The Land Was Everything
Victor Davis Hanson
Free Press, 258 pages (Hardback, 2000)
I am a sucker for a good book on farming, especially one that romanticizes agriculture, and speaks wistfully of a bygone era when everything was simpler and less urbane. But this isn’t that kind of book. It is a better kind of book. Assuredly this is a work about farming and the life that technology and the post-industrial West has abandoned forever for mechanization and a blissful abundance. The author, Hoover Institution fellow and Professor of Classics at California State University-Fresno Victor Davis Hansen speaks guardedly of the blessing that was the main culture of regular man since the days of Adam. While the author’s “main” employment is as college professor his real job is the caretaker of a multi-generational grape/raisin farm in the California Central Valley town of Selma. The book is an examination of how he has seen life change over fifty years for both better and worse. From the effect the death of the family farm has had on American culture to a quiet defense of the tie between man and dirt which has a necessary effect on the soul.
This book is part memoir, part social commentary, part lamentation. Hanson’s purpose in the work is to present an argument concerning the nature and death of the family farm, what that point is, never is exactly clear, which is the point itself. The end of sustenance agriculture and the growth of agribusiness is a truth, which is just a reality that few have questioned the wisdom thereof. Sure we have access to fresh fruit in January, straight off the vine or tree, but is it really better? Is it worth the cultural costs? These are just some of the questions Dr. Hanson wants to ask in this work. You can complain about illegal immigration till you are red in the face, but someone has to pick the strawberries for the cheap fruit dish you bring to the potluck. You can look down upon the “ignorant” rural voter who still has not come to terms with post-modernity, but he’s the reason the co-op you support can provide food. Dr. Hanson wants the reader to look that farmer, who dies at 60 all worn out, and understand why he exists and why you should be at least less derogatory to the man and his way of life. A feature of this argument is something which is common in these kinds of works. Wondering why the local farmer needs to offer sacrifices to the unnamed and faceless bureaucrat in a far off state and federal capital, who has never faced a real day of labor in his life, and has no clue, let alone will, to understand what it takes for one man to feed a million.
One of the more interesting avenues the author takes to make these points is from his own study of Athenian and Greek culture. Since that is Dr. Hanson’s main educational objective, teaching students about the Hellenistic world and why it should matter to them to know Pythagoras from Aeschylus for the future of the American way. Be ready to see how little the mind of man has changed over the past 2,500 years. The same struggles with pests, thieves, and government officials that a winedresser faced to provide Plato with a glass of port at supper are the same things the author fights against in his work to grow raisins. If anything this book will give the reader an education in real life.
In closing, I highly recommend this work to those who have a heart for the farmer, and do not have a naive understanding of the hard and often unappreciated work of the agrarians. I also recommend this book for people who want to know why things are the way they are.