Between The City and The Land

Concrete and semi-trucks are the connection between most cities and farms. It is a  relationship is mediated by processing plants and grocery stores. Even the most food sensitive among us are disconnected from the land and its tenants.

There has been a recent movement to reconnect with the land. Our distance and our ignorance about agriculture — its people, its processes — have been progressively felt. Wendell Berry has spoken into this divide, and contributed profoundly to the aforementioned movement by shaping the hearts of his readers to love and know the land. This is one of his gifts to us.

Wendell Berry has also shaped hearts to resist the ‘city dwelling’ ways of life, particularly when those ways of life are driven by blinding impulses for profit, efficiency, or business. Part of Wendell’s message is that the “economy of the city” (a term I’ll used to refer to the dominant economic principles and habits that govern American business) have awful effects on the “economy of the land” (a term I’ll use to refer to the economic laws of nature, farming, and the lives of its tenants). Farms have their own internal economies that rely heavily on the nature’s patterns. Cities have their internal economies that do their best to avoid reliance on nature’s patterns. Wendell laments the fact that the economy of the city continues to be forced onto the economy of the land. This is destructive, he says. It results in the mistreatment of land, its economy, and its people.

Assuming he’s right, this immediately places sympathetic city-folk in a bind. No city- dweller can claim immunity from participation in the economic habits Wendell bemoans. Simultaneously, many city-dwellers read Wendell and feel righteous indignation at the very things they are participating in. Who do they direct their anger at? Themselves? Those they perceive as more blameworthy city-dwellers? How should they pursue justice between city and land, given their already incriminated position?

Though I’ve read his poetry and essays, heard him speak in person, and read a few of his novels, I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what Wendell would have most of us do. To me that’s because Wendell Berry is no leader of people or political movements; rather he is a great lover of nature and those who tend to it. Berry’s personal connection with the land stands radiant against the disconnection us city-dwellers feel, and so we desire to move in his direction.

The question still stands: What does a virtuous relationship with the land look like? I cannot fully answer that question here as it would take great wisdom and an entire book. What I would like to do is first offer some evidence that there is in fact an historical divide between the two economies I’ve suggested. Second, I want to suggest that Willa Cather, in her book O Pioneers! testifies to the divide between the city -dwellers and country – dwellers, but offers a suggestion as to what each camp’s basic orientation towards the other should be. This is helpful especially for those sympathetic city – dwellers who, familiar with the sins of the city, might too easily believe there is an intrinsically more virtuous life to be lived out on the land.


In my debate class this year, I had my students debate the resolution: “City life is better than country life.” As expected, the farm boy from Guthrie couldn’t really imagine an argument in favor of the resolution. He and one other girl with some family connections to country life scoffed, objected, and corrected everything the “city-dwellers” said as they criticized the “boringness” and “lack of social life” supposedly present in the country. They promptly pointed out the increased crime, blaring sirens, and restless lack of peace in city life. [The same boy has vocally resisted many assumed values and beliefs of city – dwellers in my American History class.] Point is, a division was felt. It’s an American phenomenon that goes back to the pre-revolutionary war period. Here are couple of examples.

In the 1600’s, it was easier for city – dwelling merchants and businessmen to get money from British banks than it was for the average colonial farmer. Paul Johnson, in his History of the American People, claims that this is the initial cause for the farmers’ resistance to a National Bank. It should come as no surprise that those with money trusted others with money more than they trusted those without it. Further, it should come as no surprise that a small scale farmer had a more difficult time receiving a loan, given that profits were not huge, and the possibility of a crop going bad was always present. A farmer might have qualified for a loan, but they’d likely have had to sign their land over as collateral. The rich simply didn’t have to expose themselves to potential loss in the same way. Why should the farmer be at a disadvantage economically at no fault of his own? One can see how easily a mistrust might form between a farmer, laboring all day for uncertain results, and a merchant who lives in a city far away making quicker, easier money, and who seems to get a little more lovin’ from the banks.

From the 1700’s into the 1800’s, there was a divide between the few massively wealthy plantation owners, and the much more ubiquitous “local farmers.” For example, slavery helped the few wealthy become absurdly wealthy, but slavery did not help the local farmer in the same ways. And further, the wealthy elite did not have to work all day with their face to the ground. They could simply leave their farm to slave laborers and participate in the politics of the city. The wealthy farm owner could influence policies about money while the lower-class farmer had limited time or resources to engage on the same scale. The amount of wealth one had became a main determining factor in who found political and social influence. Those who became wealthy farmers became more like the city – dwellers, and less like the local farmer. If a local farmer wanted more success and influence in the economy of the city, he had one option: Expand, and find a way to make more profit. This constant pressure only deepened the separation between city and land.

Willa Cather’s genius novel O Pioneers! captures the divide between the city and the land in the characters and plot. The novel depicts a farming community on the Nebraska frontier in the late 1800’s. Throughout the novel, there is much attention given to the differences between city and farm. Alexandra Bergson, the main character, is the farmer who most understands the economy of the land. Under her prudent guidance, a Nebraska wasteland becomes a thriving farm. In spite of her farming acumen and love for the land, she’s a contradiction in that she raises her brother Emil to live and thrive in the city.  She even sends him off to be “educated,” in hopes that he will not turn out like some other farmers in her community. In contrast, the love of her life “Carl Linstrum” is a city boy who longs for the goods of country life. Early in the novel, Carl and his family are forced to leave the farming community.
For three years, every Nebraska farmer had had failed crops. Those who had already borrowed money could not borrow more because their “credit” was shot (at no fault of their own). Carl’s family couldn’t borrow anymore, so they packed up and headed for New York City (I believe).

When Alexandra tells her brothers Lou and Oscar about Carl’s plans to leave, a verbal disagreement begins. Lou and Oscar want to leave the prairie and go elsewhere. Years of failure, years of debt cause them despair. Lou and Oscar have great anxiety about trying to make the land submit to the demands of the city – dwelling bankers. Alexandra is the only one that pushes for them to stay. She explains to them:

“‘The land sells for three times as much as this, but in five years, we will double it. The rich men down there own all the best land, and they are buying all they can get. The thing to do is to sell our cattle and what little old corn we have, and buy the Linstrum place. Then the next thing to do is to take out two loans on our half-sections, and buy Peter Crow’s place; raise every dollar we can, and buy every acre we can.’

‘Mortgage the homestead again?’ Lou cried. He sprang up and began to wind the clock furiously. ‘I won’t slave to pay off another mortgage. I’ll never do it. You’d just as soon kill us all, Alexandra, to carry out some scheme!””

Notice how Lou and Oscar – the ones with their hands in the soil every day – view this mortgage as foreign and slave inducing. They are so unfamiliar with the “money game” that city-dwellers play. Oscar even says,

“But we can’t work so much land . . . we’d just work ourselves to death.”

Alexandra has an educated response:

“The men in town who are buying up other people’s land don’t try to farm it. They are the men to watch, in a new country. Let’s try to do like the shrewd ones, and not like these stupid fellows. I don’t want you boys always to have to work like this. I want you to be independent, and Emil to go to school.”

Alexandra is the only one who sees that in order to gain independence and “freedom” in an economy dominated by cities, she must learn the city dwellers’ game. That means invest money like they do. She personally learned that game through her self-guided education. She is the only one who reads the papers, studies the markets, and uses her head as much as her hands while on the farm. Because she embraces the education of the city, she finds success in its economy.

When Carl returns to visit Alexandra after a few years, he tries to convince Alexandra that farm life is better than city life. He’s is puzzled as to why she’s so set on sending Emil to University. For him, working the land has rewards for the soul that city-dwellers can’t possess. Chief among those rewards is an independence of soul. Alexandra sees the value to the soul the city can offer, not least of which is intellectual agility. In the end, their conversation reveals the basic orientation the city and land should have towards each other.

“Carl shook his head mournfully. ‘Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.’
Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, ‘And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.’
‘I wonder why you feel like that?’ Carl mused.
‘I don’t know. Perhaps I am like Carrie Jensen, the sister of one of my hired men. She had never been out of the cornfields, and a few years ago she got despondent and said life was just the same thing over and over, and she didn’t see the use of it. After she had tried to kill herself once or twice, her folks got worried and sent her over to Iowa to visit some relations. Ever since she’s come back she’s been perfectly cheerful, and she says she’s contented to live and work in a world that’s so big and interesting. She said that anything as big as the bridges over the Platte and the Missouri reconciled her. And it’s what goes on in the world that reconciles me.'”

Alexandra, though choosing a grueling life on the farm, demonstrates a profound and initially baffling gratitude for the city. It “reconciles” her, she remarks.  She looks out at her vast land, bursting with crops, and thinks of those in frock-coats sitting at type writers who will receive the work of her hands.  In a sense, Alexandra sits in submission to the city – her life’s work serves this greater economy and she is glad for it.  

This romance between Alexandra and Carl – between the farmer and the man of the city, doesn’t work to show a superiority of the city and the inferiority of the farm.  It instead, paints a picture of mutual submission between the two.  Carl looks into Alexandra’s life with admiration and even a sense of reverence. He sees the virtue of life spent in fields, in that community where there is a real sense of belonging. Though he doesn’t see it himself, Alexandra sees that he, as a city boy, has learning, education, and civility to offer to the farming community.

Ultimately, Willa Cather is proposing that the city and the farm must each hold each other’s good as their personal goal. “If there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work.” It’s when the city lives for its own sake alone that harm comes to the land. It’s when the world is no wider than a farmer’s cornfields that the farmer becomes close minded and resentment laden.

Those sympathetic city-dwellers who read Wendell Berry need feel no shame about being city-dwellers. Through our work and our laws and our habits we must seek the good of those outside our city walls.

Perhaps one day, the connection between the city and land won’t be mediated by food processing plants and grocery stores alone. Perhaps it can be mediated by us. For that to happen, we must go out from our cities and form relationships with those on the land, always aiming to benefit them in our laws, habits, and economy.

It’s out of a continuous dialogue between the two that justice between the city and land will be given its greatest chance.


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Jacob Carr