09 September 2011

While Singling Mangolds
By: John Stewart Collis


In the Agrarian Nation entire fields were cultivated by hand, as shown in this picture. The man is hoeing mangle beets, of which mangolds are a type. These were primarily fodder beets and we have discussed them here before (see this link).

I’ll bet you have no idea what “singling mangolds" means. Well, today you’re going to learn what it means and how it's done, and you’re also going to read a very fine essay by the English author, John Stewart Collis. This essay comes from his book, The Worm Forgives The Plough (click HERE for more information about the book and Collis).

Publishing an essay like this is a departure from our regular fare of old almanac excerpts, but it fits with the theme of this web site and it’s always nice to do something a little different. I have shortened the essay somewhat but it is still longer than the usual postings here. Nevertheless, I think you’ll find it is well worth taking the time to read Collis’ story. Not only is it informative and entertaining, it’s conclusion is true and profound. Enjoy....

While Singling Mangolds
By: John Stewart Collis

The period between haymaking and harvest is rather an uncomfortable one. We are between two worlds, as it were, one dead, the other as yet powerless to be born. Slack off then? Pause in well-doing? Far from it. Now is the time to get down to the remainder of the hoeing before it is too late.

There was certainly still plenty to be done here on fields of kale, swedes, and mangolds. In fact it was only now that we began to single the mangolds. The shoots, sown by drill, come up close together in long lines. They cannot be left like that but must be given room to expand—that is they must be singled. About a foot must be left between each shoot. Thus while hoeing weeds away you also hoe out a vast number of plants—a wholesale destruction which gives one an uneasy feeling, for what good can come of these miserable little shoots you have left at such a great distance from each other? Frequently the shoots grow in pairs, and as it is impossible to use the hoe for separation it is necessary to stoop right down and separate them with your fingers. Thus singling is hoeing multiplied. I have not written enthusiastically about hoeing, though at times I have enjoyed it. I cannot remember any time having enjoyed singling mangolds, and as I frequently had to do many hours of this alone, I again began to feel time drag.

While performing jobs of this sort I have come closer to understanding the history of mankind. How easy it is, I said to myself one day, how easy while singling mangolds to understand the rise and fall of civilizations!

How did it start? Who conceived the town, the city, the metropolis? Into whose mind first sprang the idea of the machine? Who first framed the fabric, turned the wheel of civilization? The countryman, of course.

He stood on the field, spade in hand, trying to till the soil. A hard job with only that implement. So he invented a horse-movable spade—the plough. He stood amongst the ripened corn with a sickle. He could improve on that, so he made the scythe; and he went on improving all his devices in his conquest of nature—he was the first mechanic. And as he toiled in the fields, often covered with mud, or wet, or freezing cold, or his back splitting as he stooped over the mangolds, he began to think how wonderful it would be to get away from this struggle, to escape altogether from Nature. So he devised something more than a village, he built a large number of houses with intervening paths—a town. He went further—he conceived the idea of the Great City. How marvelous it would be, he thought, to make a place so vast in extent that you could not even see the soil, to make the paths therein so smooth and clean that you would not get a speck of dirt on clothes or boots, to see delicate women walking along who did not know the difference between a bangle and a mangold, to have lights turned on by a switch and hot water by a tap, to have shops making a blaze of light in the darkness, to enter glorious buildings in which you would find entertainment and instruction, and great churches like jewels so that the eyes of those who gazed on them grew dim.

Gradually the edifice of civilization was set up—in the image of the countryman’s desire as he stood on the desolate field. But as the years passed and generation succeeded generation the townsman began to forget that he had come from the country, and the countryman that he had made the town. And because the people in the towns were more comfortable and better looking and with wider interests than those in the country, they began to feel more important and to despise the very people upon whom they relied for three meals every day. And because they felt important and began to look it, the countrymen themselves were impressed and thought them wonderful. As the process went on it was the man in the street, the man in the city, the citizen, who came to be regarded as the only person who counted, while queer derogatory  names were found for the men in the fields. The citizens multiplied immensely, became far more powerful than the peasants, and decreed that town wages should be much higher than country wages. Seeing how matters stood, many agriculturists cried, ‘Away from the land!’ shook the mud off their boots, and joined the citizens.

But as time went on a strange unease began to afflict the people in the towns. As they walked through the everlasting streets they began to pine for the open fields, for the blessed sun, for the realities and simple joys they had left behind. They began to declare that civilization was rotten at the core and perished at the roots, and that nothing could save it except a great Unindustrial Revolution. Not only citizens, but ‘City Men’ began to say in their cups that their work was a farce and that they would rather ‘keep a pig’. Intellectualists insisted that they were ‘really peasants at heart’. A cry of ‘Back to the Land’ went up, not from those on the land but from those in the towns.

Thus my meditation as I stooped over the mangolds. The same conception had occurred to me forcibly earlier in the year when one evening I suddenly felt a great desire to visit a town and dine in an expensive hotel. Changing my clothes suitably I went in. I found a very nice hotel. So great is the difference between the agricultural world and the world outside—a strange, dream-like, picnic of a world it looks from the field—that I blinkingly looked round at the lounge as if seeing such a place for the first time. The good lighting, the polished floor, the groups of clean and well-dressed amiable-looking people held my attention.

It was now time for dinner and I entered the dining-room and sat down. I was greatly taken with the spotless table-cloth, the seven pieces of cutlery (I counted them), the vase with the roses in it, the perfect floor, the paneled walls, the electric candlesticks. The other tables were occupied by miscellaneous people, all looking well set up, pleased, and expectant. Waiters began to come round, dressed in white jackets and black trousers. Four courses were brought to me with great expedition. I examined each plate in turn—very nice, one with a picture of watercress on it. I looked round at the smiling faces of the people, all wearing expressions not seen outside; and at a waiter bending over a group with the deeply knowing and confidential smile of a man who can produce wine. I looked at the foods that were brought to me—some meat, peas, greens, and potatoes. Doubtless they came from the land, but it hardly occurred to me to make the connection, certainly no one else in the room did so; the food simply came—no, not even from the kitchen—from behind the screen from which the waiters, like magicians, emerged again and again. For this, I saw, was a dream place, not subject to reality. If a ploughman, I reflected, were to come into this room suddenly, as such, he would be thrown out, or ‘asked to leave’. And that would be right. I would be the first to cast the first stone at him. It would be an unforgivable intrusion. For he would have broken the spell, destroyed the film and the fantasy of the agreed illusion, infringed upon the dream mankind has dreamt on the bitter field—this escape from Nature, this shelter from the storm, this place, this paradise.

The whole thing was so fantastic and delightful, and knowing that a bus would soon be due outside, I kept a firm watch on myself (like a man over-drinking) lest I linger for ever here and become lost to the agricultural world. However, I pulled myself together and went out into the pouring darkness and caught the bus and then took my bicycle for a final part of the journey. I was soon passing our farmyard, which adjoined the road. There it was—deserted, silent, a pocket of gloom, a nonentity of a place, something to pass by. Was it really possible, I asked myself, that this slushy yard, so humble, so lacking in all the props and appointments of Power, was yet the foundation of society?Yet so it was. Upon this the fabric rested, upon this was erected all that glittered and all that shone; and I knew that the lighted palace from which I had come where the Figures paced on the polished floor, and the Magicians emerged with food from behind the screens, could not otherwise exist at all. I got off my bicycle and gazed into the farmyard—at the stable door, the pile of manure, the muddy pool, the old binder in the corner, the oil-cans and sacks, the three wagons and the two carts under the shelter. I peered at these things through the dreary dank of the dripping darkness, with some intensity, as if aware that here only, in this place, and in such guise, could I find the roots of grandeur and the keys of life.

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Nancy said...

What a wonderful excerpt from the book. I received it yesterday and can't wait to start reading it.
I have had some of these very thoughts recently. When reading about a name that was used as an insult by city people when speaking of farmers, I thought, "And, yet, they are willing to be, and absolutely depend on being, fed by those same farmers.
I agree that the farm is the very foundation of our country (and any country)and we can't possibly bring it (them) back without a return to the agrarian life.

Representative said...

Excellent! I really enjoyed that! I always love your blog, by the way. I am a faithful reader, and I should comment more often. This one just really struck me. I am posting it to an off-grid group I am in on Facebook, and sometime later tonight I'm going to link to it from my blog as well. Thanks a bunch for your efforts here. Really, I love your blog.

Herrick Kimball said...

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I am (I'm still reading it).

Thank you for the good feedback. And I really do appreciate you spreading the word about Agrarian Nation.