I Am An Agrarian

As John Crowe Ransom wrote in 1930, “It is out of fashion in these days to look backward rather than forward. About the only American given to it is some unreconstructed Southerner, who persists in his regard for a certain terrain, a certain history, and a certain inherited way of living.”

It is a matter of great honor to me to say that I am an indigenous Mississippian – that I possess roots that run deep into the native soil of this most agrarian of States left in the Deep South. And while I have a concern for the future, I spend most of my study time looking backward and learning from the trials and tribulations of my forefathers.

As Pätrick Henry once said, “I know no way of judging the future but by the past,” the “lamp of experience” as he called it. The past, then, is a teacher. It teaches things tried and true. It chronicles the success and failure of various philosophies, theories and imaginations of men – unlike the future which is cloudy and uncertain.

I am an agrarian: not by birth, but by the grace of God. That makes me a conservative in the old historical sense of the word, a lover of the permanent things. Since I did not possess these things as a birth-right, as I grew older I began to pitch my tent toward the Wall Street temple of prosperity and bend my knee in obeisance to the Gospel of Progress. In fact, for years, I labored in good materialistic fashion (in my perceived pursuit of “happiness”) to be the first to own all the new wares that modernity could produce. After all, I had to be all that I could be and reach for the sky! I had to go for the gusto, climb to the top, and any other slick salesmanship you might want to add.

When I was young, I was granted a “visa” and had full leave to travel across the border and infiltrate several of the great strongholds of modernity. It was, as you might expect, a difficult assignment to be stationed in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere, but someone had to do it.

I brought back to the South report after report of a churlish people: rude, selfish, conceited, arrogant, narrow-minded, avaricious, obstinate, cross-grained people. There were people who talked funny, had odd names and ate strange food, as they hid behind their 6 foot wooden fences, within their locked-gate subdivisions.

This Mississippi boy got a first hand look at modernity and, while not enjoying the company of the people, did see some glitter in the prosperity. I had forgotten that good old Southern saying, “all that glitters is not gold.” And it did not take me too long to see that if the grass appeared greener on the other side, it was only because it had been artificially made so by industrial chemicals or, perhaps, Astroturf. In other words, it was all a facade. It was people living slavish artificial lives for the so-called “reward” of weekly green stamps that could be redeemed at the various corporate stores for various techno-toys and bric-à-brac.

So, after a short time, I adjured the realm, left the cultish worship of industrial modernity, returned to Mississippi, and ultimately to a state of sanity. I still had a ways to go though. I still had a lot to unlearn. I didn’t quite know where I belonged, but I certainly knew where I did not belong. Not knowing how to go forward, I went backward.

My ascent to agrarianism came from years of struggling with theological doctrines, with political and social theories, and so forth. I was trying to fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together, trying to get a handle on the age old question: “Where do we come from, where are we going, and why are we here?”

I didn’t grow up on a farm like my ancestors before me, but I did grow up in a day were there were still remnants of agrarian communities in rural Mississippi. These these things had a tremendous influence on me. All my years in megapolis did not transform me into a duded-up city-slicker. I always carried with me in life fond memories of my youthful days trouncing in the woods huntin’ and fishin,’ or just explorin’.

One day in a conversation, I was shocked to find an individual who had never been huntin’, fishin’, or explorin’ the woods a single day in his life. I could hardly believe that someone could grow up never having taken a walk in the woods. Not knowing the difference between an oak tree and a sweet gum…not knowing the difference between a coon track and a dog track…not knowing from whence comes the sound of a whippoorwill or bobwhite…never having pulled the hook out of a bass’s mouth as it flops all over…never having a big fox squirrel bark at you when you were deer hunting and have deer pop up all over when you were squirrel hunting. Above all, to never have sat on the banks of a lake or creek and just absorb the surrounding…just to be still and know that there is a God, and a creation committed to our stewardship.

Lightning Bugs in a Mason JarBut I have met such people and they don’t always come from the suburbs of Los Angeles or San Francisco. We have them here in the South. Can you believe there are Southerners who ain’t never caught lightnin’ bugs and stuck ‘em in a mason jar? It’s true my friends!

The South has changed much in my sojourn of only two-score years. When I was a youngin’, we had family reunions and all the family would be there. We had singin’ and dancin’ and, oh, the food. Yes, real food! Not the imitation stuff that you purchase in modernity’s supermarkets. We would hop on the two lane road, which were the superhighways of the day, and go visit paternal grandparents in Vicksburg, or maternal grandparents in Durant. These weren’t exactly metropolis-central. And of course, you’d wave at everyone you passed regardless of whether you knew them or not, and regardless of race, creed or color. Why? because you were part of the community of fellow small-town Mississippians.

When you were introduced to someone you didn’t ask, “What kind of work do you do?” Rather, you would ask “Where ya from?” or “Who ya related to?” Because community and connection was more important than how someone made money.

Back in the days before HBO, MTV, Video Games and the Internet [add Facebook here in 2014] we youngin’s spent our time outside soakin’ up the rays of the sun. We breathed in unpolluted air while admiring the beauty of the yet un-uglified countryside, being part of the big creation. We didn’t worry about crime. Who locked their doors in those days? Neither did we have to worry about drugs; we were high on life brother? We didn’t worry about the endless pursuit of material things. No, we didn’t have much but what we had, we were content with.

And you know, we all believed in God. No, I was not always a good Christian, but I prayed every night. We even talked about Christianity in school. What I mean to say is, there was no hostility towards things Christian. Back then you could fly our beloved flag without being called a racist bigot. You could sing Dixie in mixed company. You could have streets named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. You could buy grits at every restaurant.

My how things have changed! Why is this so? Is it just the onward march of progress…the perfection of man and the world…the needful sweeping away of the old paths and the old traditions, the outdated and moldy way of thinking? Are we just catching up with the rest of the “progressive country?” Are we finally beginning to get ourselves straight? Or, have we taken a wrong turn like Bunyan’s pilgrim who left the King’s Highway because Bypath meadow appeared more pleasant on the other side of the fence, yet seemed to go in the same direction. A detour, of course, which led him ultimately to the dungeon of despair?

Andrew Nelson Lytle - The Hind TitThese are questions that modern Southerners need to face squarely. It is time for us to take our bearings for we are adrift, floating precariously on the sea of modernity. One sure good way to take one’s bearings is to read the Nashville Agrarians and their disciples. This morning I want to call your attention to my favorite essay contained in the Agrarian manifesto known as I’ll Take My Stand. It is the contribution of Andrew Nelson Lytle, titled, interestingly enough, “The Hind Tit.”

As some of you know, Lytle was the only one of the twelve Vanderbilt Agrarians who left the University and returned to the farm. Maybe it was this exodus from the pollutions, corruptions and stresses of the city…breathing unpolluted country air…drinking unpolluted water from the well…eating fresh vegetables out of the garden and so forth, that helped him live to the ripe old age of almost 93. He was the last agrarian to pass into eternity – leaving this world in the year of our Lord 1995.

Now about this essay, “The Hind Tit.” It is broken down into three parts:

I. In the first part Lytle discusses the ubiquitous pressures and temptations present to the farmer persuading him to “Industrialize the farm; be progressive; drop old-fashioned ways and adopt scientific methods.”

II. In the second section he shews life on the farm before opening the floodgates of modernization. He wonderfully and vividly illustrates a typical day on the farm where each member of the family is employed in their various responsibilities..

III. In the final part of his essay, Lytle describes life on the farm after the farmer has bought a tractor and a truck and has started to keep books. He successfully argues that this is the beginning of the end of the family farm.

Please continue on to Page Two…