The Wonderful Past . . . that Wasn’t

Back in December, I did some review of the Romantic movement of the 1800s, and of the modern flavors of it. Some of the environmentalists sound very much like Romantics, although William Blake and Friends lacked the nihilist streak we see today. Some of the pronouncements from “experts” and “influencers” also strike the same chord as the back-to-the-Middle-Ages types of the 1800s. You know, the wonderful Middle Ages when peasants were all hard-working, happy, well-behaved, and respected their Betters? And when nobles were paragons of chivalry, and knew what was best for everyone, and ran things because they were to the manor born, and everyone obeyed and respected them? And sheep and cows were clean, tidy, obedient, and you could picnic in the meadows and woods without getting grass stains on your silk and satin clothing?

I’ll wait for those of you who have ever been around sheep and cattle to stop laughing before I go on.

The longing for a lost Golden Age very far back in human history. The time before the Fall, or when Numa Pompilius led Rome, or before Pandora opened the box, or during the reign of the legendary Good Emperors in China, or . . . Things were simpler, people were better, life wasn’t as hard, the earth gave forth of its bounty without weeds and thorns, and all the children were above aver— Oops, sorry, wrong introduction. Ahem. Anyway. Things were very good, perhaps too good, and then something happened. Now, if that something was the fault of people, or just bad luck, or gods who got irked because people weren’t grateful enough, or who knows why, but the world became harder to live in and people had to work.

Modernity and the various political shifts of the 1700s-early 1900s led to several sorts of nostalgia for the past. Some of it came from fuzzy childhood memories of rural life, memories that blurred out the stench, danger, hungry seasons, and very hard work. Some of it was a reaction to the problems of newly-urbanized society and of concentrated populations (crime, sanitation that left a lot to be desired, stress because of change in general). Some of it was political, with rulers and the old nobility (and would-be old nobility) dreaming of the days when people didn’t challenge them. In the Good Olde Days, might and heredity together made right. But with the Industrial Revolution and the social changes of the 1700s-1800s, the old unspoken understandings and social contracts failed, because people no longer lived in the narrow, tradition-bound world where everyone just knew what to do and how to behave. “Why? Why do we have to do that? Why do we have to listen to him? Why stay here when we can go away? Why not start a business/leave the manor/get the right to vote?” Those are questions not voiced in, oh AD 1100 CE. And some people preferred that world, or at least the world they imagined it to be.

I see some of that today, albeit in different words. “The EU government needs to take over this, this, and that, so that Europe will once again be the global economic power.” With the implication that the proper order of society is for Europe to dominate the rest of the planet, and for Brussels and the Experts to dominate Europe. “We need to go back to farming as it was done before the Green Revolution caused so many environmental problems. We need to honor and nurture Native ways of knowing about farming, and to live smaller and simpler.” “The family farm is the answer, with mixed agriculture and Community-Based lifeways.” (No, I’m still not sure what he meant, although I agree to an extent on the mixed agriculture.*) “We should re-wild Europe.” Or North America. Funny, no one talks about re-wilding most of Asia, or Latin America, and certainly not Africa.

Change is not something I adjust well to. New technology is the near-bane of my existence. However, I also know that “re-wilding” Europe and North America would be a disaster for millions of people, and to a large extent can’t be done without, oh, turning steel, glass, cement, and asphalt back into their ingredients and returning those to the ground. The Ogallala Aquifer will not suddenly return to the surface and fill springs if farming stops tomorrow. Europe won’t be a paradise for wildlife, although parts of Eastern Europe are looking more and more like an American wilderness reserve. Nor will millions of people happily surrender their jobs and political voice to “our betters.” OK, some would, and some do as a lifestyle choice. Jump if you’re feelin’ froggy. I don’t trust other people to know what is best for me. I certainly don’t trust people who have never held a non-government or non-trust-fund job in their lives to run the world. We’ve got some of those already. No, thank you.

The pristine environment, the paradise of the Medieval World, they never existed. But they are so appealing when draped in art, and museum displays, and full of CG lambs gamboling on lush meadows. And I suspect most of us have had a moment or two when living in a less complicated time (but with our modern amenities) has some appeal. I’d like to go back to certain Victorian morés, but with modern sanitation and being able to vote and to work where I choose. I enjoy seeing an un-peopled environment. I also like electricity, hot running water, paved roads, and relatively inexpensive food and clothing.

But that’s the problem with reading a lot of history, and being honest. You know that lambs poop, and that the peasant wars of Europe and China and Japan were numerous and nasty.

Reality’s a bummer if you’re a Romantic. Miniver Cheevy did not have a happy life.

*Mixed agriculture, or safety-first agriculture, means you have a variety of crops as well as livestock on a farm, so that if one fails, there are other options that will get you through. It requires a lot more work, and it’s not as efficient on the large scale as monocrop commodity farming. But it might be better for the soil and for society in the very long run. Opinions differ, as you can imagine.


12 thoughts on “The Wonderful Past . . . that Wasn’t

  1. The pastoral idyll never existed.
    But helots did.
    Those advocating the first, generally have the latter as their goal. (And they still haven’t gotten over that gunpowder enabled a yeoman to strike down a king.)

    • To be replaced by another strongman. Napoleon Hitler Stalin
      I’m sure you could add to the list.

  2. Hm, “not as efficient on the large scale….”
    Yeah, in agriculture as in so many things, the quest for efficiency above all leads to increased returns right up until it doesn’t.
    It’s amazing how many single points of failure are being optimized into our society, both by cost-cutting businesses and by activism-driven government.

  3. Efficiency is the avowed enemy of effectiveness. Multiple field crops, rotated, with fallow and pasture use interspersed, let nutrients and ground recover. That makes bulkheads and firewalls to specific pests and diseases, too. When a disaster hits, they’re life-savers.

    Darn those rascal Cistercians and others for regenerative farming techniques! You’d think people want to survive famines, not get removed like failed cogs. What nerve!

    Those moments of musing over the Lost Paradise mostly seem to come when industrial and agriculture advances allow for some leisure time and development of certain arts. Thoreau couldn’t have hied off to Walden Pond if his duty was gathering and stacking field stones for fences.

  4. beneath the green paint is a blatantly naked attempt at mass murder

    they get my enmity, my defiance, and my opposition

  5. Fellow born in 1923.. joined the army in 1940 *knowing full well the world situation* as he wanted OFF the farm THAT BAD… I read a copy of a letter he wrote to his daughter explaining the move. “Manure” (he used a much shorter and less polite term) was mentioned quite liberally throughout the letter. If he ever set foot on a farm after the war it was to visit family or to connect the electrical service as he went to work for the power company. And their place was one of the LUCKY ones that got electricity as early as 1931. So they had lights that weren’t white gas or kerosene. They even got that new miracle, radio, in a year or so. Those really in the sticks in that county…. some didn’t get electricity until 1947!

  6. I have mixed feelings about this post.

    While the problem of wishing for “the Wonderful Past That Didn’t Exist” is very very real, there’s also the problem of believing in “the Terrible Past That Didn’t Exist”.

    Of course, both “mistakes” are rooted in Ignorance of History.

    • Indeed – the past is both beautiful and horrible. You have to be clear-eyed about both sides of it, just like trying to accept that very different world-views (Aztecs for example) have an internal logic that often worked, at least at first. Even if we vehemently disagree with that world view.

      I was specifically looking at paintings like “All the Pretty Little Baa-Lambs” and so on, and about the 19th century Conservatives.

Comments are closed.