Wind and Weather: A Summer in the Bailey Archive (Intro)

I’ve been on the trail of Liberty Hyde Bailey for years now. I discovered him, ironically, after moving away from the small hometown of South Haven, Michigan that he and I shared about 130 years apart. Then, over several years at Iowa State University, while working on an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment, I became obsessed. Bailey, a horticulturist-cum-environmental philosopher, the “Father of Modern Horticulture,” and a founding thinker of the New Agrarianism, raised out of a small frame house on a pioneer fruit farm a mile from Lake Michigan’s coast, came to dominate my master’s thesis, a 200-page lyrical nonfiction project titled Havening: Love Letters to a Town and a Dead Man. That project I am just engaging with again, under a new presidency, when the stakes for understanding the complex history of progressive and practical Midwestern rural community organizing seem higher than ever.

After working as intern, then curator, and then executive director of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum, a small birthplace/childhood home museum in our hometown, I shipped off for Manhattan to follow a PhD in English and American Literature at New York University. I can trace my progress since by how I’ve spent my summers: the first I worked on a 400-year-old organic educational farm on Shelter Island, NY, the second I spent back in South Haven reading as many of the 65 books on my major and minor exam lists as I could manage, and now, at the outset of my third summer, I am living in a small cottage on Cayuga Lake, just outside of Ithaca, New York, preparing to write the first chapter of my dissertation.

Sunset behind Cayuga Lake, Ithaca, NY

I am in Ithaca because it is L. H. Bailey Country even more than South Haven is. This is where Bailey, born on the Ides of March 1858, set down roots for himself and his family in the early 1880s and began his career in horticulture, rural sociology, and agricultural education. This is where he founded the New York State College of Agriculture at Cornell University and served as its beloved Dean, and where he would live out the rest of his years until his death on Christmas Eve of 1954, having lived through the Civil War and both World Wars and seen some of the most dramatic transformations in the history of agriculture. I’ve made pilgrimages here a number of times over the years — first with some voluntary financial help from a couple professors at Iowa State, just to see what the archives held (a ton), then again and again with more and more specific questions to ask of this man who I can never meet, but whose voice speaks through the pages of thousands and thousands of pieces of correspondence and pages of manuscript. I have visited his grave, peered into the windows of his vacant but still-standing summer home (on the side of the lake opposite the cottage where I now sit, typing this), and handled, carefully, sheets of his pressed plants, collected for science in his massive herbarium, preserved as a biological record to this day — and I imagined how his hands held them, pressed them, penned their names and described their curves and colors. And I have spent many, many hours sifting through papers, hunting down stray collections, and seeking out the people here who still hold close the history of this sadly overlooked character, much as the community of South Haven has done the same at his birth site museum. And Bailey talks to me in the interstices of these days. His presence is deep on the campus he helped to shape and in the town where he did so much.

I won’t make the case for Bailey’s importance here; you can read a short biographical sketch, though, that I wrote for the museum in South Haven here. This summer I come with some of my most specific questions and with the greatest luxury of time, although I know it will pass quickly. I come especially with questions about Bailey’s outreach work with farmers, as one of the early visionaries for what the land-grant agricultural colleges might become: a vision undercut by the more historically recent emergence of the corporate co-option of much college-level agricultural education by the big seed companies and other special interests in the private sector. Bailey grew up a farm boy and never gave up farming entirely, despite his intensive educational and academic work. And the farmer’s perspective lies at the base of his ecological vision — a vision which emerged throughout his oeuvre and never quite came together in a single book, although the closest thing to a Bailey ecological manifesto would be The Holy Earth (1915). Bailey’s outreach work and promotion of the contentious and multifaceted Country-Life Movement of the early twentieth century culminated, in a certain sense, with his brief but exhilaratingly productive tenure as chairman of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life, which sent out half a million circulars to people living in rural areas, held town-hall meetings across the country, and gathered a mountain of data to provide a snapshot of the problems and potential directions forward for rural America in the Progressive Era — turbulent years, as economic policy and mechanization began to speed the movement away from the country and into the cities. This was also in the terrible wake of Reconstruction, and important debates were taking place between such movement leaders within the African American community as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, each of whom also became correspondents with Bailey at this time.

I will use this space to post some of my more interesting findings as they come along, day by day. The posts will mostly be short. I recognize that the interest in this information, in this relatively raw form, is limited. So, I will post in part for the community of people who I have begun to know who are already invested in telling and learning more of Bailey’s story — but I also wish to post as an exercise in making academic work visible and in posing questions of relevance. I got into this thing not for Bailey, but for his vision for what our relationships to each other, in human communities and in more-than-human ecosystems, might become in a growing, improving world. The realities of climate change (and the massive contributions that our food system makes to it) make these questions more urgent than ever. Bailey’s perspective is nonconformist enough that it continues to speak to us in prophetic ways (sometimes disturbingly so). My dissertation is not on Bailey, although he will figure prominently in at least a chapter or two — my dissertation will center itself around a much larger question about how we figure our placedness in this mysterious Ecosphere, what Bailey called this holy earth, and how we can learn, in his words, to “take a new hold” as we explore that relationality. I am interested, in this blog, in the ways moments of relevance and groundedness may begin to emerge from engagement with the archival material itself.

The first sequel to The Holy Earth that Bailey published was a collection of poems. He titled the collection Wind and Weather. Many of the poems were brief, and many likely come off to our ears as rather sing-songy, given how out of touch we twenty-first-century readers are with the kinds of rhymed poetry that farm kids once memorized in two-room schoolhouses. But all of them, even the two-liners, ring with a sense of the world and its freshness. Bailey’s ideal wasn’t to write complicated or dense poetry; he seemed more concerned with capturing moments of surprise, joy, wonder, and occasionally loneliness and grief. But it was all just, ultimately, wind and weather. I’m taking that as my guide here. I hope what I post will interest some. I am certain it would bore others. In the end, if it opens up perspective for me, and maybe even for the occasional reader, I will be satisfied with this little experiment in documentation.

I welcome comments, questions, and other feedback, either on this little side project or on my research more generally. Please get in touch through my website. You can see all of my research-related posts on my Medium profile.