Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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“Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste,” said Buddha. If that sounds like nonsense, then read on as I tell you how I and my wife, Janet, came to do nothing with our farm, on purpose. It might help you understand what Buddha had in mind.
Twenty-eight years ago, after six years of living in Manhattan, Janet and I bought 134 acres of farmland in rural New York State — midway between Ithaca, where I’d gone to school, and Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame — and began going there on weekends and in the summer. The land was in Chenango County, in the southeast corner of the Burned-Over District, an area which, in the nineteenth century, produced the Mormons, the Perfectionists, the Millerites, the Anti-Masonic Party, and a host of other quirky individualist movements that attest to how rich life can be in a less structured society. Chenango County was, is, and I think always will be lightly populated, a land of corn and livestock, not appealing to sophisticated tourists and real-estate speculators.
The population of the town nearest my farm is the same now as it was in 1905; the whole county has about fifty inhabitants per square mile — less than it had in 1835, during the glory days of the Chenango Canal. Even in 1993, plenty of beautiful land was available there for five hundred dollars an acre or less, ninety minutes from Syracuse, two hours from Albany, four hours from New York City. I paid only about forty-eight dollars an acre in 1968. The low price was probably the chief reason I bought the land sight unseen from an ad in the real-estate listings of the Sunday New York Times.
That particular Sunday I had been ranting and raving to some friends about the great bargains that are always available, if you know what true value is. I offered to prove my point using the real-estate pages. “Just buy what no one else wants,” I said, “as long as you’re sure that their reasons for not wanting it — dirt roads, no running water, things like that — are dumb.” Then I read:
Tumbling Waterfall Retreat
134 acres. 7-year mortgage. 6%. Old barn, pond sites. 5 miles from Oxford, New York. $6,500.
I wired the five-hundred-dollar down payment to the agent the next day.
How did I know the land was any good? Maybe it wasn’t good for some things — such as making money. But I knew it was a private place away from modern machinery, where I could do just about anything I wanted without interference and nosy neighbors, so I bought it without worrying. If you know your own mind, you don’t often require expert advice to make decisions, because you are the only real expert on what you need. With the payments around a hundred dollars a month, almost anyone could have bought that land, if he or she wasn’t afraid.
What was there to be afraid of, after all? The taxes were about three hundred dollars a year, and a nearby farmer paid us a hundred dollars annually to cut off the grass for hay — paid us for the privilege of cutting our grass.
Wild land puts us smack in the middle of animal nature, where creatures regulate their lives differently than we do ours. It teaches us about seasons, fertility, and that there is no death, just endless transitions from one form to another. Wild land gives us back the sky and the harmonies of the planet, and exacts only a small price in return: we must leave it wild, or else it loses its power and becomes a green office.
By the time I bought my wild land, I was thirty-two and just beginning to see that doing things the “right” way — rationing my time using the best principles of human engineering, living life according to my mind rather than my heart — was a catastrophic mistake. I had already mutilated my family with too many rational decisions. But I was slowly starting to realize that you can’t engineer life all the way unless you’re willing to become a mechanism, that all the rewards that can be counted — like money and titles and honors and property requiring expert advice to manage — are at their roots disturbingly unrewarding. I hadn’t always thought that way; I had gone to two Ivy League colleges specifically to accumulate material wealth and display it as evidence of my worth. And I did that for a while, but, ironically, it left me feeling worthless.
When I bought the land, I still hadn’t learned this lesson I’m trying to teach you — or rather that Buddha is trying to teach us both. For five years I raced around digging ponds, chopping trees, clearing paths, pulling rocks, unclogging channels, planting — always making lists, plans, agendas; always “improving” things. I loved to drive to the nearby towns and see movies and sit in bars pretending to be a country gentleman, but Janet would regularly ask why we couldn’t just stay put, why we always had to be going and doing. Her question baffled and intrigued me: stay put and do . . . what?
One day, after finishing yet another important project, I made a list of all the things I had left to do according to my master plan for the land. There were fifty major projects remaining, and at two a year (which was all I could manage while racing back and forth from New York City on weekends and in the summer) I would be sixty when they were done. According to my schedule, I could begin enjoying my land twenty-five years down the line.
Something was dreadfully wrong. I was a fool. Like so many of us, I was a cog in an idea-machine called “progress.” I measured success like an accountant: by the bottom line of things done, gotten out of the way, finished, terminated. But the pleasure of being alive lies in the process, not the product — primarily in being and only peripherally in doing. Our envy of machines has reversed this natural order of importance; somewhere deep down we all understand this, but we avoid the truth and instead assign ourselves the miserable task of trying to be machines. Regardless of appearances to the contrary, those who succeed at this lead horrible lives.
Being a part of the natural world is the great challenge — without accepting it, we can never have a true home. Nature stops giving when it is overregulated, or exploited with technology and bulldozers. We all need wild spaces to restore our spirits, not just parks and beaches, where the human element is all too apparent. When we dominate the wilderness by mapping it, scheduling it, and controlling it, all we get is a green version of the city.
Now I do nothing with my farm but go there and let it teach me things. Sometimes I putter, but not often, because “time is too precious to waste.” The living quarters are an old barn with “1906” inscribed in the concrete milking floor. I had originally intended to build a broad covered porch around the structure and turn the inside, with its fifty-foot ceiling, into a private cathedral. Not a bad idea. But now, twenty-seven years later, it remains a barn, and that has turned out to be a better idea. There’s about twelve hundred square feet of open space on the hay floor, and way up under the roof is an insulated room reached by climbing three wooden ladders. The boyfriend of one of my college students built the room, put on a new roof, and refloored the barn in exchange for five acres of land: a good deal all around.
But much of the time we don’t even use the new room; instead we sleep in two lovely old beds under the lofty roof, with a few mice racing about the rafters in plain view, bats squeaking in the eaves, barn swallows twittering. In the morning, the most amazing light pours through the inch-wide gaps between the vertical wall boards. It’s like living in a birdhouse.
We draw water a half-mile away from a gorge that probably should have been tested but never was; we drank tentatively at first, then with delight. No water ever tasted like our gorge water run over rocks. Although the walk back and forth took some getting used to (it was hard to escape the machinelike notion that time was somehow being wasted), I’ve found that drawing my own drinking water is a wonderful feeling.
Bathing is out of a bucket or in ponds, and the toilet is wherever you can find a private spot. Our place on the Upper West Side has three bathrooms, but they give us no better results.
Our barn holds about three thousand books, which must fend for themselves in all seasons. We bought them at country auctions for a dollar or two a box — lots of nineteenth-century evangelical tracts, hand-colored children’s books, crime-club thrillers, and the like. They’re entertaining far beyond television, movies, and Broadway shows. Reading in a barn is like discovering reading all over again.
The main activity on our farm, as on many farms, is keeping animals; the difference is we don’t own any of them, and they feed themselves. Deer are a daily sight — snorting, playing like young pups, hanging out. Wild turkeys are common, too; at night they flock by the gorge behind the barn. Plenty of snakes about, but no one has ever been bitten; also skunks, turtles, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, minks, and a large colony of blue herons, which land on the pond and fish like pterodactyls off our half-sunken dock. A bear moved in near the stream at the foot of the hill last year. Our relationship is strictly live and let live; it’s nice to have a bear around. The most unbelievable creatures of all are the moths. Janet discovered them flying just outside the barn at twilight; their shapes and colors are so exotic, I feel transported into prehistory just watching them.
Of course, we do other things, too: We eat wild foods we used to call “weeds.” We dig up blueberry bushes for gifts, build bonfires at night, transplant wildflowers. I finally figured out why real farms are often messy looking: when you kick over something unimportant, it doesn’t need to be picked up right away, and nothing should ever be thrown out that might be useful tomorrow.
It’s impossible to live this way for long without coming to love nature, and to feel an obligation toward it as well. Our natural laboratory is stretched out daily for our understanding, not our exploitation. The greatest use of wild places is not “using” them but just being there.
I wish I had been brought up to live in productive harmony with the land, but I’m grateful to have discovered the next best thing: accepting stewardship of it until someone better suited to live upon it self-sufficiently comes along.
When I used to teach school, my students and I would discuss style a lot — particularly, how to get a style of your own. It’s very difficult unless you are alone a lot, have time and space to yourself, are free of other people’s needs and the urgencies of the commercial world. How can you expect to be unique if every minute you draw models from other people and from the televised shadows of real people? How can your unique destiny unfold if you always submit to the scrutiny and judgment of authorities? (Authorities on what? Certainly not on you, unless you have been diminished into something predictable, tamed by regulation, simplification, and rationalization.)
We are meant to be unique individuals who live in harmony with other unique individuals: think of the harmony of falling snow, but the brilliant individuality of each snowflake; the harmony of beach sand, but the uniqueness of each grain. Aren’t we that way, too? Consider your own fingerprint, unlike any other on earth — why would evolution produce such a mark unless each organism is one of a kind? And if you’re inclined to think in terms of God, rather than evolution, it is even easier to deduce a purpose. If people are inherently sortable into a few categories — as industrial civilization makes us out to be — then the fingerprint is inexplicable; it only makes sense as a guide to the individual experiment that is each one of us.
As Buddha said, time is too precious to waste doing much of anything. I’m still learning what that means, but I might never have begun to learn if I hadn’t bought a big piece of wild farmland and left it that way. (I hope my children’s children leave it that way, too, if circumstances allow them to inherit it.) I learned to just be from watching fish swimming in the pond, birds taking dust baths on the dirt road. “Hey, look at us,” Janet once said. “We’re just watching the birds, not ‘bird-watching.’ ” It’s an important distinction.
The original meaning of the word school (in Latin, schola) was a place that afforded solitude, silence, and freedom from duties so students would have maximum opportunity to open themselves to the universe and learn. It’s difficult to find such a school. Our institutions are too occupied with watching us for signs of unacceptable deviation, and regulating each minute of the year according to expert prescriptions.
Wild, inaccessible, unimproved land is available in abundance within easy drive of every metropolitan area in America. Get some as soon as you can — the wilder and scruffier, the better. Then do nothing. It will be your school. And it might become your home.
John Taylor Gatto
John Taylor Gatto is always provocative and insightful, yet, as a teacher, I feel called upon to defend the work of myself and many of my colleagues from his broadsides against the public-school system. Yes, public schools are flawed, they encourage too much comparison and competition, and they do not reach a significant minority of students. However, Gatto says nothing about the dedicated people who spend many hours of their lives coaching academics, the arts, or athletics before and after school. These people provide human contact that can transcend the bureaucratic system. Nor does he mention the role of schools as a focal point in many communities. And, yes, some learning does take place in these all-too-imperfect places.
For such a progressive individual as Gatto to be celebrating charter schools and voucher schools seems ironic. Charter schools and the like result in separation and gross inequality; they siphon resources from the only system dedicated to educating all students. The destruction of public education, which appears to be Gatto’s goal, will further impoverish those without supportive families or those who lack the wherewithal to start their own programs. Gatto’s often trenchant criticisms sometimes cut too broadly; a little moderation would be welcome.
Although I am not a schoolteacher, John Taylor Gatto’s essay “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” [September 1995] affirmed many of my own ideas and experiences. The exchange in your November Correspondence section prompted me to read it again, however, and I noticed a disturbing point I had overlooked before: namely, when Gatto spoke of “this lesson I’m trying to teach you — or rather that Buddha is trying to teach us both.”
There are always problems when someone tries to teach unknown others in a forum like the essay. It implies that the author knows more and therefore has the authority to teach. It is better for a writer to simply share the wonder of what he or she has learned, and let others decide for themselves whether it has value for their lives.
I read the article by John Taylor Gatto and the following interview with a combination of chagrin and delight. America’s wilderness gave Europeans the freedom to contemplate. But the overpopulation that sent our forebears west is closing in around us again. It is a luxury for Gatto to be able to escape to the wilds of upstate New York, a luxury that undermines his educational philosophy. Isn’t it fatuous to rigorously pursue conventional education and gain the rewards it promises, then tell students that conventional education is a crock? To champion Buddhist simplicity while holding on to the perks that provide the peace?
It has always disturbed me that Buddha was fat. It is so much easier to spend long days and years in contemplation when you are a rich prince. As some guru once said, “The perfect disciple is one who can always find a chicken.”
I love Gatto’s concept that the object of education is to help each individual realize his or her greatest personal potential. Since there is no standard future for any kid, there is no point in enforcing a standard education. But the Gattos of this world are rare, and if you clone them the Establishment will get wise and close the empty rooms of freedom.
In the twenty-first century, most people will live unremittingly urban lives. How do you give them the freedom of a weedy field or an old barn while they stand on the corner of 110th and Amsterdam? Will we burn down the cities in order to plant trees? Will the homeless get wise and go in search of abandoned barns? What new tools can we create to help teachers know what a child truly desires to learn, and how can we show children that they are free to learn as much as they wish?
Part of the problem surely resides in the title The Sun chose, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” It drips with cheap irony. The original title, “Private Solutions, Family Solutions,” was no prize, but at least it crudely indicated one message of the piece: that within modest resources and collective family wisdom (in this case, my wife’s) are the tools to deal with any difficulty. It is a matter of determining what really matters, independent of income and status.
The Buddha quote seemed apt, so I used it, but Buddha and summer vacations were not the point of my essay. The central idea was that we must question reflexive exchanges of time for money and the use of time to impose synthetic order on natural events. My attack is on conditioned, automatic thinking, not on people who farm the land. What is most often lost in reflexive thinking is the purpose of doing things; we’ve just about ruined this planet and all its societies with the belief (1) that the poor are different and must be contained, and (2) that the devil finds work for idle hands.
It is no accident that modern Western society despises private time, unimproved property, unschooled kids, and unregulated anything. The modern religion since Francis Bacon has been machinery and systems. Heirs to this tradition — businessmen, academics, professionals, engineers, and schoolmen among them — are creeping around everywhere “improving” things until we are choked by their dubious sacraments.
I’m intrigued by the difference between the Buddha I encountered and Evans’s farmer Buddha, who puts in a full day’s work at home and Grange; intrigued also with King’s rich-fatso Buddha, dispatching his faithful to beg a chicken. Janet and I were married in a Buddhist temple in 1961 solely because Buddhists charged nothing, while Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all wanted a minimum of twenty-five dollars; at the time I had no job and only ten dollars in my pocket. But I claim no more knowledge about Buddha than Evans and King. I was struck, however, by how banal the divinities they proffer are; being a well-fed guru or a conventional good citizen are not proper responses to the grotesque, mutilated environment of, say, New York City.
To King I say that all the tools we need to help each other already exist — no new ones are necessary. Our failure is in perceiving what really matters, not in curricula or distribution of goods.
Finally, I thank Klonsky for his compliments, but he has radically mischaracterized me as “a progressive individual.” My essay should have warned him I am thoroughly antiprogressive. Progress is possible only in the individual’s struggle within him- or herself, not through government nostrums like schooling. Public education is not the enemy, but government-compelled schooling is: the compulsion is indefensible. Abandon compulsion and nothing the government does will go uncorrected for long. In my experience, the best schoolteachers are determined saboteurs. I hope Klonsky is one of them.
I enjoyed the responses, in your November Correspondence section, to John Taylor Gatto’s essay “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” [September 1995]. For me, as a teacher, Gatto’s radical views always prompt much thinking — and self-critique. I certainly agree with his identification of the basic educational problems. Over the years, Gatto’s essays have allowed me to understand why the system is what it is. I never felt comfortable with his solution of sabotaging the system. Yet, undeniably, his results were strong.
Then I saw it: Gatto is successful not because his students throw bottles into the ocean, or because they figure out how to win contests, or because he knows the history of American education. Gatto is successful because he loves his students in very real and tangible ways. He doesn’t separate his life from their lives. I realized this just in time to have a very special semester of teaching.
John Taylor Gatto’s “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” [September 1995] reads like a more-Buddha-than-thou lecture. Would Buddha attend two Ivy League colleges so he could make big bucks, live in a three-bathroom house on the Upper West Side, and travel to the country on weekends and in the summer while having someone else cut his hay for money and add a room to his barn in exchange for land — all so that he could do nothing? I think not. Buddha would be living on the land, cutting his own hay, raising corn, and attending the monthly meetings at the Grange. Buddha doesn’t take summer vacations.