‘Agrarian Anxieties’: From Adam to ‘Shane’ via Cain

I’m catching up on magazines, one of which was Harper’s for July 2010. I just finished reading Fordham environmental history professor Steven Stoll’s remarkable essay, ‘Agrarian Anxieties’.  Anyone concerned with agriculture and sustainablity generally should read it.

Despite growing up in an area with subsistence farms, I have always held the ideal of agrarian life as that of peace. From myth to mythic movies, I have learned to think of the virtuous farmer contesting for land with the predatory herder. Think ‘Shane’.

Stoll looks at the biblical narrative from Eden to Israel and sees something quite different.

The Israelites did not learn empire-building in the desert but from the monument-building, class-dominating former oppressors, the Egyptians. If the Israelites wanted to rule over their own fecund river valley, they would have to possess it as absolutely as the Egyptians did the Nile Valley.

He sees the narrative as one of the triumph of the farmer over the hunter/gatherer and herder. With farming comes a new relationship with the land, one defined by

Slavery dispossession, empire – all … rational adaptations to a new world in which the intensive occupation of land became the basis of wealth and sovereignty.

Hence the litanies of conquest and slaughter in the narrative books.

The ‘peaceable kingdom’ of the farmer was equally a myth in the Americas. For several generations, the Anasazi had been portrayed as if by Rousseau. Of late, archaeologists have speculated that the disappearance of the Anasazi culture in what is now New Mexico and Colorado had been violent.

Now, Discovery reports, archaeologists have found evidence dating to around 800 of a Rawanda-like slaughter at Sacred Ridge in southern Colorado, an Anasazi pueblo site.

Stoll reads the story of Cain and Abel as ‘the beginning of the association of shepherds with peace and farmers with violence.’ Cain and Shane, it seems, have sides we have not understood – or rather that our culture has deeply repressed.

We must understand these mythic figures and their myths much more clearly if we are to understand our delusions about ourselves. Reading Stoll is a good start.