By the time a Kansas farmer becomes sag-bellied and stooped, he has learned a thing or two worth telling. Most of the world, of course, passes this by, mostly from indifference, sometimes from derision. But the life of a Kansas farmer is a surprising thing. It is a life of unlooked-for and unrecognized mysticism; a creational monasticism, with its own hours and liturgies.
For the Kansas farmer starts his every day rising in the dark to meet the divine providence. There is a virile resignation here that is a wonder to the uninitiated, a dynamic fatalism that leaves a signature, a mark of a man’s sweat and blood. The farmer accepts the day and what it brings, but he does not leave it unformed. His is a backbone of stubborn grit. Grace may lack a little in the language he uses, calling down divine curses on a stuck irrigation valve. If he is unschooled, still his is a calculus of the motion of a tractor through the field, and the interval of the setting sun; his a trigonometry of the seasons and the arc of harvest.
Most Kansas farmers are church folk, though they wear their faith easy and with little affectation. A farmer might appear nervous and apologetic ‘round the young preacher boy from college, but only due to the perceptions of book learning and articulation. Otherwise, a farmer has in him the questioning ability of Job, and the capacity to keep that soft-handed Bible college boy tied up in theological knots. A farmer might wear his suit jacket to the Sunday meeting, but he’s like as not to put it on over a pair of overalls, bringing a bit of God’s earth in to the pew with him on his ragged boots. He will petition God for the things he cannot do: to bring the rain, to stop the flood, to grow the wheat, to make the calves healthy. He will thank God for his food, his shelter, his family. His prayers will echo the Jacobian turn of phrase, for this is his Bible, and one would never refer to God with the familiar “you.” He is a self-reliant man who intuits if he does not know he must anchor his self-reliance in something bigger than himself.
The world of the Kansas farmer is not gentle, nor is it kind. The ancestral curse is his daily reality. He will bury his children, his parents, his brother. The winter will be hard and lean. He lives every day at the point of epic failure. Every day, he will face the question of himself: is he man enough for the trial? A man might lose his arm in a cutter. And if he survives, he will face a different sort of test. This is a mortal world. Memento mori.
This is the way of it. This is what a Kansas farmer knows. His life and choices shape him. He doubtless gives little time to intellectualizing all this. His philosophy and theology have no technical vocabularies and books. Rather his doctrine is thread on a different loom.
In the diner over coffee, at the church potluck, at the mechanic’s shop, a Kansas farmer will learn to weave a narrative. The tales are simple, often exaggerated, and usually self-deprecating. They are told and retold often enough, the women folk shaking their heads. These are no literary works of art, to be sure, but the building up of an understanding from the stones and timbers of daily life. When one can learn to speak in metaphors and the third person he may find there a form of wisdom.
[Other Kansas reflections are here.]