Survivalist of a Different Stripe

I walked along the dike, its packed dirt roadway cracked and dusty in the setting late summer sun. I’d hitchhiked all day, trying to get to my grandfather on the day his postcard had indicated he would be at his orchard. Not wanting to waste money frivolously on phone calls, he often communicated by blank white postcards written densely on both sides to impart non-urgent information. As he travelled nearly constantly, it was usually impossible to reach him, or even leave a message more accurately than within a couple of days.

I already knew I would not find him there, for I had earlier encountered an older man, methodically advancing on the seat of his horse-drawn carriage, transporting some barrels:

- Good afternoon. I’m looking for my grandfather – could you point me toward his land? His name is Lawrence Yossarian.

The gentleman eyed me for a moment, with a small but benign smile, squinting and adjusting his hat against the sun.

- So, you are the Professor’s grandson, eh? His land is back there, half a mile the way I came -- but you won’t find him today. He left this morning. I can take you to his neighbor’s house, if you want. My name’s James Yossarian. Nice to meet you, cousin.

Grandpa’s neighbor had given me dinner and the news that he’d left for the train earlier that day. Wanting to at least SEE the reason for my trip – the mostly finished cellar in the middle of the land, pretty close to what I at the time considered the middle of nowhere – I declined the elderly gentleman’s offer of lodging, and walked on. As I tried to sleep later that night on the cement in the bare concrete box that radiated heat until the dawn hours, listening to crickets and mosquitos, I was more bemused at the situation than angry. I cursed my decision to (more or less on a whim) take up his invitation without calling him first, but also wondered about the wisdom of his enterprise. Just as importantly, I pondered why in the first decade and a half of my life, no one had informed me of the existence of a small and loose, but definitely CLAN of a dozen or so families of my distant relatives living in the area, halfway across the country from my home town.

At the time, my grandfather had been 70 years old, attempting farming for the first time in his adult life. Sure, he had the help of his neighbors (gradually, after they accepted that he intended to stay), and the local day-laborers and tractor owners – but he cultivated the 30 or so acres pretty much on his own. He had from the start nearly always managed to break even or better. Being still in high school, I did not truly (or even superficially) understand the reason for his determination to prove he could do it, but even then admired the sheer willpower necessary to have accomplished what he had.

It was only later, gradually – both from him and the rest of the family – that I managed to learn the source of the drive to master his own estate. After a youth of being raised as the eldest son to continue managing the family farm, having just received his PhD equivalent agricultural engineer diploma, he had arrived at the cusp of beginning his career. He was to take on the mantle of the small, but still sizeable estate of his parents. Unfortunately, his timing could not have been more badly off. Seeing as mass transport was not available at the time of his graduation, he hitchhiked and walked the 200 or so miles back from his university. Straight into the arms of the Red Army, advancing from the east. It was 1945, and as if sh*t had not already gotten real enough, things were about to get worse.

He was taken as a prisoner of war, and eventually hauled off with a sizeable (but not overwhelming – SOME portion of labor force was decreed necessary to keep in-country) portion of military-age men to a wonderful vacation destination administered by the friendly, humanistically-minded gentlemen working for a small subdivision of the NKVD known as ГУЛаг.

After two years of what was affectionately called ‘a little work’ at a resort to the far northeast, he was eventually released and made his way back to his family’s homestead. As he told me later, he was shuffling along, with dirty, torn and disheveled clothes, a beard down to his chest. Outside the large town close to his village, he had hitched a ride with someone who turned out to be a distant cousin, who had not recognized him at first. Only to find that his family’s land had been nationalized and confiscated, his father stripped of his teaching position at the university, and he and his entire family blacklisted (doubly, for his father had been not only a landowner, but a no-good CLERIC as well).

He never talked about his years in the camp, brushing it off with a curt “It was hard”. I regret not having pushed harder to learn more about it at the time (now, of course, when it’s far too late), but he did often praise meals by saying “it’s a heckuva lot better than rotten potatoes and boiled belt leather”.

Grandfather proceeded to dig ditches, arrange gardens, load trucks and take on any number of menial jobs for the next several years – until the repression of evil, parasitic self-sufficient landowners and the clergy had eased enough for him to be able to secure a teaching position at a small, rural agricultural vocational school training farmhands in viniculture and cattle husbandry. He worked there until he retired, training young men who would eventually work on the collective farms and state vineyards throughout the country – that had been taken from families like his.

So nearly 50 years later, when the government announced the program of (partial) reparations, he signed up to a process that would eventually yield him a document. This note attested to the fact that, according to the contemporary land and property valuations from the 1940’s (and the wonderful bail-in formulas applied to calculate compensation – 100% up to X amount, 50% up to X+N amount, 25% above Y amount, etc.), he was entitled to the equivalent of about a third of his family’s former land and holdings. This amount was approximately 300 gold crowns, if my memory serves correctly.

The land value at the time had been calculated, recorded and in earlier years even transacted in units of gold crowns, based on both the quality of soil and cultivation characteristics of an agricultural property (climate, groundwater, irrigation, infrastructure, etc.). Throughout the decades after WWII, governments and agricultural experts tried to come up with a better system of classifying arable lands, but due to the lack of a better alternative, and the inertia of having all land records nationwide denominated in this unit, gold crown value remains to this day. Incidentally, agricultural subsidies from the state and ‘federal’ governments are issued by area, not by land quality – but fiat valuations of property are of course based on gold crowns – and hence of course the taxes levied on their sale. So this gold standard lives on…

The ‘gold crown value equivalent’ pieces of scrip (their value announced by fiat, in fiat, naturally) went to widows, elderly pensioners, and in most cases to the children of those dispossessed at the time. Most people bought Treasury bonds, apartments/houses, in a few cases equities on the newly opened stock market, or (in woefully too many cases) sold them at a discount for cash to speculators and oligarchs. Grandpa, naturally, did nothing of the sort. Poring over land auction announcements, one day he took the 3+ hour train ride to the small village I eventually ended up at, walking the last few miles to the meeting room of the tiny village hall.

When time came to submit bids for the parcels being sold off, the assembled village-folk eyed with suspicion this elderly, bearded, thin old man from the capital wearing a tweed jacket, who had come to bid on the lands they and their relatives had worked on all these decades long. He attributed his success at being able to get the land to the fact that he had walked through the small crowd, introducing himself, and shaking the hands of each of the assembled (mostly gruff, from what I imagine) locals. “They knew I was a working man, from shaking my hand.” he said. They warmed up to him (his family name probably also helped), the village selectmen made sure he was able to get a lot at a fair price. Later over the years, while undoubtedly rolling their eyes in disbelief sometimes at the old fogey attempting to plant wheat, then sunflowers, finally an ORCHARD by himself – they gave him or helped him get lodging, rides, plowing, fertilizer, milk, access to a fruit warehouse co-op and market, or a warmer coat – as need dictated.

When he died seventeen years later, he still had thick, hard, cracked, soil-stained calluses on his hands. He had ultimately planted 300 or so fruit trees by himself in the orchard, and had workmen put in another 700 or so. He was planning on building a pumping system to keep his irrigation reservoir full from the river on the other side of the dike, and to build out electrical lines to power canning machinery. His mantra, to his dying day: “Christian first. Human second. (insert nationality here) third. Peasant to the grave.” His grave distrust of politicians, bankers, geopolitics – the system and TPTB, as it were, seemed eccentric and old-fashioned, at the time. Not so much as the years wore on… One of his many teachings, certainly one of those most important to him: “Fertile soil will ALWAYS feed a family willing to till it, regardless of whatever happens in the world.” His instructions when he bequeathed it to us were NEVER to sell the land, except to buy an estate of equivalent value elsewhere – or to donate it to the church.

Got farmland and a community who knows and (even if grudgingly) respects you? Knowledge of the land and how to cultivate it? Willingness and ability to get hands dirty, and to remain determined enough to weather what storms may come?

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