I recently finished reading Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. It’s a memoir of author Mildred Kalish’s childhood and family life on a farm in the 1930′s, a delightful and engaging story. But also a disturbing and challenging one. Often, I found myself wondering how we as a society have distanced ourselves so much from the kind of life that Millie led on the farm… and called it progress.
Kalish tells humorous stories of the adventures on the farm of the Big Kids and the Little Kids in her family. I especially liked the story of how the kids had some play time one day and decided they would dig to China – really dig to China. (I remember having similar grand plans as a child, but I think ours involved the Eiffel Tower.) Working as a team, with Big Kids digging, and Little Kids hauling away the dirt, they dug what must have been a very large hole on the edge of the woods on their farm. All was going well until one of the uncles had to go out at dusk to catch a runaway pig. As the chase ensued, the pig went on past, but the unsuspecting uncle fell straight down into the “tunnel”! Can you imagine the look on his face? Of course, the children then had to haul all that dirt back and refill the hole. That builds character.
Kalish also shares details of life on the farm: how they grew their food; how they cared for their livestock; how they built and repaired the equipment they needed to run the farm; how the family all worked together. Of course there was never-ending work that went into preparing meals (no fast food restaurants around for those days when they didn’t feel like cooking), but Kalish also shares the joy and closeness of the family kitchen at meal times. She tells how to make foods from days gone by (head cheese, anyone?) and of the delicious, simple meals they shared straight from the garden. Farm animals were an integral part of their lives and were well cared for. And even the kids knew how to operate and fix things on the farm.
The spirit of community living and cooperation shines throughout Little Heathens. Extended family helps each other. Teachers are revered mentors. Church is a place of comfort and nurture. Neighbors are necessary and are considered friends. The children all had daily chores – even the very youngest picked peas or fed the chickens – which might sound foreign, maybe even abusive, in today’s culture. Kalish tells that the children knew they were a vital part of the family’s survival, and it seems they gained, not self-esteem (today’s buzz word) from it, but self-worth and self-confidence. This is the disturbing and challenging part to me: for those of us who don’t rely on farming for our livelihood today (we who can turn on a machine to wash our dishes and our clothes, order take-out meals so we don’t have to cook, and just go to a store for everything we need to live), do we have a spirit of community living and cooperation? Are we including our children in the vital functioning of the family? Do we, and our children, have a sense of belonging and purpose, of self-worth and self-confidence?
Can a place like The Community Farm foster this? This week we have begun a new plan for farming at Chestnut Ridge: we are accepting a limited number of memberships to the community garden at The Community Farm. We’re seeking to partner with folks who want to grow good food and good friendships in the garden. I’ve experienced the joy and sharing of a community garden before – it has been literally life-changing for me. My great hope is that we can work together to create a place at The Community Farm where all people, of all ages, who come will feel a sense of welcome and belonging, of their value to our community.
Gardening is hard work, but when it is done in community, high spirits abound.