Mother Earth

I recently commented on a blog by my pal Emily who had reported on the novel The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Emily wondered aloud if perhaps humans have lost their contact with the earth, and I cited the example of the modern farmer sitting high atop his twelve-wheel tractor, air-conditioned and navigated by computers in which the farmer sits listening to country/western music. I exaggerate for effect — he may listen to Beethoven or Vivaldi for all I know. But you get the picture — the farmer is probably hired by a corporation, and that is not an exaggeration.

In any event, one does wonder what has been lost when humans ride in huge machines and never touch the earth from which we draw sustenance and from whence we all came and to which we will all eventually return. The great writer Joseph Conrad wondered aloud about the same sort of thing — except that he was reflecting on the replacement of the sailing ships he worked on for so many years by the steamships that rudely shoved them aside.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

In his reflections on his life at sea, titled The Mirror of the Sea, Conrad mentions “affectionate regret which clings to the past.” Indeed. He himself served briefly — the last time as captain — on steam ships, but he hated them and left the British merchant marine, which he served for twenty years, primarily because he could no longer find a sailing vessel to command. They were declared redundant, as the English would say. Conrad’s loss is our gain as he then became one of the greatest writers of English prose who ever set pen to paper (and he a Pole who never spoke English until he went to sea with the merchant service as a 17 year-old boy!).  Conrad, who waxes poetic in several chapters about the wind, reflects on the changes he saw:

“Here speaks the man of the masts and sails, to whom the sea is not a navigable element, but an intimate companion. The length of passages, the growing sense of solitude, the close dependence upon the very forces that, friendly today, without changing their nature, by the mere putting forth of their might, become dangerous tomorrow, make for that sense of fellowship which modern seamen, good men as they are, cannot hope to know. And, besides, your modern ship, which is a steamship, makes her passages on other principles than yielding to the weather and humoring the sea. She receives smashing blows, but she advances; it is a slogging fight, and not a scientific campaign. The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieve your end.”

As we grow older we do naturally tend to reflect on old times, though in his superb movie “Midnight in Paris” Woody Allen shows us the dangers that lie in thinking that everything was truly better “back then.” However, at the risk of falling into the trap Allen warns us about, I find myself drawn to the profound remark of one of my other favorite writers, George Eliot, when she wishes nostalgically for a time when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Not only have we lost touch with our Mother Earth, we have lost touch with the world itself in our hurried pursuit of material success in the conviction that faster and bigger are better when they are not and that all movement forward in time means progress when it assuredly is not. Perhaps we might all slow down a bit and look around to appreciate what a beautiful world we humans seem to have grown apart from.

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10 thoughts on “Mother Earth

  1. This is fantastic, Hugh, and not just because you mentioned me. 🙂 I am going to address this idea of American progress in a post soon because I read a book for one of my classes about it. Our mentality in the United States about progress is heavily tied to technology. I like that you brought Conrad into it, too. The quote by George Eliot and that whole paragraph reminded me of the myth of transience, which is that we always think an earlier age was somehow better, or that the current state of things is deteriorating. I think this myth, which we all embrace at some point, is linked to nostalgia and perhaps an inner rejection of progress. Things are always changing, and I know, for me, that is hard to deal with.

  2. This post took me straight back to my childhood, where I roamed the Mississippi Delta cotton fields and oxbow-lake wilderness like a wild Indian! An idyllic life straight from a Faulkner novel, I was immersed in a vanishing culture entangled in traditions that still hold tight in some areas.

    The youngest of four girls, I seemed t be the one who sought solace in nature, and I was forever roaming the gardens, woods, lakes and fields. I helped chop cotton, pick cotton (by hand), husk corn (for the horses!), pick up pecans, crack and shell them – not because I had to, but because I wanted to – it was an earthy task, and I thrived on tasks like that! My sister, Pat, and I often competed to see who could pick the most cotton each day, and like the workers, we were paid for our tasks!!!! Wow! We were paid to have fun!

    Those were the days of two-row John Deere cotton pickers, and I remember when our neighbor bought a four-row picker! He was so proud of that machine!

    How modern technology has changed, and you’re right, those machines cost – what? – hundreds of thousands of dollars? I’m not sure, but I do know that they’re well appointed and give the operator a cushioned perch for harvesting the crops.

    My former husband was quite talented at taking a liability slice of farmland and ‘turning it around’ into a well-run asset. He eventually managed the largest privately-owned farm in the USA. He also worked for Prudential *CAPS) and managed many of their Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi farm holdings. Oh yes, I have experienced both – the yin and yang!

    I remember he told me once that a friend/neighbor was ‘selective harvesting’ a slough between our property and theirs. He asked if we wanted the timber people to do ours at the same time. “My wife will leave me if I cut down any of those trees, ” he told me later! I suspect that would have caused a big problem, and I was always touched by his respect for my love of nature.

    Nonetheless, big modern farming doesn’t usually care about the lazy sloughs and random shade trees; the bottom line is profit, and anything that hinders that bottom line is blotted away! What always bothered me was how people often leave the carcass of the tree there for – ever, not worth converting it to boards or even timber for wood-burning fireplaces!

    For many personal reasons, I bailed out, and in removing myself from that picture and reverting to a life similar to the one I had as a child, I now see the bigger picture with astute vision. Former husband continues to prosper as he fine-tunes fields, pastures, croplands. He wrote to tell of ‘taking down’ an orchard of old pecan trees that was no longer productive and converting that area to fields… I ‘retorted’ back just a tad, ‘what a shame,’ and he, with a loving salute, replied, ‘I knew you’d say that!’….

    And the cycle continues.

    Looking back I remember a comment from a wizened 90-something named “Mariah.” Coming home, I always stopped to say, “Hello” to Maria before going to my parent’s home. She was one of my mentors, and her caramel skin still clung to her face with a vitality found in much-younger women! She was lean and strong with a fierce inner strength. I found Maria in her vegetable garden, and I said, “Mariah! I want your secrets! How do you do this?”

    She looked at me and said, “Miss Lisa, you ain’t made like I am.”

    • What a great comment, Z. Thank you so much. I see groves being bulldozed on a fairly regular basis. The corporations have taken over and they have even less feel for the land than those farmers sitting high atop the huge tractors and combines.

      • My stomach did a barrel roll when I read your reply. The pecan grove that he told me about was a beautiful one, and I am so glad that I don’t have to drive past that area and still see the ghost trees.

        I remember during one ‘low’ moment, when the summer skies turned off their taps, and even irrigation wasn’t keeping the crops alive. Former husband said, “We’re doing this ourselves. I’m responsible as well. We’re cutting down all the trees and there’s an inversion of hot air blowing up and preventing the rain from moving in…’

        Yet no one seems to want to reverse the process and reclaim what we’ve lost.

  3. I love this post, thank you. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers, but I don’t play in it nearly enough. I sometimes feel sorry for my kids, who aren’t free to roam the woods and play like I did. The internet, Facebook, video games, and electronic gadgets cut them off from nature and each other. But we live in a beautiful place, so we try to leave it all the noise behind several times a year. We hike, gaze into waterfalls, catch crawfish, try to identify wildflowers and birds, picnic on a mossy hill. My kids think it’s the best thing ever and we really bond as a family.

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