When one of your dearest friends tells you to read a book, you read it, right? Big Magic, the latest by Elizabeth Gilbert. I requested it on inter-library loan and dug in.
The book immediately began to bug me. The writing is divided into two to three page chunks, each titled on its own, sort of like blog posts. I’ve noticed that there are lots of books coming out like this. And I have a personal aversion to it. I feel a loss of continuity and depth in the format. Of course, it is still possible to get a lot done in a few pages of wonderful literature (Wendell Berry’s essays come to mind), but it’s sort of rare. And I understand that people are busy and lots of people only have time for a few pages in a sitting, so it’s handy to have those few pages encapsulate an idea. I usually only read a few pages at a time before my eyes shut at night. But I still really appreciate some meatier material to sink my mind into. The irony of my criticism is not lost on me. I do write on a blog, where 500 words-at-a-time is the most “readable” format, which makes for better “ratings”, more “likes” and “shares.” But it doesn’t change how I feel. Here lately, my Fellow Man has been reading an exposition on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The introduction is 60 pages long. Reading that book is like climbing a mountain. If you’ve ever read any of Rudolf Steiner’s essays, or the Bible, or pretty much any sacred or scholarly work, you know what I mean. It’s not easy, but there are moments of awesome clarity and depth and the experience is incredibly rewarding. I love that quality in a book.
Since I figured out what was bothering me, I decided not to let it get in my way. After all, the book is about creativity. There’s bound to be something to love. Isn’t there almost always something to love?
Elizabeth Gilbert throws the gates of creative living wide in this book, and welcomes everyone in. I thought I was reading the book because she is a writer writing about writing, and I love writing, but coming from that angle made the bees in my bonnet buzz.
The section on making a living quieted them. Liz talks about her need to write as a creative impulse, whether or not she gets paid. Like most artists, she waited tables, washed dishes, walked dogs, and did whatever needed to be done to make a living while she wrote. Even when she began to be successful, she didn’t stop doing other work. It is a common situation among artists, and others.
This hit a nerve for me. In this process of ceasing to grow food for money, I have felt, at times, like a sell-out to the real deal of the new farming movement. Like I’m no longer a legitimate “farm wife”. And of course my farm-wife friends have had nothing to do with this, I feel it in myself as we chat, that my attention is not as deeply drawn into the hustle of the season as it has been in the past. But, this feeling has more to do with the fact that I’ve spent more than half my life with the intention to live on the land – growing food in the deep woods with my family. For more than half of my life, THIS has been my dream. And in that dream, I rarely considered the economic viability of the farm. No one was talking about CSAs when I was 18, but it was just assumed that there would be a way to make a living on a farm. It’s been a way of life for most of human history, right?
Not necessarily. A way of life is not necessarily a way to make a living. A way to “make a living” is not always the same as a vocation, or a way to make a life.
What I find in my community of farming friends are various and beautiful ways to make a life. We make a living too, one way or another, using what is before us to create what we need, and more. And we are extremists in the realm of creative living, as we are working with the hearts and bones of biological creation itself. Where else is creativity more obvious than the garden, where one small seed creates pounds upon pounds of tomatoes, or watermelons, or hot peppers, or endless okra, any of which can be eaten OR saved to create a whole garden’s worth of MORE SEED?
Agriculture, or rather agri-business, today is not an art. It is a science and a business, more or less akin to mining. Those of us who refuse to coat our soil with black plastic and use GPS on our tractors are doing something completely different. We cannot subtract the larger economy from our lives and works, but by adding the concept of stewardship, we change the equation, and I believe, we become artists. Many of my friends probably wish they could make a better living by growing food the way we do, but they do not compromise the integrity of their land for the sake of money. There are some compromises that are just too great. They will do what they believe they should – what those of us out here are deeply compelled to do – which is to live as creative stewards of their land.
My fellow man and I limited the size of our business based on the carrying capacity of our land. The longer we work here, the more we learn about this place and what it can handle. It needs us to go easy. It’s not a land that handles over-ambitious production with ease. We are incredibly fortunate to have other marketable skills to pay the bills that refuse to be bartered with garlic. But even if all our financial needs were being completely met by off-farm income, we would not stop growing food, and talking about food, and sharing food, and nourishing our land so that it can nourish life on earth. We love it like a marriage, like a good meal, like a piece of art.
Regardless of their position within the larger economy, small farms today work on a deep level of dedicated human creativity. When I realized that my realm of creative living isn’t limited to writing, but in fact is based on the activity of land stewardship, I could rest easier in my assessment of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. However, I want to make an addendum to her explorations. What we learn as creative growers, working in the soil with our hands and the weather on our backs, is that most of the magic in the world is not big at all. It is infinitesimally small, but absolutely pervasive. That small magic going on under our feet and all around us is the foundation of human civilization and life at large. Maybe, the “Big Magic” is our ability to open our senses to that all-encompassing living world around us, and actively cooperate with it.
All food used to be grown by farming artists. Once upon a time the vocation of farming was considered just as respectable as a calling to preach, teach, practice law, or write poetry (your opinion of each of those jobs notwithstanding). And not all farmers derived all of their income solely from the farm. It was never unusual for a farmer to hire out different services as her/his talent and the success of the season dictated. For that matter, I believe quite a few lawyers made their way through their years of study while making a living on the family farm. To go much further into this discussion we have to tackle subjects such as the values of our collective society, and wealth distribution. That’s stuff for another post. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider that farming artists (meaning those who maintained an artful and respectful balance relationship to the land they worked) used to hold their own much more comfortably in this world, and that our food system was all the more lovely for it.
I have always shrunk away from the term “artisanal food” because it sounds high-end, and I strongly believe that EVERYONE should eat well, not just rich folks. But here I am now, fully convinced that food is art. Everyday art – living art -necessary art. It’s worth contemplating the quality of the food grown by agribusiness verses the food grown in creative stewardship. It’s worth contemplating the kind of world where all people could be fed that kind of food again, and where the vocation of farming indicates a particularly beautiful quality of life.
I believe in that quality of life, that WAY of life, the way a painter believes in color, and a writer believes in words. I believe we all have an art inside of us, somewhere. If you haven’t found yours yet, eating this food, the stuff that is also art, might just help.