Saturday, September 13, 2008

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Proto-Environmentalist

A Girlsown friend has recently lent me Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks * (thanks, Sharon!). Laura wrote a column for the Missouri Ruralist between 1911 and 1924 called "As a farm woman thinks," which dealt with a vast range of topics of interest to rural women.

What has struck me is her awareness of working with nature when farming, rather than against it, as well as the keen powers of observation and description which you can see in the Little House books. Take this (ostensibly from Almanzo's point of view) from 1912:
As I never allowed hunting on the farm, the quail were thick in the orchard and used to wallow and dust themselves like chickens in [the] fine dirt close to the tree. I wish this fact to be particularly noted in connection with the other fact that I had no borers in my trees for years.
A near neighbor set out 2,000 trees at about the same time and lost seven-eighths of them because of borers. He used every possible means to rid his trees of them except the simple one of letting the quail and other birds live in his orchard. Instead he allowed his boys to kill every bird they saw. (p. 21)
There is a recurring theme over many years that one does not need a lot of money to farm well, and numerous examples of successful farms where the owners simply couldn't afford commercial fertiliser, but used their brains to work out ways to fertilise the soil with local materials. A number of farmers, including Almanzo, used alley-cropping while their orchard trees were small.

Yet Laura's interest in wise use of resources extends far beyond farming. Her article of September 5, 1919 discusses the alarming loss of forest across the USA and the country's future lack of coal -- apparently the end of the American hard coal supply was in sight back then (according to Wikipedia, the peak of US anthracite production was in 1914), and she wondered what future housewives would use as cooking fuel.

Now if the editor of theMissouri Ruralist thought that this sort of stuff was interesting to rural women, why are women's columns and magazines these days filled with such tawdry rubbish? When Laura wrote about coal and forests, women's suffrage had not yet been achieved (and she had a number of comments about the responsibility of the vote when it did come, in 1920).

Laura wrote about something that all of us in the gardening blogosphere can relate to here:
Now is the time to make garden! Anyone can be a successful gardener at this time of year and I know of no pleasanter occupation these cold, snowy days, than to sit warm and snug by the fire making garden with a pencil, in a seed catalogue. What perfect vegetables do we raise in that way and so many of them!... Best of all, there is not a bug or worm in the whole garden and the work is so easily done. (pp. 133-4)
Well, I tend to do that sort of thing in late summer, when it's too hot to do anything else, and our cold days tend not to be snowy, but the picture is true here too!

Laura saw travel times move from horse-drawn to aeroplane pace, bringing people closer together:
The world is growing smaller each day. It has been shrinking for centuries, but during these later years it is diminishing in size with an ever increasing swiftness, yet so gradual is the change that we do not realize what is taking place unless we compare the present with the past... Theses people whom we have always carelessly bunched together in our minds as foreigners will be our friends and neighbors from this time on.(p. 159)
Wouldn't she have loved blogging!

*Hines, Stephen W. (ed.) (2007). Laura Ingalls Wilder: Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks. University of Missouri Press, Columbia.

1 comment:

John said...

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