Do you know this book?
As you can see, my copy is showing some wear along the edges and the dust jacket has been torn, taped and re-torn in one corner. No matter. Inside, this story is delightful. The text is rhythmic, following the cycle of one year on a farm, long ago during the Colonial Era. It begins in October, when the man and his family load the ox-cart with all the surplus from their farm and he sets out on the ten day (10 days!) walk to Portsmouth Market. As the story progresses, he slowly sells each item they grew or made and buys a few essentials for the family back home.
The narrative weaves beautifully through all four seasons of the year, summing up both the simplicity and the magnitude of life in this bygone era. I have always felt a connection with the pioneers of this country. Those who broke the ground, established the cities and rode across the plains to settle the untamed West. To me, this book is their story, beautifully illustrated and simply recited. Theirs was difficult, manual work that, I venture to guess, often felt repetitive. But, it is in the rhythm of their months and years that I take so much comfort. Everything they ate or used, each candle and every apple, was produced by the labor of their own hands year by year. Very little came from other sources.
When the man returns from the market, he carries with him an entire years worth of purchases: an iron kettle with only 3 small items inside. This is all they needed for an entire year! I love the messages of simplicity, self-reliance and enjoying the bounties of the seasons.
I think we, as consumers in our digital, fast-everything world, can take a few important lessons away from a story like this:
- The real meaning of a need
- The importance of thinking about where our food comes from
- The idea that food comes into and out of season
- The fact that there is real, tangible, valuable work behind each and every THING that we bring, or allow, into our lives
I am not saying everyone needs to sell their house, quit their job and become a farmer. That is absurd and unrealistic for most people, though there are days when I threaten it! My point is only this: we are all consumers and producers. It seems to me that there exists a balance between consumption and production that, if we allow our consumer-obsessed society to always guide our choices, is easy to disrupt nowadays without our basic needs of hunger, shelter and security to ground us.
We have choices about when, how and how much to consume and produce, but we don’t often need to produce anything to survive. I love picking up a story that reminds me to think about my roles not only as a producer, but also as a consumer. This is also one of the main reasons that I grow an edible garden–It keeps my family in touch with where our food comes from and the labor required to produce it. I hope you have a chance to read Ox-Cart Man and enjoy it’s poetic journey through a typical long-ago year when our ancestors produced what they needed to survive in a beautiful symbiosis with the land and the seasons.