Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Searching for Our Rural Past

Back in late March, a hungry bear just out of its winter den came rambling through my yard and bent my aluminum feeder pole to the ground, then tried to get into the feeder, which happens to be within a cage. The bear went to the other, iron pole, almost bent it to the ground, grabbed that feeder and ate all the sunflower seeds. Then it ambled off.

I did not see the bear because this happened at night. I did, however, see the damage it left behind.

The old feeder pole, with squirrels. (Margo D. Beller)
After that the feeders were taken in at night until I stopped putting them out, in mid-May. So I wasn't in a rush to get a second feeder pole. However, I knew I would need one eventually and started looking around.

I had found the old aluminum one on the floor in the back of a small garden center. I can't remember what I paid for it. I do know it lasted a long time although it was never very stable. Now that I was looking for a new, sturdier feeder pole, I found the price ranged all over the place. Lots of poles to attach to decks, which I don't have, and lots of poles I can put together in expensive pieces.

Wal-Mart didn't help. Nor did Home Depot or Wild Birds Unlimited or my local New Jersey Audubon store. I was starting to get desperate until MH and I were on a drive and passing a Tractor Supply Company store and I suggested we look there.

Tractor Supply Company, as the name implies, tends to sell in the more rural areas. (We've also seen people in there I'm guessing want to make their home seem more rural. Certainly the stores are smaller and the employees friendlier than the local Home Depot.) There aren't many of them in my part of northern New Jersey, itself one of the most urbanized and congested states in the U.S. But here one was, in Flanders, Mt. Olive Township, about 11 miles away from my home.

And within the store was a two-crook feeder pole, topped by a medallion showing a cow, a pig and a chicken. Not a bird, as I'd seen on other poles, but farm animals.

"I've never seen a feeder pole topped with farm animals," I told the helpful employee who took it apart for me so it would fit in the station wagon.

"Yes, isn't it pretty?" he gushed.

New feeder pole, with farm animals. (Margo D. Beller)
It is, after a fashion. When the morning sun shines on it there is an almost stained-glass look about it. It is a 7-footer and it cost less than $30 - a bargain compared with what I'd been seeing. I made sure to put my old baffle in a suitable place on it so it isn't in the way of our longest bird feeder. It stands just to the right of where the old feeder pole - still in pieces in the garage - stood.

Looking at the farm animals made me think that New Jersey once was rural. My house stands on a former meadow. Mt. Olive was covered with farms. There are some still - we stopped at one on the way home, Ashley's, which has been in business since the mid 1940s. But Mt. Olive is not rural anymore. The International Trade Center brought people and people brought "development" - more homes and more shopping strips and malls and more taxes to pay for more children in schools and more services. Northern New Jersey is not very rural and neither is a good hunk of the rest of the state.

The same scenario is seen in other states. Where once were farms now stand housing developments. Sprawl. Of those farms left, many are run by corporations. Family farms struggle.

Many of these family farms have been sold to become housing developments of some sort - "luxury rental" townhomes, estates of varying acreage, "active adult" communities with age restrictions or even senior residences to house my increasingly elderly generation.

Many of the farms we go to have turned themselves into a sort of amusement park. In fact, there is a name for those of us who go to farms - agritourism. I used to work with several people living in built-up areas of New Jersey who would go to a particular Morris County farm to pick berries and see the farm animals with their kids in spring, and then come to pick apples, walk the corn mazes and buy corn threshes, mums and hay bales to decorate their houses come harvest time.

(RE Berg-Andersson)
I go to farms to buy fruits and vegetables that are grown there because they taste better for being local. So do many others. Community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) is big business now, a way for farms to stay alive because they are very popular in places where people can afford to buy food fresh off the farm and want to move beyond the local Whole Foods.

Why is it people feel a need to find some sort of agricultural past? Is it because we want to find something to help us overcome being overcrowded with technology, information blaring at us all the time, 140-character bursts of noise? I think so.

For every person whose face is glued to a phone or is binge-watching "Game of Thrones" is another person paying someone to teach them how to cook with heirloom vegetables, make cheese and grow and can vegetables the way their grandparents did. (If they are lucky, they have parents or grandparents to teach them. More likely they have to learn elsewhere. There are many places, including farms, earning good money teaching them. Of course, there's always the Internet.)

Why? I think it is because doing something that uses your brain and your hands and not your ability to write in 140 characters or post on Facebook is a way to actively DO something instead of passively receive what others think you want to know. It is a way of feeling self-sufficient at a time when many, if not most, people feel powerless and/or apathetic.

It is a way of feeling human.

So I will look at my cow, pig and chicken on my feeder pole and think, yes, I guess it is pretty. Later in the year, when the feeders draw the goldfinches, titmice, chickadees and cardinals, it will get even prettier.