Tuesday, May 05, 2020

"American Harvest" by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

American Harvest. Published April, 2020.
“I don’t know why people in the city want organic,” my father said.
“I don’t even think they know what organic is.”
“It’s a fad,” said my uncle.
“But people like it,” I said.
“I don’t think they know what it is,” my father repeated.
“I don’t even know how we would raise organic,” said my uncle.
“There is no reason to be organic,” my father said.
“All food has been modified. There is no natural,” my uncle said.
“People worry about pesticides …,” I began.
“We have never used pesticides and we don’t farm organically. You are confusing things.”
“You think,” said my cousin in his summarizing voice, “that the Christians don’t mind playing with genetic material, even though they believe God created everything and some of them don’t like stem cells, and your atheist friends like the idea of food in which the genetic material hasn’t been modified, even though they don’t believe in God, and even though all food has been modified.” -- American Harvest (p. 16).
This conversation near the beginning of Marie Mutsuki Mockett's book establishes the central themes of the book. The author, her father, her uncle, and his son are gathered at the family farm in Nebraska from their homes in urban areas. Previous generations, beginning with the original homesteaders, lived on the farm, and the author's father and uncle lived there for some of their childhood. However, all of the participants in this conversation live in urban areas and come there only at harvest time. They are college-educated and intellectual. Her uncle is a particle physicist, her father an artist, and she is a writer.

The author and her relatives are all highly aware of the contrast in their own lives and beliefs to the lives and beliefs of the men and women who work their farm, and especially to a group of harvesters that they hire each year. In 2017, not long after her father had died, Mockett decided to spend the summer with the harvesters, farmers themselves, who also travel from Texas to Idaho as the wheat ripens, bringing with them huge harvesting machines required for the vast fields of grain. Her goal: to try to understand the divide between the harvesters and their beliefs, especially their faith and their religious lifestyles, and the beliefs and lives of her urban peers. Her exploration of these beliefs, and her attempts to understand them, is the center of the book.

I chose to buy and read this book because I am very interested in agriculture, thanks to the sudden disruptions of supply caused by the coronavirus-induced shut-down. We're suddenly faced with the critical role in our lives of agricultural processes -- like harvesting wheat and bringing it to market, where it can be sold to mills to make flour. I expected that I would learn about wheat, and to some extent, I did. However, the real theme of the book: the divide between farmers like these highly skilled harvesters from the various religious communities of Lancaster County, PA, and academically-educated urban people like the multi-cultural author. While her father was a descendant of the homesteaders in Nebraska, her mother was an immigrant from Japan, which gives her a complicated identity.

The real focus of this book is religion, the force of Christianity in the lives of the harvesters and their peers, and how they view their differences from city people whom they see as relatively immoral atheists. All but one of the workers were men, because much of the work they do requires great physical strength, and also because their religious views are based on a very traditional social definition of men's work and women's work.

The wife of the leader/organizer of the harvesting team also traveled with them, though she didn't work the harvesting equipment. She cooked for the group most of the time, and I enjoyed the descriptions of their meals, for example:
"There are two coolers with spigots: one for water and one for chilled sweet tea. She has made her own hand wipes by dunking a roll of paper towels in soapy water. The food is packed in a series of casseroles or plastic tubs, and there will always be a choice of salad dressings and jams and jellies for the bread. She has a tub on the ground to receive the plastic plates and cutlery, which she will wash and reuse. Nothing is wasted. And there is always a rotation of desserts: brownies, pies, cakes, puddings. In her trailer at the RV park, she has a collection of cookbooks, and I see her sometimes sitting with them, trying to decide what to make based on what she has, and sometimes letting her mind plan what she will buy at Walmart." (pp. 117-118). 
Needless to say, I belong to the post-religious urban class, with all that the author thinks it entails. She is highly conscious of her ethnic and visible racial difference from both the white farmers and harvesters as well as from many of her urban friends of all races -- my own experience is somewhat different. She constantly describes her discomfort with one after another of the groups she encounters -- the farmers, the urban whites, the blacks, friends and relatives in Japan who view her as white American, the American Indians in the small towns where the harvesters work, and so on. Every Sunday on her harvest journey, she attends a local church service, trying to grasp the significance of religion to various people, but she seems constantly frustrated even when she finds an emotional connection to the preacher.

I was quite interested in her efforts to understand the people in the wheat-growing areas where she goes with the harvesters, and some of her insights like this about piles of wheat: "I know that food starts out in nature, which is to say, in the dirt. But it still sometimes surprises me that food starts out dirty." (p. 312).  In a few paragraphs of history of the various locations where they stopped, she documents how the white pioneers settled on the lands that belonged to Indian farmers, and drove the Indians onto reservations while taking over their land, and I enjoyed these little digressions. I was somewhat less interested in the theological discussions she has about the nature of God and the meanings of Christian belief for various people. There were interesting passages about how wheat is grown, harvested, and moved into the market, though the aggregate of information wasn’t especially new or surprising. The author's vivid descriptions of the landscape, the fields, the weather, the rainbows, events like rodeos and church suppers, and the small towns of her journey were all very enjoyable to read.

For a current update to the book see: "Food, faith and farming in the apocalypse: The coronavirus pandemic and the rural-urban divide" at Salon.com. This describes a recent conversation that Mockett had with the leader of the harvesting group to find out how he viewed the pandemic. "The first week of May," she wrote, "he will drive out to Texas with his crew to start the wheat harvest. 'This is the real deal,' he said of the virus. But quarantine or no, the grain won't wait and will need to be taken from the field. 'I had hoped this would bring us together.'"

A current article in the New Yorker, offers another view of the pandemic, coincidentally offering a connection of the ideas of American Harvest to our current situation:
"The existential but conflicting issues spawned by the pandemic—the right to life and physical health versus the right to liberty and economic health—have provided the perfect vector for new fissures in America." (Robin Wright in the New Yorker, May 2, 2020)
Blog post copyright © 2020 mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com. 


Iris Flavia said...

Sounds like an interesting book indeed.
Here they have trouble to get harvesters for asparagus as they usually take them from Poland etc, as they are cheaper.

And now??? Cheap, cheap, cheap is gone!

We somehow still get asparagus, though.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I don't know if this would be relaxing for me during this point in my life. I am having a difficult time focusing on anything I read, my mind keeps drifting back to our current situation and this book sounds like it would push me in that direction.

Jeanie said...

I'm not sure if it's a book for me but it does sound like it is fascinating for some. Thanks for a good review.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

I'm not sure I would cope with the religious aspect of this book. We are harvesting here under strict conditions which is positive news for everyone. Thanks for your detailed review. Stay safe!

Debra Eliotseats said...

I grew up on a wheat farm. Not sure I would enjoy this book though.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

I ended up really enjoying this book and it was easier for me to read than the books I've tried reading to escape the reality in which we have been living.