For every beloved instrument, there is wonder in the tale of the discovery. Mine came from a gun shop, abandoned in the corner when the shop owner took it in trade. Mice have gnawed around the edges, but a friend restored it to play-ability, and left his own marks of improvement. He said it was French-made, from about 1880…and how did it get into the corner of an Ozark gun shop?
I can imagine its history, but I’ll never know it. I can tell you where the instrument is weak and how it must be handled so it will last for another generation. I call it “the old lady,” and when I play outside my house, I take its sturdier, louder, German-made cousin. When a beloved instrument breaks, as happens sometimes simply because the weather changes, it is repaired and, taking it apart for repair, the luthier knows more about it than before and builds the new knowledge into the repair.
This is how we must think about our land. A precious instrument that, when broken, we must repair.
When I came home from that NFFC meeting last January, I began to notice how much the Missouri landscape was changing. Where there had been pasture, my neighbors were pulling up trees and filling in ponds to create flat land for row crops because, in 2011, row crops like corn and soybeans were going to make money. The strategy promoted by the chemical and seed companies is to pour Monsanto’s Roundup, or some other kind of glyphosate poison, all over the pastures and then plant Roundup-Ready crops. The crops have been genetically altered to resist Roundup, the most poisonous herbicide on the planet.
But, with pastures and animals gone, and doused with poison and chemicals, the land will not survive. As the summer wore on, hot and dry, the crops on older fields withered before the crops on newly-plowed pasture. There was no organic matter—animal manure and grass roots—to hold the moisture. We are farming on desert.
But, here in the Midwest, our advisors—extension agents, bankers, seed salesmen—don’t talk about connection to the land, or even connection to consumers. Instead, the language is all about ethanol and how high the corn prices are going to go.
Now we’re on the cusp of 2012. KOR-US is stalled in the Korean parliament, the farmers making their case with more confidence than they had here. I imagine them passing through the halls of parliament, talking to lawmakers who wear western suits. One elder wears an elegant linen robe with a sash that covers his slight body almost completely. He is the spokesman, the most articulate and manages to be commanding without losing his civility. Good manners, it seems, transcend the differences in cultures.
Others are dressed in loose-fitting shirts and trousers, practical clothes that move from home to the field. Younger, and more insistent, they are resolute that they want to stay in their traditional villages rather than move to cities, which are already overcrowded. These young men have a clear path ahead of them—resistance and perseverance. In other countries, beginning in Tunisia, similar young men have moved to the cities and found there are no prospects and no comfort.
So, after a year of writing and thinking about these things, I find myself with the old dilemma and the old demons: What will cure rural America? What will rid our neighborhoods of meth labs? What will tempt our kids to stay around? What will make us happy? How can we turn the conversation to culture and joy?