A Twenty-First Century Landscape

Lecture Given by Jane Adams
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D. Gorton's Proposal

Jane Adams' Lecture
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The photographs in this exhibit show a rural landscape that most rural Illinoisans know. From where I live in Carbondale, driving Rte. 127 and I-64 to St. Louis, or I-57 to Urbana and Chicago, one sees, interspersed between small towns, the Illinois farmland. Those deeply familiar with these routes have observed, over the years, the gradual elimination of structures from the landscape: one by one the old hand-crafted barns decay.

Homesteads show signs of being abandoned, and you notice, perhaps, that a once-familiar landmark is gone. A soybean or cornfield grows where, you believe, the old house, barn, and sheds so recently stood. Only you can’t be sure: The traces of the old farmstead would only be visible, if at all, from overhead, where telltale shades of green might betray its ghostly remnant. Or a storage shed remains, because it is still useful.
It’s only with great effort, if at all, that the traveler can recall the landscape of one, two decades past.
That is not true of people who inhabit those spaces.

Each piece of ground has its genealogy: successions of ownership, of crops, of buildings. Gullies formed and healed. Fences built and torn down. Trees planted, felled by lightening, the power company, the farmer’s bulldozer. Land drained, leveled, put in set asides… There is an intimacy with the land that those with generations of living on it bring to their experience of it. The landscape is, to use a concept from the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, part of people’s "life world" in a way that it is not for those who only visit it.

Those who live on the land see it in a way not possible to those who simply drive through it, or visit it recreationally. There is a deep sensuality to farmer’s engagement with the elements. This sensuality is often rich: I recall the pungent smells of new-plowed ground, new-mown hay, harvested wheat. The smoothness of a dirt path and sudden coldness of a dip in the ground on bare feet and legs. The wild beauty of a thunderstorm.

D. notes the omnipresent sky with its changing moods. In one of our conversations, I noted that, in many indigenous South American cosmologies, earth and sky are joined through mythic iconography. European traditions do not have much to say about a sacrilized experience of nature, but people nonetheless often link their daily experiences to their notions of God and the Sacred.

There are also the often acute discomforts of working in near-freezing drizzle, miring down in the far forty with the harvest or the planting already late. Accidents that leave children, husbands, employees, maimed and, perhaps, disabled for life. Water contaminated in the well from agricultural chemicals. Rashes and allergies from chemicals and crop dusts. It’s not all sweetness and light.

When one’s livelihood is the land, the land is a source of richness and a source of impoverishment. If the rains come on time, if it doesn’t flood; if the last frost is not too late, and the first frost too early; if excessive heat doesn’t destroy the corn’s germination, or too little heat encourage rot… Even with all the mechanization and chemistry in the world, farming is a risky endeavor. Even without the vagaries of markets and federal policy that can make a bumper crop a disaster.
Last year, 2000, for example, everything went right: Farmers were able to plant without the ground being too muddy, or too dry. Rains were plentiful, the temperatures not too hot when the corn tasseled, so the ears filled out, and fall was dry, so the harvest went easily. Bumper crop. The elevators and grain bins couldn’t hold the plenty, and it stood stored in great heaps on the ground. The price of corn fell to [xx]; soybeans [xx]. [get info on returns per acre]

These photographs are not about nostalgia, a sentiment all too often applied to the rural landscape. There’s something deeply wrong about the landscape we drive through. But it’s a wrongness that doesn’t admit to easy diagnosis and even less to easy remedy. Virtually every commentator notes it:

The age of farm operators is rising, indicating both the barriers to entry, and the reluctance of young people to enter this enormously risky and unremunerative profession.
Chart: number of farms 1900-1990

The number of farms is declining steadily. And with the farms, the rural population declines. And with the rural population, the social infrastructure thins: Children have to ride hours to schools that cannot afford to give them the foundations for selective colleges; distances to services grow ever larger; the webs of reciprocity that make life supportable and rich, especially in the absence of ready cash, thin to the breaking point; churches loose parishioners, cannot support ministers.

Farms rarely support the families that operate them. Without federal program payments, and off-farm earnings, most farms would not survive. Farmers are themselves among the first to observe the irony of their profession—hard, demanding, dangerous work that requires enormous expertise and training, and rarely pays a minimum wage. If one factors out equity, of course, in land and equipment.

Before World War II, agrarian reformers, urban and rural, envisioned a densely populated countryside where property-ownership conferred the substance of democratic citizenship. They sought to extend the material benefits of urban living to the rural: electricity, medical care, all-weather roads, cash income. They were largely successful, but the populace slipped out from underneath them.

Now I say that as if people simply slid away from the rural, and while demographically that metaphor may stand, in fact, people continue to be born and raised on farms; they sojourn between their city jobs and their parents’ and grandparents’ farms, helping them with planting and harvest. They dream of retiring to a bit of ground where they can farm. And many do: The number of small farms is proliferating, even as the number of farms over 1000 acres increases, and mid-size farms go under.

When I look at the countryside captured in D.’s photographs, I see a layered, deeply complicated, fraught landscape.

I continue to struggle to understand what has happened. D. and I argue over the kitchen table: Who is responsible? Who did what? What alternative paths were available?

D. fixes on the modernizing imagination, that envisioned a countryside made for a powerful urban elite’s aesthetic pleasure. I fix on the economic and political interests that drove post-WWII agricultural policy—the agro-industrial interests in the context of the U.S. industrial powerhouse. And the ways that farmers and other rural residents, themselves, participated, seemingly willingly, in their own demise.

There’s certainly enough blame to go around. This landscape, emptied of people, is neither the bucolic aesthetic vision of the urban agrarian, nor the "natural" landscape which people can only contemplate, envisioned by so many environmentalists, nor the economically vibrant multi-generational community envisioned by most farming people and rural residents—at least the propertied rural residents.

The only landscape that approximates this vision is the one created by the Amish—a people who deliberately and steadfastly turn their backs on the modern world, and whose lives few of us would truly wish to replicate. They seem, to my sensibility, both admirable in their plain living, and insular and narrow.

The rural landscape around Arthur is striking in its difference from the rest of central and southern Illinois: First, there are no wires. Amish do not use electricity nor telephones. Second, large, multigeneration homesteads like this one appear at close intervals, maybe separated by a quarter mile—not unlike the road on which I grew up, where a child could walk barefoot to one’s neighbor and to school, and stay in hailing distance of home. Third, people visit one another in buggies. On a Sunday, you will see family groups crowded into their buggies travelling from house to house; weekdays the roads are not so busy, but you can see buggies turn into houses and then leave, visiting on business or otherwise. Everyone has horses. This is not the rural landscape created even by their Anabaptist brethren, the Mennonites, who live on the fringes of the Amish heartland.

But outside of these strongly covenanted communities, the pressures to increase scale, to depopulation, are enormous: Sonya Salamon, in her deep study of central Illinois farming communities, has clearly demonstrated the ethnic diversity of Illinois’ farmlands. Upland Southerners, German Lutherans, Catholics, and Apostolic Christians, Mennonites, and generalized old stock Yankee Americans and Irish, although different in some particulars, all have grown large, devoured their neighbor’s land as owner or renter, cleared virtually all traces of human habitation from their fields.

They are not a sentimental lot. Nor particularly keen on ostentatious consumption. Thrift and the demonstration of thrift is a way of displaying one’s virtue. If you fail against all odds, and are thrifty, you may gain some sympathy from your neighbors. But if you fail after building a new house, or taking a winter vacation, you will most likely be blamed for managing badly: such expenditures, many durable farmers believe, are simply symptomatic of deeper failings. At least, that is the story Kate Dudley tells of Minnesota, and that I heard from farmers during the Farm Crisis—both those who failed and those who expressed sympathetic or condemning attitudes towards those who failed.

The weather is unforgiving, the markets are unforgiving, and frequently the neighbors are, as well.

Is it any wonder people of the farms and small towns so often feel embattled when the powers that be—urban, affluent, educated—either sentimentalize them or reform and regulate them?

The rural scenery of today has not been long in its creation. One hundred fifty years ago, most of this land was thinly settled. The Grand Prairie of central Illinois refused to yield to the puny plows available. It was often a frightening and dangerous place, with grasses and forbes towering above a person’s head, susceptible to fire when dry. Much of it was boggy, and malarial. The first settlers sought the forested hills of deep southern Illinois, and the mixed prairie-woodland of the hillier regions ringing the Grand Prairie, where Indians had long burned the grasslands to keep openings for wildlife and farming.

Two things allowed settlement: the iron moldboard plow, invented in the 1830s, and the technology of drainage. Jane Smiley, in her novel One Thousand Acres, writes about the Germans who settled what was considered waste land in northern Iowa, and with enormous labor ditched and tiled it, making it some of the most productive land in the world. The story is the same in central Illinois and in northern Indiana, as well.

The newly opened lands of nineteenth century Illinois gave rise to great fortunes of the bonanza farmers and land speculators. The landlords, merchants, timbermen, and manufactures who built the prosperous small towns with their gracious main streets, that dotted the countryside, lived symbiotically—though often antagonistically—with the farmers. These towns and their rural hinterlands produced America’s leaders – its intellectuals, artists, inventors, and statesmen. These developers were not austere: while most of the grand houses are in the towns, from time to time one will see the ostentatious mansion of a bonanza farmer presiding over what were once its vast farmlands.

That was in the 19th century. But that world, which still animates the popular imagination (why else do people so love to hate Wal-Mart?), began to wane almost as soon as it was born. It was a world predicated on small-scale manufacturing, on large amounts of manual and animal labor. Its riches came from serving the rapidly industrializing cities, and from the seemingly limitless supply of unskilled laborers pouring into the U.S. from Europe. By 1890 the land was settled, the frontier officially closed. The "Golden Age" of American Agriculture was short, beginning in 1897 and reaching full flower between 1910 and 1914. By World War I the balance shifted to industry; the cities never gave back their preeminence.

The vision of the rural we have received has viewed it as made up of balanced, harmonious, self-sustaining communities. This vision never existed. The rural regions of the nineteenth century were full of flux and change. They were a patchwork of (what we now call) ethnic communities, riven with religious and ethnic and occasionally class conflict. They were boisterous, energetic, open.

Chart of foreign born

This graveyard at St. Peter, in Fayette County, spans that period. German settlers buried their first dead around the 1830s and marked their graves with small stones. Their increasing prosperity is marked by stones that grow ever larger, as the cemetery filled in from west to east.

I would hazard the claim that people generally recall their childhood as "natural"—the way the world should work if all were normal. I, like D., find it useful to think about history as a series of lives: Say a baby was born when Illinois became a state, in 1818. She would have been counted among the 56,500 people listed in the 1820 census, and undoubtedly would have lived in the southern third of the state. Most of the region was forest or prairie, used as hunting territories and a few settlements for the remaining Indians.

If that child lived no longer than the proverbial "three score years and 10 (plus 2)," in her lifetime virtually all the lands were claimed and settled, railroads built, Chicago grew into a great city, wave after wave of immigrants settled town and countryside; steam engines, electricity, telephones, photography became part of daily life… At her death in 1890 she would have been among nearly 4 million Illinois residents; her family’s farm would be counted among the more than quarter million in the state.

The jumps in agricultural and all other forms of productivity were enormous, but they still required large amounts of human and animal labor. Farming at the end of her lifetime, though substantially different from what she would recall as a child, would still be recognizable. Skills learned as a youth would still apply. Many of the changes could be experienced as changes in quantity, more than quality. The could be experienced as a recreation of a settled, civilized life out of the "howling wilderness" or a realization of a European peasant’s dream of yeoman farming.

Let’s imagine a great grandson was born in 1890, as she died. Within his lifetime farming would be utterly transformed. He would grow up and begin farming during the Golden Age of agriculture; in his imagination, that world of prosperous farms peopled with laborers’ cabins, of bustling market towns every 5 to 7 miles along the railroad tracks, was normal. The agricultural depression that faced him after World War I, as he turned 30, seemed a passing spell of bad luck. When it stretched into the next decade and enveloped the rest of the country, he may well have been among those farmers who welcomed the New Deal programs that would forever change the shape of rural America and of farming. The war over, in his early 50s, he would perhaps have been a leader in his community, imagining that they could now recreate that remembered world of his youth.

His sons would fight in World War II; some of his children would leave for urban jobs; one or two would aggressively modernize the family farm. The market roads were paved, electricity reached every household. His grandchildren went to the consolidated school in town; most went on to college. Chemistry and technology replaced (or displaced) the laborers whose old houses were bulldozed down.

If he retired in 1955, with Social Security he could afford to maintain his own household either on the farm or in town; his farming children in modern homes nearby. But now the neighbors were disappearing: his sons bought their land, or rented from widows. Empty farmsteads began to dot the landscape. Only one grandson stayed on the farm, keeping the tradition going.

St. Peter’s Cemetery marks that decisive decline: Its last sustained use was in the 1950s.

Imagine that the first settler’s great grandson died in 1960, 142 years after her birth. Imagine his great granddaughter was born in 1960, at the end of the baby boom. Her childhood was marked by turbulence. She went to school in town, watched television, expected she would go to college. But high school sex changed that. She bore her child alone, although her distressed parents sheltered her, glad her grandparents had not lived to see their shame. In 1979 she married a man whose parents had given up farming. Glad to have someone to keep the farm in the family, despite spiraling land and credit prices, her parents leveraged their farm to help them buy land. The farm crisis of the 1980s hit them hard. When they had to declare bankruptcy, neighbors crossed the street or busied themselves in the far aisle of the grocery store. They eventually worked their way out of bankruptcy, managed to keep the farm. In 2001, the old folks are still farming alongside their son-in-law and grandchildren. Their daughter got a college degree and teaches in the district grade school, some 20 miles distant, their son-in-law works as a mechanic on the side.

The nearby market town where they once traded has shrunk to a "convenience store," a post office, a struggling restaurant, and a few antique and junk shops, and an aging population. The oldest grandchild works in the prison—a good job, as jobs go. The other grandchildren plan to leave.

Within three lifetimes, the land has been populated and depopulated, the towns built and decayed. Rural America entered the twentieth century optimistic, energetic, dynamic; it ended the century dispirited, grim, barely surviving.
Bob Dylan had it right, at least about America: "Those who aren’t busy being born are busy dying." The enormous vitality of the post-World War II period did not translate into a rebirth for the rural. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our rural communities are dying.

This show should not be an elegy to the rural, but it’s almost impossible not to often feel elegiac: to mourn the passing of a vision of society. It’s important to keep in mind that that vision never truly appeared in life, nonetheless, it embodied something that I believe remains valuable, that we have perhaps irretrievably lost.

The "dark satanic mills" that William Blake railed against have prevailed. An industrialized countryside now confronts us.

There are major cross-currents in the rural these days: Small towns and rural counties fight for prisons for the jobs they provide, though I suspect that even those who fight the hardest to get them feel dirtied by the process: to shift from earning a living through producing the world’s food to standing guard over caged human beings… Incommensurate worlds.

More and more people retire to rural areas and "farm"—a hobby, an avocation. Occasionally a successful "niche" venture, like Alto Winery.

Farmers themselves are often diversifying, even as they increase in scale. Seeking niche crops, grown like the usual feed grains but contracted to specialty markets. Many of these crops are not apparent to even the relatively trained eye. Some few farmers, at least in Illinois, turn to organics.

I believe that is what this farm is—it was striking in its different appearance: the yard, the house, the crops, it broke a pattern that one quickly comes to recognize.

(In other parts of the country, far more people farm organically and are developing alternative marketing systems. Illinois is, however, dominated by production agriculture. Those people doing organic farming have not yet, in Illinois, tipped a balancing point to be able to create new energy.)

The nature of the rural is being increasingly contested: around urban areas by the spread of suburbs, that swallow up farmland by the thousands of acres. In areas where farming has become increasingly tenuous, as technologies require ever more "perfect" lands, environmentalists and others seek to convert farmland to recreational and other non-agricultural uses based on "ecosystem services", one of the newest concept in the lexicon.

That’s the description. But why? Let me lay out a few explanations. None of them explain what happened to my full satisfaction; nonetheless, each of them rings true.

&M Modernizing faith. U.S. farm policy has explicitly aimed to industrialize agriculture. Virtually throughout its history, "progressive" farmers and agricultural experts have viewed "modern" forms of production to be desirable. James Scott observes that "modernization" claimed to rationally apply science to human problems in order to improve the human condition; this was, however, more a faith than a testable proposition. It became the dominant ideology of the twentieth century; all counter-voices were silenced by its overwhelming power. This faith, in the United States, linked modernism with capitalism as a liberating program.

&M Misfit between capitalism and crop production. Farming, particularly crop production, does not yield to the rationality of capitalist economics to the same degree as other branches of industry. It is necessarily connected to natural cycles, it uses labor and equipment very unevenly through the year. There are natural limits to the degree to which it can shorten production time, one of the major tools to make ever more efficient and profitable use of capital.
&M Commitment to small government freeholding. Many of the people who bought land and developed America’s farms sought farm ownership as a foundation of freedom. Coming from the shadow of the dissolving European feudalism, they rejected strong social controls over their personal actions. Yet, embedded in a developing capitalist economy, they met their neighbors as competitors, often fierce competitors, for land, for markets, for labor… Although moralities differ from ethnic group to ethnic group, except for the non-conforming sects like the Amish, all accept the basic tenets of free-holding, competitive production. They lack, therefore, any strong basis for imagining and acting upon alternative forms of social organization that might mitigate the misfit between industrial capitalism and free-holding farming—if such exist.
&M Political weakness. Perhaps most important for the twenty-first century, a powerful agro-industrial sector has developed, made up of a few international grain traders, a few transnational chemical companies, and a few transnational food processors, who directly benefit from high volume-low priced agricultural products. This has occurred as rural areas have lost population and, especially since the one-man-one-vote supreme court ruling of 1964(?), political power. Federal agricultural policy is driven far more by concern for international trade than by concern for the vitality of rural communities.

&M Outside the discourse. At the beginning of the new millennium, farmers and residents of small towns find themselves almost entirely outside of the dominant discourse. Virtually all the media comes out of and speaks to urban consumers. The rural, as D. has noted, becomes a place to contemplate, as scenery. It becomes a place for recreation and leisure. Other industries can locate their factories with their fumes and effluents in areas most of us never pass by. But farming is different: The poisons and the smells and the dirt associated with industrial production spread out over the open landscape. The aesthetic and health concerns of urban dwellers overwhelm farm realities. Farming is offensive to the townsperson. Except for the ersatz farms served up through agro-tourism, on the fringes of the expanding cities. And the organic farms that are creeping into the interstices of the decaying farms in hailing distance of the major metropolitan areas.

Perhaps this exhibit is a requiem, but one that should provoke disquiet more than nostalgia. Grief, perhaps, but not resignation.

This university lives in the middle of this region. Our hopes live and die, here more than most places, on the life or death of the rural. I do not believe that the modernizing faith that built this university saw prisons and tourism as the optimistic future, the basis for a vibrant democracy.

I have no prescription.

Perhaps, the new immigrants who are even now settling our countryside will—like the last great wave of immigration—discern a new way to use this land. To my eye, educated by better than half a century living in and studying the rural, from the beginning of the twenty-first century, the future looks like now.

This exhibit captures some of the images one might view from a car window, driving through the Illinois countryside. The vistas seem peaceful, often lovely, a well-groomed, orderly surface that appears inevitable. How could it be otherwise? But a keen and knowledgeable eye can see the traces of the tectonic movements of our history. A human landscape. One each of us, wittingly or not, has participated in creating. And which we will, wittingly or not, continue to shape, for good and ill.

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