The Scale of Our Daily Lives

By Aubrey Streit Krug
(Editor's Note: We'd like to thank Aubrey for her work with us this summer! Her contributions to our blog have been much appreciated.)

The sheer size of the crises that we face can be overwhelming. In addition to the earthquake in Haiti, floods in Pakistan and the BP oil spill, we have chronic environmental problems like the dead zone growing in the Gulf of Mexico, tons of topsoil being lost from the Great Plains, and mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

Rural areas are hit hard by these environmental problems. At the same time, they’re struggling to cope with economic troubles. Populations are often (though not always) elderly as well as decreasing or growing slowly. Young people continue to migrate to urban areas. Less than 1% of the U.S. population claims farming as an occupation, and--according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture--less than 1% of those farmers are under 25 years of age. Just this month, the longest-running family farm in America went up for sale.

It can be tempting to turn away. We as individuals seem so small in comparison to these large problems. But we are individual citizens in a democracy, with the power to raise our voices against the laws and policies that contribute to environmental and economic crises. We can do something, today. By joining together in support of legislation recently introduced by Sens. Grassley and Feingold to limit farm payments, for example, we can advocate in favor of small- and mid-sized farms, whose owners often play vital roles in sustaining rural communities.

As two new collections of fiction remind us, it is at the small scale that we can face the roots of our problems. By realizing where we are and what got us here, we can begin to see a way forward.

Chris Holbrook, in Upheaval (2009), and Lydia Peelle, in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing (2009), sing the stories of what is being lost, destroyed, and wasted in rural communities. Their characters recognize that you can’t quickly heal wounds as big as a missing mountain, and you can’t just un-develop residential sprawl into the countryside. There’s no fast going back.

Holbrook and Peelle try to place us close to the problems, so we can feel them. Let me give a few examples.

In the title story of Holbrook’s book, “Upheaval,” Haskell drives a truck that carries coal from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. He tries to understand the size of the operation he’s involved in, but it’s too big to comprehend. For instance, he “watches the boom of the dragline swing out, a football field long. It is hard to think how big a piece of equipment a dragline really is, hard to see without some other smaller piece of machinery standing near for comparison.”

It’s a risky job, and the presence of something awful--an accident, a tragedy--looms as large as the dragline’s boom in the story. But Haskell can’t put his fear into words. He can’t connect with his son, or appreciate his wife; he can respond only at the level of his body, which is tense and constantly on guard.

As the coal is mined, “Tremors rise up through the tires and frame of [Haskell’s] truck and up through his boot soles and legs, like all the ground beneath and around him is being upheaved. It is hypnotizing. One haul, a hundred tons.”

We feel the terror of being something small in the shadow of something large, incomprehensible, and unfeeling.

Similarly, in her story “Mule Killers,” Lydia Peelle brings the advent of large-scale industrial agriculture in Tennessee down to the level of individual mules. Through the stories of the narrator’s father, we hear about the goodness and usefulness of the mule Orphan Lad, who is nevertheless replaced with a tractor: big, new and dangerous.

As the mules are taken away, and “the hollow report of hooves on the truck bed” echoes across the surrounding states “and all the way out West,” we hear the door closing on an era. The collective loss of mules signals the turn to a time in agriculture when the machines--and the crises--become so big as to be unpredictable, unknowable. Bigger mistakes will be harder to fix.

This is essentially what Wendell Berry said recently regarding the oil spill in the Gulf: “We’re clearly working on too big of a scale. We all know that at the scale of our daily lives, the laws of probability give us a certain number of errors, sometimes pretty bad mistakes. But in the scale of our daily lives we can recover and go on. But the same laws apply to large-scale operations.”

By having the courage to look closely at “our daily lives” and to feel the pain in other rural lives, we can begin to understand the vexing issue of scale, and to use the democratic process to address crises that seem overwhelming.