07 Jun 2009

A Lesson From the Farm

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Barack Obama reminds Victor Davis Hanson of his youthful self.

Obama reminds me a little of myself–at 26. I had left the farm for 9 years to get a BA in classics, PhD in classical philology, and live in Athens for two years of archaeological study-all on scholarships, TAships, research-ships and part-time summer and school jobs tucked under the aegis of the academic, no-consequences world. By the end of endless seminars, papers, theses, debates, discussions, academic get-togethers, I had forgotten much of the culture of the farm where I spent years 1-18.

Then after the requisite degrees I left academia, and returned to farm 180 acres with my brother and cousin-and sadly was quickly disabused of the world of the faculty lounge.

Oh yes, I came back to Selma thinking, “I am not going to be the grouch my grandfather was, yelling at neighbors, worried all the time, nervous, seeing the world as rather hostile, hoarding a tiny stash of savings, worried as if bugs, the government, hired men, weather, and markets were out to destroy him. I’ll farm with my Bay Area manners and sort of think, “I will reset the farm, and things will at last work as they should” (not thinking that my grandfather raised three daughters, sent them to college while mortgaging the farm in the Depression, and spent on himself last, and was a saint compared to my pampered existence in the university).”

One small example of my late coming of age. A rather brutal neighbor (now dead and not to be mentioned by name (de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est)), an immigrant from an impoverished country, a self-made man, veteran of infamous fights and various bullying, shared a communal ditch. We talked and exchanged pleasantries–at first–at the standpipe gate. He lamented how rude my late grandfather had been to him, and even had made unfounded accusations that he was less than honest (he was also sort of playing the race card, remarking about the prejudicial nature of California agrarian culture).

I was shocked to hear that, and assured him that there would be no such incitements on my part on the new age of the Davis farm. No more ‘me first’, no more disdain for newcomers and upstarts. And then after about 3 months of sizing me up (at 26, I confess looking back I was not 1/8th the man my grandfather was at 86) he began stealing water in insidious ways: taking an extra day on his turn, cutting in a day early on mine, siphoning off water at night, destroying my pressure settings, watering his vineyards on days that were on my allotment. Stealing no less! And in 1980!

Here’s how I rushed into action. First, I gave a great Obama speech on communal sharing and why the ditch would not work if everyone did what he did. Farmers simply would perish if they did not come together, and see their common shared interests. He nodded and smiled-and stole more the next week.

Then I appealed to his minority status, and remarked how wonderful it was that he came from dire poverty abroad and now farmed over 500 acres. He growled-and stole even more.

I took the UN route and warned that that I would be forced to go get the ditch tender (a crusty, old hombre who enjoyed watching fights like these for blood sport); he pointed out that the tender was, in fact, on the alleyway across the street watching us, and meeting him for coffee in an hour.

I went to the irrigation district and filed a formal complaint. Nice people with smiles and monogrammed hats promised they’d look into it, but pointed out the season was half over anyway, and I should “get used to it” and start anew next year. Meanwhile, I noticed by July my vineyard was starting to be stressed, and his was lush. He watered so much that he began to flood the entire vineyard middle, the water lapping out the furrows and reaching berm to berm.

For a while I went the Clement Attlee mode and rationalized, “Hmmm, maybe all that watering is going to give his vines more mildew, while my dusty dry vines will aerate more. Do I really need my water? Did I offend him in some way? Do I really want to lower myself to his troglodyte methods?” A few meetings went well with his, “OK, it’s a misunderstanding.” I heard “No problem” about a zillion times the next two weeks.

Then by July 15, after three months of such aggrandizement I tried the empathetic route with the neighbor, “If you don’t stop this, I’ll have to turn on my pumps and spend hundreds of dollars to supply the water I’m supposed to get by virtue of my irrigation taxes. You know that’s not fair!” He laughed at the use of “by virtue of”.

I felt sorry for him, really did, that he had reduced a dispute over something as mundane as “water” into some sort of existential issue of regional peace. What did he wish me to do-descend down to his level, to become exactly like him, to settle differences on the basis of primate strength?

I thought about this for yet another seven days, compulsively so as I looked out at the parched vines. Couldn’t I just pay the power bill, pump for 10 days, and feel as his moral better that I had not descended to his cave-dwelling status? Oddly, I began to hear a once familiar voice in my head whisper, “He’ll take your crew next right when you need it. He’ll take over your alleyway. He’ll drive on your place like he owns it. He’ll…”).

Then in a trance-like fashion, I went out to restore deterrence. I got a massive chain and lock, and simply shut down his communal lateral. Locked the gate so tight, he couldn’t even get a quarter-turn. He’d be lucky if he got a 100 gallons in a week. Then I got a veritable arsenal of protective weaponry, got in my pickup, drove back over to the gate, and waited with ammo, clubs, shovels, etc.

In an hour he drove up in a dust cloud. He was going to smash me, get his football playing son to strangle me, sue me, bankrupt me, hunt me down, etc. He swore and yelled-I was a disgrace to my family, a racist, a psycho, worse than my grandfather. He was going to lock my gates, steal all my water, and indeed he leveled all sorts of threats (remember the scene in Unforgiven when Eastwood walks out and screams threats to the terrified town?-that was my neighbor). I got out with large vine stake and said something to the effect (forgive me if I don’t have the verbatim transcript-it has been 29 years since then), “It’s locked until you follow the rules. Anytime you don’t, it’s locked again. Do it one more time and I weld it shut. Not a drop. So sue me.”

He got up, screeched his tires, blew a dust cloud in my face, and raced down the alleyway-honking even as he left.

For the next ten years until his death, he was the model neighbor. He would stop me with, “Victor, I shut off tomorrow, half-a day early-why not take my half day to jump start your turn?” And indeed we finally began to have philosophical discussions (he was widely read) about Sun-Maid, Carter, Reagan, the US, literature, etc.

Here was his final compliment, one that apparently connected my once elite disdain for his grubby world of the muscular classes with my inevitable failure and bankruptcy to come. It went something like this, though after three decades I have forgotten his exact phraseology: “Victor, I used to drive by your grandfather’s house, and see you up there on the scaffold, scraping off the old paint. I’d say to my friends-look at that young fool, he’s painting my house. You see, I knew you’d go broke, and I’d buy your place. Always wanted it, and knew you were getting it ready for me. Why not let you finish before I took it?” (I didn’t tell him, that in fact he used to say that not just to friends, but to me as I was chipping away.)

He died about a month later. I still miss him, and grew to, if not trust him, in a strange way like him.

Obama will come to his senses with his ‘Bush did it’, reset button, moral equivalency, soaring hope and change, with these apologies to Europeans, his Arab world Sermons on the Mount to Al Arabiya, in Turkey, in Cairo, etc., his touchy-feely videos to Iran, his “we are all victims of racism” sops to Ortega, Chavez, and Morales. It is only a matter of when, under what conditions, how high the price we must pay, and whether we lose the farm before he gains wisdom about the tragic universe in which we live.

A sojourn at an elite university, you see, can sometimes become a very dangerous thing indeed.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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One Feedback on "A Lesson From the Farm"

Rob

Excellent, excellent, excellent! Farming is a rough world, I currently have a similar (though not with water) with an uncle-in-law. Very good post, I read the whole thing.



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