A forgotten treasure of a book, I haphazardly stumbled on this yellowed century-old copy at a little coffee shop and found it stuffed with sincere and thoughtful observations of life along with delightful ink illustrations.
My daughter got a lamb a few days ago. I have this amazing girl — I wish I were more like her, truly. She is ten and appears to be more responsible than I was at her age, or even now. She joined 4-H in October and decided to show a market lamb at the county fair. I did this when I was her age, but she is really doing it, head, heart, hands, and health, helping in every way and keeping her records straight and saving her own money to buy a lamb. Oh, I love this girl.
I read this book recently, Adventures in Contentment, and it’s about a man who moves to the country and finds, of course, contentment. We do live in the country, and I have to admit, there is something to this, living close to the land, that brings joy. I’ve been thinking about this idea as my husband has been out with his brother digging post holes to build this pen and shelter for the lamb.
His day job is spent toiling away creating various artistic things on the computer. He has the luxury of working from home, staring into a black screen of ones and zeroes as he codes, or arranging cyan-magenta-yellow-black, or advising a client to stick with the original ad campaign — but nothing soothes like getting outside with his shovel and moving dirt and rock.
In my book, which incidentally I found quite accidentally, the narrator has been a farmer for eight years, having left the city life and the hurry and the illusions and the crowds. David Grayson is listed as the author and narrator, but I happened to look into the matter, and discovered that Grayson was the pseudonym of Ray Stannard Baker. Mr. Baker was born in 1870 and was an American journalist and author born in Lansing, Michigan, which is oddly enough near where I spent some formative years of my youth.
It happened that one morning several months ago, my husband and I dropped the kids at school and drove to a little café to have breakfast and talk about life and plans for the future. It was an old house, turn of the century maybe, renovated into this small restaurant. With a bookshelf behind me, and after the coffee came, I turned and at total random plucked an obviously old book with a light green worn binding off the shelf behind me, just below eye level, and turned it over in my hand. Oh, the feel of an old book, I was already in love. Copyright 1906, I was sold. I love old.
The pages were thick, the words were timeless and flowed like real maple syrup, just slow enough and real enough to taste their roots. The cover page was inked with this inscription that tugged at my heart for no apparent reason other than the nostalgia of two old friends who must have shared a love of books: “To Lillian from Burgetta.” Oh how my mind raced to imagine these two women, one a gift giver, and the other, a special friend. The penmanship was exquisite and that is perhaps what set my heart aflutter in the first place. The kind of script that belongs to another era.
I caressed the pages, read some lines aloud to my husband and even to our waitress, Shonna. She was amused enough to oblige me the kindness of borrowing this book whose cover matched her eyes perfectly. It was all meant to be. I’ve been back in the café a dozen times and have yet to return the book–I will, I just needed to write a few things down first, and Shonna has been all grace about it.
Grayson begins Adventures in Contentment by describing his transition from city life to the country, to contentment. He first reflects on the former:
For many years, and I can say it truthfully, I never rested. I neither thought nor reflected. I had no pleasure, even though I pursued it fiercely during the brief respite of vacations. Through many feverish years I did not work: I merely produced.
The only real thing I did was to hurry as though every moment were my last, as though the world, which now seems so rich in everything, held only one prize which might be seized upon before I arrived. Since then I have tried to recall, like one who struggles to restore the visions of a fever, what it was that I ran to attain, or why I should have borne without rebellion such indignities to soul and body. That life seems now, of all illusions, the most distant and unreal. It is like the unguessed eternity before we are born: not of concern compared with that eternity upon which we are now embarked.
Grayson then considers that day in April when he suddenly stopped, and until he stopped he hadn’t known the pace he ran. He lay sick with fever and close to death for weeks, and as he recovered, he had a most poignant thought, that of walking barefoot in cool, fresh plow furrows.
And thus, eight years ago, I came here like one sore-wounded creeping from the field of battle. I remember walking in the sunshine, weak yet, but curiously satisfied. I that was dead lived again. It came to me then with a curious certainty, not since so assuring, that I understood the chief marvel of nature hidden within the Story of the Resurrection, the marvel of plant and seed, father and son, the wonder of the seasons, the miracle of life. I, too, had died: I had lain long in darkness, and now I had risen again upon the sweet earth. And I possessed beyond others a knowledge of a former existence, which I knew, even then, I could never return to.
The book then unfolds a variety of narratives about this new country life, of buying a farm and meeting country neighbors, of axe helves and fences and preachers and new calves. The beauty of this book is that the real heart of every account is so timeless it could have been written ten minutes ago.
The title, Adventures in Contentment, is perhaps misleading. One can find contentment beyond the country life, and certainly today’s farmer who struggles to earn a living in agriculture is typically far from content. Sometimes the busy city life is actually the one that’s more untroubled and peaceful.
However, Grayson does address the pitfalls of finding contentment in the country, and nails its enemy, the enemy of all contentment: greed, avarice, envy, covetousness.
The very vision of widened acres set my thoughts on fire. In imagination I extended my farm upon all sides, thinking how much better I could handle my land than my neighbours. I dwelt avariciously upon more possessions: I thought with discontent of my poverty. More land I wanted. I was enveloped in clouds of envy. I coveted my neighbour’s land: I felt myself superior and Horace inferior: I was consumed with black vanity.
After much pondering about fences and belongings, Grayson ends up making a covenant with himself: “I shall use, not be used. I do not limit myself here. I shall not allow possessions to come between me and my life or my friends.” And then immediately follows my favorite portion of the book, his conversation with the old professor.
Grayson’s philosophical thoughts about fences reach this great crecendo in this moment when the professor ambles along with a clump of dirt in one hand out of which sprouts a purple cone-flower, and he speaks words that Grayson describes “as when a coin, tested, rings true gold, or a hero, tried, is heroic.”
“I have rarely,” he said, “seen a finer display of rudbeckia than this, along these old fences.”
If he had referred to me, or questioned, or apologised, I should have been disappointed. He did not say, “your fences,” he said “these fences,” as though they were as much his as mine.
The ensuing words shared between the professor and David Grayson are the heart of this book, the contentment found in the deep enjoyment of life and her mysteries. Mostly, the professor talks and Grayson listens, “and what he called botany seemed to me to be life.”
And thus the sun went down and the purple mists crept silently along the distant low spots, and all the great, great mysteries came and stood before me beckoning and questioning. They came and they stood, and out of the cone-flower, as the old professor spoke, I seemed to catch a glimmer of the true light. I reflected how truly everything is in anything. If one could really understand a cone-flower he could understand this Earth. Botany was only one road toward the Explanation.
Always I hope that some traveller may have more news of the way than I, and sooner or later, I find I must make inquiry of the direction of every thoughtful man I meet. And I have always had especial hope of those who study the sciences: they ask such intimate questions of nature. Theology possesses a vain-gloriousness which places its faith in human theories; but science, at its best, is humble before nature herself. It has no thesis to defend: it is content to kneel upon the earth, in the way of my friend, the old professor, and ask the simplest questions, hoping for some true reply.
Oh, the beauty of this passage. Isaiah tells us that we shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace, and the mountains and hills will break into song, and trees in the fields will clap their hands. And the purple cone-flower, too, will give witness of what Grayson calls the Explanation–God himself.
The Mystery–yes, he asks about this next, and surely an understanding of the Mystery is a key to contentment? Grayson, with some trepidation, prods, and the professor speaks.
“I have been a botanist for fifty-four years. When I was a boy I believed implicitly in God. I prayed to him, having a vision of him — a person — before my eyes. As I grew older I concluded that there was no God. I dismissed him from the universe. I believed only in what I could see, or hear, or feel. I talked about Nature and Reality.”
He paused, the smile still lighting his face, evidently recalling to himself the old days. I did not interrupt him. Finally he turned to me and said abruptly,
“And now — it seems to me — there is nothing but God.”
As he said this he lifted his arm with a peculiar gesture that seemed to take in the whole world.
The chapter titled The Axe-Helve bears the date April 15th as though an entry in Grayson’s diary. I shall end my review here as it so beautifully contains the essence of Adventures in Contentment. This was the morning he broke his old axe handle. I loved this chapter partly due to the coincidence of my son breaking his axe handle while chopping wood this winter within a week of my reading this very chapter. My husband, by chance, had an axe helve lying under our bed for over a year, just waiting to be used (or rather, in case of an intruder?).
I swung it unnecessarily high for the joy of doing it and when it struck it communicated a sharp yet not unpleasant sting to the palms of my hands. The handle broke short off at the point where the helve meets the steel. The blade was driven deep in the oak wood. I suppose I should have regretted my foolishness, but I did not. The handle was old and somewhat worn, and the accident gave me an indefinable satisfaction: the culmination of use, that final destruction which is the complement of great effort.
Yes, I understand that satisfaction even in something broken, “that final destruction which is the complement of great effort.” Also within weeks of reading this chapter, I experienced three breakings myself, and each held a peculiar gratification. First, my trusty old bread machine, a wedding gift, which had given fifteen years of service, broke in the middle of a batch of bread. I heard the motor whine and call to me that it could knead no more. So many loaves it mixed and rose, I begrudged it not. Next, my washing machine snapped a spring in the middle of a cycle. It, too, had given years of service, and this its last wash was extra tender–a soiled sleeping bag; one of my daughter’s little friends had spent the night and didn’t make it through. Finally, my car’s motor, also in its fifteenth year, died on my way home from a neighboring city as I returned from a morning coffee date with a dear friend; and oh, I was so grateful my car had first carried me to the special appointment before seizing the engine.
And so this process of making a new axe helve, this was a touching adventure. Grayson details everything from picking out the perfect tree growing there in a sheltered angle of his rail fence, to curing it, to the carving, to the final staining and then fitting with the blade.
Making an axe-helve is like writing a poem (though I never wrote one). The material is free enough, but it takes a poet to use it. Some people imagine that any fine thought is poetry, but there was never a greater mistake. A fine thought, to become poetry must be seasoned in the upper warm garrets of the mind for long and long, then it must be brought down and slowly carved into words, shaped with emotion, polished with love. Else it is no true poem. Some people imagine that any hickory stick will make an axe-helve. But this is far from the truth.
The lamb pen will be finished tomorrow, the wire stretched and the gate hung. It’s been some hard work, but as Grayson says in the final chapter, “An honest, hard-working country training is the best inheritance a father can leave his son.” Or his daughter. And he follows with this astute caveat:
And yet a farm is only an opportunity, a tool. A cornfield, a plow, a woodpile, an oak tree, will cure no man unless he have it in himself to be cured. The truth is that no life, and least of all a farmer’s life, is simple–unless it is simple. I know a man and his wife who came out here to the country with the avowed purpose of becoming, forthwith, simple. They were unable to keep the chickens out of their summer kitchen. They discovered microbes in the well, and mosquitos in the cistern, and wasps in the garret. Owing to the resemblance of the seeds, their radishes turned out to be turnips! The last I heard of them they were living snugly in a flat in Sixteenth Street–all their troubles solved by a dumb-waiter.
The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if a man is in reality simple, if he love true contentment, it is the place of all places where he can live his life most freely and fully, where he can grow.
Adventures in Contentment is a priceless treasure of a book. I wish you contentment, dear reader, and you may find some encouragement toward that end in this book, which will be on the shelf of that small café and perhaps the kind waitress with the green eyes that match the cover will let you borrow it, too?