Gene Logsdon, 1932 - 2016
Yes, I've read the headlines, and once again – although perhaps a bit more so than previous iterations – the previous year (2016) was one for fawning over many-a-departed pop stars. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and many others. Pop stars aren't really my thing, but if that stuff floats your dinghy, well, all the best with that. In the meantime, 2016 was also the year that several luminaries with a more agrarian bent also bade their farewell, beginning with the co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison. Just a couple of weeks ago one of Permaculture's most respected and more recent practitioners and teachers, Toby Hemenway, also made an all-too-early departure. But along with these, 2016 also saw us lose an agrarian outside the world of Permaculture, that somebody being the aptly named Contrary Farmer, Gene Logsdon.
I'll admit that I'm nowhere near as familiar with Logsdon's writing as I am with others of the American Agrarian Crew (as I call them) – Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Gary Paul Nabhan, etc. – or what Logsdon referred to as "the five musketeers, a quintet of somewhat radical thinkers and doers coming together in opposition to the steady consolidation of farming into an international mega-agribusiness monopoly" – Berry, Jackson, Maurice Telleen, David Kline, and himself. Having gone through a heavy and prolonged dose of the aforementioned and other agrarian authors a few years ago, I'd somewhat overdosed on said writing and had to take a break from it all, just as I was getting to Logsdon. I did however read just enough – to go along with a bit of a recent nudge – that I've been able to realize that Logsdon left us all with a rich treasure trove of writing to discover.
The first of Logsdon's writings that I (unsurprisingly?) read – and thoroughly enjoyed – was his book Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol' Demon Alcohol, but it was then with (misplaced) disappointment that I soon thereafter discovered his book Gene Logsdon's Practical Skills: A Revival of Forgotten Crafts, Techniques and Traditions in a thrift shop. "Seriously?", I asked myself. "Did Logsdon actually write one of those hokey '101 Ingenious Ways to Using Baking Soda' type books?" I of course bought it anyways (I probably paid $2.50 for it), and after languishing on my book shelf for a couple of years I one day found myself with nothing to read and so pulled it out.
"Holy Shit", I exclaimed to myself (and as Logsdon titled one of his books). Speaking as a suburban-raised boy (who has at least done his fair share of WWOOFing and, yeah, has [merely?] read several agricultural books of various persuasions), what Logsdon pulled off with Practical Skills is a fantastic little window into the nitty-gritty practicalities of farming and homesteading ways of life like no other book I've come across.
But while being extremely practical, Logsdon was certainly well aware that man does not simply live from bread alone. As just one example, it's no secret that many of those in learned and sophisticated circles would be – and are – often averse to giving much weight to the words of a "mere" farmer when it comes to such things as art (or even to farming actually), but it kind of seems to me as if there's nobody like a good farmer to elucidate the ultimate purpose of art. As Logsdon wrote in his book The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse,
As a working definition of art, I lean towards Tolstoy's: "Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which mankind has risen." It seems to me that, regarding agrarian art, the farther it moves away from the natural world, especially when the main goal is money profits, the more difficult it becomes for it to reflect "the highest and best feelings" of humanity. The same is true, of course, of agriculture itself.
But of course, in this late stage of industrial civilization of ours, money overwhelmingly is the main goal – be it for (industrial) farmers, (art for art's sake) artists, or people in any other line of work really, many of whom gleefully pander to the money conjurers in hopes of securing for themselves a (bigger) piece of the "rotting pie" (as Martin Luther King Jr. put it). Logsdon though was of a different ilk than the conventional when it came to his various endeavours – he didn't go by the name of The Contrary Farmer for nothing. As he understood it, and as so very few do today (again from The Mother of All Arts),
Throughout history, agrarian societies have opposed or restricted the collection of interest on money. The pastoral agriculture of Islam still does not permit money interest, at least theoretically. In agrarian economics, interest on money is seen as a threat to cultural and agricultural stability.
Why might it be that Logsdon – and agrarian societies – understood this so much clearer than others? From what I can tell, there's probably nobody more so than a good farmer that intimately understands that there's no such thing as a free lunch or getting something from nothing. That being said, having scruples of these sorts doesn't make life easy. As one of the characters put it in Logsdon's novel The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life (where one can hear Logsdon coming through, I suspect),
Why the double hell did he care so much about farming? Farmers were the looniest, stupidest idiots in society, willing to live in constant tension from the unpredictable whims of the weather and conniving, self-serving politicians.
Put that together with just one of the hilarious ditties that I've come across on my very brief sojourn on Logsdon's blog The Contrary Farmer – "I don't know if the defenders of the pasteurized milk monopoly will ever give up their crusade, but I sort of hope they don't. Milk tastes so much better to me when it's bootlegged than when it's legal" – and you just about get the impression that Logsdon sometimes had a hankering for expressly going against the grain, topped off with a sly desire for showing that in even our current economic paradigm the long odds in a rigged system can somehow be defied.
And defiant he was, having an all-too-rare disdain (as I've noticed others in the American Agrarian Crew having as well) of the "real epidemic on our hands... Televisionitis." Yes, although such a usage didn't show up in Practical Skills, Logsdon sure knew how to warm the hearts of those of us keen to make an extra special use out of the blunt end of our axes.
It was also in The Last of the Husbandmen that we see, as I presume, Logsdon at his most touching, particularly at the passing of one his hardscrabbling, odds-defying farmers. With a poem about to be recited at his funeral, it was of little (but pleasant) surprise to discover that it was one – or at least portions of one – by Wendell Berry ("At a Country Funeral"), which I imagine might be fitting to reproduce here:
Now the old ways that have brought us
farther than we remember sink out of sight
as under the treading of many strangers
ignorant of landmarks. Only once in a while
they are cast clear again upon the mind
as at a country funeral...
Friends and kinsmen come and stand and speak,
knowing the extremity they have come to,
one of their own bearing to the earth the last
of his light...
...And so as the old die and the young
depart, where shall a man go who keeps
the memories of the dead, except home
again, as one would go back after a burial,
faithful to the fields, lest the dead die
a second and more final death.