1 Following


Currently reading

400 Years Of Freethought
Samuel Porter Putnam
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Jon Meacham
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version
Philip Pullman, Jacob Grimm
Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
Jennifer Michael Hecht
The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America
Paul E. Johnson, Sean Wilentz

Three Acres and Liberty

Three Acres and Liberty - Bolton Hall My reaction after reading the whole thing is mixed, but is a little bit typical of my reaction to everything from the Progressive Era, and for that matter, to the Era itself. On the one hand, I was (and still am) very impressed that a lot of what pass for state of the art ideas in the organic/sustainable farming world are in fact very old ideas that were abandoned under the pressure of the twentieth-century agribusiness model of agriculture. On the other, the author is entirely too impressed with the role of experts in helping the poor, benighted workers of the world get back to the land. The initial thought of the book is a great one, though. Hall says, “We are not tied to a desk or to a bench; we stay there only because we think we are tied.”Among the other important ideas, which somehow we failed to act on in the twentieth century, is this one: “It is more important that small power be developed on the farms of the United States than that we harness Niagara.” Where would the power grid conversation people like Maggie Koerth-Baker are having now be, if we had developed local, sustainable power sources? Hall’s premise in this book is that “One hour a day spent in a garden ten yards long by seven wide will supply vegetables enough for a family of six.” Hall goes on to say “The world seems to be divided into those who have to count their pennies and those who couldn’t count their thousands.” And since this is the case, those of us who count pennies should take advantage of the opportunity to save most of our food budget by doing it ourselves. The really interesting thing about this (and again, the thing that seems like it could have been written today in response to the way things are now), is that Hall’s idea is that by freeing people from having to buy their food, you free one parent from having to work outside the home. Hall is clear in his claim that this is better for the children and the family, and for society at large. Where Hall and his associates made vacant urban land available to poor or unemployed people, he claims that in addition to growing self-reliance they saw actual improvements in people’s health. Working outdoors and eating an improved diet increased people’s physical health while solving problems and developing hope for the future improved their mental health. In addition to this very contemporary perspective, Hall provides a lot of information that’s interesting to the historian. We don’t normally think about the fact that “what typically attracts the gardener to the great cities is stable manure,” or “the backwoods of the Middle States [was] made accessible by cheap autos” in the first decades of the twentieth century. But this transition from horses and railroads to automobiles was happening just as Hall was writing, and beginning to erode the truth of the old adage that “Wealth, activity, and political power concentrate at the inlet and outlet of the railway funnel.” Hall writing style is very effective. He combines idealistic claims such as “The best and most effective way of helping people in need is to open a way whereby they may help themselves,” with practical observations, like “idle men and idle land are already close to each other—the men can reach their gardens without changing their domiciles or being separated from their families.” Then he throws in a little humor: “‘Quite right, mother, quite right,’ came from a man nearby. ‘The world can never know the evil we men don’t do while we are busy in our little gardens.’”Hall quotes several other writers whose conclusions match his own. For example, Liberty Hyde Bailey: “An area of 150x100 feet is generally sufficient to supply a family of five people with vegetables.” And here and there he adds a bits of contemporary wisdom that now seem hopelessly lacking in political correctness: “when there is a large job of…weeding to be done, you can hire Italians or other foreigners to do it better and cheaper.” But he also quotes Varro’s De Re Rustica, written in 37 BCE, and says “historians have made a mistake in not reading it.”Hall recommends a wide variety of intensive gardening techniques: use of manure instead of commercial fertilizers; “super close culture,” where plants are set very close together to use the land and water efficiently and keep down weeds; “companion cropping” and “double cropping,” to extend the growing season; rotation to reduce the impact of pests; soil inoculation using nitrogen-fixing legumes (just recently discovered when he wrote); mulching to save water; raising chickens, ducks and rabbits to use waste and produce food and manure; canning and drying to preserve even small quantities of food; and even disposal of city sewage by using human waste on urban gardens. He talks about Rochdale cooperatives, politics, and economics as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. And he quotes a passage from Lincoln that I’ve never run into before: “Population must increase rapidly, more rapidly than in former times, and ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms. Such community will alike be independent of crowned kings, money kings, and land kings.”