Reporter goes out of the frying pan, onto a farm
“For many years … I never rested,” Ray Stannard Baker wrote more than a century ago. “I neither thought nor reflected. I had no pleasure, even though I pursued it fiercely during the brief respite of vacations. Through many feverish years I did not work: I merely produced.”
Baker was one of the most intense journalists of his time and also one of the best. His dogged reporting on the poverty, violence and corruption plaguing 1900s America won praise from President Theodore Roosevelt. The work, however, drained him. And when Roosevelt seemed to turn on journalists with the demeaning label “muckrakers,” Baker looked for the exits.
So he went home to East Lansing, Michigan — then a country town surrounded by farmland — and farmed. Writing under the name “David Grayson,” Baker described the body- and soul-restoring powers of working the soil and downshifting into rural life. His 1907 book, “Adventures in Contentment,” became a massive best-seller.
As now, ordinary people suffered enormous stress unleashed by new technology, social upheaval and galloping economic inequality. The explosion of smoke-clogged cities shocked an America still rooted in small towns. Strivers like Baker were driven to exhaustion.
“My days were ordered by an inscrutable power which drove me hourly to my task,” he wrote in “Contentment.” “I was rarely allowed to look up or down, but always forward, toward that vague Success which we Americans love to glorify.”
If the book appeared today under the title “Hack Your Soul and Save Your Sanity,” it would be a huge hit.
“A peculiar joy attends the very pulling of the muscles,” Baker observed after a sweat-drenched day of digging dirt. What’s curious about hard, repetitive physical labor, he wrote, is that “one actually stops thinking.” Then contentment takes over.
“The symbols which meant so much in the cities mean little here,” Baker wrote as he rhapsodized on the beauty and mystery of nature, of frost-kissed pastures and autumn haze. On one early morning, he reported, “the air had a tang which got into a man’s blood and set him chanting all the poetry he ever knew.”
Panting for deliverance from their turbulent times, Baker’s followers grasped at the possibility of an alternative, a more leisurely, nature-run world found at country fairs and farm auctions. Fans established David Grayson clubs. Imposters trying to cash in on his popularity passed themselves off as Grayson. Baker eventually had to own up to authorship.
Of course, there were good reasons small-town Americans, then as now, were moving to big cities. And Baker himself was, basically, a gentleman farmer. He was not managing an agricultural business subject to droughts, competition and trade wars. After a while, he went back to journalism and produced a landmark series on race.
At the very least, “Adventures in Contentment” offers us a mind vacation from a “sad, second-rate existence” spent chasing after various false gods and distant palaces. One need not leave town to enjoy the “many beautiful, curious, interesting sights and sounds,” in Baker’s words, “which ordinarily make no impression upon our clogged, overfed and preoccupied minds.”
Reading this in my backyard, I look up from the keyboard. The birds are hopping around my vegetables, pecking at the aphids and, I hope, not earthworms. Nature has no batteries to charge, no programs to download. The perennials miraculously poke up at the exact right time.
Sure, I check the weather app to see whether I have to water or the clouds will provide. Another app tells me what to do when yellow spots appear on the tomato leaves. Today, however, the birdsong replaces the podcasts. And for a while, anyway, contentment takes over — big-time.