Further Up, Further In

Years back I owned a bookstore in downtown Knoxville. The small selection of new titles and magazines was a fairly eccentric mix called, “alternative”. The remainder of the store was composed of used and out-of-print tomes on any number of conventional topics.

It was not uncommon for someone to sidle up to me once a week and say in a conspiratorial whisper, “I didn’t know you were a warlock?” Or, some such assumption, based on the simple fact that I carried a book or had a section devoted to one or more out-of-the-mainstream themes. Typically, these were just hopeful projections by the customer that they had found a kindred spirit.

Writing a weekly blog is a bit like the bookstore, where I stock the shelves and the visitor sifts through the jumble and vague pronouncements and makes a selection and determination. While I personally like that eclecticism of choice, what follows is a small attempt at a statement of intent and clarification on writing about the rural life.

Speaking for myself (not Cindy), my urge and motivation for moving to the farm 17 years back, and the desire to document it, had more to do with wishing to relearn what it was like to be a resident. Or, as Wes Jackson would phrase it, to be native to this place.

Living in a small valley south-west of Knoxville, TN, learning to garden, farm, and to eat more purposefully, has been a great joy. The great pleasure in this work (and, yes, that includes fencing) and the growing sense of being part of a community has been deeply satisfying.

Being part of a rural society is so much different than being part of the community that we left behind in the city. You choose your associations in a city. It provides a structure that mediates the interaction between you and your neighbors. In the country that neighbor is also your partner in a relationship where you repair fences figuratively and literally. You may not share the same faith, or political outlook. But you share the same property line and that makes a profound difference. In many ways a rural community is the more complex, interwoven and direct experience than that of the city. There is no bed to hide under in the country. You are known to all.

As part of this journey I have consciously self-identified as an agrarian, trying to uncover the rules and vocabulary of an ancient language. One that explains identity, brotherhood and sisterhood, the bonds of community, and a more intimate connection to the world in terms independent of contemporary political notions of right and left, liberal and conservative.

In these weekly writings I have strived to use that language to explain the rural life. Sometimes the posts are simply of the mundane tasks of working the land, other times they focus on cultural forces that shape the people in this area.

So, it should come as no surprise to any reader that a blog called The South Roane Agrarian would be somewhat biased towards that life. Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the values of the people, the varied cultures, or the opportunities of the city. After all, that is a call that has pulled on rural peoples for millennia. But, I do think that the rural life speaks more directly to the human experience and offers more hope in an uncertain future.

And, in my modest opinion, the dominant culture always speaks for the city. They need no further protection, justification, or explanation. It is the rural culture that has become the great “other” in our country. The flyover, the drive-by, the dump-on.

So, these posts are written in the hope of being part of a larger project. One whose roots link me with antiquity, our ancestors, and, living in balance with my neighbors and this planet. And, with an understanding that all societies ebb and flow, that climate change will limit our opportunities, that the future of growth will narrow the path, that a couple of centuries of efficient resource exploitation may leave us with millennia of picking through the leftovers; surviving all of that, I maintain, will be largely a rural project.

C.S. Lewis had a phrase in his book, The Last Battle, “further up, and further in”. Which pretty much sums up my approach to this little blog, that by focusing small, I will begin to see large.


As my personal editor is off visiting her family this weekend all grammatical errors and sloppy sentences, regrettably, belong to me.



11 thoughts on “Further Up, Further In

  1. You have an editor? I’ve needed one for years. The only thing I noticed was “different than,” which might ought to be “different from,” but that distinction is going the same way as which/that, meaning no one cares anymore.

    You’ve compared and contrasted urban and rural, or town and country, quite consciously, though most of the focus has been on rural with only modest digressions about the urban. Because I’m stuck inside the city-dweller bubble, I appreciate the different perspective and don’t for a moment believe the city is superior in most of the ways people take for granted. But then, I’m an outlier even in the city.

    I note that in about 120 years, American demographics have completely inverted: steady migration of people from farm to factory and rural to urban have has changed the ratio from 95/5 to 5/95 (so I’ve read). Urban includes the suburbs and exurbs since they have more in common with cities than the rural landscape even though they lie some distance from the city center. Thus, many American institutions (e.g., the U.S. Constitution) support an American life that scarcely exists anymore while others (e.g., the Dept. of Education) purport to serve more recent shifts in how American life is lived. None if it is undertaken with any sort of plan other than to chase wealth, so whatever coherence and community used to exist as a frank matter of proximity and forced interdependence has yielded to incoherence and radical individualism. Comfort and wealth allow people to believe (incorrectly) that we have no obligations to each other and that every fringe belief and behavior can be indulged without consequence. Of course, it’s a trap, and we’ve been lulled into it by our own inattention and value relativism.

    • Yep, I’m lucky that my partner in life has been an editor by profession for most of thirty years. She keeps my pieces clean, lean and, at times, less dark (when I let her see them).
      Your comment on comfort and wealth is right on the mark and is one I’ve touched on before. Countless studies show less satisfaction in the affluent (I read consumer based) West. Now, grinding poverty sure isn’t a real joy. But, the satisfaction from a reasonable amount of both self-reliance and inter-dependence seems a better way for all.

  2. Brian,

    Your writing resonates with me as you are someone who looks for deeper meaning in the scheme of life.

    In this area the rural community is almost gone, replaced by massive machines and massive debt and massive numbers of acres and cows. There really is no more agri-culture, it’s now agri-business. How can you become an “operator” of a giant enterprise, skim off enough cash for a decent standard of living (according to urban standards) and have temporary bragging rights as to who is the biggest and baddest hombre alive. That is the goal of the modern farmer.

    The only real farming community left is comprised of a few organic milk producers and a few non-organic small dairy farmers who have no debt and have no children willing to work that hard for not much return,.

    IMHO, the present economic paradigm worships money and technology. It is reaching the point in agriculture that technology has outrun the ability to pay for itself from the returns to the farmer. That situation cannot last. We may all need to farm closer to the Amish model in the future. And that would be a good thing.

    • Hotrod,
      Thanks for the comments. I wouldn’t try and oversell the rural society here in Tennessee. I just think that the foundations are still there to use, the framing of the building is still there, and most important, the people are still there. My role (if that doesn’t sound to grand) is to try and look at a patch of land and see where the fencelines used to run.

      I’ve also thought (and written a few pieces) about the curse of rich land. The land here in East Tennessee is poor enough not to be sought after by agri-business. So, in some ways the old ways of social interaction and diverse farms have held on to provide some examples.


      • I just think that the foundations are still there to use, the framing of the building is still there, and most important, the people are still there.

        Beautiful – and even somewhat hopeful. Is there the seed of an optimist – well, a pragmatic optimist perhaps – hidden within the man?

        To see how things once may have been – like fence lines, does take some experience. It’s an experience purchased with time and effort… caring too. Doesn’t sound too grand to me.

          • Somewhat off topic, but please indulge… have you ever heard the expression ‘sully my bib’ – used in a sense like ‘egg on my face’ ??

            It rolls around in my head like other quaint expressions my grandmother may have used. But having used it myself now I’m getting strange looks.

            Need Wodhouse’s Jeeves to help out – he seems to know everything.

  3. I’m living in both worlds now and still attempting to understand how exactly I’m transitioning between them.
    I’ve yet to decide on the issue, but that switch never really seems necessary or “refreshing”.

    There is no best of both worlds scenario; the city simply doesn’t come up with the goods anymore; any goods.
    It is just tiring.

    It is a typically imperfect semi-rural scenario I am a part of, yet just me being physically present is…answering all the questions that need answering.

  4. Michael,
    I still live in both worlds, as well. Total lack of courage on my part to leave the mother teat behind.
    When I drive through or flyover a large city I’m depressed beyond all reason. “Look upon my works, ye mighty….”

  5. Heartfelt thanks for giving us all such an elegant voice. (And in the realm of almost eerie kindred. . . I too owned a bookstore, kids’ books, before leaving the city. And above the sign that hung above the fiction room door was one I had specially made. It read “Further up and further in.”) I know both writing and farming can sometimes make you feel isolated in spite of the shared fences. But know that if you ever have need, there are many of us who you only need to ask. Again thanks!
    — Elizabeth

    • Elizabeth,
      Thanks for the kind words about my post. That is a fascinating coincidence with both the bookstore and the signage. Where do you farm?
      My best,

Any thoughts or questions?