Arlo Crawford is at a moment of vocational crisis: he doesn’t know what to do with his life, and is trying to figure out the next step. In his memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year, the 31-year-old Crawford quits his job at a museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and returns home to New Morning Farm, the land his parents have farmed for nearly 40 years. “I was getting older; the time for taking risks was getting shorter,” he writes. “Before it was too late I wanted to do something that felt important to me, or at least different than what I’d been doing before.” He plans to live out the season with his parents and enjoy a hybrid vacation/job.
But this isn’t the “homecoming” of a Wendell Berry novel; Arlo has no intention of staying—he is a deliberate sojourner on his father’s property. He even moves out of his parent’s house, and creates a little makeshift platform and tent for himself out in the woods—his own Walden-inspired cabin and getaway. Arlo describes a visit to Walden Pond at the beginning of the book: it’s a strange passage, wandering and self-conscious, without much purpose. Indeed, his writing is very awkward and choppy in the first few chapters—distractingly so. But as Arlo begins to talk about his parents, Jim and Emeline, and the history of their farm, the book begins to blossom. The narrative is strong, and the stories interesting. His account of Jim at a farmer’s market, entrancing people with his salesmanship and descriptions of kohlrabi, is vivid and lovely. It’s a great tribute to a man who knows his customers personally, and cares for them.
This book really seems to be about Arlo and his father: their differences, and their similarities. They both love the land, and appreciate the fruits of the earth. But one is restless, while the other is rooted. One isn’t sure what to do with his life, while the other planted his first vegetable garden in elementary school. Jim Crawford is a man with a singular purpose: the building of a farm. He spent his college summers “reading books and manuals about improving soil fertility and raising chickens for profit.” Arlo describes him as constantly worried and focused on the problems in front of him—a man aware of his responsibility and duties as a farmer: “He’d once had a long run of insomnia because he couldn’t stop thinking about cabbages, and he listened to the weather radio every morning while he brushed his teeth.” Jim displays a focus and passion that are quite rare—a drive and enthusiasm that seem foreign to his son. For as the book unfolds, we see that Arlo is engaging in a Walden-esque “experiment” of his own: he’s exploring his horizons, not really putting down roots. He’s playing at country life, without any of the consequences or commitments.
I don’t want to sound too hard on Arlo—he is operating out of an understanding inherent in today’s culture: the idea of vocation is no longer rooted to any permanent sense of duty or place. In countless graduation speeches and motivational talks, children are told to “pursue their dreams,” wherever those dreams might lead. It’s an idea rooted in individualism, urging kids to “be their own person,” or to “chart their own course.” Today, children are no longer expected—nor are they usually encouraged—to follow a particular duty, calling, or path. They aren’t to be saddled with the burdens of their forebears. And this means that Arlo Crawford can traipse to and from his father’s farm, helping or standing aside, and his father cannot protest or condemn.
Yet one feels as if, throughout the course of the book, Jim Crawford is seeking to bring his son “home,” to capture his love of land, to receive his long-term help. Never is this more apparent than after Jim’s tomato crop fails: he seeks Arlo out in his shelter by the river, walks through the tall grass in search of solace and support. Arlo relates the conversation thus:
I knew that he was being dramatic by wandering out in the dark, but I also knew that it was a real crisis. I listened to my father as he went on about the disaster, and I tried not to be impatient. He said the whole season would be a loss, that there wouldn’t be enough work and the apprentices would leave. He talked about how stupid he’d been: he knew he should have destroyed the first generation of tomatoes the moment they found the blight, and that this was his only chance at containing it. He shouldn’t have hired so many people and assumed that there would be enough for everyone to do. He shouldn’t have been so sure that the weather would stay dry and that the spores wouldn’t be able to spread. He shouldn’t have counted on the fact that he’d been growing tomatoes for forty years and that he’d somehow always made it work out in the past. He’d miscalculated, made mistakes, missed chances. And worst of all, he’d been too optimistic.
In the past, when there were other crises at the farm—a huge flood during my sophomore year in college or the major drought the second year I lived in Manhattan—I’d just heard about it on the phone. Now I was home and whether I liked it or not I was a part of this particular cataclysm. I’d tried to insulate myself by building the platform out over the hill and living far from the house, but when my father came out and found me in the dark there was nowhere else to go.
Jim reaches out to his son—in desperation, in frustration—yet Arlo responds with a desire for “space” and separation, annoyance at being flung into the family crisis. Not knowing the particulars of Arlo’s life or the deeper workings of his relationship with his father, it’s difficult to understand why he might respond thus. But contemporary society often does encourage exactly this sort of attitude in families: individualism encourages us to become separate entities, responsible only for our own fortunes and enjoyments, feeling only a limited sense of responsibility to each other. As Zoë Heller notes in a recent review at the London Review of Books, “With their unprecedented array of ‘lifestyle options’, their tendency to regard happiness and self-actualization as entitlements and their habit of constantly taking their own emotional temperature, contemporary adults are poorly prepared … for the self-sacrificing work that child-rearing demands.” Being part of a family entails frustrating, self-sacrificing work. Yet children, more than any other member of the familial unit, are now viewed as consumers and beneficiaries of their parents’ care, without any responsibility for their parents’ work or wellbeing. Children and young adults, at least until they become parents themselves, are able to give their own desires full rein.
Earlier in the book, Arlo notes the precarious future of his own parents’ legacy: “Although my parents sometimes talked to my little sister and me about the future of the farm, we had both made it clear that neither of us was interested in taking the place over. Still, it made me sad to think of other people owning that land, even though I didn’t want it.” Though Arlo prizes his father’s farm enough to feel jealous of whoever its future owner might be, he feels no personal calling to carry on its legacy. He demonstrates an understanding of the farm’s tenuous situation—but wants no part in the responsibilities it carries.
This weak attachment is very common in today’s society—and it cuts at the heart of farming’s traditional structure. In historical America, the farm was a family-run enterprise. It was more of a generational lifestyle than a “full-time job.” When our great-grandparents and even grandparents tilled the land, it made sense that a son or family member would carry on the work as the father got older. In my family, land was passed from father to son for at least three generations. And it was viewed as a gift, even while it may have been a burden: land has traditionally been a highly coveted commodity, and a farming enterprise is difficult to start from scratch. But today, work is viewed differently. Vocation is self-actualization. And while Arlo loves his parents and their farm, as evidenced by the tenderness and detail he’s poured into this memoir, he is not interested in carrying on their work for them.
Arlo characterizes the modern wanderer, searching for meaning and fulfillment in some material, vocational form. At the end of the book, he leaves his parents’ farm and joins his girlfriend in San Francisco, where he works in a natural foods store, specializing in produce. He spends his days working with vegetables, though he notes this job is “much easier than actually working in the fields.” He’s doing almost the same work he did on his father’s farm—except in a far-flung city, with the ease of air-conditioning and independence.
San Francisco produce still doesn’t give Arlo the sense of fulfillment he’s been seeking, however: “I still hadn’t solved the problem of what I wanted to do with my life—the same problem that I had in Massachusetts was still with me now,” he writes. “I was coming to the realization that it would probably be with me forever, and that it was a problem that I likely shared with every other person on earth.” Why couldn’t he continue work alongside his father? Why couldn’t he find his calling on the family farm? The book never gives an answer.
Arlo’s statement echoes the deep yearning for “vocation” that so many young people experience. We all want to find a job that fits us perfectly—a job that is fulfilling, interesting, and exciting, without requiring too much drudgery. But when we really begin to search for such a job, we discover that work isn’t this simple—while one position may offer great financial benefits, it may be too tedious or taxing. Another job may be fulfilling on a relational level, but it might not pay the bills. So often, these disappointments lead us to believe that the term vocation or “calling” is empty, nonexistent. Work isn’t fulfilling—it’s just work.
But what if we changed the term “vocation” to encompass something more than self-centered careerism? What if vocation does involve using your talents—but also involves tying those talents to a particular duty, or a particular place? This would mean that family, community, and talent all have a direct bearing on the career we choose. And it would mean that, even when we feel “unfulfilled” in our work, we must persevere, knowing that we serve some place, or someone.
Individualism has had a huge impact on traditional farming. Simply put, unless one of their children takes a liking to the tedium of farm work, today’s agrarians are on their own. They must conjure up a successful, fruitful farm in their few decades of limber life, or else content themselves with a frugal, arduous future. Once Arlo’s parents grow old, they can only help to sell their farm—their life’s work—at a good price.
Wendell Berry writes about this dilemma in books like Remembering or Jayber Crow. Small farmers, in his books, need the next generations to survive: the old and wizened farmer Athey Keith in Jayber Crow tries to teach his farming methods to his son-in-law and grandson. While his son-in-law rejects such old-fashioned methods, Athey’s grandson Jimmy respects and loves his grandfather. It is Jimmy who cares for his grandparents when they grow too old and frail to care for themselves. He’s the one who tends their land and animals.
On the Crawford farm, Jim has his apprentices: young men and women in their 20’s, who do most of the farm’s cultivating, irrigating, and harvesting work in competition with each other. Arlo writes that most apprentices share a tremendous amount of respect for Jim, who spends hours teaching and mentoring them. Yet despite the enthusiasm and passion that these apprentices pour into their work, their status will always be temporary—and they will always be more focused on their own interests than on the good of the farm as a whole. They can’t take the place of family, where the principle of kinship works to bind and sustain a team of self-giving entities. When the season ends, Jim’s apprentices are gone—but sadly, so is Arlo.
Near the beginning of the book, while Arlo is building his getaway out in the woods, he asks his father for help on the project. Jim looks at Arlo’s sketch, and studies it for a while. Then he asks Arlo, “Is it true?” In order for a structure to be “true,” everything must be square and equal. If even one angle is off, the whole structure will be thrown out of balance. The integrity of the entire building rests on this geometric accuracy. And Arlo’s structure is not true. “That night I sat with my father at the kitchen table with four pencils and a long piece of thread,” he writes. “He showed me how to square the angles and how to make the structure sound, and in the morning I took a piece of rope and did the same thing with the posts, measuring out equal lengths so that I had a rectangle with right angles.”
Arlo builds the structure according to his father’s instructions—and once the platform is finished, he asks his father to come out and examine it. Jim “went around to the front, leaned his full weight against one of the pilings, and shoved as hard as he could.” The building holds firm—it’s true.
Our entire lives are built on the knowledge and wisdom of our forebears. We may branch out on our own, but even then, our individualistic tendencies depend on the work and wisdom of those who came before us. Arlo’s ability to drift from Cambridge to Pennsylvania, New Morning Farm to California, rests on his father’s legacy. He seems to realize this, and this book stands as a tribute and testament to Jim’s lifetime of hard work.
But one can’t help wondering if Arlo has considered whether his current chart in life is running “true.” Considering the legacy he has, the work his father has poured into the Pennsylvania land, it is difficult to see Arlo walk away from New Morning Farm. But hopefully, regardless of his vocational choices, he will consider the knowledge and experience of men like Jim, who have built a true foundation for the future.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor for The American Conservative.