Tag Archives: farm

You Always Love the One You Hurt

There is a road, not far from us, one we’ve traveled up and down many times, two lanes east, two lanes west, divided by a narrow, grassy median. It’s called The Fairway. Why? Not because it is in any way fair – lined as it is by car dealerships, shopping malls and underwhelming low-rises designed for senior housing – but rather because where it and everything around it is there once was a golf course, and this was a fairway in it. Unless you knew, there would be no evidence, no clues to its past life, except, of course, for the name. Oh, and the slight dogleg to the left, and the welcome sign made up of a gigantic golf ball atop a humongous tee, right near the American flag. Fore.

A few minutes from there is a suburban community where, once, a long time ago, a large tract of the land was cleared to build an amusement park. After that went belly-up, a big-box-anchored shopping center (and its enormous blacktopped parking lot) took its place, soon to be joined by scads of large and small commercial strips and clusters. And lots of predictable, suburban-ish houses. The area, as well as the big mall, is known as Willow Grove, but we defy you to find one willow, let alone a grove of them, anywhere within the incorporated limits.

As long as there has been a past and a language in which to frame and consider it, people have relegated places to it. It is not uncommon – in fact, it is commonly caricatured – for someone to give directions to a lost traveler by telling him to make a turn where, say, “the old Johnson place” used to be, even though the Johnson abode has been a ghost for decades; it is equally commonplace for there to be roads named for the properties or businesses that the roads were built to take people to: Hagy’s Mill Road, for example, or Old Forge Road – places long since gone, vanished before current memory, existing only in the names of the surviving byways.

It’s always been thus, this presence of the past, whether by design, or as an honorific, or just an apathy or reluctance to change. Names were given, and though, through disasters or deaths, economics or migrations, the places disappeared, the names remained, and gave these areas a kind of historical or folk resonance that they would not have otherwise: Germantown, for example, or Georgetown.

These were natural passings away, as all things do in time. But, in the 20th and 21st centuries, dominating developers have changed the rules, and, in so doing, have diminished both landscape and memory. It goes like this: They find a piece of land with some distinguishing characteristic – a stream, a gorge, meadows, a forest of a certain kind of tree or the dwelling spot of a certain kind of animal – then plow it all, gouge it, strip it, turn it under, level it, reconfigure it, build on it … and, with not the least sense of irony, name the new development after the very feature native to the spot but subsequently eradicated. It’s like naming a nature preserve after the animal you’ve just hunted into extinction there.

How many “communities” do you know of that have the word “hill” in their name but are as flat as a table top? How many “fields” with barely a blade of grass? Or “estates” with nary a manor house or signs of the presence of wealth and privilege? “Arbors” that are essentially treeless? Or “farms” bare of crops, animals or anything elementally similar to arable land? Or “park” with no place to stroll, no tree to sit under and nobody to interact with? What view has been bulldozed into oblivion to create a development with the word “view” in it? 

Given our propensity towards naming locations with a sense of what they were, or once played host to, what perverse thing is there in us humans that makes us kill off the last remnant of the thing that attracted us to it in the first place, and then name the replacement after it? There’s something truly ghoulish or possibly cruel about such forensic categorizing.

By doing so, do builders believe that they are sustaining or re-creating the original placeness of a place that they have wiped off the face of the earth, merely by calling it by what they’ve removed – that words will trump the visual evidence … that marketing voodoo will make it so? It’s like the opposite of the movie “Poltergeist” – here, developers want to acknowledge that there’s an Indian burial ground under the townhouses. It’s a selling point. 

Even in this world, where money talks louder than rational thought does, we need to leave some places alone – to allow their placeness to persist and ripen, or to permit them the time to establish a sense of placeness among the populace. Not everything beautiful needs to be commoditized, and co-opted to suit the needs of those who wish to profit from it. And let it not be up to our governments to set aside or legally protect certain selected plots of land for the common good, to preserve them (until businessmen convince the politicians that the land is too valuable to just sit around doing nothing productive). Let it be up to us to demand that meadows stay meadows, that hills provide fine prospects, that farms will be places where food is grown and animals tended. Let us fight for what we value, and for what, in the coming years, we will truly want and need, and desire to be in.

Until then – if such an idealistic “then” ever occurs – instead of beating around the bush (which they have, by the way, uprooted to put in the hot tub), let the developers just call their work by the most essential things that they have destroyed: let their developments be named “Sense” or “Aesthetics” or “Stewardship.” If they can’t be caring, let them at least be truthful in their dishonesty.

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Down on the Farm

Driving through the midwest, in northern Ohio and Indiana, I observed, and thought about the idea of, the farmstead. Growing up, I always had an affection for the somewhat isolated farms that dot the landscape. They appeared to be one-family small towns or manmade islands floating in a solid sea of germinating seeds. They were quaint, throwbacks to the homesteaders of pioneering stock, independent nations and emblems of self-sufficiency that represented a more direct connection to the land that we all inhabit and most of us never experience.

And, then, there were their design elements, the patterns of furrowed and sowed rows of agriculture, the variety of colors of the soil and the texture of the growing foods. An arrangement of lines and angles and shades of greens or browns, crisscrossing 100- to 200-acre tracts with a cluster of buildings at their center or placed at a transecting road’s edge. From airplanes, farms are incredibly beautiful designs on the landscape, continuous quilts covering the flat terrain and the hills and valleys. Like the Nazca Lines, the designs invite the sky dwellers down to earth with verdant color.

But the real purpose of farms is life-giving nourishment. Food. Originally, farms were oases of self-sustainment, the only way to survive in the wilderness that was much of America. And once you increased the acreage to a certain size, the purpose of a farm changed to one of production – a surplus creating a demand in the marketplace – and the farm became a manufacturer of food for the cities. As cities burgeoned and farms stepped up production, a kind of balance was reached in which farmland that encircled the urban centers was supported by the areas of no farmland, and vice versa, as cities were left off the hook for generating agricultural foodstuffs. A kind of yin-yang of urban to rural ratio. But all that changed, and now there is an imbalance.

After reading Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am struck by how the meaning of a farm has changed for me. Where I once saw sustenance, now I see just industry. Industrialized farming has taken over real hands-in-the-dirt farming. Monoculture has replaced diversity. Farms resemble machinery now rather than homesteads. My affection for them has waned in proportion to their own disconnection with the earth. Their multiplex silos with numerous chutes look like tentacles, or perhaps some giant upside down milking machine, sucking the life out of farming and the land. Everything is enclosed, secretive, overwrought, sterile, maybe even scary – an encased, entombed facility that appears to have no connection to the land, human hands, sunlight or air. The farm has become a factory, its appearance, once charming, is indistinct from a steel mill or a quarry. It is hard to imagine that people live in these complexes still. And, based on the ones I just viewed, they are all alike, as uniform as any American mall, all the individuality removed, as in a lobotomy.

What has happened to us? What kind of world have we created – one in which we are removed from reality and left with fake manufactured food (new and improved)? Why are our farms not farms anymore but rather plants (an irony in the term itself)? What is it in our country, the supposed land of independence, that we allow these losses of control to occur, that we let anyone and everyone determine our fate, just for the profit of a few and a huge loss for the rest of us? What kind of place are we creating: a place of no place? A faux place. A placeless place.

Farms used to represent a real placeness, something that was often hard to replicate in an urban setting and certainly not in the suburban clusters that are replacing them at a rapid rate. Farming on the grand, multicorporate scale obviously doesn’t have that quality anymore. Think about what could have more placeness than Auntie Em’s farm? Remember, there’s no place like it.

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