Guest contributor: Richard Gilbert
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
“I am always humbled by the infinite ingenuity of the Lord, who can make a red barn cast a blue shadow.” —E.B. White, One Man’s Meat
During the years I worked on a memoir of farming, I learned that book folk interested in country matters wanted assurance my literary-agrarian pedigree was pure. Maybe that I had one. Those early draft-readers wondered if I’d read Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. This irked me. Sure, I knew their work. Their writings on agriculture and American society have informed my thinking from my late teens; Berry’s Jayber Crow is one of my all-time favorite novels.
But why must I tell readers of my story that?
As it was, Shepherd explored my boyhood hero worship of Ohio agrarian writer Louis Bromfield; and my being influenced as a practitioner by Bromfield’s pragmatic eco-farming successor, Joel Salatin; and my discovery of Charles Allen Smart’s classic memoir, RFD, set in the same region, southern Ohio, where I ended up becoming farmer during a tumultuous decade. Plus my day job was in publishing, so there were plenty more authors in my memoir, including Bromfield’s elderly daughter, a rancher in Brazil.
I wondered if my critics knew about Maine organic theorist Eliot Coleman; about Australian permaculture pioneer Bill Mollison; about Zimbabwe-born Allan Savory, whose Holistic Resource Management is the most profound treatise on conservation and human decision-making I’ve ever read.
But they aren’t literary men. And as my annoyance faded I also saw that concerns about my writerly lineage were a kind of praise. As if those readers were saying, “This book is part of a literary tradition.” A novelist doesn’t have to prove he’s read Moby-Dick, but nonfiction is different. So I dutifully mentioned Berry and Jackson.
Now it strikes me as odd that nobody mentioned E.B. White.
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true farmer and a good writer. White was both.
“There is no doubt about it, the basic satisfaction in farming is manure, which always suggests that life can be cyclical and chemically perfect and aromatic and continuous.” —E.B. White, One Man’s Meat
I reread One Man’s Meat years ago, about the time I started writing my own farming account. I saw that White, a genuine man of letters, was farming on a significant scale for the times. His place was no gentleman’s hobby farm. Or not merely that. Thus he harvested genuine insights about the mythic pull and the practical difficulty of farming.
It wasn’t until recently, when I read White’s newest biography, Michael Sims’s The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, that I learned he had had a full-time hired man. I didn’t have sense enough to get a helper myself until I’d gotten seriously injured in a farming accident. White (1899–1985) had grown up with servants, in a Victorian manse near Long Island Sound, and he and his wife kept several folks on their payroll. She edited and he wrote, both stalwarts and stars for decades at the New Yorker, and for years they commuted between their Maine coast farm and Manhattan.
Sims’s biography is great on the writer’s early years. White emerged in an orderly, affluent world, with two loving parents. His father ran company that made musical instruments, and adored his youngest child, Elwyn Brooks White: “Oh, the joy, the joy of my little boy; we have lots of good times together.” As for little Elwyn, he was both artistic and outdoorsy. Also: sickly, melancholy, anxious, and terrified. In today’s parlance, the kid was a hot mess. I love him even more, having been a similar child myself.
White made good use of his thin-skinned temperament, which courses in an elegiac vein through his writing. It’s striking how much of his work, including his famous essay “Once More to the Lake,” is about death. This preoccupation was balanced by White’s love of the city’s busy workaday world and of nature close at hand. Many of us share his adoration for birds and dogs. A few of us share his equally deep appreciation for humble farm livestock—poultry, sheep, cows, pigs.
And White is the only prominent farmy writer I’ve read who mentions something else we sadly share: allergies. Hay fever is a particularly cruel and ironic affliction for a farmer. White’s depiction in One Man’s Meat of his periodic malaise could be my own in ragweed season. Writing so personally has kept White’s work fresh. For instance, he writes in One Man’s Meat about finding himself carrying a paper napkin around his barnyard, imitating the sound of cockerels learning to crow. A real farmer, yes; a macho man, no.
I wish that while writing my memoir I’d reread White’s “Death of a Pig,” a fine essay that appeared after those collected in One Man’s Meat. Here’s its famous opening paragraph:
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting. Even now, so close to the event, I cannot recall the hours sharply and am not ready to say whether death came on the third night or the fourth night. This uncertainty afflicts me with a sense of personal deterioration; if I were in decent health I would know how many nights I had sat up with a pig.
“Death of a Pig” bares a timeless dilemma of animal husbandry: tending and heroically ministering to animals that one day you’re going to betray. That jarring shift in roles—from nurturer to killer—shocked and troubled me as a farmer. I write about it in Shepherd. So here’s a case where my invoking an agrarian-writer forefather would have been highly appropriate. Last minute, I got my publisher to insert White’s great quote about manure as the epigraph for my book’s last section.
Beyond its compelling content, there are writing lessons in “Death of a Pig.” Especially its humor, which takes the curse off this story of death, makes it more entertaining than harrowing. And that humor, pervasive in White’s work, signals the perspective of a wiser narrator—in this case, a survivor who is invoked and mocked at the same time. And who fearlessly gives away the game at the start—the pig died—because he’s come not just to tell the tale but to inform us of the incident’s deeper meaning.
White’s material is always solid, his rhythms pleasing, but it’s his wry view of himself and his situations that may be his most effective move in making art from experience. His mastery—in the form of plot, perspective, style, and structure—shields his essays from the implicit “Why should I read your story?” challenge that haunts personal nonfiction
After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.— Charlotte’s Web
I owe E. B. White a personal debt, though that story didn’t make my book. One day when we were living on our farm in southeastern Ohio, my son, then in fourth grade, came home upset. Fighting back tears, he said, “I’m going to die.” He meant one day, which was worse to deal with, for him and for me, than some passing irritation.
Years later, I can’t forget that moment in our country kitchen. Sunlight fills the windows, the green world burgeons outside, and we stand looking at each other. His precocious despair robbed me of easy words. The moment lasted forever—in my mind’s eye we’re paused there still—but my response arrived in an instant.
What I did was turn from his swollen face and pop in a videotape. It was the animated Charlotte’s Web, a Hanna-Barbera musical released in 1973. Other than the musical numbers—which White hated and I love—the movie is strictly faithful to the book. Wilbur barely escapes his intended destiny of becoming bacon. And his aging spider friend Charlotte does expire, though her story continues with her renewal in the form of baby spiders. Rebirth is her final gift as Wilbur gains three new friends from among her 514 offspring.
Reproduction and friendship are the novel’s suggestions for coping with the death part of the life cycle. But my and White’s and Charlotte’s reproductive solution wasn’t a relevant strategy for my nine-year-old son. And how much can friendship soften one’s first inkling of existential extinction? Yet in the midst of my comparatively complacent middle-aged life, standing before my son blank and panicky, I seized upon Charlotte’s Web.
I like to think I’d do better today. But maybe not, in the moment. White’s magical story was relevant, after all—and a distraction. So I thank him for helping me out of a parental jam. But then E.B. White, as an artist and maybe as a man, was so nicely balanced between that hypersensitive life-loving pig and that tough-minded creative spider.
Richard Gilbert’s Shepherd: A Memoir will be published in May 2014 by Michigan State University Press. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Orion, River Teeth, and other periodicals. He blogs at Draft No. 4.