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Old Men ought to be Explorers

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06:19 pm: Soil and Toil
Laudator was kind enough to put up another delicious John Updike poem, unknown to me, which celebrates the pleasure of using simple tools to manipulate the earth. It is particularly salutary to read this, as I just did, in New York City, which is about as far removed from such activities as one can be. It reminds me of home, although in my part of Southwest France one often needs, not a hoe but a pickaxe to shift the soil.


    I sometimes fear the younger generation will be deprived
        of the pleasures of hoeing;
        there is no knowing
    how many souls have been formed by this simple exercise.

    The dry earth like a great scab breaks, revealing
        moist-dark loam—
        the pea-root's home,
    a fertile wound perpetually healing.

    How neatly the green weeds go under!
        The blade chops the earth new.
        Ignorant the wise boy who
    has never performed this simple, stupid, and useful wonder.

                                                     John Updike

Reading this brought  me enormous pleasure, and reminded me of another poem I've always enjoyed, and which I had the pleasure of hearing the author read during a visit to my quondam university:

      Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

                                      Seamus Heaney

Heaney, of course, goes beyond Updike in creating the analogy. Updike might tell him that a spade is not expensive and easily found; yet Heaney, unlike his American counterpart, implicates himself directly as a poet. And in doing so, he releases in the reader a powerful set of questing thoughts, that makes us pursue the equation and try to comprehend it. If you dig with a pen as your father digs and your granfather dug with a spade, whet are you doing, and what is the progression or series in the sequence of your generations? His grandfather dug for turf, or peat. It was a laborious peasant's living: no doubt, like the few remaining (and now very old) peasants in my village, he was more or less permanently bent, and did not know what 'leisure' was. The father is digging to plant potatoes, but one senses that the venue is not the Lower Forty but a kitchen garden: that the digging is already taking place in (as musicians might say) a different key. And it is perhaps this intermediate key that liberates the (grand-)son to dig in yet another way.

By contrast, Updike's hoeing has in it no conscious memories of peasantry. Is this because he is farther removed from ancestors, or because he was an American? Pioneers worked backbreaking days and nights, but they were never 'peasants'. Come to think of it, the English -- I learnt, in my youth -- were very proud of having had, at least since the Middle Ages, farmers but no peasants. Peasants, we learnt, were Continental, peons, little better than serfs. The English had always been farmers: a subtle but crucial distinction. 

To return to my village: I said to a friend recently, 'You know, when Auguste Rigal, Lucien Polydore, and two or three more of their generation, now in their Eighties, die, there will be no more 'paysans'. There will be 'agriculteurs', and we should be thankful that the earth is still being worked and the fields ploughed; that the roe-deer and the hares still run, the partridges still breed, and the kindly fruits of the earth (as the Book of Common Prayer calls them) still appear in their seasons; but something will have gone. There will be no more peasants, like Heaney's grandfather.

We should not idealise them. Visiting their farmhouses, one is struck by the sheer glumness (from our point of view) of lives that, when the backbreaking work is done and retirement arrives (often, I might add, with a considerable fortune), continues to live in two rooms: a kitchen, with two armchairs, a television set, and a cooker; and a bedroom, with a wedding photograph and a knitted bedspread. Photographs of the village in 1910 show a bleakness beyond belief.

And yet, though much has been gained, it is pointless to deny that something is also being lost. There is nothing to be done about this, it is simply the passing of generations and the universe unfolding as, no doubt, it should. But, like Heaney, we should pause and celebrate these people, and ponder our link and our debt to them; and, like Updike, we should not forget the connection to the ages that simple tools, well used, can bring all of us who have a patch of soil.

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