first year I did everything that farmers do, except making a living. That I did not make a living was not the fault of the farm. A man cannot close his office in the New York Life building one day and start doing business on the next as a successful farmer. There is a transition period, more or less painful, through which he must pass. During that period I gained the experience that enables me to look forward to the future with confidence.

During the first year I farmed for exercise and life was one round of surprises. None of the skill I had gained or the muscles I had developed while playing golf was of any use to me. To begin with they turned me loose in a

ten-acre corn field with a hoe. This primitive instrument at once struck me as being very much like a golf club and before 1 had made a dozen strokes'with it 1 had made up my mind to write to all my golfing friends advising them to carry hoes iu their bag. It would be just the thing to get the ball out of a water-hazard or long grass. It would beat any niblick that ever was made.

But I was not playing golf. I was hoeing corn and was out for a record. Remembering something I had read in the papers about “efficiency engineers,” I began to figure out the exact number of strokes needed to properly hoe a hill of corn. I would show those farmers, I would. But in trying to cut down the number of strokes I cut a number of thrifty hills. That made me stop to think out the true method of doing the work. As I stopped I straightened my back. That was my first surprise. My back felt as if every muscle and cord was being shredded. I had gone at the hoeing with a “crouch” for which I had no training. By exerting myself in that unusual position I had brought into play a set of muscles that had not been disturbed for years and they all resented it. By persistence, however, I brought those muscles to time. After I had done this and could lean upon my hoe in Markham’s best manner, without looking as if I were bowed by the weight of centuries, they asked me to help at the haying. If hoeing had made me feel as if I had been lashed with a knout, pitching hay made me sympathize with those who had been stretched on the rack. It was the same all through the year. Every new kind of work was a new kind of torture but I lived through it all and developed an appetite that enables me to eat anything in the shape of food that is indiscreetly placed within my reach.

In getting established on the land the real difficulty does not lie with farming. Farm work does not necessarily mean unendurable labor. Farming has been reduced to a science and the man who goes at it in the same spirit as he goes at a business need have little trouble. The Department of Agriculture and the

agricultural colleges have done all the experimenting that is needed and you can have access to the results without any more trouble than that of making enquiries. You can readily find out just what crops or industries are suited to your locality and soil, and can get detailed instructions covering every phase of the work, from preparing the ground for the crop to marketing the product. That part of the problem is easy and rational. This year I am doing real farming, “On my own hook,” and though I am still too much of a poker player to stop and count my chips I am sure that I am doing well. On the table we have bacon and beef of our own curing—we “killed half a cow” —fresh milk and butter, our own potatoes and vegetables and fruit of our own raising and canning. All are of a quality that you cannot get in the city and we scarcely know the butcher and grocer when we meet them on the street. ’We would hardly recognize one of their bills if we saw it.

The real trouble in getting back to the land is caused by the unexpected things, by the things that the authorities on agriculture do not consider worth mentioning. Take the question of the family wash. In town you have washwomen come in to attend to it, have it done bv the hired girl or send it to the laundry. In the complex life of the city the wash is never heard of

unless you undertake to audit the household expenses. In the country it is diferent—oh, so different. There are^ no washwomen, there are no hired girls, there are no laundries.

One day a few weeks after we had moved to the country I found my wife struggling with th.e “washing machine” that went with the farm. I didn’t need to he a Sherlock Holmes to discover there was trouble. Going to her with my tenderest “There-little-girl-don’tcry” air I took hold of the business part of that machine and went to work. As I look back it seems to me that I have had hold of it ever since. Every Monday I have a back-breaking session with that washing machine, and the language I use is heavily charged with picric acid. I now measure my weeks by Mondays instead of Sundays. I do not go into details of this job because we are told that we should not wash our dirty linen in public. With four growing boys and one girl you can make a guess at how much of it there is to wash. If I didn’t help her my wife would have to do it alone and I see no reason why she should when she has more work than she can do without the washing. Do not ask me why we haven’t a hired girl. When girls work out they want to work in the cities and they are scarce enough even there. But enough of this. Let us draw the curtain. after it has been washed, over the painful business.

Then there are the “chores.” Most

people who talk of going back to the viand speak of the chores—if they mention them at all—as light work that is almost negligible. They are light compared with the regular farm work. It is the “damnable iteration” of them that galls. They must be attended to both morning and evening with a hard day’s work sandwiched in between. About five o’clock or six at the latest every morning

“A muezzin from the tower of darkness cries”

Get up and milk. It’s time to do the chores.

If you farm you must keep a cow or two. Yes, indeed. Who ever heard >of a farmer being without milk and clotted cream and fresh butter? But did it ever get through your head that the cows must be milked twice a day, every day in the week, Sundays and holidays, summer and winter? Having been brought up on the farm I can milk. Moreover I am the only one of this particular back-to-the-land aggregation who can milk. Also I milk. Cows may come and cows may go but the milking goes on forever. Of course a cow goes dry after a while, but you must have another ready to take her place. You must milk every day—every sunny, happy day. I have learned to regard the cows on the place as a prisoner regards his cell and fetters. It is the cows that keep my nose on the grindstone and make it imposible for me to take any holidays. When the wanderlust touches me and I plan a pleasant excursion to the city or the old Golf Club a sweet voice asks gently:

“But who will milk when you are away?”

Then the skyscrapers fade from the eye of fancy and with a few more picric acid remarks I return to the milking.

And yet despite these little drawbacks that will be overcome when the boys grow big enough to help—and they are growing like weeds—I am satisfied with the country.

But besides the physical and social adjustments there are mental adjustments that must be made before you can settle down comfortably to life on

a farm. You must learn to content yourself with using your executive ability in making a hen run and a garden progress harmoniously and in getting results from a few slim-tailed cows and a weedy pasture-field. But if you are as tired of the strain of city life as I was you will not find that hard. You will find yourself taking pride in the fact that your hens are laying strictly fresh eggs and that your cabbages and beets have been brought to maturity without being scratched at. You will find yourself absorbed in cow-records and developing thrills of mild excitement when you get a cow that yields a percentage of butter-fat above the average. If you have enough vitality left in your system to be interested in your work you will soon find that country work is just as enthralling as any other kind and when you learn to estimate the profits correctly they are just as great as if you were the boss of a trust. But you must learn to estimate your profits in terms of home-building rather

than in dollars and cents. You will find that you are able to provide with your own labor the essentials of life, food, shelter and clothing, and that somehow they are better and more enjoyable because they are the direct result of your own labor.

To get the best results from country life you must fling away ambition, just as the poets and philosophers advise. You must give up any idea you ever had of being wealthy or being a figure in the world. You must get it into your head that the seed-time and harvest come every year and that if you are industrious in the proper seasons you can produce enough to keep yourself and family in comfort until the next season of growth and fruitfulness. You will be living up to your income, of course, but as ninety-nine people out of every hundred do that in the cities the man who goes back to the land should not find it disquieting. Besides, if he takes the trouble to think it out he will find that what is pure reckless-

ness in the city is perfectly justifiable in the country. In the city few men have any assurance that their incomes will be permanent but the man who deals with Nature instead of with an employer soon learns that his income depends on his own industry instead of on the plans or whims of a fellow-man. But the man who undertakes to get his living from Nature must not expect to get rich. Men do amass small fortunes on farms but only by driving such virtues as industry and thrift to the point of being vices. By working to the limit of their strength and scrimping themselves of every enjoyment they may be able to save some money, but while doing this they usually destroy any capacity they may ever have had of enjoing it. Remember that although the country marches up to the gates of the cities with the message, “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,” all it promises is rest. Having discovered this I am now enjoying life as I never did before. I refuse to be hurried about anything. I have declined to have a telephone in the house though they are in almost every house in the neighborhood. For twenty years I lived too close to a telephone and let it worry the life out of me with its eternal call to make haste about something. If I cared to take the trouble I could have a daily paper with the news of the world on my breakfast, table every morning, but it serves me just as well to have the children bring it home with them when they are returning from school. There were many happy homes in the world before telephones or newspapers were invented and I have not yet found it an inconvenience to be a few hours behind my neighbors in knowing about the latest political deal or railroad accident. I

have time to think for myself instead of having my thinking done for me hurriedly by some distracted editor who is trying to grind out a column editorial on some subject on which he is imperfectly informed, before the paper goes to press.

Some may be inclined to call my attention to the fact that country people as a rule get little out of life but hard work and sordid surroundings. 1 admit all this without hesitation. The people who have been trained in the country and have lived in it all their lives lack the breadth of outlook that a man gets from life in the city. As a matter of fact the city man who goes to the country in the proper spirit can get delights from it that are undreamed of by the people of the coutnry. I find myself as deeply interested in the wild flowers and birds as are the children and we study them together. I have learned that all money can do for me is to buy delights that I can get direct from Nature and from my surroundings without money. I have learned to see Turner effects in the sunsets and can find Corot and Constable landscapes every time I walk the fields. The people of the country know nothing of the richness of their surroundings. But 1 see no reason why I should adopt their narrow and sordid point of view simply because I have come to live in the country. Enjoyment is about the last thing the average countryman thinks of, but that is no reason why those who return to the land should make the same mistake. If they have trained themselves to enjoy life in a sane and healthy way the country is the place to enjoy it. And there is no place like it for the children. They are as healthy and carefree as the young cattle.