Posted April 7th, 2012 by Jen in book reviews, features
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?).
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.
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:
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?