By Brian Miller
It was late afternoon when I stopped at a friend’s farm. An invitation to sample three new homebrews and some freshly sliced prosciutto from a 2-year-old ham had been issued. The short drive found me passing dozens of small homes and farms. None of them could be called financially “going concerns.” Most had vegetable gardens and chickens; some had fighting cocks staked to huts; many had a steer or two in a small pasture and a few pigs in sties near the barn; one had a gutted buck draped from a pickup truck. These are features of our landscape. It’s a traditional landscape of those getting by, doing for themselves. Not quite the “self-sufficing” farms of old, but closer than most in this modern world.
In the 1930 census, one-third of “self-sufficing” farms were located in Appalachia, accounting for the majority of farms in the region. These farms generated less than $100 a year, produced more than 50 percent of their needs on the land, and bartered and traded for the rest in an essentially cashless network. In a system hallowed by custom, kinship, shared work, and shared deprivation, these hill people still led a life rich in music, folkways, food, and craft.
Cashless networks create challenges within a capitalist economy. Communities operating outside the prevailing system must always be brought inside, to the sheltering embrace of improvement, progress, and markets. A people not in search of “the civilizing influence of a cash economy” will be given it anyway. And once it’s presented, they’ll often surrender to it, for after all, the sirens’ call of cheaper, plentiful goods is hard to ignore when there is money to spend.
The 1930s were really the midpoint in a long, complicated pursuit of bringing “progress” and wages to the mountain people. That pursuit ultimately resulted in the destruction of those self-sufficing farms, the cashless society and culture, and what remained was a shell, a dependent people, and the faintest ghostly echo of that world today.
Perhaps it is a romantic streak, but I see ghosts. Ghosts of what we have lost in our drive for progress and shiny baubles. One North Carolina woman, at the brink of the Civil War, anticipated the loss to come in that conflict: “How quietly we drift out into such an awful night, into the darkness, the lowering clouds, the howling winds, and the ghostly light of our former glory going with us to make the gloom visible with its pale glare.”
A friend of mine works with non-profits and universities establishing links between the peoples of Appalachia and the Maramures region of Romania. ‘Twas a link I thought a stretch until he sent me William Blacker’s chronicle Along the Enchanted Way. It is a haunting work, beautifully written, of a land isolated and untouched yet by the capitalist economy and unaffected by the communist government just fallen—a land like ours once was, of custom, barter, and kinship, of self-sufficing farms.
During the years Blacker lived among the Romanians, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, he witnessed the impact of cash and commercial goods on that society. How quickly a rural, traditional society unravels, one outside paycheck or charity at a time, leaving a pale glare to light the path behind.
We find it hard to step outside our immediate desires and see the long-term consequences. We bemoan the loss of kith and kin, praise the handmade, the local, yet undermine all by our gluttonous drive for new markets and consumption. Left behind is the debris of formerly stable societies, slathered now with the cheap, sugary pink frosting of hope and mountains of discarded plastic toys.
Brian Miller writes The South Roane Agrarian, weekly musings of a Tennessee farmer.