The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 3/Farming Life in New England

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The Atlantic Monthly  (1858) 
Farming Life in New England.


New England does not produce the bread she eats, nor the raw materials of the fabrics she wears. A multitude of her purely agricultural towns are undergoing, more or less rapidly, a process of depopulation. Yet these facts exist by the side of positive advances in agricultural science and decided improvements in the means and modes of farming. The plough is perfected, and the theory of ploughing is understood. The advantages of thorough draining are universally recognized, and tiles are for sale everywhere. Mowing and reaping machines have ceased to be a novelty upon our plains and meadows. The natural fertilizers have been analyzed, and artificial nutrients of the soil have been contrived. The pick and pride of foreign herds have regenerated our neat stock, and the Morgan and the Black-Hawk eat their oats in our stalls. The sheepfold and the sty abound with choice blood. Sterling agricultural journals are on every farmer's table, and Saxton's hand-books upon agricultural specialties are scattered everywhere. Public shows and fairs bring on an annual exacerbation of the agricultural fever, which is constantly breaking out in new places, beyond the power of the daily press to chronicle. Yet it is too evident that the results are not at all commensurate with the means under tribute and at command. What is the reason?

In looking at the life of the New England farmer, the first fact that strikes us is, that it is actually a very different thing from what it might be and ought to be. There dwells in every mind, through all callings and all professions, the idea that the farmer's life is, or may be, is, or should be, the truest and sweetest life that man can live. The merchant may win all the prizes of trade, the professional man may achieve triumphs beyond his hopes, the author may find his name upon every lip, and his works accounted among the nation's treasures, and all may move amid the whirl and din of the most inspiring life, yet there will come to every one, in quiet evening-hours, the vision of the old homestead, long since forsaken; or the imagination will weave a picture of its own,—a picture of rural life, so homely, yet so beautiful, that the heart will breathe a sigh upon it, the eye will drop a tear upon it, and the voice will say, "It were better so!"

In a city like Boston there are farms enough imagined every year to make another New England. Could the fairest fancies of that congeries of minds be embodied and exhibited, we should see green meadows sparkling with morning dew,—silver-slippered rivulets skipping into musical abysses,—quiet pasture-lands shimmering so sleepily in the sun that the lazy flocks and herds forget to graze, and lie winking and ruminating under the trees,—and yellow fields of grain, along the hill-sides, billowy in the breeze, and bending before the shadows of the clouds that sail above them. And mingling and harmonizing with these visions, we should hear the lowing of kine, and the tinkle of the bell that leads the flock, and the shout of the boy behind the creeping plough, and the echoes of the axe, and the fall of the tree in the distant forest, and the rhythmical clangor, softened into a metallic whisper by the distance, of the mowers whetting their scythes. With these visions and these sounds there would come to the minds which give them birth convictions that rural life is the best life, and resolutions that, by-and-by, in some golden hour, when the sun of life begins to lengthen the eastward shadows, that life shall be enjoyed, and that the soul shall pass at last from the quiet scenes of Nature into those higher scenes which they symbolize. There is a thought in all this that the farm is nearer heaven than the street,—a reminiscence of the first estate, when man was lord of Eden; and this thought, old as art and artificial life, cannot be rooted out of the mind. It has a life of its own, independent of reason, above instinct, among the quickest intuitions of the soul.

Now this idea, so universal, so identical in millions of minds, springing with such spontaneity in the midst of infinitely varied circumstances, abiding with such tenacity in every soul, can have its basis nowhere save in a Divine intention and a human possibility. The cultivation of the farm is the natural employment of man. It is upon the farm that virtue should thrive the best, that the body and the mind should be developed the most healthfully, that temptations should be the weakest, that social intercourse should be the simplest and sweetest, that beauty should thrill the soul with the finest raptures, and that life should be tranquillest in its flow, longest in its period, and happiest in its passage and its issues. This is the general and the first ideal of the farmer's life, based upon the nature of the farmer's calling and a universally recognized human want. Why does the actual differ so widely from the ideal? It is not because the farmer's labor is hard and constant, alone. There is no fact better established than that it is through the habitual use both of the physical and mental powers that the soul achieves, or receives, its most healthful enjoyment, and acquires that tone which responds most musically to the touch of the opportunities of leisure. Why, then, we repeat, does the actual differ so widely from the ideal?

A general answer to this question is, that that is made an end of life which should be but an incident or a means. Life is confounded with labor, and thrift with progress; and material success is the aim to which all other aims are made subordinate. There is no fact in physiology better established than that hard labor, followed from day to day and year to year, absorbing every thought and every physical energy, has the direct tendency to depress the intellect, blunt the sensibilities, and animalize the man. In such a life, all the energies of the brain and nervous system are directed to the support of nutrition and the stimulation of the muscular system. Man thus becomes a beast of burden,--the creature of his calling; and though he may add barn to barn and acre to acre, he does not lead a life which rises in dignity above that of the beasts which drag his plough. He eats, he works, he sleeps. Surely, there is no dignity in a life like this; there is nothing attractive and beautiful and good in it. It is a mean and contemptible life; and all its maxims, economies, associations, and objects are repulsive to a mind which apprehends life's true enjoyments and ends. We say that it is a pestilent perversion. We say that it is the sale of the soul to the body; it is turning the back upon life, upon growth, upon God, and descending into animalism.

The true ideal of the farmer's life--of any life--contemplates something outside of, and above, the calling which is its instrument. The farmer's life is no better than the life of a street-sweeper, if it rise no higher than the farmer's work. If the farmer, standing under the broad sky, breathing the pure air, listening to the song of birds, watching the progress of

 "The great miracle that still goes on,"

to work the transformation of the brown seeds which he drops into the soil into fields of green and gold, and gazing upon landscapes shifting with the seasons and flushed with new tints through every sunlit and moonlit hour, does not apprehend that his farm has higher uses for him than those of feeding his person and his purse, he might as well dwell in a coal-mine.

Our soil is sterile, our modes of farming have been rude until within a few years; and under the circumstances,--with the Yankee notion that the getting of money is the chief end of man,--exclusive devotion to labor has been deemed indispensable to success. The maxims of Franklin have been literal ly received and adopted as divine truth. We have believed that to labor is to be thrifty, that to be thrifty is to be respectable, that to be respectable is to afford facilities for being still more thrifty; and our experience is, that with increased thrift comes increased labor. This is the circle of our ambitions and rewards. All begins and ends in labor. The natural and inevitable result of this is both physical and mental deterioration.

It is doubtful whether the world furnishes a finer type of man, physically and intellectually, than the Irish gentleman. He is handsome, large, courageous,--a man of fine instincts, brilliant imagination, courtly manners, and full, vital force. By the side of the Irish gentleman, there has grown for centuries the Irish peasant. He is ugly, of stunted stature, and pugnacious; and he produces children like himself. The two classes started from a common blood; they now present the broadest contrast. We do not say that freedom from severe labor on one side, and confinement to it on the other, are entirely responsible for this contrast; difference of food and other obvious causes have had something to do with it; but we say that hard labor has, directly and indirectly, degraded from a true style of manhood the great mass of the Irish peasantry. They are a marked class, and carry in their forms and faces the infallible insignia of mental and physical degeneration.

We would by no means compare New England farmers with the Irish peasantry. We only present the contrast between these two classes of the Irish population as the result of unremitting toil on one side, and a more rational kind of life on the other. If we enter a New England church, containing a strictly rural assembly, and then visit another containing a class whose labor is lighter, and whose style of life is based upon different ideas, we shall see a contrast less marked, perhaps, but presenting similar features. The farming population of New England is not a handsome population, generally. The forms of both men and women are angular; their features are not particularly intellectual; their movements are not graceful; and their calling is evident by indubitable signs. The fact that the city assemblage is composed of a finer and higher grade of men, women, and children is of particular moment to our argument, because it is composed of people who are only one, two, or three removes from a rural origin. The city comes from the country; the street is replenished by the farm; but the city children, going back to the farm, show that a new element has been introduced into their blood. The angles are rounded; the face is brighter; the movements are more graceful; there is in every way a finer development.

There is probably no better exponent of the farmer's life than the farmer's home. We propose to present the portrait of such a home, and, while we offer it as a just outline of the farmer's home generally, in districts removed from large social centres, we gladly acknowledge the existence of a great multitude of happy exceptions. But the sketch:--A square, brown house; a chimney coming out of the middle of a roof; not a tree nearer than the orchard, and not a flower at the door. At one end projects a kitchen; from the kitchen projects a wood-shed and wagon-cover, occupied at night by hens; beyond the wood-shed, a hog-pen, fragrant and musical. Proceeding no farther in this direction, we look directly across the road, to where the barn stands, like the hull of a great black ship-of-the-line, with its port-holes opened threateningly upon the fort opposite, out of one of which a horse has thrust his head for the possible purpose of examining the strength of the works. An old ox-sled is turned up against the wall close by, where it will have the privilege of rotting. This whole establishment was contrived with a single eye to utility. The barn was built in such a manner that its deposits might be convenient to the road which divides the farm, while the sty was made an attachment of the house for convenience in feeding its occupants.

We enter the house at the back door, and find the family at dinner in the kitchen. A kettle of soap-grease is stewing upon the stove, and the fumes of this, mingled with those that were generated by boiling the cabbage which we see upon the table, and by perspiring men in shirt-sleeves, and by boots that have forgotten or do not care where they have been, make the air anything but agreeable to those who are not accustomed to it. This is the place where the family live. They cook everything here for themselves and their hogs. They eat every meal here. They sit here every evening, and here they receive their friends. The women in this kitchen toil incessantly, from the time they rise in the morning until they go to bed at night. Here man and woman, sons and daughters, live, in the belief that work is the great thing, that efficiency in work is the crowning excellence of manhood and womanhood, and willingly go so far into essential self-debasement, sometimes, as to contemn beauty and those who love it, and to glory above all things in brute strength and brute endurance.

Here we are ready to state the point and the lesson of our discussion:--The real reason for the deterioration of agriculture in New England is to be found in the fact, that the farmer's life and the farmer's home, generally, are unloved and unlovable things, and in the multitude of causes which have tended to make them so. Let the son of such a home as we have pictured get a taste of a better life than this, or, through sensibilities which he did not inherit, apprehend a worthier style of existence, and what inducements, save those which necessity imposes, can retain him there? He hates the farm, and will flee from it at the first opportunity. If the New England farmer's life were a loved and lovable thing, the New England boys could hardly be driven from the New England hills. They would not only find a way to live here, but they would make farming profitable. They would honor the employment to which they are bred, and would leave it, save in exceptional instances, for no other. It is not strange that the country grows thin and the city plethoric. It is not strange that mercantile and mechanical employments are thronged by young men, running all risks for success, when the alternative is a life in which they find no meaning, and no inspiring and ennobling influence.

The popular ideal of the farmer's life and home, to which we have alluded, we believe to be what God intended. That life contemplates the institution and maintenance of personal and social habits, and the cultivation of tastes and faculties, separate from, and above, labor. Every farm-house should be a residence of men and women, boys and girls, who, appreciating something of the meaning and end of life, rise from every period of labor into an atmosphere of intellectual and social activity, or into some form of refined family enjoyment. It is impossible to do this while surrounded with all the associations of labor. If there is a room in every farmer's house where the work of the family is done, there should be a room in every farmer's house where the family should live,--where beauty should appeal to the eye, where genuine comfort of appointments should invite to repose, where books should be gathered, where neatness and propriety of dress should be observed, and where labor may be forgotten. The life led here should be labor's exceeding great reward. A family living like this--and there are families that live thus--will ennoble and beautify all their surroundings. There will be trees at their door, and flowers in their garden, and pleasant and graceful architectural ideas in their dwelling. Human life will stand in the foreground of such a home,--human life, crowned with its dignities and graces,--while animal life will be removed among the shadows, and the gross material utilities, tastefully disguised, will be made to retire into an unoffending and harmonious perspective.

But we have alluded to other causes than labor as in some measure responsible for the unattractiveness of the farmer's life, and affecting adversely the farming interest. These touch the matter at various points, and are charged with greater or less importance. We know of no one cause more responsible for whatever there may be of physical degeneracy among the farming population than the treatment of its child-bearing women; and this, after all, is but a result of entire devotion to the tyrannical idea of labor. If there be one office or character higher than all others, it is the office or character of mother. Surely, the bringing into existence of so marvellous a thing as a human being, and the training of that being until it assumes a recognized relation to God and human society, is a sacred office, and one which does not yield in dignity and importance to any other under heaven. For a woman who faithfully fulfils this office, who submits without murmuring to all its pains, who patiently performs its duties, and who exhausts her life in a ceaseless overflow of love upon those whom God has given her, no words can express a true man's veneration. She claims the homage of our hearts, the service of our hands, the devotion of our lives.

Yet what is the position of the mother in the New England farmer's home? The farmer is careful of every animal he possesses. The farm-yard and the stall are replenished with young, by creatures for months dismissed from labor, or handled with intelligent care while carrying their burden; because the farmer knows that only in this way can he secure improvement, and sound, symmetrical development, to the stock of his farm. In this he is a true, practical philosopher. But what is his treatment of her who bears his children? The same physiological laws apply to her that apply to the brute. Their strict observance is greatly more imperative, because of her finer organization; yet they are not thought of; and if the farm-yard fail to shame the nursery, if the mother bear beautiful and well-organized children, Heaven be thanked for a merciful interference with the operation of its own laws! Is the mother in a farm-house ever regarded as a sacred being? Look at her hands! Look at her face! Look at her bent and clumsy form! Is it more important to raise fine colts than fine men and women? Is human life to be made secondary and subordinate to animal life? Is not she who should receive the tenderest and most considerate ministries of the farmer's home, in all its appointments and in all its service, made the ceaseless minister and servant of the home and all within it, with utter disregard of her office? To expect a population to improve greatly under this method is simply to expect miracles; and to expect a farmer's life and a farmer's home to be attractive, where the mother is a drudge, and secures less consideration than the pets of the stall, is to expect impossibilities.

Another cause which has tended to the deterioration of the farmer's life is its solitariness. The towns in New England which were settled when the Indians were in possession of the country, and which, for purposes of defence, were settled in villages, have enjoyed great blessings; but a large portion of agricultural New England was differently settled. It is difficult to determine why isolation should produce the effect it does upon the family development. The Western pioneer, who, leaving a New England community, plants himself and his young wife in the forest, will generally become a coarse man, and will be the father of coarse children. The lack of the social element in the farmer's life is doubtless a cause of some of its most repulsive characteristics. Men are constituted in such a manner, that constant social contact is necessary to the healthfulness of their sympathies, the quickness of their intellects, and the symmetrical development of their powers. It matters little whether a family be placed in the depths of a Western forest, or upon the top of a New England hill; the result of solitude will be the same in kind, if not in degree.

Now the farmer, partly from isolation and partly from absorption in labor, is the most unsocial man in New England. The farmers are comparatively few who go into society at all, who ever dine with their neighbors, or who take any genuine satisfaction in the company of the women whom their wives invite to tea. They may possibly be farmers among farmers, but they are not men among men and women. Intellectually, they are very apt to leave life where they begin it. Socially, they become dead for years before they die. The inhabitants of a city can have but a poor apprehension of the amount of enjoyment and development that comes to them through social stimulus. Like gold, humanity becomes bright by friction, and grows dim for lack of it. So, we say, the farmer's life and home can never be what they should be,--can never be attractive by the side of other life containing a true social element,--until they have become more social. The individual life must not only occupy a place above that of a beast of burden, but that life must be associated with all congenial life within its reach. The tree that springs in the open field, though it be fed by the juices of a rood, through absorbents that penetrate where they will, will present a hard and stunted growth; while the little sapling of the forest, seeking for life among a million roots, or growing in the crevice of a rock, will lift to the light its cap of leaves upon a graceful stem, and whisper, even-headed, with the stateliest of its neighbors. Men, like trees, were made to grow together, and both history and philosophy declare that this Divine intention cannot be ignored or frustrated with impunity.

Traditional routine has also operated powerfully to diminish the attractiveness of agricultural employments. This cause, very happily, grows less powerful from year to year. The purse is seen to have an intimate sympathy with intelligent farming. Were we to say that God had so constituted the human mind that routine will tire and disgust it, we should say in effect that he never intended the farmer's life to be one of routine. Nature has done all she can to break up routine. While the earth swings round its orbit once a year, and turns on its axis once in twenty-four hours,--while the tide ebbs and flows twice daily, and the seasons come and go in rotation, every atom changes its relations to every other atom every moment. Influences are tossed into these skeleton cycles of motion and event which start a myriad of diverse currents, and break up the whole surface of life and being into a healthful confusion. There are never two days alike. The motherly sky never gives birth to twin clouds. The weather shakes its bundle of mysteries in our faces, and banters us with, "Don't you wish you knew?" We prophesy rain upon the morrow, and wake with a bar of golden sunlight on the coverlet. We foretell a hard winter, and, before it is half gone, become nervous lest we should miss our supply of ice. The fly, the murrain, the potato-rot, and the grasshoppers, all have a divine office in tipping over our calculations. The phantom host of the great North come out for parade without announcement, and shoot their arrows toward the zenith, and flout the stars with their rosy flags, and retire, leaving us looking into heaven and wondering. Long weeks of drought parch the earth, and then comes the sweet rain, and sets the flowers and the foliage dancing. All the seasons are either very late or very early, or, for some reason, "the most remarkable within the memory of man."

This is God's management for destroying routine within the law of stated revolution, and for bringing the mind constantly into contact with fresh influences. The soul, encased by a wall of adamantine circumstances, and driven around a track of unvarying duties, shrivels, or gets diseased. But these circumstances need not imprison the farmer, nor these duties become the polished pavement of his cell. He has his life among the most beautiful scenes of Nature and the most interesting facts of Science. Chemistry, geology, botany, meteorology, entomology, and a dozen other related or constituent sciences,--what is intelligent farming but a series of experiments, involving, first and last, all of these? What is a farm but a laboratory where the most important and interesting scientific problems are solved? The moment that any field of labor becomes intelligently experimental, that moment routine ceases, and that field becomes attractive. The most repulsive things under heaven become attractive, on being invested with a scientific interest. All, therefore, that a farmer has to do, to break up the traditional routine of his method and his labor, is to become a scientific farmer. He will then have an interest in his labor and its results above their bare utilities. Labor that does not engage the mind has no dignity; else the ox and the ass are kings in the world, and we are but younger brothers in the royal family. So we say to every farmer,--If you would make your calling attractive to yourself and your boys, seek that knowledge which will break up routine, and make your calling, to yourself and to them, an intelligent pursuit.

A recent traveller in England speaks enthusiastically of a visit which he paid to an old farm-house in that country, and of the garden-farm upon which it stood, which had descended from father to son through a period of five hundred years. He found a family of charming intelligence and the politest culture. That hallowed soil was a beautiful body, of which the family interests and associations were the soul. To be dissociated from that soil forever would be regarded by its proprietors as almost equivalent to family annihilation. Proprietorship in English soil is one of the prime ambitions of the true Englishman; but we do not find in New England any kindred sentiments of pride in landed property and family affection for the paternal acres. The nomadic tribes of Asia would seem to have quite as strong local attachments as Yankee landholders, most of whom will sell their homesteads as readily as they will their horses. This fact we cannot but regard as one among the many causes which have conspired to despoil the farmer's calling of some of its legitimate attractions. The son slips away from the old homestead as easily as he does from the door of a hotel. Very likely his father has rooted up all home attachments by talking of removing Westward ever since the boy saw the light. This lack of affection for the family acres is doubtless owing somewhat to the fact that in this country landed property is not associated with political privilege, as it has been in England; but this cannot be the sole reason; for the sentiment has a genuine basis in nature, and, in not a few instances, an actual existence amongst us.

Resulting from the operation of all the causes which we have briefly noticed, there is another cause of the deterioration of farming life in New England, which cannot be recovered from in many years. Actual farming life has been brought into such harsh contrast with other life, that its best materials have been sifted out of it, have slid away from it. An inquiry at the doors of the great majority of farmers would exhibit the general fact, that the brightest boys have gone to college, or have become mechanics, or are teaching school, or are in trade, or have emigrated to the West. There have been taken directly out from the New England farming population its best elements,--its quickest intelligence, its most stirring enterprise, its noblest and most ambitious natures,--precisely those elements which were necessary to elevate the standard of the farmer's calling and make it what it should be. It is very easy to see why these men have not been retained in the past; it is safe to predict that they will not be retained in the future, unless a thorough reform be instituted. These men cannot be kept on a routine farm, or tied to a home which has no higher life than that of a workshop or a boarding-house. It is not because the work of the farm is hard that men shun it. They will work harder and longer in other callings for the sake of a better style of individual and social life. They will go to the city, and cling to it while half starving, rather than engage in the dry details and the hard and homely associations of the life which they forsook.

The boys are not the only members of the farmer's family that flee from the farmer's life. The most intelligent and most enterprising of the farmer's daughters become school-teachers, or tenders of shops, or factory-girls. They contemn the calling of their father, and will, nine times in ten, marry a mechanic in preference to a farmer. They know that marrying a farmer is a very serious business. They remember their worn-out mothers. They thoroughly understand that the vow that binds them in marriage to a farmer seals them to a severe and homely service that will end only in death.

As a consequence of this sifting process, to which we have given but a glance, a very decidedly depressing element is now being rapidly introduced into New England farming life. The Irish girls have found their way into the farmer's kitchen, and the Irish laborer has become the annual "hired man." At present, there are no means of measuring the effect of this new element; but it cannot fail to depress the tone of farming society, and surround it with a new swarm of menial associations.

In our judgment, there is but little in the improved modes of farming, in scientific discoveries, and new mechanical appliances, to be relied upon for the elevation of New England agriculture and the emancipation of New England farming life. The farmer needs new ideas more than he needs new implements. The process of regeneration must begin in the mind, and not in the soil. The proprietor of that soil should be the true New England gentleman. His house should be the home of hospitality, the embodiment of solid comfort and liberal taste, the theatre of an exalted family-life which shall be the master and not the servant of labor, and the central sun of a bright and happy social atmosphere. When this standard shall be reached, there will be no fear for New England agriculture. The noblest race of men and women the sun ever shone upon will cultivate these valleys and build their dwellings upon these hills; and they will cling to a life which blesses them with health, plenty, individual development, and social progress and happiness. This is what the farmer's life may be and should be; and if it ever rise to this in New England, neither prairie nor savanna can entice her children away; and waste land will become as scarce, at last, as vacant lots in Paradise.

The title is an ambitious one, for the _salons_ of Paris are Paris itself; and, from the days of the Fronde and of the Hôtel Rambouillet down to our own, you may judge pretty accurately of what is going on upon the great political stage of France by what is observable in those green-rooms and _coulisses_ called the Parisian drawing-rooms, and where, more or less, the actors of all parties may be seen, either rehearsing their parts before the performance, or seeking, after the performance is over, the several private echoes of the general public sentiment that has burst forth before the light of the foot-lamps. Shakspeare's declaration, that "all the world's a stage," is nowhere so true as in the capital of

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.