Why do all these engineers think they want to be farmers?

Some time ago a renewable engineering colleague remarked that he and his girlfriend (an architect) had just been discussing whether it was possible to find fulfillment in “the modern condition”, or whether they should decamp to the countryside and live the simple life. I confess to entertaining thoughts along those lines at times, and as I pondered the other parallels among our lives I began to wonder whether it might be more than a coincidence. Perhaps it is the odd crowd that I run with, but I seem to know a lot of technical professionals whose interests tend anachronistic and agrarian. One coworker (an electrical engineer) has a hand-cranked grain mill, crafts butter and artisanal cheeses in his home in the city, and hand-sets type for a hundred-year old cast iron printing press. For a time he and his wife (a chemist) fantasized about moving to the country and buying a farm. She cooled on that idea after observing how much spadework is involved in The Country Life, though she still speaks longingly of old-fashioned kitchen work. Another guy I know is a PhD candidate in organic solar cells who would rather be an organic farmer, though he has a suspicion that the human race took a wrong turn when it invented agriculture. His girlfriend was also a grad student doing a dissertation on quantum dots, and she actually made the leap; now she works on an organic farm west of Boston.

What’s going on here? Are we all crazy? Is it just a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the cubicle wall? Maybe every 30 years collective memory fails and a new generation falls victim to back-to-the-land madness, or perhaps there’s something about record oil prices and economic upheaval that triggers an impulse in the brainstem, but apparently we aren’t alone (NYT article).

In any case it’s a question that’s likely to bear heavily on the course of my life, and as it happens I may have a unique perspective from which to consider it. My folks were in the wave of back-to-the-land types who moved to the country and lived “the good life” in the 70’s. They built a 600sf house with no electricity or running water, with solar and wood for heat. We had a hand pump on the well, kerosene lamps, and a lot of cold trips to the outhouse in the winter. They cleared some acres and grew vegetables, squash, spuds and beans, and pumpkins for market, also had a few sheep and a herd of dairy goats, made cheese, sold milk and eggs to the neighbors, and raised me and my sister. My father worked as a carpenter to provide some hard currency.

Looking back on it I think it was a great way to grow up, and I was a happy kid. I didn’t mind chopping wood, but I remember hating to pick potato beetles. I think the folks enjoyed what they were doing but it was hard work and when modernity came along they signed up – power lines came down the road when I was six or so and we hooked in. For the first few years I remember it as being a chest freezer, three lightbulbs and a digital timer that my mom used when she froze veggies. Then came running water, and when I was about 15, a septic system and a flush toilet. When we were up in school my mom started as an elementary school teacher, and my dad built up a business as a general contractor. Gradually we/they added TV, computers, the internet, and finally cell phones and a microwave oven. By comparison to most people they still live a very rural life, though with the benefit of a lot of modern conveniences, and most of the food (and money) come from the conventional economy.

Seen in historical perspective, you could say that in twenty years we lived the whole 20th century in fast forward. It seems like there should be some wisdom to be mined from that, but, what does it mean? In a broad sense, I read it to mean that we voted with our feet, and we voted for a large measure of modernity. We made similar decisions as the society as a whole made, and I think it’s important to note that none of the choices were really forced moves – the Man didn’t put a gun to our head and force us to hook up to the electric grid, get with the program, and start buying stuff. Sure, there was economic pressure from college tuition and the like, but a lot of my classmates were in far worse straights economically than we were. Personally I was ambivalent about the changes – I was a good student and was fascinated by technology, but I identified with the lifestyle and I had a strong romantic streak. For a time late in high school I had the idea that I was going to live in a cabin by the water and make a living building wooden boats. Cooler and wiser heads prevailed, and I shipped off to MIT, but I still had a soft spot for salt water, wilderness, and farm fields. When I took some time off to work on the carpentry crew I envisioned days of purposeful toil with evenings walking in the woods or reading Gary Snyder. As it was I ended up doing timber framing on a huge waterfront house exposed to the full blast of the north wind in the dead of winter, and spent my evenings sprawled and staring at the wood stove trying not to drool on myself. The engineering profession started to look pretty good. So I finished my degree, futzed around for a while in medical devices, and then dove into renewable energy R&D engineering. I could have done a lot of things, and I felt free to choose among a myriad of possible futures, and that’s what I chose.

But though I spend my days in front of a computer, designing, specifying, and inventing, the call of the land and the romance of old ways still have their hold on me – otherwise I wouldn’t have built a wooden boat when I lived in a garage in Cambridge despite the evident superiority of fiberglass; I wouldn’t have torn up my front lawn and tilled in 2000lb of horse manure to make a garden, and I surely wouldn’t be clearing land and planting an apple orchard in Maine. Perhaps it’s subconscious rebellion against the rampant specialization of modern life, or maybe it’s a natural reaction to the growing energy and climate crises. Perhaps it’s something burned into my spirit in childhood – for my sister who cared nothing for farming in childhood now finds herself compelled to grow vegetables despite foreboding conditions 7000 feet above sea level in Idaho. Perhaps it’s what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia – an innate love for natural living things. But in any case, it looks to be a permanent part of what I am, and it seems that I’m not the only one.

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2 Responses to “Why do all these engineers think they want to be farmers?”

  1. pingswept » Blog Archive » The doctrine of the farm Says:

    […] amateur agrarian, Ben speculates that his engineering friends who dream of becoming farmers may be engaging in “subconscious […]

  2. Alea Says:

    In response to pingswept, I, for one, have always wanted to do everything myself. I very often feel opposite of the progressing, specialized world. I’ve dreamed of finding a piece of land where I build my own house, make all of my own furniture, decorate the walls myself. A house where I’ve learned to do everything necessary to put it together. Since I first dreamed it up, I’ve come around a bit. I still want to build my own house on my own piece of land, but I am also social enough that I appreciate the contributions of others. Essentially, I wouldn’t want to live in a place that was only filled with me because I’d get lost in my own thinking – I’d much rather let my thoughts be influenced by the inspiration of others as well. But that’s getting away from the topic.

    While being educated as an engineer, I always enjoyed the state-of-the-art technology, and the amazing things that people were doing around me. And I think, as an engineer, a person is pushed to the place where they understand how more things work, and they often are part of the design process. Curiosity and construction lead us to want to know how all things are done, and to try our own hand at it. And in this specialized world, I think there is a very strong draw to the farm. Farmers tend to repair their own equipment, put up their own barns, run their own businesses. They have their hand, necessarily, in all parts of the work. And as opposed to most engineering jobs, where a person sits inside all day in front of a computer, a farmer tends to be outside all day, putting his or her body to good use. As an engineer, I see the farmer having a more balanced, connected life. The specialized city life leaves out the natural exercise of working in exchange for a gym, where you have to take out time to attend, and then you have to pick which muscles to work and which special exercises to do. Everything is compartmentalized and feels less natural.

    In my current circle of friends, there are several environmental educators. One plants public urban fruit trees in the Boston area. She and her colleagues talk about how surprised they are at the reaction of the urban public to using the fruit from the trees. They will go to a cherry tree with ripe fruit dripping off of it and pick baskets full of fresh fruit that they can’t give away on that same street. The people walking by refuse to take any because it seems unnatural for them to get their food from a tree. Or perhaps from a public place. It seems dirty to them. I say all this to contrast my experience growing up in the country where my parents built their own house and made my play equipment. We would often pick berries in the summer, and go swimming in lakes. Coming to the city, I am amazed at the wonderful fruit trees that live around me. It helps to provide a balance to the urban life. I can can and make applesauce and pies and dried food. I can bring a bit of the country I miss to my home.

    So at least part of the need for the agrarian life must be in how I grew up. My favorite houses -the most comfortable ones – are wooden inside, like the unfinished house I lived in for many years as a child.

    Do city kids get this feeling too? I don’t know. Or maybe they do and they can’t identify it as well without the experience. I know that I enjoy being part of a whole process, and there is something about the countryside, and the forest, and the trees, that I just find relaxing. I like my experiences to be “real” and it seems like a lot of the city dwelling life is built on substitutes for those “real” things. Perhaps “real” is what my mind and body are evolved to do, and evolution has not caught up to city life. But cities seem to be built for stimulating the mind. The body is built for country life? I don’t know, but I think what a lot of people search for is a balance between the two. That is why suburbs are so popular, though they seem to leave out the best of the two worlds.

    I could probably go on and on about this stuff. For me, I can’t think of a better way to spend my time than to work hard outside with some friends for the day, solving problems, getting things done, getting exercise, eating well, and being able to completely relax when the work is through. I feel accomplished and balanced. And if I’m working on plant-related business, I am contributing to a long-term relationship that contains the joy of seeing things grow, and cultivating things that will help me grow.

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