In the fields where I walk my dog, there is a sign that a local farmer keeps posting on the gates which reads, “The sheep in this field are under veterinary care as a result of being attacked by a dog”. So many different times, so many different fields. I do appreciate that livestock have to be moved around (especially in the months when officials from the farming ministry are assessing subsidies per head). Even so, if every one of these signs is based on fact, somewhere there is a nefarious, serially criminal canine who has so far kept his identity secret; and a very rich vet who is possibly his accomplice.
Sometimes the sign is fixed to the gate of an empty field, like “Bull in Field” (despite all visual evidence to the contrary) which is often posted across hiking trails to deter walkers. One assumes that the evil dog has returned when the sheep are between counselling sessions with the vet and he’s eaten every one of them.
It is too easy to make fun of farmers; to suggest that a lot of them are mean-spirited, distrusting, grasping and selfish sociopaths who spend so many years hoarding what they can without enjoying any of it that it’s no surprise when in the end they are overwhelmed by the emptiness of their lives and willingly put the shotgun barrel in their mouth. No, I’d never resort to that crude stereotype.
We should respect farmers, who are so much more useful than say, politicians. Looked at globally it is still true that the farmer feeds us all, and closer to home there’ll come a time (probably sooner than we’d like to think) when the amount of food the land can produce will become of interest to everyone. Except generally we don’t – respect them that is – which prompts the question why?
This isn’t a question town versus country. More people living in or close to the country are not farmers than those who are. In any case the particular sort of farmer who fits the stereotype appears to be as suspicious of his neighbours as of the ignorant townspeople. Distrust is mutual: the farmer posts the dogs vs sheep sign because he doesn’t trust dog owners to cross HIS land without due respect for his property. Dog owners read the message as a pre-emptive justification for what the farmer implicitly threatens to do to any dog that strays onto his land, whether it is “worrying” sheep or not.
Before now I’ve stopped my bike to yell at idiot townies who thought it was hilarious to watch their toy dog chasing sheep up and down a field, yapping uncontrollably (and the dog barking too) as the sheep became more and more distressed – so I do understand the problems created by outsiders who see the world as a theme park created for their personal amusement. Like most situations where different interest groups rub up against each other, it’s a question of rights.
Rights (and duties that you don’t hear so much about) are the club rules that we invent in order that our collective lives should progress a little beyond the daily struggle for life and death by means of force. Sometimes it helps to pretend that they are Natural or Inalienable or Human rights (though even aggressive non-human species have learned to observe conventions like you only fight to the death in certain circumstances). The Democrat supposes that rights can be balanced harmoniously – the farmer is the custodian of the land and the people may enjoy the use of it having respect for the primary need to produce food and keep the place in good shape so that others may enjoy it. Each side respects the “rights” of future generations to come. The Darwinist sees a struggle that leads to an equilibrium that shifts according to the respective interests and power of the protagonists.
The only chance for balance to emerge without struggle is where there is a consensus as to what is reasonable, but that is dependent on shared assumptions, which in turn spring from psychology. The psychology of farmers (I’m thinking of real farmers, not the proprietors of agro-businesses whose profit-driven motivations are depressingly familiar to all of us) is likely to be singular in that they have a lifestyle that sets them apart; tied to the land with idiosyncratic perceptions of what is important and less opportunities than the rest of us have to be pulled up short by the realisation that someone else sees the world completely differently to ourselves. If you live in the same house for enough generations, there is a family reality that takes precedence over the reality that is constructed from what our society tells us we believe. Whether the distinction is good or bad, it’s distinct.
In the classic landowner psyche, the primary imperative is to hold the land; and this cuts right into the question of security that is the fault line of perception dividing dog walkers from farmers. From the outside, the farmer is secure – he has land, money salted away, the support of the community in terms of subsidies, tax and cheap fuel and still he gets annoyed that you should want to stroll across a stretch of god’s earth that he calls his. Seen from the other side; there’s only insecurity – everything depends on weather and markets that may be good one year and terrible the next; animals and plants are vulnerable to disease; whatever money you’ve saved can be swallowed up if times get hard and there’s the anxiety over whether to spend on improvements if it means pledging the land to the bank for the loan.
Underneath perhaps there is the nagging problem of legitimacy. Historically, the methods by which land passes into the ownership of individuals is best described as questionable: in the beginning it is by conquest – man against man and tribe versus tribe. Once a group feels that it has something to lose and is powerful enough to impose its will, laws are made to rationalize “rights” of property. The law is pressed into service to support the extension of property rights (for example the Enclosure Acts of the English parliament that closed off “common land” to common people). The fiction is that a king holds all the land and parcels bits of it out to deserving subjects. The reality is that it’s not irrational for those who have got and held for generations by such a process both to fear that what they hold could be taken and to feel a responsibility to the past and the future that it should not be taken. In an extreme case that primary directive can leave a man who has cheated on his taxes and claimed benefits he’s not entitled to feeling entirely justified (unlike say, a scrounger).
I’m consciously looking at the dark side here. Far be it from me to suggest … some of my best friends …etc. etc.
Where does that take us, other than to the acknowledgement that we are all very different inside our own heads and we should get used to it? I’m not sure. The man who finds and farms the land is one of the two or three story archetypes that we have, along with the warrior, the adventurer and the lover. From the Icelandic sagas through the conquest of the Americas and on to the imagined colonization of space the tale continues about getting and holding some place that will provide the necessities of life and security, whether that is for the individual or a collective that may be a tribe, a country, a race or even a species (ein Volk in fact). the founder is either a benevolent father or an egoist who believes he is struggling for personal wealth, eminence of some transcendent grail-like objective and either fails or discovers that success turns to ashes (unless, like the Victorian mill owners or the American billionaires, he discovers philanthropy). The second option seems to accord more to our modern view (probably it starts with Beowulf).