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Corn: Gardening is a small way to fight urban sprawl

POSTED: April 9, 2010 11:23 a.m.

For those committed to a way of life that requires raising crops and growing a vegetable garden this is a very special season. The first hot days have arrived and we are plunged into the all-consuming preparations that planting demands. Equipment is readied, the soil cultivated, purchases made, labors performed. And prayers for good weather are whispered in the night.

The work of raising plants connects one directly with the natural rhythms of the earth and to a way of life that predates the first European settlement of the region. For the first settlers learned from the Cherokee that to keep from starving in these hills one had to raise a corn crop, grow a vegetable garden of beans and squash, and hunt the woods for fresh meat. It leads one to wonder what else was gained from the Indians and how much has been lost by their extermination and removal.

Many historians have written about Appalachia since the first European settlement here in the 1820's, but few have been written by a native son with a mind so richly furnished as that of Andrew Jackson Ritchie. For a closer look into the early life of the region, the book to browse is his "Sketches of Rabun County History", in which he states that "the Indian removal was defended by Governor Gilmer of Georgia and President Andrew Jackson as an absolute necessity. But it was one of the most cruel things has ever been done in our country by official authority."

To understand him it must be said of Mr. Ritchie that he was one of the few men of his time in North Georgia to receive a first rate higher education. It was an arduous process to obtain his degrees, requiring 12 years of stop and start progress through illness, poverty, and other setbacks. After finishing the one year law course at UGA, he pushed on to complete both a BA and MA in English literature and composition from Harvard. When he returned home he was possessed of a rich intellect to complement his boundless energy. He advised government officials, became the area's official historian, and founded and designed the curriculum of the remarkable School at Rabun Gap. As a side note, he also married into the Corn family by wedding his childhood sweetheart, Addie, who was his partner in all his work.

From Ritchie's writings and those of Tocqueville it is clear the commonly held view that the area was founded solely on rugged individualism is a misconception, for no communities are more interdependent or interconnected than those based on farming the land. It would be more accurate to say that the first Southern colonials combined ruthless individualism with a lust for quick profit. These financial speculators, slavers, con men, and conquerors did little more than enrich themselves and clear the area for settlement by the more civilized family farmers who followed in their destructive wake. The brutal and tyrannical ways of the slaver, the gaming of the speculator, and the massive land frauds of the early authorities are nearly forgotten now.

The more decent values of the agricultural communities are those that have endured. A life centered on hard work, churchgoing, and family bonding still dominates the small pockets of these communities that manage to resist the encroaching wash of suburban sprawl and its contrary program of enjoyment, comfort, and sedentary entertainments.

The reasons to resist the "new life" offered by a society of consumption are clear enough. And gardening is one way to hold back the tide of these forces. Among other benefits, it generally brings the gardener forcibly out of isolation. The complexity of the endeavor and the attention and labor it requires make it an especially communal affair. Two heads are better than one, and those two heads can often feed 10 mouths!

Besides the social nature of growing things in the dirt, there are also the sensual pleasures it supplies. With supermarkets full of vegetables bred for long transport and shelf life, it is little wonder people eat less and less of them. On the other hand, there is no tomato in the world as tasty as one grown in our local soil.

The most fulfilling aspect of a lifestyle that includes growing food however is the satisfaction which results from the work involved. The industrial economy with its endless schedule of production has no respect for the rhythms of life, or the living for that matter, and it is rare that one has the opportunity to step back and appreciate what has been completed. There is always another widget to make, customer to serve, or task to complete, and the interruptions of technology find ever more invasive means of distraction. Being interrupted by busybodies fifteen times an hour is enough to render the simplest jobs odious. Gardening by contrast demands many occasions to stand back, rest, and mark the steps in the cycle.

Those who take the time to plant squash, corn, and beans not only reap all the benefits above, but also do honor to those who came before us, who for a thousand years planted these hills with the same fruits and labored to make them grow. Like all culture, that of the earth is not exclusive to any group. Yet it must be passed on that it may carry on.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears every other Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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