Thanks E.B. White

This is a reposting of a blog entry from Mother Earth News, also reprinted at Resilience.

A friend gave me a copy of Down East magazine back before Christmas with a page earmarked. “You’ll die laughing,” she warned me. Turns out, it was a reprint of E. B. White’s “Memorandum,” from One Man’s Meat,published in 1944.

I knew of White from his story of a famous pig named Wilbur who befriended a spider named Charlotte in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web. I must have read that book 20 times over as a child. Maybe it was my first inkling toward wanting to be connected to animals in some way. I’ve never seen the movie version. I guess I always thought I’d be disappointed. Sometimes, the visions we carry in our heads are far more alive and vivid than anything on a silver screen. At least, that’s how I see it when it comes to some of my favorite things, one of them being the tale of a pig and a spider.

I saved the magazine for a time when I could sit down and read “Memorandum” without the distraction of something on the stove or a dryer buzzer going off or another log needing to be thrown on the fire. I felt like I was due for a really good belly laugh, as was suggested was going to be the case.

What I experienced instead was the realization that E. B. White and I had so much in common. His litany of tasks and thoughts and expressions of worry or concern were exactly the same things I experience as I wend my way through “working the farm” every day. I said out loud, to nobody but the cats and dog, who gave me a concerned look, “This is exactly how my day is!”

I wasn’t laughing. I was completely struck by the description of a day on a farm and the reality of it all. The shoulds and the oughts and what it would be a good day to do. The things that occur to him and the things he lists he’ll need to complete. The endless tasks and suggestions of the tools that would be good to use to do them and the thoughts of what there is to do tomorrow and what he needs to do to prepare for that next day. If you haven’t read it, do. You’ll never feel alone as a farmer again.

I have conversations all the time with a farmer friend who has been at this for more than 30 years. Brian always says, “If you get behind one day, consider you’ll need three to catch up, if you’re lucky.” It’s an ADD delight, a constant never-ceasing barrage of things rattling around in your head, all equally important, that keep you from ever completely focusing on the task at hand and relentlessly reminding you of what’s left undone. If you farm, tend animals, raise crops, labor over orchards, house any kind of living thing, you know what I’m saying. White describes it in such exquisite detail, the needs of every living and inanimate thing on a farm, you are reminded of the connection to this way of life, and your heart stands still at the thought that you, too, experience this kind of intimacy on a daily basis.

Just as White “musn’t forget to set some mousetraps tonight,” I am reminded of my own tasks that need tending to: “I ought to make a list, I guess.” If you have a list, and my guess is that, if you’re a farmer, you have more than one, know you’re in good company.

When it comes right down to it, the way I see it, the real essence of farming hasn’t changed much since 1944. White’s litany of chores and thoughts and shoulds and oughts is as alive today as it was then. I find that comforting. Maybe the certainty that each day will bring a new set of chores and tasks and unexpected jobs is the simple reason why we’re drawn to the farming way of life. Days unfold with wind and rain, snow and sleet, animals birthing, animals dying, papers that need filling in, stalls that need cleaning, rows of plants that need weeding, compost piles that need turning, wood that needs cutting or stacking, trash that needs burning, stickers for cars that need fetching and sticking, roofs that need mending, sheep that need drenching, and I should go on but won’t. To me, that’s the beauty of farming, the reminder that something much bigger than me is in charge of how my days are laid out before me.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time here typing, and I can see it is four o’clock already and almost dark, so I had better get going.” It seems even this task is one that takes on a life of its own, as these thoughts transfer from brain to paper. Thanks for the brain cramp, Mr. White

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