Few things have been more satisfying than the many hours of every day, the many days of every year and the many years across many decades I have spent in solitude. For almost 30 years I’ve worked alone, a full-time freelancer in an increasingly corporate, increasingly crowded field.
Fortunately I had good training for this solitary life. On the farm of my youth I was usually alone in every field that I worked. I mowed hay alone, cultivated corn and soybeans alone, disked alone, hauled manure alone, plowed alone, planted corn alone.
And, yet, while my eyes watched the row or the furrow, my mind was anywhere but on the row or furrow. If I spotted a fluffy jet trail headed south, I wondered if it would end in Biloxi or Bolivia and if I’d ever see either.
In between the daydreams, the solitude gave me time to read and to consider who I was.
The reading, observing and solitude, it turned out, were just the start of a life of reading, observing and solitude. The happy start of a happy life.
Solitude, after all, isn’t emptiness and quiet is a peaceful place filled with silence.
Early on I knew I didn’t have to join any group or class to have an identity. I had one; I was a good worker who my father trusted with cows, tractors and hired men. That gave me an identity and it freed me to become other things. And off I went.
In a 2009 lecture to the plebe class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, essayist and literary critic William Deresiewicz tried to explain how this happens.
His key idea — one that I am familiar with — was to encourage these future leaders to spend more time alone to avoid becoming “the excellent sheep” or “world-class hoop jumpers” that he saw in his Yale University students.
(To read the entire lecture go to: http://www.farmandfoodfile.com.)
These young people, he explained, were “exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders… People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.”
But there is “something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea,” Deresiewicz offered the young West Pointers.
“(For) too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they are worth doing in the first place.
“What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen… but who have no interest in anything beyond their expertise. What we don’t have are leaders.”
In many ways, Deresiewicz could be describing the dominant feature in American agriculture today. Great technocrats abound everywhere — on Capitol Hill, at Land Grant universities, in general farm groups and commodity organizations. The “routine” they “keep going,” as they often sing in unison, is “feed the world.”
But this technology has created bigger and bigger monocultures that are not focused so much on feeding the world as on maximizing profit.
Indeed, we’ve learned very well how to get up that “greasy pole” but we still need to learn how to stay there. How will we — farmers everywhere — sustain our ability to feed any of us when there are more of us and less of everything else?
Sheep, excellent or otherwise, ain’t gonna get that job done. Leaders will.