IN PRAISE OF PRACTICAL FERTILIZER
In Praise of Practical Fertilizer, which has been compared to the essays of E.B. White and was chosen by the book editors of the Columbus Dispatch as one of its best books of the year, is what Josephine Johnson called “a fine, wry, quotable collection.” John Fleischman said Baskin’s essays contained manure spreaders, livestock, and hay mows but his real issues were “manners, sensibilities, rites of passage, memory, boundaries, and the persistence of grace and gracefulness.” Baskin was, said Fleischman, “a country correspondent turned essayist in the grand tradition of Steele, Dr. Johnson, Emerson, and E.B. White—minds that can read in the particulars of ordinary life the universal.” Baskin was, he said, writing from another country, “a land of wit and keen observation where readers traveled to learn another geography.”
John Baskin tells stories, not jokes, and I laughed all the way through his book when I wasn’t struck dumb with sudden terror or grief. The man is not a humorist, nor even an essayist (you have to watch out for essays—they are too salted with additives designed to give them better shelf life): he’s a poet.
—Geoffrey Elan, Yankee magazine
In Praise of Practical Fertilizer is a fine, wry, quotable collection. It has both humor and dignity and that curious strength which sometimes underlies reticence. There are stories to return to, humor to repeat, and two truly beautiful and sad pieces that are unforgettable. It is an unusual book, full off dry, warm affection for people, a deep interest in the arrangements they make for living, and the long shadows of the past which fade rapidly now.
—Josephine Johnson, author of The Inland Island
In Praise of Practical Fertilizer is a collection of tales with their own mythology. It is this that first interests the reader. More formally, it is an old-fashioned, literate collection of essays in a line of succession that goes back to those elegant 18th and 19th century gentlemen of letters, and through the Americans, Emerson, Thoreau, and E.B. White. And that is not bad company to keep in Chester Township, Ohio.
—Dayton Daily News
Two of my favorite books of the year were collections of essays. John Baskin’s In Praise of Practical Fertilizer is a series of meditations on the weather, the crops, the country culture of southern Ohio from an Ohio writer whose work more people should know. Richard Selzer’s Letters to a Young Doctor is a doctor’s reflection on suffering and healing and is further evidence of the current ascendancy of science writing in America.
—Trudy Krisher, Dayton Journal Herald
Some people may pick up John Baskin’s In Praise of Practical Fertilizer, expecting a how-to-do-it that will initiate them into the mysteries of making compost. But it’s not that kind of book at all. Mr. Baskin’s book is delightful, nonetheless, for its close observation of life in rural Ohio, precise style, and charming wit.
—The Wall Street Journal
Baskin has a wonderfully sensitive ear for down-home folk speech and tongue-in-cheek humor. He can be touching and nostalgic, too. In short, Baskin can be funny, engaging, affecting, sage, and just plain fun to read.
—The Columbus Dispatch
John Baskin’s essays have the ring of fine lyrics while unfolding like successive layers of geological striations. Thank goodness he is among us to celebrate and chide our follies.
—Peter Davis, author of Hometown
This house is my vantage point. It is a two-story farmhouse in the middle of two hundred acres of cornfields. Lester and Vera Lane built it in 1924, and the neighbors say it was quite a place. There were hardwood floors, a full basement, and on either side of the big living-room fireplace, glass-doored bookcases containing Shakespeare and Macauley’s essays. Mrs. Bailey down the road said she’d never seen a closet just for brooms before.
The children were not as impressed as the neighbors. “We had that big house,” said one of them, “and nothing in it.” Finally, in the generosity of good markets just before that hair shirt of a decade to come, Vera bought a good carpet for the living room. In Xenia, there was a man also named Lester Lane, and the bill went to his house where it was opened by his wife, Gertie. “Lordy,” she said delivering the bill to Vera, “that must be some carpet.”
Vera was from a well-off family. Her father had one of the first two automobiles in Clinton County. On a Sunday, he took his family driving and ran into the second car. Lester’s father was a night watchman at the casting factory. He came down the stairs at four o’clock every afternoon with his shoes in his hands and sleep on his face. Lester considered his family poverty-stricken. This image informed him. He was determined to “get-on.” Early photographs of him show a handsome but grave young man. His credo in the school yearbook was “serious, solemn, and studious.”
When he built this house, it cost only slightly less than the surrounding cornfields. In the severe weather of the thirties, he almost lost both. To save them, he went to work in the federal land bank program, although he never had any use for Democrats. But neither did anyone else in the neighborhood. Vergo Mitchner wouldn’t carry a Roosevelt dime in his pockets.
Once, on a trip to Washington with the farm bureau, the group drove down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, and Lester got out and asked one of the guards if he might see Mr. Roosevelt for a moment. Presumably, he and the president would have soon put things to rights.
Lester beat the depression, though. It is possible he even enjoyed it a bit, like an affliction one whips, then feels stronger for it. The maples his sons planted around the house matured, and so did the sons, although one fell under suspicion because he became a Unitarian minister.
“A Unitarian,” sniffed one old Methodist, “is someone who believes Jesus Christ was the illegitimate son of Joseph. Now what would your mother think of that?”
When Ed graduated from Wilmington College and went off to the seminary, the big farmhouse was nearly empty. “I feel a bit too old, and finished,” Vera wrote in her diary. She liked the minister who told her heaven was a place where “parents are young and children small.”
She was not “too old” until well into her eighties, however. Then she became sick and needed the strict and professional observances of a nursing home. Lester went with her. They left the house as though they were going for a Sunday drive.
By the time I met Lester, he, too, was ill. He sat in a chair in the winter sunlight and talked about his trip back from Nebraska in a covered wagon, when he was ten. He was nearly deaf, and it was difficult for us.
At the farmhouse, I packed things away, moved some of the furniture upstairs. There were notes and records everywhere, in Lester’s gradually failing handwriting. There were even notes scribbled on the holding tank for the cistern. This was partly his penchant for order but it seemed, too, a way for him to fight with his faculties. He fought the Depression, the land, the image of his family, and now he was fighting his memory. It was just one more fight, and as fierce as all the rest.
He saved everything, too. The house was filled with the accumulated equipage of over fifty years in one place. It was like moving into a museum. He’d even saved the gallstones from the operation on old Major, his best plowhorse.
The last time I saw him he was past ninety and his son Howard drove him by one Sunday afternoon. I was in the yard, pruning the shrubbery. He seemed pleased, and I certainly was. I felt a bit like one of the troops being reviewed by the old general. I was pleased I’d been working. That has been several years and even now, at certain odd times, I expect him to walk in and ask me why I’m not getting more done.
A Christmas memory
My grammar school was condemned. Does that explain why I was a backward child, unable to spell out my desires at Christmastime? I hated the linoleum on the floor of my unheated upstairs bedroom because on winter mornings when my feet touched it I thought my heart would stop and so I wished for carpeting. “What’s carpeting for a child to ask at Christmas?” said my father. I learned carpeting was adult, and so desire persisted, having nothing to do with carpeting anyway.
I thought I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, too, but that could have been because Toby Hunter had her. Toby Hunter’s house had central heating and Toby Hunter had Mary Frances Verdin. That was the way I saw it.
I wanted, of course, what I could get, but that was secondary. Anything I could name I supposed I might be able to get. Even though I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, I was careful not to pray for her.
If anyone in the family had read, they would have given me books. Only my grandmother read, however, and very carefully as though reading were a barefoot act in a rocky field. For Christmas, someone gave her a hardbound copy of Catcher in the Rye. She found that Holden Caulfield took liberties with the language, turned to the back to see if he talked any better and when he didn’t, she burned the book.
We cut the tree on the first Saturday after school was out. I was fourteen, the oldest, and so in charge. My two brothers went with me into the cedars on the hillside pasture. I was looking for a symmetry which, of course, I could never quite find. Because it was Christmastime, my brothers deferred to my impossible standards. After an hour or more, still unsatisfied, I made my choice.
The tree went in the front room, which was never used except for special occasions, and the Christmas lights lit the gloomy front of the farmhouse. Uncle W. W. fell into it once, after he had made too many trips to the laundry hamper. He kept a bottle of whisky under the dirty clothes at Christmastime. Both the tree and Uncle W. W. recovered, although it was touch-and-go with my grandmother.
Grandfather never drank but once, a fact which spoiled my grandmother. On a trip to New York, my grandparents went to a night club because they had never been to one. My grandfather ordered a mint julep. It was served in a tall frosted glass with a large clump of mint and an exorbitant bill. “The goddamned shrubbery is sure high out here,” said my grandfather.
Half the family was present, my mother’s side, twenty-five in the farmhouse on Christmas Day, mamma’s bed sagging under coats, family gifts piled in tiers around the tree, the laundry hamper armed. We spread out to keep the house from listing.
When we went in for dinner, a cat was sitting on the linen cloth lapping gravy from a china bowl. Father picked up a hammer on the pantry shelf, tossed it at the cat, struck him on the head and he leaped to fall dead on the floor, the hammer sailing into a chair, not a dish broken, grandfather saying, “Praise God for eyesight to protect a man’s hearth and gravy!” And we ate.
There are moments when we are young, and all of time seems neatly balanced. Past, present, future, all aligned, as though the machinery of the universe had inexplicably hesitated, allowing me sight that was curved, like time itself was said to be. It was after dinner and I was lying behind my grandfather’s chair, to one side of the fireplace. The voices in the room blended into one pleasant droning sound.
I imagined my grandfather’s life, occurring to me then as a series of images accompanied by sensations that unreeled in my mind like a film speeded up. I saw myself in the pause, the waiting time of my life, and then I saw myself as my own grandfather, more a sensation of how I wished to be than a picture.
Desire, uncalibrated, unknown, moved me, and I knew I wanted everything, or nothing, though I could not name anything. O, I thought, almost in pain, for it was what I could name, for my parents, grandparents, uncountable sweetly sweating cousins, fat uncles, all the Christmas lights, warmth, and pleasures of this room forever!