In my mind's wandering, my better man's better place is a small farm in West Virginia. Never mind the fact that I have absolutely no idea how to properly husband a farm. Never mind the fact that the mere 1,800 sq. ft. of land currently under my care is bald, fissured or both. Never mind the fact that my only experience with organic fruit comes courtesy of Central Market. Never mind the facts because that's what makes a dream a dream.
A spring wind blowing
the smell of the ground
through the intersections of traffic,
the mind turns, seeks a new
nativity - another place,
simpler, less weighted
by what has already been.
it's enough to grieve me -
that old dream of going,
of becoming a better man
just by getting up and going
to a better place.
Another place! That old dream...of becoming a better man...just by going to a better place.
My current place is suburban Dallas. I am sure that this place suits some people, for many, it was probably even their better. But as for me and the children my wife and I dream about, it isn't suitable at all. My wife and I both grew up exploring the woods in our own neighborhoods with our siblings and best friends; naming the areas we discovered after places in our favorite books, landmarks from the "real world", or better still, names entirely of our own invention. We value those experiences to such a degree that it's not just something we want for our kids, it is as necessary as clean drinking water and vegetables.
Our current place doesn't offer those kinds of experiences and there are even some arguments to be made about the drinking water if you want to get in to that. But my dissatisfaction with this place isn't as selfless as wanting something grand for my kids, it's born out of what I want for myself. Although, as someone who has a sincere fondness for nature, I'm certain that if I live out the rest of my days in this place that has little to no reverence for Creation, I'll go insane and that can't be good for anyone. So, really, moving to a farm is for everyone else's benefit, not mine!
In doing all of this dreaming about six acres in Lincoln County, WV, I've acquired some books about farming. So far, the only thing I've discovered is that learning how to farm by reading a book is like learning architecture by watching someone dance: it just isn't going to happen. But, as anyone who has seen "What About Bob?" knows, there is such a thing as baby steps. So, as Bob himself would say, "Baby steps start a garden in the backyard. Baby steps start a garden in the backyard." And that is where I have found myself, anxious for the spring and anxious to remember the smell of the ground.
But, then I hear Thoreau say in the first few pages of Walden, "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Misfortune? Are you kidding? What I wouldn't give to inherit a farm and the knowledge of caring for it! I know that the context of Thoreau's statement is that these poor men are slaves to their work and that they "labor under a mistake." If he were to write it today, he would probably say something like, "I see young men and women, my townspeople, whose misfortune it is to have inherited businesses, mansions, office complexes, personnel and wireless devices; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Even still, reading this sentence makes me think about the Apostle Paul and again about Wendell Berry and I feel like I am at two roads diverged.
In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he writes, "For I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be." Do I just need to learn contentment? Is it possible that even if I had my land, tools and the majority of the food that my family ate was produce we'd grown from seed ourselves...is it possible that even then I would be discontent, longing for the predictability of suburban life and the Kroger a minute's walk away? Would I feel as much a slave to labor there as I feel like a fish out of water here? Sure, it's possible.
But, it's also possible that Berry's idea of becoming a better man simply by going to a better place would ring true and this is where the roads diverge. Maybe the answer lies in a backyard garden that's waiting to be planted.