MANN TALK: Wisdom from a Fundamentalist

by Perry Mann
Perry Mann
Perry Mann
“I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in this country.”  -- William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925).

 William Jennings Bryan was lawyer, orator, Democrat, prohibitionist, presidential candidate three times, secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, attorney for the prosecution in the Scopes trial and fundamentalist Christian.

 He ran against William McKinley in 1896 and in 1900 and against William Taft in 1908 and was defeated three times by his Republican opponents. When Tennessee passed a law making it criminal to teach evolution in public schools, John Scopes taught it and in his trial in July, 1925, Bryan was attorney for the state and Clarence Darrow for Scopes. The Tennessee jury, after a dramatic trial, convicted him. Five days later Bryan died in his sleep.

 I have always been an admirer of Clarence Darrow and found little to admire in Bryan, except that he was a populist Democrat. But upon reading the quote above by Bryan I have had a change of heart. 
  Bryan was a Midwesterner. He lived his life in the bread basket of America. He lived on the prairies during the time before the great exodus from the farms to factories, from villages to cities, from yeomen to proletarians. Today, that exodus has left the prairies with a paucity of family farms and the cities with a glut of people, the latter depending upon the former to feed them. Of the 6.8 billion people now burdening earth, half live in cities and 300 million live in cities of more than a million. Few in the cities ever consider the economic priority of the farmers and of the cities’ total dependency upon them to survive.

  My parent were both born and reared on subsistence farms, on farms that depended upon horse power and one that even had oxen power. My father at age 18 joined that great exodus in 1918, migrating to Charleston via theChesapeake and Ohio Railway. Once he had employment, he married my mother and they moved to Charleston and resided on Russell St. There I was born and soon there were two other children. During the Roaring Twenties things were roseate. Then came 1929 and then in 1933 the bank holiday. It was back to the land for me. Without employment, my father could not buy food for the table and he had no land and sidewalks are sterile places for     I learned to plant corn, to thin corn, to plow corn, hoe corn, harvest corn, shuck corn and feed corn to the animals that did their part in producing the food. I learned to cut hay, shock hay, barn hay and feed hay in the darkness of winter evenings. I learned to plant wheat, cradle wheat, shock wheat, help the thrashing of wheat and the storing of it, the taking it to the mill and the bringing it home flour. I learned to go to the forest in the fall with axe and crosscut saw to cut and haul in the winter wood, the only insurance against freezing to death and the only solace and security in dead of winter even with the downside of scorched shins and chilled backs. 

 I learned to harness horses and to use their power in all the ways horses could be used and enjoyed. I learned to milk cows, to shear sheep, to kill and butcher hogs, to hunt game, to swim, to fish and to clean and eat all the meats butchered, killed and caught.  

I experienced the memorable joy of sitting on the porch resting and facing the west after a day in the fields and a supper fit for a king---watching the sun set in all its glory. I enjoyed the moon and the stars, unalloyed with incandescent, every night when I prepared for bedtime. I’ll never forget the long winter nights with its whistles of freeze and the times before the fireplace with family entranced by the embers of the backlog, warmed by the heat of the hot shambles of the fore logs, and sustained by the bucket of apples with paring knife and the popcorn popper.

 And the meals: While the soup and bread lines lengthen in the cities, I sat down to three square meals a day. Breakfast often consisted of oatmeal and cream, cured ham, eggs, hot biscuits, home-churned butter, applesauce and jellies. Dinner in summer was a table of vegetables, fried potatoes, hot bread, and in winter pork, beef, or lamb. Supper was as sufficient as dinner, summer and winter.

 The apple house had shelves from floor to ceiling with Mason jars filled with meats and every vegetable and fruit grown on the farm. In the center were crates of apples and crocks of cider turning to vinegar. In the loft over the woodshed were bushels of walnuts, black and white, drying and, before the chestnut blight, there were bucket of chestnuts to peel, roast and boil. In the meat house there were hams, shoulders and sides curing. Food for man and animals was canned, stored, cured, and preserved in quantities enough to survive the bitterest and longest winter. 

 What I have written, Bryan, if he could have read it, would consider it a confirmation of his quote. And Bryanwould have agreed with this quote from “The Meaning of the City” by Jacques Ellul: “The first undeniable element in this life is due to the city’s nature as a parasite. She absolutely cannot live in and by herself. … The city is dead, made of dead things for dead people. She can herself neither produce nor maintain anything whatever. Anything living must come from the outside. In the case of food, this is clear. But in the case of men also. We cannot repeat too often that the city is an enormous man-eater. She does not renew herself from within, but by a constant supply of fresh blood from outside.”  

 The cities sustain themselves from the labor, food and children of the land, an incalculable worth gotten relatively for a pittance.
           
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Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a columnist for Huntington News Network. He lives in Hinton, WV. He  was born in Charleston, WV in 1921.
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