Archive for May 17th, 2009

This Place We Know

Sharon May 17th, 2009

We recently had a friend of mine and her 14 month old son to lunch at our place.  I got to chat with both, and see the full range of her bright young boy’s vocabulary.  There was “Goggie” (Doggy), “Kiki” (kitty), “Hi” “No” “Mama” and then “Moo” “Baa” “Quack” and “Cock a doodle”

What’s interesting about this linguistic range is not its adorableness (although it was adorable) it was that this little urban child, who had never seen a cow, sheep, duck or rooster in person until that day (we were able to cover most of them), had fully half of his vocabulary made up of agrarian animal noises.  Their family has a “Kiki” and he regularly sees “Goggies” on his walks around his neighborhood – since many of them are at nose level to him in his stroller, it is hardly surprising that he should take a compelling interest in them.  “Hi” “No!” and “Mama” are of obvious utility to a very small person, and need no explanation.

But there are many words of great utility and value to a very small child than the sounds that domestic animals make – one would think that “cookie” “milk” and “car” might preceed the farm animal noises.  And yet, they don’t.  And this is fairly typical – most children, who experience “the farm” and its life through books, and the occasional outing to a tourist farm, find themselves utterly riveted by these large animals with whom they know instinctively that they have a relationship.  My own sons all learned the sounds of animals long before many other equally valuable, and not much harder to say words as well.  I am a bit embarassed to admit, that I simply can’t remember right now whether it was Simon or Isaiah whose first word was “quack.”  But at least one of them said “quack” to our ducks before they said “Mama” to me.  This is perhaps less surprising, since  my children lived on a farm, and heard these sounds – but that seems to have little to do with how important they are in the imaginative world of young people.

In fact, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the world of childhood *is* “the farm.” That is, the world that children dream of, and are told they should inhabit is that of a certain kind of farm – a diversified, nontoxic small farm, filled with animals to play with, vegetables and fruit that a child can pick and eat, hay bales to climb on, pleasant chores like egg collecting (and life on a farm has never dampened any of my children’s love for this job) and feeding of small creatures.  Children live in the world basic things – and there is nothing more basic than food, and its origins.

This is no less true whether you live on a farm, or like most children, don’t.  While there are many “city child” books, checking the shelves of any child’s library will almost certainly reveal a disproportionate number of stories about farms or farm animals – disproportionate because the world of very small children is mostly a world of familiarity and comfort – that is, most books for children under 3 do not emphasize distant things they have not seen.  Instead, they are about the world the children live in and are beginning to understand.  And the prevalence of the farm in children’s imagined world, in their toys, their play, their books, their videos suggests that young children are being told that the farm is their world too – even when it is not, even when the farms they are invited to inhabit are gone.

And not just any farm.  Modern industrial agriculture has no place in this imagined world of young children.  The farms we see are the farms that once existed – small family farms, diversified, with many kinds of livestock, pastures, orchards, gardens, and other animals.  None of my children’s books show pigs in confinement pens, manure lagoons, debeaked hens, or crop dusters as part of this world.  Instead, they show children picking food and eating, it which precludes chemical agriculture.  They show children interacting with animals on grass, which means diverse small farming – that is, the imaginative world in which we originate is the one that we have tried so hard to eliminate in practice.

Even when the books acknowledge industrial agriculture, they find that they can only contextualize it in the diversified small farm.  Consider a book that my children own, called, creatively, “Tractor.”  In it, a huge tractor is shown in limited detail.  “Farmer Hill has a busy day ahead.  He is going to plow the field in his big green tractor.”  So we are told.  But the big green tractor happens to have a rooster on it, going “Cock a Doodle Doo!” on it.  A dog is barking, a hen and chicks and a duck and ducklings are superimposed next to this giant piece of equipment. 

We then are treated to a page of “checking the engine” “filling the tank with fuel” etc… until the next page when we read “On the way to the field he passes…” and then a list of farm animals, the usual ones with the usual adjectives, (wooly sheep, brown cow, hungry pig, noisy goose…), then one page of plowing, and back to the poultry and dog again.  Of the five pages in this book, three are visually as much or more about animals as about a tractor.  Why?  Because there isn’t that much to say about tractors – oh, later there will be for those interested in such things, but for 2 year olds, tractors are interesting because they are big, and because they are associated with farms.  Never mind that this particular tractor is radical overkill for the sort of farm would actually have these animals on the scale shown – the implication is that the tractor is interesting in large part because it is part of the farm of childhood, even when it isn’t.  The tractor is not just exciting, but interesting, because it is a vast thing in a comfortably known world, with plenty of other important things, living things, to lend interest to its big, green deadness.

Books for young children are about familiarity and comfort, about  pushing back the necessary and real strangeness of the world, even as you recognize that it is strange – yes, there are wild things and children go off to visit them, but when you come back, dinner is waiting and you are loved “best of all.”  Yes, you may be alone in the room with someone who is not mother or father but a nameless and different ”old lady, whispering hush” but here is your room, and your mittens, your comb and your brush and the moon, and all is well.  And yes, you will go out into the world, which is full of strange and large things, but it will be filled with things to eat, and animals to touch and places to run and trees to climb – that is, it will be your world. The ubiquity of the farm in children’s books implies that there are places like this in the world, where children can roam, and meet eyes with other living creatures, can find food and explore, not confined by the fences around the playgrounds or other spaces.

So children learn now, even more than before, that cows say “Moo” and that the farm is the world of childhood – but a world they will not often experience.  The kind of farm they dream of exists mostly in the memories of their parents and grandparents.  It was once possible to feel that most children had a farm somewhere in their experience and family – that is no longer the case.  If they do, it is most likely an industrial farm, with one or two kinds of crops and animals on it, probably kept in confinement.  While it can be fun to hide in a cornfield, a thousand acres of corn leave little space to play.

One of the first chapter books my children ever read, and one of the first movies they saw as ”The Wizard of Oz.” One of the things that struck me about the difference between the books and films is the subtle, but not unimportant role of agriculture.  In the movie, Dorothy’s family’s grey, dustbowl farm is “real” if troubled, whereas Oz is shown as magical, a place where food appears by magic – by trees that throw apples, say, or by servants in the Emerald City.  Dorothy longs to go home to the farm, which is a place prosperous enough, despite the times, to feed not just Aunt Em, Uncle Henry and Dorothy, but three farmhands as well.

In the book, the situation is reversed.  The dustbowl farm barely feeds them – it takes the light from their eyes and leaves them desperately impoverished and suffering, and a large part of Oz’s magic is its fertility – instead of the dance of the Lollipop kids and the Wicked Witch to astound her, Dorothy is as much astounded by the creeks, the lush fields and prosperous farms of Munchkinland as she is by the good witch of the North.  The books do not rhapsodize so much about home – in fact, in a later volume in the series, Dorothy escapes Kansas to Oz, and manages to bring Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her.  

In either case, the place where the farms are real ends up being truly home – all the love Dorothy feels for the scarecrow can’t keep her in Oz when Auntie Em needs her, and she’s returning to a troubled, but possible land.  All the ties Aunt Em and Uncle Henry have to Kansas can’t make it home, when the land gives out and they eventually lose everything, and the lush land of Oz beckons.  Home is where the farms are.  Ironically, though, Dorothy’s grey dustbowl farm, where she walked the pigpen fence, where Auntie Em and Uncle Henry could provide work for three employees even during the Depression, is as lost to us as Oz is, in some ways – or is it? 

There are a number of farms near me that have become tourist farms, and I think these fail just as deeply to connect children to farming in some ways, as the industrial ones do.  For reasons of legal liability, children can mostly not actually do very much interacting with these animals – so they see sheep who have become accustomed to being fed pellets from small hands crowding to a fence to stick their noses through.  It is certainly valuable that small children get to pet a sheep, to feel a warm, damp nose against their hand, and the feel of tangled wool.  But it isn’t enough – these sheep aren’t busy being sheep, they are busy rubbing the hands that feed them.  They are pets, by necessity.  Yes, it is wonderful for children to get to witness shearing, or collect eggs – even if the eggs are purposely left in the nest boxes, and the sheep’s wool is composted afterwards. 

None of this is bad, but it also gives you little sense of the relationships that attach to domestic animals, that are implied by them. That is, small scale farm polyculture is to a large degree about relationships with animals.  In our society, the only way we make relationships with animals to turn them into pets – and certainly, some farmers and some farm animals do turn their creatures into pets – even the best intentioned working farmer will have some animals that crossed the line from “farm animal” to “companion.”  But it is worth knowing that human beings and animals have had intense and meaningful relationships which were neither “pet” nor the deep inhumanity of industrial agriculture.

And there are some people who might say that this traditional and complex relationship between domestic animals and farmers is bad – after all, it involved measures of trust and care, and in many cases, ended in death for the animal at the hands of people who cared for it.  My turkeys run to me for food – and I give it to them, give them one perfect summer and autumn on the farm, and then we eat them. Most people these days would shield their children from that reality – the animals they want their children to see are always cute, always safely penned and neutered, usually babies.  Their future is not something children are supposed to contemplate. 

And yet, most of the stories we tell children have a dark part as well, and this is no accident.  In _Goodnight Moon_ the child, clearly from an affluent family, is alone, apart from his parents, isolated in a separate space, with an unrelated “old lady” whispering hush.  I’ve written before about the absence of the mother in _The Cat in the Hat_.  The place where _The Wild Things Are_ is frightening.  Children “go” there, when they lose control and become “king of all the wild things” and get so angry at their parents that they tell them “I’ll eat you up!” – and thus must process their fear that their parents will stop loving them because of this dark and frightening anger.  The fairy stories we tell children are frightening – we sanitize them, but it is not clear that the old versions were not better for children.

The dark part of the diversified farm is this – our food did not begin on styrofoam trays in plastic wrappers.  The dark part of the farms is this – that we love and relate to the animals and then we kill some of them. Unless there are no animals on the farm, farms are steeped in death – sooner or later even the most ardent vegetarian farmer will have to put down an injured or ailing animal, may have to choose between a pest animal and one they wish to preserve and protect.  There is no retirement home for extra animals.  Death is, at every level, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, at home on every farm.

The funny thing is, it is adults, more than children, that are traumatized by this.  Oh, plenty of children go through vegetarian phases, but my own children are surprisingly capable of sustaining multiple knowledges – that some animals stay on the farm, and others do not, that the meat we eat comes from somewhere, that it had a life that preceeded it. 

In my copy of _The Year at Maple Hill Farm_ which, in the late 1970s, I read aloud to my own baby sister, the cycle of the year, wild and tame on a farm, is described in minute detail, from the hatching of eggs of all sorts (chicken, goose, robin, cuckoo, duck) to the end. In November, we are told “…before winter comes finally, a few of the animals leave the farm.  Some are sold.  The finest are borrowed by neighbors for breeding.  A few ganders are sent along as gifts.  Everyone likes ganders – you can’t have too many ganders – except in the barn through the winter.”  This is as closely as most of the books dare approach this subject.  Why does everyone like ganders?  Well, they are tasty (although you can tell this is a product of an earlier era – I love the idea of sending live ganders to my family, just to see the expression on their faces “here’s Christmas dinner, I assume you’ll know what to do with it.”;-)).  Why don’t we want them in the barn through winter?  Because the hay and grain may not hold out, and we can afford to keep only a few males for breeding.  It is the way of farming with animals.  It is the dark part of the story that lurks around the edges of the surface.

And it is one of the reasons I don’t think that the farm of childhood is simply nostalgic – that is, the farm is a good place for children for all its ambiguity.  It is not all that there is – children need contact with wild things too, and with the cities and towns they live in – but it is important that children experience farms, and food, as they really are – and as we want them to be.  By “want them to be” I do not mean sanitized or purified into petting zoos – but real farms, where real fiber and food, real things that matter to children come from, and where children can participate, can see that work and play are not always easily divided from one another.  This includes some knowledge of life and death, and of the cycle of life.  Without connection to the origins of their food, and the pain that sometimes underlies it, children risk growing up, as so many have, without a sense of the value of that food.

In the world as a whole, the farm, as I have described it, is part of most children’s world.  85% of farms worldwide are diversified small farms – many of them tiny farms on the edges of cities, others large farms in grain raising areas, or small dairies.  Children live and grow on these farms, and in the developing world, and through most of human history, were tied to them – they may never have lived on a farm, but there was a grandmother or an uncle with a farm, or a farm down the road that would employ them in the summers.  Never have children been so far away from the sources of their food and their imagination as they are in the western, developed world.

I had a farm as a girl – it belonged to my great uncle – my cousin Amy and I would load vegetable from their truck garden to be hauled to market, would chase each other in and out of the dark, cool hen house, and dare each other to climb to the hayloft to see the kittens.  I did not spend nearly as much time there as I would have liked, and it was not perfect, but it lives in my memory, imprinted, in ways that other experiences do not – as a memory of perfect summers, in a child’s place.

We would not repeat to our children endlessly the noises of domestic animals if they did not matter to us, even if we can no longer fully articulate why they matter.  We would not show them the farm so constantly and urgently if the farm did not matter to them.  They know it does.  We know it does.  But just as urgent as teaching them the language of animals and showing them where carrots come from is the work of making these farms real again, in all their imperfections, with their dark side intact, but whole, and a place where children can visit.

We invite as many people as we can to our farm, knowing that it will sometimes disappoint – the children will get dirty and sometimes even get manure on them.  The barn will have flies sometimes.  The animals won’t always want to play.  At some point the hens’ eggs will all be collected, and there will be no more until tomorrow, or we will be hatching, and will say “no collecting.”  At some point, a creature will become ill, or die. At some point something will kill and eat something else.  Sometimes the meal on the table derives from a former playmate.  I don’t think these things are bad for the children who visit us – some of whom knew all of these things before, and some of whom did not. 

If I ever accomplish one thing, I hope it will be to encourage more small farms, perhaps enough that most children in the so-called “developed” world, will have a farm in their lives – not a petting zoo, but an actual farm.  These can be city lots turned into microfarms, or CSAs that allow families to come pick up their share and see the land that produces their food.  They could be the truck farm that grandmother and grandfather made when they retired, or the farm that grew out of a neighbor’s suburban lot and backyard chickens.   I do not wish to see the farm dwindle to an Oz or fairyland, lost entirely to the children raised on its tales.

The story of the farm was never wholly clean, never perfect.  The role of the story has been to teach children that underneath the strange and dark parts, is an overarching comfort – a place where they can discover where food comes from, and wonder what another creature thinks of them, where they can touch and feel things both warm and beautiful, and a little ugly, with the hand of a grownup reassuring them that all these things, dark and light, go together in perpetuity, like children and the farm.