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Wallace Kaufman

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Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist
by Wallace Kaufman   

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Publisher:  Perseus Publishing ISBN-10:  0738202584 Type: 


Copyright:  2000 ISBN-13:  9780738202587

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Lessons in life, love and nature from going to the woods like Thoreau but emerging with quite different conclusions. It's also a book about a father and his daughter.

A young man brought up in the city and suburbs takes his blue collar practicality into the woods as Thoreau did, hoping for a similar experience and further lessons in nature and living with purpose.  He builds his own house by his own stream and pond, but he also raises his daughter who will go on to become a Ph.D. ecologist. 

To secure his own piece of land, the writer also formed a company, Saralyn, to purchase a much larger piece for which he wrote covenants to preserve its forest, then sold homesites to owner-builders who also wanted to go back to the land. 

During the next twenty years he learns many lessons from both nature, his daughter, and his neighbors.  Much of the book is about putting ideals to practical tests.  The results often run counter to the idealism of Thoreau, particulary as the writer comes to realize that "in civilization is the preservation of wildness," not vice versa as Thoreau concluded.

If there could be a theme song for the book, it would be the Spanish song that the writer teaches to his daughter and which they often sing--Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto."  (Thanks to life, which has given me so much.) 

his own piece of land, the writer also formed a company, Saralyn, to purchase a much larger piece for which he wrote covenants to preserve its forest, then sold homesites to owner-builders who also wanted to go back to the land. 

During the next twenty years he learns many lessons from both nature, his daughter, and his neighbors.  Much of the book is about putting ideals to practical tests.  The results often run counter to the idealism of Thoreau, particulary as the writer comes to realize that "in civilization is the preservation of wildness," not vice versa as Thoreau concluded.

If there could be a theme song for the book, it would be the Spanish song that the writer teaches to his daughter and which they often sing--Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto."  (Thanks to life, which has given me so much.) 

Show me a man or woman who claims to make a reasonable living from a small farm, and I will show you this is a person who does not value his or her time at more than half the minimum wage, who exploits other members of the family, who charges outrageous prices, who is lying, or who has worked miracles. My first attempt to feed myself and earn money from growing vegetables taught me that gardening is not profitable, but I had yet to learn the real lessons of frontier agriculture and modern economics.

Pines in this part of the world are a sign of agricultural defeat. Ten year old pines with patches of tulip poplars and gum trees had taken over most of the 20 acres where Sarah and I bought our second old farm house. The gravelly orange soils full of clay gave them the moisture they needed. The old fields gave them sunlight. They are heliophiles, sun lovers, and so they are first growth forest. In the South stands of pine and poplar rise from the land as memorials to the defeat of agriculture. Some time in the 1950s a poor white family named Vickers had given up on this land and sold out to a university administrator who wanted a country retreat. He drilled a well and added a bathroom to the house, and tore out a few walls and covered the rest with plasterboard before he died. The pines were closing in on the last four acres of cleared land by the house when I decided I could triumph where others had failed.
My first real garden, like my first land development, began as a mix of ideals and economics. The two efforts were simultaneous. In both cases I staked my effort on filling a niche. I would grow organic vegetables. I would not grow vegetables like potatoes that sold for pennies a pound, or grains that required mechanical harvesting and processing. I would grow things that could earn a high price for each foot of garden and hour of labor. Low labor and high price was the ideal. Some herbs fit these requirements. Low labor and medium price would also suffice: cherry tomatoes, sweet corn, and green beans. I also had two high priced and high labor crops—red raspberries and asparagus. I also planted vegetables that were exotic for Americans like kohlrabis, those hard, solid tennis ball sized members of the cabbage family. If I could convince customers to buy them, I would have created demand, and I would enjoy a monopoly on supply. I was the first organic vegetable seller in the region.
I had a plan. I was set to prove to the world that organically grown vegetables could be profitable. I knew I had a niche market where I could charge high prices, but set an example that would really spread organic farming, I never charged more for my vegetables than the Chapel Hill supermarkets. A few farmers could survive by milking a high priced niche market, but their success would mean little to the country’s environment. I believed organic farming could save the environment, protect human health, and revive the small family farm.
Organic farming was a liberal cause, but it was still farming. Farming has always produced many more conservatives than liberals. In the 1980s when friends began to accuse me of abandoning liberal politics and environmental activism, I told my friend Michael who helped me start Saralyn that he would have to accept the fact that I had become a conservative. Michael had never faltered in his support of liberal Democrats and never missed a chance to contribute to the New York fund raising efforts to defeat Senator Helms. He wrote back, “We always knew your were a conservative.”
My liberal customers kept the farm going for three or four years, and each year I came to appreciate more why my farming neighbors had a hard time understanding how other people need government programs and an even harder time figuring out why farmers should pay for them. To be sure farmers are only human and will accept government handouts for tobacco or any crop, but small farmers have always had to survive almost entirely on their own capital and by physical labor that grinds the body and soul like a millstone.
My success as a farmer amounted to little more than survival. I undersold the supermarkets, filled my table and pantry, and enslaved myself. The profit left after all expenses paid for my labor at no more than 25 or 50 cents for each hour of hoeing and plowing, and at that I had allowed myself a small gasoline powered walking tractor. I could not imagine why Thoreau, seeking freedom in the woods, would plant two and a half acres of beans and enslave himself to their care with nothing more than hand tools.
Thoreau said he had two and a half acres, mainly in beans, with some corn, potatoes, peas and turnips. His bean patch occupied 108,900 square feet. or 54,450 linear feet to hoe with the rows being about 24 inches apart. Call it 10 miles of rows. To put this in terms familiar to most of us, it is like scrubbing the floors in 64 average houses, and it must be done once a week. So note the labor: 9 houses a week or almost one and a half miles of hoeing each day every day of the week. We must assume no rainy days. This is brutal work even in the sandy soils by Walden Pond. Thoreau says he hoed from five a.m. till noon. To do this in the 95 degree summer heat of North Carolina, hacking at its red clay soils . . . it’s easy to see why black sharecroppers sang the blues. It’s also easy to see why small farming is possible only with machines. And why the land at Saralyn had been abandoned when I found it. Work under the roof of any textile mile was better than “chopping” (hoeing) cotton, beans, or tobacco.
The rigors of farming and the hope of more pleasant work have been the whip and the carrot for many great American achievements. Americans still consider farming a noble profession, but the only famous farmers are those who left for another profession. Politicians from Abe Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter carried the virtuous reputation of American farmers to Washington. Until tobacco became politically incorrect Vice President Al Gore who grew up largely in fancy Washington hotels and a Tennessee estate liked to tell voters how he picked and dried tobacco on the farm. Walt Disney’s father, Elias, sought opportunity and a decent living by moving from Chicago to a farm. two older brothers ran away. After four years the farm failed and Disney moved his family to Kansas City. Walt Disney went on to create his first great hit and America’s greatest wildlife hero, Bambi.
In Disney’s 1942 “Bambi” 1942, in the middle of a world war he did what a whole generation who loved his cartoon would do when they grew up. He reinvented nature and recast the human animal as the evil spoiler. Disney’s source, a book by Austrian hunter Felix Salten and translated into English by diplomat Whittaker Chambers, is an anti-fascist allegory, and the forest is a dangerous place where the human hunter is not the greatest terror. By page ten Bambi has been terrified by a bloody killing, confounded by one jay pillaging another’s nest, and intimidated when a bird he stares at screams, “What are you gawking at, you freak?”
Disney picked out and ran with the message that gave my generation the vision that would nurture the environmental movement and carry it on into the 21st century. After “He” has shot Bambi’s cousin Faline, the hunter himself, a poacher, is shot. Bambi’s father the great stag takes him to look at the body. It’s a seen of spiteful detail. “The poacher’s shirt, open at the neck, was pierced where a wound gaped like a small red mouth. Blood was oozing out slowly. Blood was drying on His hair and around His nose. A big pool of it lay on the snow which was melting from the warmth.” The stag issues the theme that would echo through the rest of the century. “He isn’t all-powerful as they say. Everything that lives and grows doesn’t come from Him. He isn’t above us. He’s just the same as we are. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers the same way. He can be killed like us, and then He lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see Him now.” Disney cleaned up the blood, dropped the cruelty from nature, and set a new and comfortable myth in our hearts.

Professional Reviews

By Robert Finch
"Coming Out of the Woods is a much needed corrective to unexamined Thoreauvianism, deliciously skewering the sanctimonious pieties that afflict too much of today's environmental and nature writing. Wallace Kaufman is a splendid storyteller and a thoughtful social critic--wise, honest, and consistently funny." (Robert Finch, author of Death of a Hornet and Outlands: Journeys to the Outer Edges of Cape Cod)

Hardwood Review
I’m not sure when Henry David Thoreau became an icon of the environmental movement, but I know that during the mid-seventies, when I was in High School, he was widely recognized as a cool guy. We appreciated his independent attitude: he lived alone in the woods, he was anti-establishment, and he didn’t pay his taxes in protest of an unjust war. Today no self-respecting environmentalists can read, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…” without misting a bit.
While many of us romance the notion of getting back to nature, most of us never make it, or instead we take our wilderness in small and more tolerable doses. Not author Wallace Kaufman. He “out-Thoreaued” Thoreau, living mostly alone in the woods for over twenty years compared to Thoreau’s more modest twenty-six months. From his experience, Thoreau penned, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Kaufman on the other hand, reaches the unexpected conclusion, “that the preservation of wildness is in civilization.”
Unlike most environmental books being written today, Coming Out Of The Woods doesn’t try to scare the hell out of anybody, or smother with weighty facts, figures and insights. Instead, Kaufman entertains by telling a tale full of self-depreciating humor and common sense insight.
Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, Kaufman came to North Carolina to attend Duke University, and stayed to teach English at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. While Thoreau’s woods were borrowed, Kaufman had the gumption to buy his 330 acres, suggesting the property rights debate is between those who own property, and those who don’t, but never the less insist on giving directions from the sidelines.
Kaufman conceived a predecessor of today’s eco-village. Formally named “Saralyn,” the locals soon referred to the development as “Hippy Town.” Intended as an environmentally friendly development with few amenities except beauty, solitude and a flexible building code, Hippy Town attracted some rather unusual inhabitants. While Thoreau learned about wild nature, Kaufman learned a good bit about human nature as well, understanding that sometimes in order to get along, you have to go along.
Coming Out Of The Woods is also a genuine study of nature. Kaufman is a diligent naturalist, and his comments on nature are accessible without being sappy. He refrains from humanizing nature, a crutch too many nature writers use today, and the uniqueness is refreshing. What I appreciated most about the book is its tribute to human ingenuity. Kaufman is a walking Foxfire book on making do, and it is his attitude toward dealing with unfiltered nature that has enduring value. He doesn’t worship nature; he struggles to co-exist with it on his own environmental terms.
Walden has generally come to represent a rejection of American over-achievement at the expense of nature and the virtues of simple living. Kaufman, however, takes a more sympathetic view of the relationship between man and nature, writing:
Piedmont farmers have never been rich, and in the last century, only home-grown crops stood between poor farm families and malnutrition, crippling diseases, even starvation. Farmers killed passenger pigeons and parakeets as mercilessly as Indians had hunted out the last mammoths and camels, or as wolves tear apart the last deer or moose in their region. I am grieved that I will never see a passenger pigeon or a Carolina parakeet, but sorry as I am, I cannot condemn humanity for acting out of necessity, even though later generations have seen those actions as a mistake.

I applaud Kaufman for his unconventional approach to environmental story telling. By camouflaging his lessons with humor and wit, a broader audience may actually learn something about the environment and our places in it. When my children begin to read Thoreau, I am going to hand them my copy of Coming Out Of The Woods to read along side. I know their education will be better for it.

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