Verlyn Klinkenborg makes a living writing about the rural life for the New York Times. He lives on a small farm in upstate New York and has kept a journal of his routines there. Host Steve Curwood talks with Klinkenborg about his new book "The Rural Life."
CURWOOD: From time to time, most folks feel the need to keep a journal, to record the events and observations of everyday life. Verlyn Klinkenborg makes a living out of crafting words into prose. But it’s not the writer in him that wants to keep a journal. It’s the farmer. Or, as he puts it—the son, nephew, and grandson of farmers.
In his new book, “The Rural Life,” the New York Times contributor and Living on Earth commentator chronicles the simple pleasures and daily chores of living on his small farm in upstate New York. Welcome, Verlyn.
CURWOOD: Verlyn, how do you define a rural life?
KLINKENBORG: Well, these days that definition is very different from what it was when I was growing up. For me the backdrop of the true rural life is the one established in my own mind by my aunts and uncles who farm in the midwest. People whose livelihoods come right out of the country, right out of the soil around them. That to me is the real rural life and it’s something that I always measure myself against and always fail miserably by comparison with.
CURWOOD: Each week, you make a trip down to New York City to write for the New York Times and your other projects, do your commentary for Living on Earth. I’m wondering what changes in you as the physical landscape changes?
KLINKENBORG: Well it depends on which direction I’m going. If you take the train into New York, you can feel yourself being compressed and realigned, and re-energized. And, in a way, the same thing happens as I go back up into the country. I get re-energized, but it’s with a very different set of plans in mind. I’m thinking about the duck house I’m going to build next spring for May 1st, when our twelve new ducklings and two goslings arrive. I’m thinking about how I’m going to convince my wife that we need to rent a pasture so we can start raising steers of our own. It’s a more expansive kind of energy that the country thrusts upon you, and I give into it happily every week when I go home.
CURWOOD: Your family of origin comes from Iowa where you resonate with the rural life there. But, in fact, in America, emergent America, the rural life begins really right where you make your rural life, in eastern New York State, just over the Massachusetts line there. What about this original bit of agricultural America speaks to you, informs your writing, informs your life?
KLINKENBORG: Well, it’s a very interesting piece of rural America up there because it’s the part of rural America that is now heavily wooded in a way where it wasn’t a century and a half ago. A place where as everyone knows old stone walls run through the countryside through the woods, suggesting a level of habitation that was very different. Not more people, but more farmers, more open land. What I witness, especially as I drive down to catch the train, is the last of the great agricultural valleys in eastern New York State. A place where there was a lot of dairy farming, a lot of chicken farming once upon a time. That’s mostly gone. And the idea that we are living in the middle of what used to be the great northwest, the wheat frontier for colonial America, is always striking to me, because so little of that is left in any real sense. The number of farmers are few. It’s a very pressured life up there. They’re under threat from all sorts of directions, and yet I think at the same time the number of people like me who’ve taken an interest in rural living and the kind of choices it offers you is increasing. And it seems like there’s a real renaissance of very much smaller farms now than there used to be, but it’s a renaissance nonetheless.
CURWOOD: Could you just briefly give us a tour of your land there in upstate New York and how you’re getting it ready for the coming winter?
KLINKENBORG: Sure, it’s a very complicated, it’s a very small place. People when they read my rural life pieces in the Times think I must be talking about 300 acres or something. It’s five acres. It’s enough land to get into trouble with. It’s deep woods on two edges of it. There’s an old barn that’s maybe only 15 years old, but old enough to be full of character in its own right. The land is very rocky, it rolls down from a high level to the west in a series of terraces and drops down to the ground to the highway level which is the lowest part of it. And we do what everybody tries to do who lives up there. We try to think about our firewood, we try to think about what we’re going to be growing the next year. The things we’re thinking about right at the moment, the first one is making sure we compost all the horse manure. Making sure we move the pigs often enough because our two pigs are actually plowing up our pastures for us. The thing I’m thinking about now is how I’m going to seed all that new ground so it will be better pasture next year. It’s all things like this, and a lot of it comes out of my own curiousity about how things work, and a kind of, it comes out of growing up in a do-it-yourself household as well. But, it also comes from watching the farmers that I know and respect and thinking about how they look at the land and the projects they have going on. It’s always preparation, and what underlies the preparation is how can we make the land better than it is naturally. How can we make the soil richer? How can we make the animals happier and more productive. And really, how can we make ourselves happier and more productive as a result?
CURWOOD: It’s interesting, as you write about the landscape, you also write about the language. The language of country living, I’m thinking of, and how that changes over time. I’m wondering, in fact, if you could read a little from this.
KLINKENBORG: Sure. Words abide, but new phrases enter the tongue and old phrases exit, reflecting the way the social landscape alters. If, for example, at an old-fashioned family supper, you leaned across the tablecloth to take the yams from under your sister’s nose, you were told you had a “boardinghouse reach.” It was code for saying, “You’re behaving selfishly, like someone who doesn’t live in a nice home but has to rent a lonely room and eat with strangers.” In short, you got indicted for bad manners, low-class affinities, and anti-social leanings. You don’t hear the phrase much anymore. It evoked a time in the west when laboring men drifted like sand, or a calm dormered establishment with apron-hem rules of behavior against which the strong young men who boarded there were constantly, if coltishly, kicking. These incarnations of the rooming life have disappeared, so we’re dropping the expression. When a phrase becomes archaic, as “boardinghouse reach” almost has, an echo from the past vanishes, like coal smoke in an age of gas heat. Such phrases were only a wrinkle in time, I know, but I miss hearing them anyway. Sometimes I wish I owned a weekend cottage in the country of the old-time tongue. A little cabin near my grandma’s lexicon. You could stop by for a touch of Depression wisdom and talk some farm talk. You could stay the whole summer after too much TV. You could come back replenished by speech that summoned the deep past the way the frost heaves stones to the surface of the earth.
CURWOOD: Is there a place where we can find this kind of rural language in living today?
KLINKENBORG: I think the thing to say is simply that it isn’t strictly a rural language. It’s true that if you go to rural Montana or rural Wyoming or Iowa out in the countryside, you’ll hear a different rhythm of speech, a different set of locutions. But I think that what I’m talking about in that piece and what I mean when I talk about the language of everyday poetry, is that every locale, every neighborhood, every human connection is capable of generating its own poetry. Whether it’s in the country or in the city or in the suburbs, for that matter. I think the trick is to listen. The difference is that in the rural living, the subjects are different. The nouns are different. The verbs are different. The activities the language reflects are different. And they conjure up a resonance and really a kind of strong sense of kinship in most Americans, no matter how far they feel they’re removed from the farm.
CURWOOD: Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times and is a regular contributor to Living on Earth. His new book “The Rural Life.” Is published by Little, Brown and Company. Verlyn, thanks for taking this time with me today.
KLINKENBORG: You’re welcome.
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