Great Depression

Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

Perennial Grains and "Centers of Origin"

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration,  The Atlantic

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration, The Atlantic

I read with special interest the article “How Will We Feed the New Global Middle Class” by Charles C. Mann in last month’s issue of The Atlantic (March 2018). It not only addressed this pressing question in terms amply supplied with meaningful examples and disturbing statistics, but referenced the important research long undertaken by a longtime friend and supporter of our work at Palouse Colony Farm, WSU plant scientist Dr. Stephen Jones. Mann’s article casts the controversy about supplying a growing world population’s food supply as a century-long contest between the “Wizards” and the “Prophets.” He characterizes the former as advocates of commodity production and scientific innovation exemplified by Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution,” and the “Prophets,” or proponents of natural ecosystem conservation like William Vogt. I commend the entire article for your review of this complex question, but thought Mann’s discussion of Stephen Jones’s research on perennial wheat to represent a rare convergence of Wizard-Prophet interests.

Perennial grains do not exist in nature so cereal crops must be planted year after year which necessitates field tillage and attendant labor and other inputs. Development of a crop like the Salish Blue wheat hybridized by Jones and his agronomist colleague Steve Lyon offers hope for a grain of sufficient milling quality that can produce from the same plant for two to three years. Jones and Lyon have told me that the pioneers of perennial grain research were a team of Russians headed by Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), a brilliant scientist who paid for his independent thinking by perishing in one of Stalin’s GULAG prisons. Vavilov formulated the “Centers of Origin” theory (a phrase first used by Darwin) for the geographic origins of the world’s cereal grains. Vavilov had been a protégé of Robert Regel, Russia’s preeminent pre-revolutionary era botanist. Regel had appointed the brilliant young Saratov University scientist head of all Russia’s agricultural experiment stations on the very day the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917. Vavilov became a prime-mover in the organization of the first All-Russian Conference of Plant Breeders in Saratov in 1920.

The group’s June 4 opening session marked a milestone for world science as Vavilov delivered his famous paper, “The Law of Homologous Series in Hereditary Variation,” in which he put forth the first hypothesis on plant mutation. For subsequent related research that led to the formulation of a law on the periodicity of heritable characteristics, Vavilov came to be known as the Mendeleyev of biology. Although Vavilov’s enthusiastic grasp of problem definition in crop breeding proved easier than problem solving, upon Regal’s death later in 1920 he was named director of the Agricultural Ministry’s Department of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, and went on to organize the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Vavilov derived many of his insights from extensive travels “across the whole of Scripture” in Transjordan (Israel) and Palestine. He traveled widely in the Middle East and pored over religious texts in order “to reconstruct a picture of agriculture in biblical times.” His ideas were significantly influenced by the field studies of German botanist Frederich Körnicke (1828-1908), curator of the Imperial Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, and Aaron Aaronsohn, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Haifa, Palestine. In an article published in 1889 on the history of world grains, Körnicke had identified a specimen of wild emmer found in the collection of the National Museum of Vienna as the progenitor of all modern wheats. He urged botanists to conduct expeditions in the foothills of Mt. Hermon where it had been found in order to better document its origin and range.

Aaronsohn subsequently recorded his historic 1906 discovery of the grain: “When I began to extend my search to the cultivated lands [near Rosh Pinna], along the edges of roads and in the crevices of rocks, I found a few stools of the wild Triticum. Later I came across it in great abundance, and the most astonishing thing about it was the large number of forms it displayed.” Indefatigable Vavilov followed Aaronsohn’s itinerary to locate this relict stands of the famed “Mother of Grains” and found it growing nearly forty inches tall with stiff, six-inch long beards. His further research demonstrated that emmer’s ancestral range extended throughout northern Transjordan and into Turkey.

Vavilov met Washington State College agronomist Edwin Gaines and his celebrated botanist wife, Xerpha, at the 1932 Sixth International Genetics Congress at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This celebrated gathering was attended by some 550 of the world’s leading geneticists. The conclave’s highlight was the much-anticipated delivery of Valvilov’s presentation on geographic distribution of wild cultivar relatives. His paper focused on the importance of preserving threatened landraces and their progenitors for future breeding stock and pure research. He further postulated the origin of modern hard red wheats in the Fertile Crescent (“southwestern Asia”) and soft whites in northwestern Africa. Vavilov also described ancient selection methods by which early agriculturalists unconsciously conducted spontaneous variety selections.

In spite of myriad challenges in hosting such a prestigious event in the midst of the Great Depression, the Gaineses invited Vavilov to Pullman while on his extended trip to several western states. Vavilov accepted the offer and spent several weeks in the late summer and fall of 1932 touring grain research stations in the Northwest clad in ever present tie and fedora. The time of year and fecund Columbia Plateau laden with grains spawned from his homeland may well have reminded Vavilov of lines from the celebrated Russian poet Pushkin extolling life on the steppe. He could quote verse at length in fluent English. The Gypsies imagines new life in fall-sown wheat even as hunters and their dogs trample fields underfoot. The image poignantly anticipates Vavilov’s own fate a decade later as a victim of Stalin’s purges: “…the winter wheat will suffer from their wild fun” while the stream ever “passes by the mill.”

Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes:  New Deal Farm Security Administration Harvest Photos and Art

A remarkable team of photographers were associated with the Department of Agriculture’s WPA-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1943 including Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marjory Collins. Although they had little background in farming, these individuals immersed themselves in the realities of Depression era farming to create some of the nation’s most iconic images of the time. The group worked under the direction of FSA Historical Section director Roy Stryker to formulate a vernacular realism of images and articles that honored rural traditions. Rothstein (1915-1985) found it useful to overcome the suspicions of country folk by conspicuously carrying his Leica camera for several days when visiting with residents on a new assignment without actually taking any pictures. Eventually his subjects felt accustomed to his presence and would even ask to have their pictures taken in formal settings and for what Rothstein sought as “unobtrusive camera” shots: “the idea of becoming a part of the environment… to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken.” While visiting harvest fields in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, Rothstein gained special appreciation for the significance of small details and came to understand with his colleagues that their mission was not photojournalism, but “photography as fine art” depicting “man in relationship to the environment.”

Marion Post Wolcott,  Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia  (1939);   Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Marion Post Wolcott, Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia (1939); Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Russell Lee (1903-1986) was especially sympathetic to the rural poor and traveled widely in the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest in the spirit of his unpublished “Hired Man” project. Lee sought to document the essential if substantially neglected public depiction of hired farm hands and transient “tramp” laborers, also derisively called “hobos” and “bums,” who traveled the countryside to find work during the harvest season. The collaborative efforts of FSA photographers contributed to widespread public support for New Deal rural improvement programs as images of austere farm homes, windswept fields, and beleaguered harvest workers were featured at public exhibitions and filled the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers and periodicals. As her FSA colleagues worked extensively in the Midwest and South, Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) documented rural experience of the era from New England to the Southern states. Her stirring images also express the administration’s social consciousness and the presence of a woman sometimes provided them access to persons and situations that excluded other outsiders.

Ben Shahn,  Harvest Dinner  (1938);   Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ben Shahn, Harvest Dinner (1938); Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was already an accomplished National Academy of Design artist and printmaker in Manhattan when also hired in 1935 as one of the first FSA photographers. He used his pictures not only to advance the agency’s moral mission to inform the wider population to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art including many harvest paintings and lithographs including Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). The latter is a watercolor of several dozen black stalks of wheat highlighted by swaths of bright colors in areas where the stems cross. It was also used for Shahn’s illustration of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season….”) in a collection of photo-lithographs rendered with handwritten and illuminated text by the artist for Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris: The Trianon Press, 1967). In the book’s preface, Shahn attributes the origin of his artistic commitment to Old Testament references by family and community elders in his Jewish hometown and a particular verse from Solomon’s ancient book: “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion….” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).  

Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, on the Virgil and Cora Thaxton farm near Mechanicsburg consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished harvesters. The artist’s notebooks include details on his hosts’ Depression era economic plight known to many tenant farmers who struggled with low crop shares to make ends meet:

Virgil Thaxton rents a 120-acre farm… [which] is the fourth farm he has rented within the last eight years. At each change he hopes to make enough to have a nice home for his family. Within the last eight years hogs have not brought more than ten cents on the foot. Wheat brought sixty cents per bushel this year. Mr. Thaxton is constantly agitated. He is conscious of the rundown condition of his farm. He would like to have it look as neat as Mr. Brand's own farm. In his agitation he is constantly pulling up a weed here, a weed there, but must then break off to tend the stock. Mr. Thaxton votes for Roosevelt…. Mr. Thaxton loves the land. Two years ago he was offered a small political job in the city. Mr. Thaxton: “But when I thought of the young wheat coming up and that pretty green on top of the hill and it is pretty I just wouldn't think of it. And then the children…. I hear wheat is bringing sixty cents now. If it only brought a few cents more I could afford to fix up this place. As it is, what with giving Mr. Brand his half, we can just get by.”

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes  (1967);    Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher    (Paris, 1967)

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967); Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris, 1967)

Shahn’s vernacular visuals provide an intimate look at domestic farm life as if Shahn and his camera are invisible observers inside the home. The midday meal was one of the most harried times for the apron-clad women who are shown cooking and serving, while men and boys dressed in overalls sit almost reverentially to partake of the abundant provisions and break from harvest labors. Shahn’s interior views show a sparsely decorated but comfortable home with paper calendar and mercury thermometer above a substantial wooden sideboard laden with meat, potatoes, bread, cake, and other fare. Another view shows a large framed picture on the wall of Christ holding a child, as if both are looking down at a boy—the Thaxton’s son, Harold, seated beneath them. Two tables covered with white fabric tablecloths are splendidly set with silverware, patterned china and Depression glass serving bowls, pitchers, plates, salt and pepper shakers, and wine glasses that probably hold a dessert. The workers eat quietly and drink coffee as if grateful for the bounty and mindful of the long hours of hot afternoon labor that await them.