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.
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.
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.