Tom Sawyerin’ It

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it…he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do…There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.” –from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

 

While I realize he is probably quite busy, I humbly beseech Pope Francis to consider my request. I would like to suggest that Tom Sawyer be named the patron saint of sustainable farmers, complete with a feast day and a religious order. For as a sustainable farmer, I believe I already venerate him with my work and my spirit. True, farmers have a regular pantheon from which to choose already– Saint Francis (animals), Saint Isidore the Laborer (laborers/farmers), Saint Fiacre (gardeners)—but there’s something about the labor intensive work of the small farmer that cries out for a Saint Tom Sawyer.

Like any other good PBS watching smartypants of my generation, my familiarity with the adventures of Tom Sawyer (and of course, his compatriot Huckleberry Finn) comes not from being assigned the text in middle school, but from the PBS program Wishbone[1]. I recently revisited the text (again not by reading it but by listening to Nick Offerman, of Parks and Recreation fame, read it via Audible.com) and much like my 11 year-old self was filled with mirth as Tom cleverly tricked his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. For those of you who haven’t visited this story lately, Tom not only convinces them to do his work by initially enticing them with the suggestion that whitewashing is a rare opportunity indeed, “I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Getting a nibble at this bait, he hooks them by claiming that such work as this is much too delicate and skilled for the likes of them. He proceeds in this manner not only to have his companions do his work for him, but they actually pay him for it, albeit with “twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar- but no dog- the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.” I’m not sure of the monetary equivalent adjusted for inflation, but he made a fortune to be certain.

Part of the comedy of this scene, of course, is based in dramatic irony. The reader knows what is happening- “how could they be so stupid!”- while the characters do not sense Tom’s scheme. However, Twain being the comical genius that he was throws this dramatic irony back at the reader by stepping away from the narrative and drawing attention to the ways in which we fall into the same patters all the time,

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it…he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do…There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

 

For this, I humbly suggest, the Tom Sawyer is the perfect mascot for the small, sustainable farmer, and much like Twain, I shall here explain the joke. It strikes me that we, as small farmers, engage in this behavior all of the time. That is, what we as farmers see as work—processing chickens, planting a row, rotating animals, etc—is often viewed as recreation for a large number of city-dwellers. We’ve even given a name—agritourism—to the concept of having folks pay us to do our work. I will admit to being gleefully surprised by the regular comment, “let us know when you are going to process chickens, we’d love to come out and help” at the farmers market. I have to hold myself back slightly from shouting, “YES, PLEASE HELP ME!,” thus betraying my real intentions. After all, who wouldn’t want to get up early on Sunday to execute, eviscerate, and bag chickens with only lunch, beer, and a fresh chicken as payment?

Of course, I am being a bit facetious here. While the folks that help us on the farm undoubtedly do so in part to recreate, there is clearly something much deeper going on. These folks want to reorient themselves in a fast-paced world that separates them from the visceral realities of food production and the outdoors. They also do so because they are our friends and care about both our success and their food system. There really is something about the labor of the body that refreshes and renews that is special. After all, it was these sorts of attempts to reconnect with our own food that led Claire and I down the rabbit hole into full-time farm madness. Still, in these sorts of scenarios, when I find that everyone else’s hands are moving and I am merely “supervising,” I cannot help but be reminded of my new patron saint. I can only hope that, unlike Tom and Huck, my luck will avoid that dramatic turn that catches me out and finally gets me into real trouble for these schemes.

[1] For those of you unfamiliar with Wishbone, it was an afterschool educational program that featured a Jack Russell terrier reenacting classic literature (with an otherwise human cast).

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