By David Tulis
My family’s house near the top of a little paradise called Brick Hill is surrounded by forestland. Beyond the surveyor’s posts is wild land owned by Rick Pollard, who runs a Chattanooga engineering company, Jake Marshall. My side of the boundary is rugged enough, too.
Today I take a chainsaw and amble behind the lot on which my mother’s house sits. I work until my mouth goes dry, and I turn off the saw and walk around to where my wheelbarrow sits with the gasoline, the oil and my glass water bottle.
Getting back to work, I seek not just to cut straggly trees, but uproot vines. Whenever I perform this work I find a happy fulfillment. Tulis vs. the vines is how I would style the case, and I prosecute vigorously. It is amazing how vines run along just beneath the surface of the leaf-covered ground. I might grab a knot or nexus of them, pull, and pull up a networks of roots. At the base of some trees that are being throttled by them, I find 20 intersecting systems of roots.
Sweating, grunting, struggling in yardwork is a pleasant change for one as bookish as I. One’s ideas tend to become very simple. When I mow, I can think with some variety and benefit. But this work is harder; so complex ideas stay away, and the ones I have are nearly banal. Warring with vines and roots puts into mind the sin problem. My sin nature, if left unchecked, becomes rich, complex, sinewy, and its claims into the soil run into the hundreds. The thousands. Uprooting a sin of which I have not repented becomes more difficult, because at every point it has put down roots and support systems in the moist loam of my heart.
Interconnections of commercial government
A second obvious thought occurs to me. The vine world is like commercial government. This form of civil authority is all that most of us have ever known. It no longer delivers justice, but is a profit-seeking capitalist bent on serving its clients and forcing all common people to accept its depreciating banknotes.
The intersection of vines I fght to root out in the woods is described very eloquently by a favorite author of whom I have read too little. Garet Garett’s slim paperback, The People’s Pottage (1953), is a ready friend in my briefcase. I had occasions waiting in lines this week to draw out Garett.
Three essays comprise the book, the first being “The Revolution Was.” It describes Roosevelt’s New Deal as a revolution against existing forms of American national government. He tells how the governor of Kansas relates the loss of self-government under the expansion of the federal power. Something in the way the governor Garett quotes reminds me of the most moving essay about the shifting of the U.S. economy to a money and industrial economy away from an agricultural and personal economy. I refer to the famous chapter by Andrew Lytle, “The Hind Tit,” in the famous volume, I’ll Take My Stand[;] The South and the Agrarian Tradition. If you haven’t read it, the price of the book is worth that one text.
The revolution Garett describes is against the people and the older forms of government. Note how local and state government, once localist in orientation, became national. The italics are mine.
“We were able, I believe, to do a reasonably good job of local government,” the unnamed official says. “In meeting and solving our problems we looked to the state government very little and to the national government not at all. The citizens of the county knew who their elected officers were. They came and talked with us frequently. We knew their difficulties. We dealt with them across the desk, over the counter, and sometimes down at the corner drug store. They had definite opinions about the affairs of the county. They spoke their minds freely and they registered their approval and disapproval directly at the polls *** . There was no doubt and no uncertainty about it.
“Now, that has been a matter of only about twenty years — a short time indeed in the history of people. But in that twenty years there has taken place a most astonishing change. The court house is the same. The theoretical structure of county government is unaltered. But in practical operation the picture now is very different. Federal agencies are all around us. There is scarcely a problem presented to the county officials of today which is not either directly or indirectly involved with implications and issues related occasionally to state, but more often to Federal, regulation. There are Federal offices in the basement and in the corridors on the second floor. Except during the regular term of court there are extra employees of some Federal agency in the court room. A couple of Federal auditors or investigators are usually using the jury room. The whole warp and woof of local government is enmeshed in the coils of bureaucratic control and regulation.
“In 1874 the western part of Kansas suffered a very severe calamity in the form of a horde of grasshoppers. Our state was young, only thirteen years old. The ravages of the grasshopper threatened the livelihood of many of the settlers. Upon that occasion the Governor called a special session of the legislature. It met, considered the problem and enacted proper legislation for relief and aid … and a disaster was averted.
“If that same situation should occur today we all know what would happen. It would take practically a photo finish to determine which would land first — the grasshoppers or a horde of Federal agents. The state and the county would have absolutely and exactly nothing to say about it. The policy and the means and the method of dealing with the problem would all be determined in Washington, D.C. The benefits, all from the Federal Treasury, in such manner and such form as Washington should dictate, would come to the farmers without their scarcely knowing what it was about — and we take it for granted. The other day a great number of farmers in my state did receive Federal checks, and dozens of them were wondering what in the world they were for, as they knew of no payment that was due under any of the existing programs in which they were participating.”
Should we uproot U.S.? The people cannot
This passage doesn’t give you a taste of Garett (1875 to 1954), who was a noted New York journalist, critic of American statism and writer for the Saturday Evening Post. He is said to be a forgotten defender of the free market and the concept of local economy. I cite this passage from People’s Pottage because it is a picture of the apparatus against which the Agrarians wrote in 1930.
The process of statism has been improving, if you will, for 80 years, and has exhausted the people of the United States just as fascism exhausted Italians at the end of the government of el Duce, Benito Mussolini, who’d seized power in 1926. The shine is off of the welfare state. Its original premises have been forgotten, the marketing lies that Garett deliciously unveils in his work once held the public spellbound, but now are familiar and contemptible. The federal state as capitalist perhaps cannot be deracinated by action such as my yanking out vines and roots along the edge of my yard.
It cannot be uprooted by individuals, groups or the American people in a Herculean deed of self-liberation. Commercial government’s tendrils are too many, too thick. All the more reason to look for the sort of local self-government and local economy that the unnamed Kansas governor ruefully remembers. These bypass the problem.
Garet Garett, The People’s Pottage (Belmont, Mass.: Western Islands, 1965, 1953), pp. 49, 50
Donald Davidson et al, I’ll Take My Stand[;] The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, introduction by Susan V. Donaldson, 2006, 1930), 359 pp.