Sunday, September 17, 2006


GEERT MAK IS A POPULAR Dutch journalist who is also a historian — a combination perhaps more common in a small well-educated nation than here, though a friend of ours, Gaye LeBaron, has made a half-century career of exactly the same kind of thing not twenty miles away, in Santa Rosa.

The combination results in more than simply popular history, though there’s nothing wrong with that. The lessons of history are learned more successfully, one would think, when they’re taught through readings that are interesting, immediate, and clearly relevant. Popular history, when documented and informed, seems more likely to remain in the reader’s mind than academic history.

Journalistic history has a special advantage, I think, in that the journalist is himself (or, as in Gaye’s case, herself) doubly involved. It’s the professional intent to observe and describe the events, and their meaning: but in doing this he’s inescapably involved in the very processes under investigation.

I was drawn to Geert Mak’s writing a couple of years ago when I read his Amsterdam (Harvard University Press), a fascinating account of the development and maturity of that marvelous city. (The book is apparently now reissued as Amsterdam: the Brief Life of a City. Since the book itself is not particularly brief, and the City’s life has run so far to seven centuries, the sub-title may be there simply to distinguish the reissue from the original publication.)

Amsterdam is one of those cities I want to live a year in: it’s full of delight and instruction, with a history involving economics, urbanity, architecture, political structure, the arts — everything one needs to study if one’s to approach the complexities of contemporary life. And I can’t imagine spending even a week in Amsterdam with having read Mak’s book — or, preferably, having a copy at hand. (Memo: buy a copy, Charles: that was one book you shouldn’t have read from the library.)

But perhaps one of the reasons Amsterdam so fascinates me, both the city and the book, is that I’m not a city person; my perspective on the world is from the country, even though I lived half a century in a suburb well integrated into a modern metropolitan agglomeration. My first nine years, if you want to know, were spent in the same suburb for the most part (Berkeley), but it was a different place in those days. I turned ten years old on the edge of a small town in northeastern Oklahoma, where our family had spent a dusty year mediating poverty and desire in my father’s homeland.

But from then until I left for college seven years later I lived in the country, without electricity at first, where we subsisted on our garden and scruffy orchard, our chickens and Jersey cows, our pigs and woodlot, while Dad commuted to town to work as a tinsmith. Those were formative years, and now that I think about it they formed much of my outlook on the nearly six decades since.

In those days one of my favorite books was by Laura Ingalls Wilder, of all people: Farmer Boy, the account of the rural New York State childhood of her husband Almanzo Wilder. It was, and remains, a fascinating account, merging folklore, even myth, with the rich detail and compelling narrative of fiction and its best — the kind of story-telling that has delighted and instructed humanity ever since Hesiod and probably for millenia before.

In Jorwerd Geert Mak has followed his study of the City with an examination of the Village, and in so doing has confronted the major event of our lifetime, an event so climactic we tend not to notice it: a farewell, perhaps the final one, to the way nearly all of humanity had lived until the last half of the twentieth century.

This was a type of social accommodation permitting families to cooperate while competing, no doubt evolved to facilitate a continual refreshing of the gene pool, enabling human survival in the environmental context providing food and shelter. Of course this took somewhat different forms in different environments, and in the changing economies that followed human evolution from hunter-gatherer to agriculture to mixed-economy. But those differences evolved slowly and, you might say, naturally as they dealt with the different demands and resources of the places humanity chose in its slow inexorable campaign out of Africa ultimately to nearly every corner of the earth.

In Jorwerd itself, a small Frisian town about halfway between Sneek and Leeuwarden in the Dutch province of Friesland, this social accommodation had taken the form of a small village: a church, a school, a pub, a grocery, a blacksmith… a few houses belonging to a few professionals and tradesmen: but above all a sort of center for the many farm families surrounding it.

There have been a few such places here in Sonoma county: Hessel (where I went to school), Jimtown, Freestone, Valley Ford, Bloomfield, Two Rock. Like Jorwerd, these places have lost their original function, and with that their character — they’re little more than bedroom communities. They’ve fallen victim to two chief enemies: the motor vehicle, which attacked them in the first half of the twentieth century, and the economic drift toward centralism, gigantism, and now globalism, which finished them off in the second half of that century, the period Geert Mak describes.

It’s all of a parcel, I think, and it all involves a decline of individual care and attention, and with that the deferral of individual attentiveness and responsibility to some often nameless Thing which (it is assumed) will handle all the complexities of modern daily life for us. Mak shows, in Jorwerd, how insidious and irreversible this is, as farmers accept the security of governmental quota systems, but at the cost of much of their independence.

The worst of this is the gradual but inexorable loss of meaning, value, comprehension in matters of daily life. This is something that city-dwellers probably experienced much earlier; and to a great extent they’ve found solace in a range of distractions readily supplied by the urban culture that’s taken the place of Nature, natural time-cycles, and labor whose purpose is immediately understood, since it directly produces food and shelter.

Of course it’s easy to be distracted by the romance and nostalgia of the life whose disappearance Mak documents. But the crisis has immediate relevance. It lies behind the unrest of the farmers who have recently balked the World Trade Organization talks, for example. And it informs such collisions of labor and management as will inevitably result from inevitable collapses of production grown too big, complex, and detached to be able to sustain themselves — in this week’s news, Ford Motors, and the overextended agribusiness responsible for the spinach crisis.

This morning, having closed Jorwerd, I realized suddenly that it belongs on a special shelf in my mental bookcase, among other books I’ve found particularly meaningful. They’re an odd lot, I suppose: next to Farmer Boy there are three studies of French village life as it has disappeared in the last century or so; an account of a thirteenth-century community of dissidents, and a couple of novels and short-story collections involving peasants in the French alps:

Pierre-Jakez Helias: Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village
Laurence Wylie: Village in the Vaucluse
Gillian Tindall: Celestine: Voices from a French Village
E. Le Roy Ladurie: Montaillou, the Promised Land of Error
John Berger: Pig Earth; Once More in Europa
To these books I’d add, also, Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 film The Tree of Wooden Clogs, like the books I’ve listed a lyrical, bittersweet, regretful celebration of the drives and desires that have stood for millenia at the center of what it is to be human, and that seem, too often, to be taken from us by our own inventions of ease, entertainment, and organization.

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