New Sherwood

The Rural Solution

Steve Skojec’s latest post is a must-read for anyone interested in rebuilding Christendom. Among other important topics he touches upon one of my favorite themes:

“As for the rest of culture, I’m certainly not an isolationist, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that we need to remove ourselves from the culture at large … I want to get out of the city. I want to have land, and enough of it that we can grow some of our own food, tend to animals, breathe fresh air, work the land and contemplate God. I want to control the influences we are under. I want to live an authentic and healthy way of life. I want to produce something good, and find a way to sustain ourselves through it.”

In an earlier comment Mr. Skojec asked me to elaborate on how transitioning to a rural, agrarian lifestyle ties into cultural restoration in general. That is an excellent question, and one that needs more attention than I can give it. But I’ll offer a few remarks for the reader’s consideration.

REALISM

The restoration of Christian culture requires a healthy dose of realism. In modern cities, a Catholic family is not merely swimming against a strong current: it is overwhelmed by the waves. There is nothing that one family, or one thousand families, can do to change the culture in a metropolitan area of a million souls. Not in your lifetime, anyway. Therefore it is better to find a place where 1) the culture is somewhat more Christian and less decadent, and 2) you are not so ridiculously outnumbered. In a more conservative town or rural district you will be more likely to find allies, and more likely to make a difference. You will still be fighting, but your battles will be different and there will be a realistic chance of success. Here in Glenn County we don’t have to fight the homosexual movement or the pro-abortion movement because they just don’t exist. We no longer plan our every move around an ever-present threat of random, violent crime. We no longer worry about the billboards, bumper stickers, signs, music, images, and ubiquitous perversity that followed us around in the big city. Instead we do battle with Indian casinos, corporate ag interests, out-of-town developers, and corruption in government offices. I can handle that. And I don’t need to explain these things to my children before they are ready.

LIFE ON A HUMAN SCALE

Life in a small community is more human on several levels. In the city we seldom knew our neighbors, even after living in the same place for years. It seems that the more neighbors you have, the less likely you are to know anything about them. We were used to ignoring our neighbors in the city – in truth, I didn’t particularly care to know them – but after moving to the countryside we began meeting our neighbors almost immediately. They would just drive up and start talking. We’ve needed their help on numerous occasions, and they’ve even needed ours. They’ve helped us put up fences and outbuildings, irrigate our pasture, and dispose of dead livestock. We’ve loaned them our equipment, herded their cattle, given them produce, and baked them pies. One neighbor drops by every Monday to sell my wife homemade tamales. Truly, we had more privacy on our suburban cul-de-sac, with 17 crowded homes, than we do with twenty acres on a country road just outside of town.

If you move to the country you must learn to wave. You will be waved at constantly. If you don’t wave, you may be insulting someone: best to wave just to be on the safe side. Once you get into town you can stop waving, but in general you still have to say hello to people. If you’re standing in line at the feed store, you may be expected to say something. You can’t be too busy for small talk.

There also tends to be more tolerance for eccentrics, and we have plenty of eccentrics. In a small town you sort of have to put up with your neighbors’ quirks whether you like them or not. Not that people here don’t argue or complain: they most certainly do, but they complain about their eccentric neighbors in the same way they would an uncle or a cousin.

SILENCE, DARKNESS, AND SOLITUDE

People in the city seldom experience real silence, darkness, or solitude. But these things are important for the spiritual life. Silence is necessary for contemplation and repentance. Darkness is symbolic of many spiritual truths and is the only means we have of appreciating the light. Solitude is required for prayer and self-examination. Given my remarks about community and neighborliness, you would think that rural dwellers would not experience much solitude. Surprisingly, that isn’t the case. Rural dwellers get both extremes: real community and real solitude. The difference is that these are imposed rather than chosen. There are no shopping malls or movie theatres to relieve your solitude. You can’t change the weather, and you can’t alter your surroundings on a whim. Life in the countryside is marked by dependence, and I think this ultimately leads to an attitude of calm acceptance of reality.

NATURE

Man is made to live close to the earth. Grace builds on nature, and faith comes more easily to those who are closer to nature. The city is man-made and tells us something about man, but the countryside is God-made and tells us something about God. The beauty, complexity, and order of God’s creation is unsurpassed by anything man-made. Because man was created to know God and to love Him, he has a deep and primal desire to know and understand the created world: Eden is always calling. In the city, this salutary desire can only be suppressed.    

Since moving here 2-1/2 years ago, my kids have participated in planting vegetables and fruit trees, nurturing baby chicks, watching hens lay eggs, butchering chickens, butchering a goat, milking goats, castrating a bull-calf, and training dogs. They have watched dogs grow from puppies to maturity, observed cats catch mice, and assisted with the live births of two goats and five kittens. They have nursed farm animals from sickness to health. They have seen their best goat die and helped to bury her in the ground. They have seen large plants sprout from the tiniest seeds, grow vigorously, produce tasty vegetables, wilt, recover, and finally die. They have seen the effects of water saturation, fungus, and pests on fruit trees and have helped to fight them. They have observed cats, cows, and goats in the act of mating. They have identified more birds and insects in two years than I ever knew existed.

As a result, the children have learned to appreciate nature without romanticizing it. They see nature as the handiwork of God and the source of human livelihood, but also as hard taskmaster and sometimes a deadly threat. They understand the cycles of birth, life, sickness, and death inherent in a world both fallen and sanctified. They know exactly where food comes from and how much work is involved to produce it.

WORK AND RESPONSIBILITY

One of the most important benefits of country living is work. There is always – ALWAYS – some project or another that needs attention. No one is bored unless he wants to be. The children have their rounds of daily chores. For the most part, they do them well and without being asked. Every morning they milk the goats, bottle-feed the kids, pasteurize the milk, feed the dogs and cats, and feed the chickens. At night they do it all again, in addition to collecting the eggs from the henhouse. These days they are also watering the garden. I believe this early training in responsibility is critical. Even the younger ones can be of some help. Last week, for example, we had some work to do on the electric fence. This fence encircles more than one acre. The weeds were so high that the netting was being shorted and the electric charge was ineffective. We had to pull up the fence, cut down the weeds on the fence-line, clean up the energizer and solar panel, and put everything back again. In order to do this we had to tether the animals in the barn and provide for their needs. Everyone was involved, from the youngest to the oldest, working together as a family toward a common goal. It was a beautiful sight. How often does this happen in the city?

THE DISCIPLINE OF PLACE

In addition to poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Benedictines take an additional vow: a vow of stability. A homestead with animals, a garden, and an orchard ties a family down. Gardens need daily watering and regular weeding. Animals need to be fed and milked daily. If you skip more than one milking, the animal can get infected and milk production may go down. Someone needs to be around when an animal gets sick, or perhaps escapes through an open gate or a hole in the fence. While it is possible to have neighbors look after the feeding, goats and cows will not always cooperate with an unfamiliar milker. It is best to have two or three experienced milkers in the family in case someone falls ill or needs to leave for a time. Essentially what this means is that the family does not take any overnight trips together. No more vacations! Like the Benedictines, you are practicing the discipline of place, the only cure for modern restlessness and wanderlust.

PLAY AND CREATIVITY

A final note for now. Restoration means the recovery of reason, imagination, and cooperation. That means that the next generation will need to be free of the pernicious effects of television, video games, and the internet – destroyers of the mind, every one. Children with plenty of space in the country have limitless opportunities for play and creativity and the development of common sense. They learn how to get along, solve problems, and argue rationally. Sometimes I am asked how it is that our children have come to enjoy each other’s company so much. Well, it is simple. They play together, usually outdoors. They don’t have the option of hiding in their bedrooms with a television or computer.

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May 2, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

17 Comments »

  1. Awesome, Jeff. Great response. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I instinctively know these things, I think, but it’s nice to see them said.

    One of the commenters on my blog mentioned a varied approach to restoration:

    As I have mentioned before, this Cultural/Ecclesial/Everything War in which we find ourselves is fought on many fronts. We need people in the cities, in the incubator, and everywhere in between.

    I’ve always believed that this is true. My conviction, however, is beginning to wane. What if it really is the case that the whole structure is going to collapse, and there’s not a damned thing we can do about it but slow it down a bit? What if our efforts aren’t even accomplishing that? Shouldn’t we all get out? And if we should all get out, how? It’s not a cheap transition to go from living paycheck to paycheck in the city to trying to sustain yourself on a farm out in the country. Somehow you have to fund that transition. I don’t think we’ve got twenty years to wait. Those of us with children need a change, and fast.

    Another commenter on my site mentioned this:

    If the monks hadn’t fallen back into their monasteries 1,500 years ago, we wouldn’t have Western civilization.

    I think that might actually be where we are. What the people in Thailand and the surrounding areas didn’t recognize was that when the ocean suddenly and dramatically recedes, the Tsunami was coming next. I wonder if a wholesale effort on the part of Catholics to recede from the culture would serve as a warning? Or would it be only for our own benefit?

    Whatever the case, the Tsunami is coming, and fast.

    Oh, and P.S. – it’s spelled “Skojec.” But you were close. ;)

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    Comment by Steve | May 2, 2007 | Reply

  2. Great post Jeff! I recently found this blog from a link elsewhere (A knitting link linked me to a pro-abortion site, where you were a commenter), and have made it a must-read. The points you mentioned were great, and I think it must be said that indeed, city-dwellers do indeed experience silence, darkness and solitude, just not the good kind. With our ears, eyes, and minds constantly overwhelmed by the input you get in the city, there is an accompanying silence and darkness in the soul. There is no room to listen to, or meditate on, God; and while everything else is buzzing and loud and bright, where the light inside should be is a dark, lonely place. There is a solitude that comes from not walking with God, because no matter how may people you are surrounded with, if there is no room for God, you are in an important respect, alone.
    *disclaimer* I myself am not Christian. I am not going to create a false pretense there. I am, however, what most non-Abramic faiths would consider a heretic (to their ideals of liberalism), because I don’t believe in liberalism, moral relativism, or this idea of “anything goes” that is found in most non-Abramic faiths today. I have strict moral values, I believe in putting my Gods first in my life, in family values, in the importance of faith to everyday life. I believe that if you profess to be a member of a faith, you need to live every second as a member of that faith FIRST, you need to know said faith’s teachings, you need to read your holy books, and that you need to believe your holy books to be true, and not play “pick and choose” with what does and doesn’t apply based on convenience. Strangely, none of the other pagans will play with my family :-(
    That said, your post applies to ALL people of good faith. You cannot find any gods but the man made idols of materialism in most cities today. If one is a devout follower of any faith, you should constantly be seeking to devote more of your life to right living and right thinking. You should be striving to educate your children in the same ways of thinking. A rootless life without any real connections to the people around you, with a constant struggle for materialism, is a good way to blind yourself to the real meaning of the world around you, and to blind yourself to the glories and meaningfulness of the world to come.

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    Comment by Teresa | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  3. Mr. Culbreath,

    I am part of a “Distributist Reading Group” which gathers to discuss Catholic social teaching and the connection between Faith, economics, culture and tradition. Your post was a marvelous summary of the issues at stake!

    Unfortunately, the cultural dangers of modern society places an incredible burden upon the traditional family. It is nearly impossible to operate a truly self-sufficient farm – not only are families burdened with the entire responsibility of educating their children at home, but they cannot farm the land without also seeking some other means of gainful employment.

    For now, our reading group invokes the patronage of Our Lady of Gaudalupe and Sts. Isidore and Maria while we sit in our suburban homes, studying the writings of the Catholic Land Movement and eagerly reading about homely crafts.

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    Comment by Lorraine | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  4. Steve:

    Sorry about the misspelling! I’m still holding out for the eventual recovery of our cities. At least to some degree. If we had genuine economic collapse in the cities that would be catastrophic for rural dwellers as well. Are you prepared to make your own tools? furniture? clothing? toothpaste? etc.? Steps can be made toward self-sufficiency, of course, but few will be able to go “all the way” until forced by necessity.

    As for making the transition, my advice would be NOT to wait until you can afford to buy land. Renting is a perfectly viable option. St. Isidore was a tenant farmer. One can live a good, wholesome, stable life in the country as a renter!

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  5. Teresa: Once again, I greatly appreciate your very thoughtful comments here. And with a name like Teresa (are you named for St. Teresa of Avila?) you’ll make a great Catholic someday. :-)

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  6. Lorraine: I remember you! Good to see you again. Please update your blog so I can add it to the sidebar. You’re quite right about the sad prospects for rural self-sufficiency today. Fortunately there are many other reasons for rural living besides self-sufficiency. Like I told Steve, consider renting in the country if you can’t afford to buy.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  7. Jeff,
    I really like this post, and it was your posts before that made me start thinking about rural life as more than just an interesting idea and in fact as a real posibility. However, I am wondering what kind of advice you would give to someone with no real experience living “full time” outside of the city. Self-sufficiency would not be my goal, I would merely wish to set up a real home for my (future) family, not merely a house which will be quickly sold to move into a bigger and better one. I have heard a lot about how difficult it is to live in the country, and I was wondering what you think it would be like for someone fairly new to it all.

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    Comment by Daniel A. | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  8. If I may interject… the move to the country and the change to living a country life is not easy-but fortunately you don’t know how ignorant you are until you get there. As I have noted on at my place numerous times, Hilare Belloc once said something like, “It takes 6 months for a country boy to learn how to be a city boy. It takes 2 (3?) generations to turn a city boy into a country boy.”

    And your friends will resist your move-not just the physical move, but the lifestyle change. If you get rid of appliances and extras to live more simply, they will buy you replacements. It does mean a constant and never ending supply of yard sale (or ebay) merchandise…

    But with all that, I don’t want to give it up. It is beautiful out here and we dream to make a real go of it.

    Jeff-it was a great post.

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    Comment by Jim Curley | May 3, 2007 | Reply

  9. Excellent post and commentary! I borrowed it for my blog!!

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    Comment by elena maria vidal | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  10. “However, I am wondering what kind of advice you would give to someone with no real experience living ‘full time’ outside of the city.”

    What Jim Curley said. In fact, I’d like to see an essay from Mr. Curley on the subject. He’s further along than I am. But I’ll try to answer your question in another post. Just give me a day or three, or thereabouts!

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  11. Elena Maria Vidal: Many thanks! (… have you received the check???)

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  12. Mr. Culbreath,

    You are right of course. I only meant that,to a certain extent, the demands of homeschooling and supplemental work make rural life in the modern world somewhat different from the ideal presented by the Catholic Land Movement.

    In any case, you spurred me to update my blog. However, I don’t know that it will ever be sidebar fodder again. (: For me, blogging proved too great a distraction from more immediate work, so I now limit my posting severely.

    Like

    Comment by Lorraine | May 4, 2007 | Reply

  13. That is so interesting about the Benedictines taking a vow of stability. I’ve never heard of that and I’d like to learn more about it and I think I’ll look it up. It seems like a wonderful way to instill discipline in one’s life.

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    Comment by m | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  14. I should write that essay-although I am not sure I am “further along”. But I put off the essay because each time I sit down to write it I find I am not ready yet. Someday.

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    Comment by Jim Curley | May 5, 2007 | Reply

  15. Yes! The book is in the mail, Jeff! Thanks so much!

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    Comment by elena maria vidal | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  16. Lorraine wrote:It is nearly impossible to operate a truly self-sufficient farm – not only are families burdened with the entire responsibility of educating their children at home, but they cannot farm the land without also seeking some other means of gainful employment. [end quote]

    If we could understand why this is, maybe someone could solve the problem. Theoretically, if farmers can’t make a profit, they go out of business and all food production eventually ceases. (Of course, that wouldn’t really happen because prices for their products would rise.)

    Maybe instead of self-sufficient families, one should think in terms of self-sufficient communities. Productivity increases with specialization. How many people in a rural community would it take for the community to produce most of what it needed and distribute it via either a local currency, or some combination of local currency and government money (figuring some inputs for some products would have to be “imported”)? The community would, like nations, still need to produce enough exports to pay for its imports, but by judicious specialization it would need very few imports. Because people would prefer to spend their local currency whenever possible and use government cash sparingly, it could provide each member with a guaranteed “internal” market. Some economists say that economies are nothing more than a bunch of people doing each other’s laundry–except of course that everyone can’t be a launderer.

    Has anyone ever “crunched the numbers” on something like this?

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    Comment by Al | May 7, 2007 | Reply

  17. […] Commenting on The Rural Solution, Daniel […]

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    Pingback by Getting started « Stony Creek Digest | May 12, 2007 | Reply


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