Monday, December 24, 2012

What we can (and can't) ask history to do for us: Lessons from Martin Van Buren

Lindenwald's kitchen reflects the park's expanded focus on food and farming
Shortly before he lost his bid for Presidential re-election in 1839, Martin Van Buren purchased an old Dutch farm in his home town of Kinderhook, New York.  After the election, he moved there permanently, continuing to play a part in national politics but also becoming a serious farmer.

170 years later, the small national park centered around Van Buren's country mansion expanded its boundaries to include the property's 19th century farm fields as well.  Those fields are now protected for agricultural use in perpetuity and most of them are currently being cultivated by Roxbury Farm, a vibrant biodynamic CSA.  Prompted in part by concern about keeping prime farmland in Columbia County in cultivation, the boundary expansion has been both supported by and the impetus for a number of park-commissioned studies documenting Van Buren's farming and--in the case of my own Ethnographic Landscape Study--the longer history of agriculture in the county.  In thinking through the practical utility of the chapters of my report, as I've been doing in this series of posts, I'm struck by how Chapter 5, on Van Buren's quarter-century at the farm, brings us up against some of the thornier issues of moving good historical scholarship into the public sphere.

While I was doing my primary research, the park and the farm were engaged in trying to negotiate the terms of their new relationship, a process that is still ongoing and that exposed tensions between differing philosophical approaches, management styles, and economic imperatives.  A question that the park and I were both wrestling with, in parallel, was, "What kind(s) of contemporary farming are compatible with the park's core mission of interpreting the life and political career of Martin Van Buren?" 

This question was most salient for the small amount of land owned outright by the National Park Service (most of the acreage is actually in private hands) but also for thinking about possible future partnerships with other farmers who might farm the property at some point.  For the second half of the 20th century, Lindenwald's farmer-owner had grown corn, potatoes, and other commercial crops using DDT and other toxic pesticides, and there was a strong consensus--supported by general NPS policies--that this was not a compatible use.  But the question opened a real can of worms:  toxic pesticides might be off the table, but what other methods were acceptable or unacceptable?  Did Martin Van Buren's own farming practices offer any kind of guide to defining those limits?  How useful was the historical record in helping to guide present- and future-oriented decision-making?

Jesse Buel's Albany-based farm journal
There are certainly many intriguing overlaps between Van Buren's farming and some elements of the contemporary food movement, including CSA and biodynamic farming.  Van Buren's farm provided much of the food for his own household;  this was still a time of "eating local."  Commercial markets were beginning to exert a much stronger influence on what farmers grew and how they sold it, making the mid-19th century not unlike our own time in its particular blend of local consumption and more distant marketing.  Van Buren was au courant with many of the farm reform ideas of his time, and seems to have shared the concern of many in the northeast about the future of farming and the livelihoods and values that went with it (including, importantly for Van Buren, the virtues of "free soil and free men").  Duke University historian Reeve Huston, who conducted a Special History Study [PDF] on Van Buren's farming for the park, tended toward an interpretation of the former President as an enthusiastic adopter--if not precisely a pioneer--of techniques such as restoring the fertility of over-worked fields through manuring, experimenting with new crops like hops, and reading progressive farm journals like Jesse Buel's Albany-based Cultivator.  Roxbury Farm's practices echo and mirror many of these historical precedents, including that its founder, Jean-Paul Courtens, is himself Dutch-American, like Van Buren and others who cultivated this land from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

Jean-Paul traced out some of these similarities in a September 2010 newsletter [PDF], locating Roxbury Farm within the longer trajectory of reform efforts in Columbia County, and we used this history as the basis for a "three-century farm tour" at the park's 2010 Harvest Day celebration (at left, after the tour, are Otter and Conrad Vispo from the Farmscape Ecology Program, Jean-Paul Courtens and Jody Bollyut of Roxbury Farm, Anna Duhon from FEP, yours truly as the early 20th century daughter of a neighboring farm, and Kinderhook historian Ruth Piwonka).

But despite all that, when I came to write Chapter 5 of my report, the conclusion I rather reluctantly came to is that the history of Van Buren's own farming in no way provided a straightforward guide to what might be done on the farm in the present or future.  There were overlaps but also sharp differences, including of course the fact that no era is ever an exact repetition of a previous one.  And Van Buren himself, like virtually all farmers, created his own idiosyncratic set of choices and practices, pursuing some of the latest technologies but also planting his potatoes according to the phases of the moon, as his forebears had done. If there was a simple answer to guide the park's planning, it was that farming is an immensely complicated and dynamic activity that is inherently in dialogue with the changes and conditions of its own moment and practitioners.

So there were two takeaways for me from Chapter 5, in terms of history's utility in thinking about present-day farming and historic sites.  First, the chapter was an important corrective to the hope that the historical record can somehow provide a model or a map for "getting it right" in the present.  If anything, the historical record will almost invariably complicate things, which is frustrating but also important in keeping us from leaping to too-hasty or too-simple conclusions.  History, if you look closely at it, has a habit of forcing you to reflect more deeply and weigh alternatives more carefully.

And the second takeaway, since we do sometimes need to act rather than getting stuck in the pondering phase, is that it's important to be clear about what historical research can help us with and what just needs to be decided based on more present-oriented considerations.  In other words, we need to beware of asking history to do too much as well as too little.

Next:  Finding new histories--and unseen alternatives--between the lines.

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