Some General Thoughts

So I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Keene New Hampshire, writing a biography of freethinker Charles Knowlton. I’m doing a chronological first draft; there’s plenty of detail, background, explanation, and interpretation that I’ll need to add to this, but I figured getting down the skeleton of the story is the first step.

Pun not intended, but there it is. I’m writing about the first time Knowlton goes up to the “medical lectures” in Hanover. They formed the basis of what later became Dartmouth Medical School. The fourteen-week lectures cost $50, which neither Knowlton nor his traveling companion Herman Partridge could scrape together. So the two men decided to steal a body, since it was an open secret that Hanover paid $50 for “subjects” they could use in anatomy lectures.

This was probably Knowlton’s idea. He had already stolen a body and gotten away with it by this time. He was 22; his companion Partridge was 31. Ironically, Partridge later became the Coroner of their home-town Templeton Massachusetts. They found one body, but it was badly decomposed when they got to it and only yielded a skeleton. Then they heard of another burial, ten miles in the wrong direction. Desperate (the lectures had already commenced and they were missing them!), they went out in the night and stole this body too.

Carrying the corpse into Keene, where I now sit writing about it, Partridge was sure they had been discovered. Their wagon was old and their horse slow. They had to get out and push when they went up hills. Certainly there would be no chance of an escape, if they were caught. Partridge’s panic, however, was premature. They avoided the town and tavern, staying the night with a farmer who had lived in Templeton. The eighty-mile trip took them three days, and when they arrived in Hanover, the corpse was unusable and the anatomy professor was not buying. But he gave them $20 to dispose of the body.

As I write these events, I find myself trying to imagine what Keene looked like in 1822. What it was like to drive an old wagon over country paths, taking three days to make a trip we can now accomplish in two hours. And I hope that, since it’s interesting to me, it will be to my readers when I satisfy my own curiosity and fill in these details.

For every sentence of narrative, it seems as if there’s another sentence of explanation and context. So it’s not just that these things happened in this particular sequence, but that they happened in this alien world where you can’t pass over the meaning of carrying a body through town at a snail’s pace. The suspense would go on for a much longer time, if people on horseback or even running on foot could catch up to you. The anxiety that someone was going to smell the foul thing decaying under the covers in the wagon must have built to an extreme level, when hours passed under the hot sun as the old horse trudged on.

But here I sit, in an air-conditioned café. The past really is a foreign country…

Preparing to Move

I’m spending a lot of time in a coffee-shop, writing. But we’re also preparing to move halfway across the country in just about a month. So last night I transferred my school books from the shelves in my study into boxes. An even dozen bankers boxes – because that was the biggest box full of books I wanted to carry. A dozen (the two on the left are from the kids’ room).

When we arrived in New England
a little over four years ago, I had about as many books as I could fit in a backpack (okay, I did keep my original boxed set of The Lord of the Rings that I read as a kid). My previous collection had been liquidated when we went to Chile, through selling on Amazon and giving books away. So this pile of books is the result of just four years of acquisition. Dang!

In my defense, most of the books on these shelves are history, and I
have been getting a PhD, which involves a little reading. It could have been much worse: I’d have accumulated twice as many if I had actually bought every volume I read. And lately, I’ve read dozens of books on Kindle. Those don’t take up shelf-space, either.

I should probably get rid of some of these, but I suspect there’s material in them that I haven’t dealt with yet.
As I recently found, rereading a text I’d powered through for my Comps, there’s a lot more to find when you have more time and a wider focus than preparing for Oral Exams. And more recently, I’ve added some books that are background to the writing projects I’m doing. And others that are practical, how-to books for the move to the farm.

So I’m going to consider myself lucky they all fit into just a dozen medium-sized boxes. That will be more than enough to lug onto the truck and off again on the other end. Then there are those three big boxes of clothes…

Advice to Farmers

People have been giving advice to farmers throughout American history. Sometimes farmers themselves have written about their favorite techniques or innovations, but often experts have tried to compile the “best practices” of the past and add new ideas developed by scientists and technologists. The progressive era amped up this process, and turned the USDA and land grant “Agricultural and Technical” universities into big producers of information for rural people.

But that process is a story for another day. Today, what caught my attention is an old (1880) book I found in the UMass library stacks, called
Farming for Profit (which is available online here). Written by John Elliot Read (who claims in the introduction to be “a practical farmer, acquainted with the details of farm management, and thoroughly used to manual labor”), the book promises to show “How to Make Money and Secure Health and Happiness on the Farm.” I think it’s interesting that even a volume designed to be an “Encyclopedic” and “Comprehensive” source of “Mechanics” and “Business Principles” in 1880 puts the rural lifestyle front and center.

Farming for Profit
is a fascinating combination of late-nineteenth century technique and culture – both of which can be compared with what came after. At some point, I’m going to make a more thorough study of how the two elements of farm tech and farm life changed over time. For right now, I thought these items were interesting:

In the illustration at the top, across from the title-page of the book, we get a more or less classical view of farm life – not of technology. There are no new machines in the picture, and the buildings don’t even seem to be in the best repair. The impression I get is of an ancient and venerable way of life. Peaceful, slow-moving, and dignified. Later in the book, there are more practical illustrations, like this diagram of an ideal farmstead. And in another illustration, we see more evidence of a transition in farming: the first view is of corn plants (old-fashioned ones -- not the giant hybrids we’re used to seeing today) that have been “drilled or planted,” while the second shows corn planted in hills. Hill-planting was the old technique colonists learned from the Indians, so it’s interesting that it still finds its way into a manual from 1880. Suggests that maybe the author
was a practical farmer with lots of experience in the fields.

America By Bus

I took the bus from New England to South Carolina last week, to attend The Historical Society’s conference. I knew I didn’t want to fly, for several reasons. The cost, of course – but even more, the disastrous environmental effects and the obnoxiousness of the whole TSA-centered security regime. The only way to really object to this, I thought, was to boycott flying.

So the choice was between driving and taking a bus or train. The train seemed like an interesting option, until I discovered it arrived in Columbia SC at about 1:30 AM. This seems fairly typical of Amtrak schedules – they really don’t seem to put any thought into the extreme inconvenience of getting somewhere strange in the middle of the night. And the cost is quite a bit higher than busses. I imagine it’s nice to be able to get up and walk around (especially to the food car!), but how much is that worth?

I decided not to drive because the trip was going to take about 16 hours each way. I just did a long drive (24 hours each way, split over 4 days), and I was surprised how tired I was afterwards (am I getting old?). And the cost of gas and tolls made it about the same as the bus. So I ended up taking the greenest option, for some of the right reasons and some practical reasons. Nice that they aligned like that!

Photo on 5-30-12 at 5.02 PM #2
I jotted down some impressions during the early stages of the trip. After a while, I realized trying to type was making me dizzy. I spent the rest of the trip and most of the return trip reading and sleeping. The first (and last) legs of the trips were in newer busses run by affiliates of Greyhound (Peter Pan and Southeastern Stage); the middle, high-traffic legs of the trip were on Greyhounds.

All the buses had AC outlets and Wifi. The Greyhound legs (between New York City, Richmond VA, and Fayetteville NC) were night runs. The busses were completely full, but I slept through most of those parts. The middle of the night changes in Richmond were a little strange. The weirdest place on the trip, however, was the New York Port Authority.

It’s strange, when you’re going from one place on the periphery to another (with apologies to Columbia), to go through the center. Especially since the bus got off the expressway at about 140th Street and drove the city streets of New York to the Port Authority, which is at 42nd Street on the west side, by the Lincoln Tunnel. We got there at rush hour, too – making the driver’s three million accident-free miles (advertised on the side of his bus) seem even more remarkable. Entering the Port Authority itself was like being swallowed up into an underground world which only seemed stranger because the only vehicles were hundreds of big busses. But it was super-efficient: it was impossible not to figure out where you needed to be.

The amenities of bus travel are not the same as those of air travel. You bring your own food, because often the sandwich shops in terminals are closed at the hours you’re there, and sometimes the vending machines are out of change and won’t take your bills. Some of the bathrooms are the sort where you don’t wash your hands after because it probably wouldn’t result in a lower germ count. And if you have any lingering class or race issues, you’ll probably come face to face with them on the bus. But look at it this way: getting out of your comfort zone and seeing the real world is an opportunity to grow.

Everybody I came across on my trip was either friendly or kept to themselves. I heard lots of languages, including Russian (a bunch of young tourists on their way to Myrtle Beach). I had a couple of conversations with people on the busses and in lines at the terminals. One of my neighbors was a New Yorker from a 28-square mile Caribbean island, another was a lady on her way to Texas to collect her grandkids. And I slept next to complete strangers without thinking much of it. My only problem was, some of my seat-mates were just too big for their seats. Americans need to lose some weight!

So I got to my destination at mid-day, after about 24 hours of travel. 8 hours longer than driving myself, but I wasn’t exhausted from driving. The first guy I met at the conference had come by plane from Montana, but he’d been stranded overnight in Minneapolis due to storms. His trip had been twice as long as mine, and probably three times as expensive. Another friend found a deal on a flight from Boston for $99. But I’d do it again. Only, next time I’d bring a sweatshirt for the air conditioning, something soft to use as a pillow, and a few extra snacks.

Rural Life

Thirty years after getting a degree in agricultural economics, and after decades living both the highs and lows of the American Dream and nearly a decade as an aspiring writer and historian, I’m actually moving to a farm. I’m going to keep a record of the move and the new life on these pages.

Unlike many of the old farmers and sustainable living folks whose books I’ve been reading, who’ve been practicing their lifestyle for two or three decades, we’re newbies. My family and I haven’t been living the life, raising free range chickens since we were kids; so our experiences getting our first batch of chicks later this summer will be fresh and our learning process will be happening as we report it, not something imperfectly remembered from ages ago. We’ll be making discoveries daily, rather than trying to remember what it felt like and what we might have wanted to know, back when we began. From that perspective, sharing our excitement and learning from our mistakes might be useful to our readers.

Since we’re trying to make life changes that are directly related to how we understand the world, its history, and our place in it, there will be some theory from time to time. The idea is that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but also that the ideals we don’t act on aren’t really the ones we hold most firmly. At some point, if you’re lucky, you get a chance to put your money where your mouth is. This is us taking that chance.

I’m going to write about our family farming experiences, and also about my other work (I was going to say my “day job,” but one of the coolest things about this change is I’m no longer sure which is which!) as a writer and historian. A big part of my history work revolves around regular people in rural settings, so this will also find its way into these pages. History influences the present in ways as trivial as our choice of poultry breeds, and as important as our choice to leave the suburban East Coast and live on a Midwestern sustainable farm. This mixture of present, past, and future – like the attempt to balance farm work, reading, and writing – will be a big element of my project. Hopefully, they’ll result in material people will find interesting and useful.

After the Show

Went to The Historical Society’s biennial conference this week. It was great: small and low-key, with very smart people presenting interesting material. I’ll probably have a lot to say in the next few weeks as a result of it, but one thing struck me, and I wrote a little about it on the bus-trip home:

I really need to re-engage with the libertarians again, at some point. Because once upon a time, I was one of those young, naïve, fresh-faced guys (there were many at the conference). That was me once: I had my picture taken with Henry Hazlitt! (which, given when he died, dates me…) And I know their founding documents. I‘m probably a little hard on them, because I really believe in the importance of the classical liberalism they claim to support. But I’m particularly unhappy when well-heeled corporate sponsors use these ideals as cover for actions and policies that are antithetical.

The conservative spokespeople who were at the conference are very smart, and most of them are sincere. When push comes to shove, most admit that their support of free market principles does not necessarily mean they support the 1%. That they understand that there’s growing income and wealth inequality, and that just isn’t good. But why does push have to come to shove, to get them to admit these things? My point is, if you’re going to advocate for free markets, you have an EXTRA responsibility to point out when they are not operating freely, and to work toward the IDEAL situation you advocate, rather than the ACTUAL situation where global corporations regularly end-run free markets, but use free-market rhetoric to cover their tracks and silence their critics.

The conservatives’ story is that people accuse them of being hyper-patriotic and chauvinistic. That Howard Zinn’s over-the-top critique of America is the problem. I think Zinn is too easy a straw man. I have a copy of the conservative, patriotic values one of the speakers espouses, and I agree with most of them. The actual critique, I think, is that these guys are suspected of fronting for corporations that don’t walk this talk. That this is just propaganda the 1% pay to have pushed on the poor and middle classes to bamboozle us, while they pollute, victimize employees, avoid paying their share to support the social and physical infrastructure that makes their profits possible, and even (ie. Goldman Sachs) routinely break the law when they can’t change it to their advantage.

I’m not denying that entrepreneurship and innovation are important (even heroic) elements of American character, or that private property and financial rewards encourage these activities. But let’s also admit that concentrations of wealth create power inequalities, and that collective action is sometimes necessary to create the DIALOGUE about values that enables societies to choose between alternatives. Or are we really supposed to believe that the rich, the poor, or anyone else can be impartial, especially when they have a lot of skin in the game? Hasn’t postmodernism at least taught us that we’re all influenced by the particular cultures we’re part of?

So I’m hoping to find people who really believe in classical liberalism. And maybe it’ll be my role to engage with them (taking advantage of my perspective as an informed outsider) to help them explore the relationship between their (or our shared) ideals and the situation on the ground. Both historically and right now. My working title for this project might be adapted from Ayn Rand: “Capitalism, the Unpracticed Ideal.”