Thursday, December 14, 2006

Farming in the Year 2000, A. D. (Looking Backward)

Here's yet another short sequel to Bellamy's novel, by Edward Berwick. It appeared in the June 1890 issue of the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, to which Berwick submitted a number or articles. His work also appeared in The Outlook and The Arena.

FARMING IN THE YEAR 2000. A. D.

With nerves unstrung by that horrent nightmare, which had replunged me into the cruel vortex of nineteenth century antagonism and brutality, I cast around for some method of restoring my usual equanimity. An excursion into the country would, it appeared to me, serve the double purpose of acting as a nervous sedative, and of enabling me to realize something of the conditions of rural life in this year 2000 A. D.

Repairing to Dr. Leete's study, I found him busily conning those pages of Storiot's History of the Nineteenth Century in which agriculture was discussed. Having expressed to him my desire, I added, "Your methods of distribution and finance have proved so interesting to me that I long intensely to learn something of your performance of that more vital function, production."

"Ah, Mr. West," replied the Doctor, "that reminds me that I have very much wished to consult you upon what has always seemed to me a great mystery. This history of Storiot's gives one to understand that the distaste for a farmer's vocation was so great in your nineteenth century as to result in an exodus that left the rural districts almost depopulated. Can this be true? If so, it becomes yet more incomprehensible when one reconstructs mentally one of our overgrown yet crowded cities. The dense canopies of soot and impure gases, overhanging them like a funeral pall, were themselves danger-signals, warning the unwary that life's most precious possession, health, was imperiled. Then the mud and dust, the squalor and malodorousness, the grime and filth of your back alleys and byways,—aye, often even of your main thoroughfares,—must have acted as repellents and nauseants to one accustomed to sweet country air. To complete this uninviting catalogue, one must add the deplorably insanitary condition of your dwellings. Why, Storiot actually affirms that the consort of Queen Victoria was literally poisoned in, Windsor Castle by sewage miasma; while, about the same time, over one hundred students of Princeton College were attacked by typhus fever from a similar cause. So late as 1889 a Hygienic Congress, sitting in the City of Paris, condemned 77,000 out of its 79,000 houses as defective in sanitation. And this in a city vaunting itself the center of civilization, whose system of sewers was world renowned, the pride of the poet Hugo. Presuming all this true, there must have been some remarkable fatuity to induce men to migrate from the sweet purity of God's 'un-man-stifled places,' to coop themselves in such vile wildernesses of brick."

"Though I can refute nothing of your historian's indictment against the abominations of our cities," I replied dejectedly, "I can perhaps solve your problem by a reference to that root of all our nineteenth century evils, the greedy grab for money. Money, if we ruin our bodies! Money, if we sell our souls! Incredible and monstrous as it may seem to you, there were among our farming community the same mutual jealousy, suspicion, and antagonism that embittered and impeded all other walks of life; the same blind, misdirected, feverish energy, unintelligently over-producing certain staples, which had to be sold at unremunerative prices. Hence heavy labor, long protracted, often repulsive and even brutal, was compulsory to obtain a bare sustenance. Some few evaded this curse by the successful substitution of the sweat of some one else's brow; but, as a rule, the farmer and his family were debarred from almost all social recreation, and precluded by excessive fatigue from mental culture at home. Add to this that his business was the sport of the weather, to the inclemencies of which he was often exposed; that he was harassed by plagues innumerable, beetle and bug, mildew and mould, canker-worm and caterpillar; and bled impartially by rodent, rent-collector, and tax-gatherer. One theorist even proposed to make land bear the whole tax of the nation, promising a consequent millennium."

"Stop," said Doctor Leete, "that's explanation enough. You will find our farming as diametrically different to that of your nineteenth century as is our storekeeping. Nothing you have said previous to this portrayal of the farmers woes has so made me realize how dim were your dawnings of science. I had failed to remember that your scientists could barely foretell the weather a few hours ahead, and that your farmers looked to birds, insects, and even trees for intimations of hard winters or early springs. Now, our meteorologists furnish accurate forecasts for the entire year, and our tillers of the soil shape their course accordingly. But let us continue our talk on the road, where both eye and ear can be busy."

Seating ourselves in a light, beautifully appointed electric curricle, the doctor touched the ubiquitous contact button, and sped us rapidly westward along the smooth, broad, tree-shaded avenue. Crossing the sinuous Charles, with its sculpin-haunted bridges, our road was bordered on either hand with an endless succession of snuggest villas, lawn-begirt and flower-adorned. glorious in their greenery, the ideal of everything homelike and hospitable. More miles and more, and the same pleasing vista still charmed the eye, until I began to think that Boston must have taken the American continent. I noticed, however, that the gardens were becoming more extensive, and occasionally fairy palaces of iron and glass, covering acres of ground, diversified the scene; while every few miles magnificent assembly halls reared their inviting porticos at the roadside. In vain I looked around for some of the old familiar waste places and solitudes, for which my eyes seemed to long.

"How soon, Doctor Leete," I asked, "shall we reach your farming district?"

"You are now in the heart of it," he replied.

Rubbing my eyes to make sure I was awake, I stared at my companion in amazement. Where were all the shabby barns, the dilapidated outbuildings, pigsties, hen-houses, calf-sheds, stables, the malodorous middens and muckheaps, inseparable from nineteenth century farmsteads? Then it flashed across me that I had seen neither sheep nor cow,—no, not even a solitary hog, since I awoke from my century's trance.

"You appear dazed!" said the Doctor. "What is it that strikes you as specially wonderful?"

"Why, the absence of all live stock, to be sure! Where do you keep your cows and pigs, your horses and sheep? Our farmers' chief business was to provide provender for his livestock. Here I see no livestock. Nothing but garden, garden, garden!"
"You don't see them because we have none!"

"Have none? Then whence came that juicy cutlet which I had for breakfast? Savory as the fattest of fat venison fed on the Delectable Mountains! "

A smile wreathed the Doctor's face as he replied:

"It is satisfactory to hear so pronounced an opinion from one so qualified to judge. As we never taste flesh, it has been necessarily a doubtful point as to whether our edible fungi were really superior to animal food. Your morning meal was blood-guiltless; your juicy cutlet was but a slice from an agaric. In your age one class of savages was held in especial abhorrence. Your flesh crept and your blood curdled as you whispered the word "cannibal," even when applied to a sailor, starvation-crazed on mid-ocean. Our generation similarly abhors all flesh-eaters. But do not suppose that we affect any contempt for the science of cookery, because we eschew meat. Man is what he is by virtue of his education and environment, and food is no inconsiderable part of that environment. Our cooks prepare purely vegetable dishes, compared to which, we opine, the rarest fleshpots of your Egypt were but as carrion. If Storiot is right, your much esteemed fillet of beef had to be flavored with mushrooms, and that highly valued dainty of the gourmand, the paté de foie gras, depended for its piquancy on the added aroma of a fungous tuber. No! the farmer of today,—and his name is Legion, agriculture being by far the most popular of all vocations, —performs none of that repulsive and brutalizing labor in connection with live stock which constituted farming in your day. Growing and stacking huge ricks of hay, and threshing endless bushels of grain, for the maintenance of his horses and bullocks, his hogs and sheep, during winter; collecting and distributing all kinds of unsavory fertilizers; daily tending and caring for his flocks and herds,—made up a farmer's life. How needless was all this labor, let the stalwart frames and ruddy countenances of this generation witness. Even you had the example of Daniel and his friends, who, preferring a pulse diet, refused the king's meat; but whose countenances were fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king's meat. I believe also that the nourishing and nitrogenous bean was a staple food of your poorer Bostonians. Under our improved dietetic regime, we not only have succeeded in maintaining a population of thirty from the same acreage that on a meat diet fed one, but we have effectually banished that demon of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia: the demon that tortured the body, embittered the soul, and envenomed the pen of your great master of satire, Carlyle."

"But," queried I, "if you thus eliminate all live stock from your farming system, how are your fields and gardens fertilized?"

The smile of conscious power and adequate knowledge again illumined the Doctor's visage, as he replied:

"In the first place, by that endless natural supply, the refuse of cities. This, suitably deodorized by dry earth, is delivered by our pneumatic transmitters to such lands as need renewing, and there distributed by electric carry-alls. If I am rightly informed, this supply was in your day not only allowed to waste, but actually discharged into your rivers, poisoning alike air and water; while at the same time your lack of nitrogenous fertilizers put you to immense expense in the mining and transportation of nitrates. These, by the aid of our slave of the lamp, electricity, we obtain in any quantity from that omnipresent and inexhaustible nitrogen mine, the atmosphere; of course, combining the nitric acid thence obtained with the necessary bases.

"This reminds me of another laborious, ever-recurring piece of work, from which that same slave of the lamp has freed our agriculturists; the cutting and cleaving of cord-wood for heating the wintry air of your abodes. Not only our artificial light and heat, but all the motive power of our machinery is supplied by electricity. Fields are plowed, seeds sown, crops harvested, all by that same swift servitor, whom your contemporaries had but just learned to harness. Fluvial and tidal forces furnish ample energy for all purposes: so that cold water literally boils our kettles, warms our hands, and even smelts the most refractory ores. You may judge then how easy the farmer's yoke, how light his burden today; especially when you remember that all anxiety and care as to marketing his crops, or providing for his family’s present and future, have under our social system become utterly needless."

"You are, my dear Doctor, indeed favored above mortals!" I gladly assented. "But you have not yet by any means exhausted Farmer Hayseed's catalogue of woes. Tares sprung up and choked his wheat; codlin moth or curculio rendered hateful his pleasant fruits; cut worm, wire worm, gopher, squirrel, scale bug, locust, and fly ravaged his fields and stripped his trees, robbing him of half his due reward. If your system and science have extirpated these I shall hail you as victors indeed."

"What appeared impossible, and was impossible in your chaos of antagonism," replied the Doctor, "has become not only possible, but easy, with our system of harmonious co-operation. In your day the farmer who, by trap and poison, would rid his fields of vermin, was checkmated by the neighbor who was too lazy or apathetic to do the like. The lazy man's fields bred vermin enough to more than restock the runs and burrows that the diligent man had emptied. One orchardist by endless vigilance strove to keep his trees healthy; his neighbor, perhaps out of sheer spite, neglected his; and scale bug, curculio, or codlin moth migrated in myriads to the vigilant man's orchard. With weeds the same:—what industry kept free, idleness reseeded. Now, by united effort, not a weed goes to seed, not a noxious insect lives within our borders. Entomology became so thoroughly understood that, by giving favorable environment to certain predatory varieties, the noxious species were long ago exterminated. We thus reap the full reward of our toil. Moreover, there is no attempt made to produce crops that are unfitted for the locality. Distribution is so rapid and easy that we can utilize natural adaptations to the utmost, and thus results a perfection not known in your age. This is accomplished the more readily in that our command of chemistry ensures us that needful supply of the requisite fertilizing ingredients which renders us independent of soil constituents. Add to all these advantages an abundance of competent labor, plus the absolute possession of the unbounded and untiring energy of our slave of the lamp, and the horticulture of today has been made possible."

Here the Doctor slackened the speed of our curricle, as we neared one of those immense palaces of crystal I had previously noticed. Alighting, we entered a portico, tastefully lit by transparent mosaics; thence passed into a glorious sylvan cloister, extending all around the building, rich with the verdure of the tropics, through which flashed the starry wings of strange, bright birds, and among whose arches echoed their warbled melodies.

"This," said Dr. Leete, with a glow of pride, "is one of our winter promenades. This is the ornate fringe of the useful center, devoted as you see to such vegetables as need artificial heat. Below is a crypt allotted to the culture of agarics and fungous tubers, such as delighted your palate this morning. Our slave of the lamp automatically maintains the required temperature, and in winter prolongs the day to the extent required for continuous growth. So that here we fear not even the Shaksperian enemies, 'Winter and rough weather."'

Words fail to picture the marvel of horticultural perfection on which I gazed. Tender care and exquisite taste were displayed everywhere, as though each plant had been ranged by an artist.

The Doctor read my admiring look, and gave utterance to my thought.

"Yes, our gardeners are all artists. I believe in the nineteenth century they were not included in that denomination. But surely if to reproduce nature on canvas be art, to embellish nature, which is the true gardener's office, is yet higher art. And I think, Mr. West, you will be hardly disposed to deny, after what you have seen today of rural Massachusetts, that we have been fairly successful in embellishing nature."

"Success! Yes, your success to me is miraculous! The incomprehensible part of it to me is where the money—"

"Ah," broke in the Doctor, "there comes in your old-world bogey again! It was an eternal question as to money?—money?—money? You want to ask where the means to promote and carry out such schemes are found. You forget how much more rapid psychical evolution is than physical. In your century a Harvard professor could say with reason, 'Only a small fraction of the human race have as yet, by thousands of years of struggle, been partially emancipated from poverty, ignorance, and brutishness.' Our change of social polity has multiplied that fraction many fold. Now our people are all emancipated from that vilest of slavery. The office of brains nowadays is not to aggrandize and exalt their fortunate possessorat the expense of the debasement of his fellows. We find our highest gratification in self-devotion to the uplifting of t hose who are less richly endowed; and reap a harvest of admiration and love consequent on that only pious course. Thus we have a population capable of the grandest achievements in art or science; a population free from all internal and external cares and anxieties, eager to concentrate thought, time, and energy on such productive work as you have glanced at today. Usefulness is with us the sole title to nobility. With you the typical 'good fellow' was one who had money, no matter how acquired, that he was ready to squander in ostentatious idleness or profligacy. For such characters our age finds neither name nor place. Whether our methods be happier, whether they result in success, you have now seen enough to judge."

The look of admiration with which I could but behold the magnificent triumph of art-aided nature before me was a sufficiently eloquent reply.

As we rode homewards I gathered many further details from Doctor Leete as to the crops grown in different districts. These, of course, remained a great deal as in the nineteenth century. The Doctor was specially enthusiastic over a visit he had lately paid to California, in his capacity of National Sanitary Inspector. Fruit forming so large a part of the nation's sustenance, it was one of his duties to learn and teach the newest and best methods of its growth and preservation.

"After your nineteenth century experience," said he! "you can have no conception of the glories of that American paradise. All your visions of vine and fig tree, of myrtle, and palm, and orange, your grapes of Eshcol and clusters of Mamre, are belittled by the Edenic reality! Blossom-clad rose fields for perfume, hills purpled with wealth of the vine, terraces silvered with olives, or gold with the orange's glow, plains where the peach and the pear shared the bounteous soil with the prune, mountain sides where the racy apple stored up the sun's kisses for winter. No more dread of drought, as in your day, no more crying of a parched earth to a pitiless sky, but intelligent man working in happy harmony with bounteous nature; the State overspread with a network of waterways, wealth-bearing, life-giving, making even the deserts kind and hospitable, and the barren hillside a fruitful grove. All this and more, because man has, after centuries of strife and antagonism, learned at last the wisdom and policy of mutual help; a lesson long taught him by the practical socialism of the ant, the bee, and even of that type of envenomed malice, the wasp."

Edward Berwick.

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