These are, indeed, “…the times that try men’s souls”. Need I say more? You know what I am talking about, I believe. As an indicator (not that we need one), a young farming couple near us had just, days before the election, bought a house and were lamenting being “house poor.” The same couple the day after the election confided that they had been up late into the night looking into farm properties in British Columbia. Apparently, so powerful was the effect of this seismic shift in the politics of this country that on election evening, the Canadian Immigration Agency’s website crashed under the weight of inquiries from people like this couple.
Now farmers are not the most likely people to pick up and move, tied down as they are not only by family loyalties and attachment to place, but additionally by the very powerful connections they feel to their land, crops, and livestock. Leaving a farm is more than just selling a house. It involves pulling up a lot of deep roots, disentangling oneself from myriad obligations, and from a practical, economic view, giving up an investment in land and improvements that simply cannot be transported.
But nevertheless, the first time Mark and I spoke after the election, he very despondently asked “What do you think we should do?” I knew what his question meant, and all of the ramifications involved.
I sensed immediately the meaning of his question because it had already repeatedly surfaced in my mind. For me, leaving the country did not seem as outlandish an alternative as it would to most people, since I had already left America before… twice, in fact: once to Turkey, where I stayed for three years in search of something more exotic than the western suburbs of Chicago, and then to Montreal, where I stayed for five years, escaping a country torn apart by the Viet Nam war. (Because I had two children and poor vision, I myself was not eligible for the draft, but I was not ready to support such a pointless war and see others compelled to serve in it.)
But leaving in those days for Turkey and Montreal was in many ways easy since in both cases I had been in graduate school and owned no property and, indeed, not much in the way of any possessions. And I had already left my original homes in Wales and Illinois far behind.
But i now find myself in my so-called “Golden Years” fully engaged with the life and responsibilities of a farm. Mark likewise on his side, with the addition of a law practice that could not readily transplant to another country. So it became apparent to us that the relatively easier choices of our salad days are no longer really in the cards.
The discussion Mark and I had brought to my mind a visit we had six or seven years ago from a Herr Winter, the father of one of our near neighbors. He was over from Austria where he had been, for his long life, one of the pioneers in organic and sustainable agriculture. He was then in his eighties and had become a kind of guru, having spent over a half century or more conducting seminars on agricultural practices in a dilapidated castle he rented. After I had described to him some of the difficulties we faced farming and living in this country, he launched into a sermon, one he had obviously given many times before, on the need to simply turn the farm into an island, to wall it off from all of the outside influences, pressures, and negative values and to as best as we could, create our own self-enclosed ideal environment. He argued that it was pointless to attempt to fight against or try to reform the world as it had become, that things had gone past the point of no return.
His outlook, I then felt, had obviously been shaped by his experience of living for years under the Nazi regime during World War II. As I heard him speak, his views seemed a bit extreme for our situation, but now in retrospect, seeing where our country may be going presently, his views seem increasingly relevant.
But then, as if in answer, there popped into my mind a counterpoint in the form of one of my favorite sonnets, by John Donne:
No man is an island
Entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main
Mark, in affirmation of Donne, argued that we should not choose to create an island of our own making, but instead we must stay put and engage.
To which my inner voice questions: What if it is not a matter of us breaking away to form our fortress Turkana Island, but instead, the continent itself that is breaking away from us. leaving us as an isolated island, an island separated from an increasingly foreign, almost unknowable continent drifting inexorably… farther and farther… away?