Thoughts on Toil

The following is from Jean Toomers poem “Harvest Song”:

I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All of my oats are cradled.

But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger.

 

I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.

I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger.

These two stanzas speak with accuracy to the history of farming in this country on a number of levels. More immediately, though, I have been thinking about the hard task of working the land, and thought the lamentations of Toomer’s imagined reaper conveys the drudgery inherent to agricultural labor.

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A wagonload of hay after harvest at Sylvester Manor, ca. 1900.

Last weekend I was bone tired. I slept excessively, my neck and back were sore, and I went about about chores with a longing for the next opportunity to sit down and rest. At first I was worried that I had contracted a tick-borne illness. But when my energy returned and my neck muscles relaxed after a stretch of languid non-activity, I realized that perhaps my body was only adjusting to and expelling three weeks of exhaustion from the constant, repetitive physical motions of farming. Granted, unlike the rest of the Sylvester Manor farm crew members, I only work in the field three days a week, with the rest of my time going to to my research and writing for this project. But as an individual with a chronic health condition, I have to contend with a different set of challenges when I am in the field.

Yet I have voluntarily taken on the responsibility of working as a member of the farm crew, while for the vast majority of farm laborers in the world right now and throughout human history, agriculture has been anything but voluntary. In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott distills the findings of the last 20 years of neolithic archaeology to demonstrate that human societies’ transitions to decidedly sedentary, agricultural means of organization was almost always accompanied by the coercive powers of a centralized state. Intensive fixed-field agriculture devoted to the production of one or two cereal grains – the type first practiced by the kingdoms of Mesopotamia – was associated with shorter life expectancies and lower overall health, greater inputs of intensive labor, and less individual agency than the diversified pastoralist-horticulturalist-hunter gatherer lifestyles of the region’s pre-state populations. Moreover, it is generally recognized among researchers that the latter lifestyle yields a greater caloric return upon energy invested than the former agricultural lifestyle, regardless of what region of the world one is examining. With this historical background in mind, it is little wonder that from its inception in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain until well into the 19th century, the modern agricultural state has leaned heavily on the sweat of slave labor.

My point here is that when we lionize farming and a “return to the land,” even in the context of small-scale organic agriculture, we must do so while being mindful of what exactly we would like to return to. The Jean Toomer poem I quote at the beginning of this piece was written in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement born out of the cosmopolitan centers of New York and Chicago at a time when whole communities of African Americans were leaving behind the impoverishment and state-sanctioned tyranny of the rural South. Toomer himself never worked in agriculture, but wrote ‘Harvest Song” in an attempt to capture the body- and spirit-crushing work of farming to which his enslaved African ancestors were bonded. Toomer is in fact writing about spiritual disenfranchisement, and nothing denies the humanity of an individual quite like staring down a chattel worker in a mono-cropped field and working him or her like a common beast.

The uncomfortable questions raised by the toil of agriculture extend beyond the slavery of yore. Today hundreds of millions of rural farmers in China and India are abandoning the countryside en masse in an attempt to elbow their way into the middle class, while farmers from Vietnam and Bangladesh to France and the United States are grappling with unprecedented rates of suicide. There are uniquely modern factors involved in this agricultural crisis: the demands of a globalized economy and social isolation, to name a few. Yet these unique 21st century challenges are only additional to age-old problems that have bedeviled farmers since the palace officials of Akkad and Shang Dynasty China established the world’s first state granaries. As Dr. Mike Rosmann writes in the journal Behavioral Healthcare, “Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers.” In an increasingly complex world where ever greater portions of our lives seem to be at the mercy of opaque bureaucracies and computer generated algorithms, we can’t blame the millions of used-to-be-farmers who have given up a way of life that is so thoroughly shaped by outside influences.

When we bemoan the emptying out of rural communities, we need to be clear-eyed about the drudgery inherent to agricultural life in many parts of the world. So, when small community efforts and organizations like Sylvester Manor Educational Farm set out to revive rural economies and ways of life, it is paramount to determine what was missing in the past. With that question answered, a life based on farming and that beloved character of “closeness to the land” can be reoriented around joy, justice, inclusion, and nourishment of both body and the soul.

The Amsterdam Connection

When the Manor house was refurbished in 1908, Cornelia Conway Felton Horsford, the mistress at the time, chose to embellish the front parlor’s fireplace with delftware tiles – an apparent nod to Nathaniel Sylvester’s upbringing in seventeenth century Amsterdam’s community of exiled English Separatists. The parlor delftware constitutes one of the more visible attestations to the Sylvester family’s time in the Dutch Republic. When a team of historical archaeologists from UMass-Boston began excavating the Manor grounds in the 1990s, they unearthed a surfeit of Dutch-made tobacco pipes and yellow bricks that resembled the bricks fired in Gouda kilns.

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Delftware trim, front parlor.

I am interested in the Netherlands of the 1600s. One could argue that the global order of things as we know them today – our world of intercontinental commerce, service-oriented economies, and staggering material wealth, all powered by growth-based economics and investment capital – was first realized in the damp, peaty lowlands of the Rhine delta at the turn of the seventeenth century. Intriguingly, Yale anthropologist James C. Scott also speculates that the year 1600 marks the point in world history when the concept of ‘the state’ came to predominate human social organization. It just so happens that no state at that time had a wealthier population than the Dutch Republic.

Nathaniel Sylvester’s parents, Mary and Giles, migrated with their Separatist families across the English channel to the relative safety of Amsterdam in the first decade of the 1600s. By Nathaniel’s birth in 1620, Giles was a well-regarded member of the Ancient Church (Englelse Kerk) and an up-and-coming merchant in a country that was willing to out up with foreigners and religious iconoclasts rejected by the rest of Europe. As such, the Amsterdam Nathaniel grew up in was one of satin-clad housewives and colorful row houses fronted by spotless stoeps which resounded with the raucous footsteps of children engrossed in neighborhood play. It was a port city from which more than 100 merchant vessels might disembark and set sail across the IJsselmeer in a single day. Such an ’embarrassment of riches,’ as Simon Schama puts it, was made possible by the Dutch Republic’s subordination of Spain and Portugal in the realm of Atlantic shipping. Absent the mercantilist royal bureaucracies which helped contribute to the demise of Iberian transoceanic hegemony, Dutch exploits in the New World and Asia were financed primarily by private investors via joint-stock companies – the forebears of today’s transnationals. Raised amidst so much commercial ferment, it is unsurprising that Nathaniel and his four brothers followed their father into the merchant trade.

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Profile of Amsterdam Seen from the IJ by Pieter van der Keere (1618)

All of the Sylvester sons returned to the English fold, either settling in Britain or one of its colonies just as the English began challenging Dutch turf. Yet part of the Dutch Republic’s inheritance in wealth came with an unquantifiable human cost, a cost that the Sylvesters were also complicit in exacting: by the 1600s, the Dutch were the most active European slave traders. Northern Europe’s growing taste for sugar shifted the flow of African slaves northward from South America to the French and English-dominated Caribbean, where Constant Sylvester, Nathaniel’s older brother, established a Barbadian sugar plantation. Nathaniel then acquired the 8,000 acres of Shelter Island in order to establish a plantation of his own for the purpose of provisioning his brother’s operation with horses, salted beef, and any other goods that could not be produced in a tropical colony whose entire bonded work force of several thousand was engaged solely in the production of a sweetener.

This is to say nothing yet of the presence of slaves at the Manor (upon his death, Nathaniel Sylvester bequeathed 23 enslaved Africans to his wife, Grizzell, and their children); the marginalization of Indians on Long Island’s East End (the system of debt bondage and impressed Manhansett/Montaukett labor under the Sylvesters was slavery in all but name); or the wealth inequality among Europeans themselves as a new economic order took shape (1600s Amsterdam had its districts of grinding urban poverty, while Sylvester Manor possessed its share of indentured servants from the British Isles). But it is not my purpose here to recount every human injustice associated with Sylvester Manor’s past – as I have already noted, the human toll of the patterns of commerce and statecraft born in the 1600s is beyond quantifying.

Instead, I wish to reflect on how Sylvester Manor serves as a relatively intact index of the social trends and revolutions of the past 400 years whose cumulative effects are manifesting in what I like to refer to as the Crisis of Now – the interlocking environmental, economic, and spiritual emergencies that define the 21st century. Despite the Manor’s bucolic rural character, it took the labor and wealth extraction on the margins of three different continents (four, if South America is included) to make its existence possible. Now, in 2018, the infamous Triangle Trade of the Atlantic has evolved into the globally-connected society in which we all are enmeshed, and Sylvester Manor is one of many regional nerve centers that were vital in catalyzing that transformation.

So it is that when I look across the north lawn towards the white wooden gate and Gardiners Creek, I find it impossible to ignore the global reach of these 240 acres on the edge of North America. The white gate, which now opens onto a land bridge, marks the landing where barges and longboats unloaded wares from Europe for Nathaniel Sylvester’s provisioning operation before loading Barbados-bound cargo. In the wake of those ships of yore, I try to discern the skeins of connective historical tissue that link this place with the slave castles of the Guinea Coast and the tribal councils of Eastern Algonquian tribes just as much as with the windmills of Holland or the sheep pastures of Somerset. Here multiple human trajectories and the fates of nations collide, and today our lives are thoroughly etched by that collision.

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Gardiners Creek Landing

This is intellectual rumination, an attempt to make sense of the entanglements of the injustices of the past with the lives of the 7.5 billion humans living right now. These are not jolly thoughts to be preoccupied with, but I believe that parsing and understanding the knotted interface of past and present is necessary if we are to see through our converging global crises. And from deposits of yellow Dutch bricks to a burial ground for the enslaved, from archived documents bearing the signatures of Long Island sachems to parlors decked out in cosmopolitan colonial opulence, Sylvester Manor offers a unique vantage point from which to begin that work of belated comprehension.