Though we all eat multiple times a day, fewer Americans have direct connections to the land. The rural population is smaller and bigger machinery and consolidations have left rural communities vacant.
Remembering agriculture 50 years ago is the theme of Alan Guebert’s Land of Milk & Uncle Honey. But this is more than nostalgia, rather, a reminder that hard work and family are the bedrock of solid and caring communities.
Guebert is an award-winning agricultural columnist, who regularly scours “Big Ag,” mega-food processors and multinational corporations for their excessive profit-taking, harm to small producers and legislative re-writes to pad their own pockets.
In those analytical weekly columns, Guebert will often reference his 1950s-60s childhood on a Southern Illinois dairy farm, conjuring a world rich with the changing seasons and the colorful characters who made up his Mississippi Bottom’s “family.” That farm and its extended family are the subjects of his new book, Land of Milk & Uncle Honey, completed with his daughter Mary Grace Foxwell.
Guebert and I grew up a few years and not too many miles apart. While he was rooting for the Cardinals down on the farm, I was doing the same on St. Louis area porches. While his family lived by the cycle of milking, my family lived by bus schedules and factory whistles. Yet Guebert shares a basic human story that anyone can relate to, farm or city raised.
The essential core of Land of Milk & Uncle Honey is the value of human labor and mutual caring. His childhood was marked by chores in the dairy barn, hayfield and vegetable garden. That labor obviously insured his family’s well-being. Grizzled farm hands helped initiate Guebert into the world of work. Howard, Jackie and others were as much of the farm’s texture as the pastures and cows. Anyone who’s worked construction or any other working class job soon meets the “old hands.” They may not be rich with book learning, but they are a wealth of work skills, survival techniques, having a little fun through the day’s routine, and vocabulary enrichment for young ears.
Guebert brings these characters to life, his childhood wonder now viewed through an adult lens, especially Uncle Honey, a gentle soul who sweet spirit also included the ability to wreck farm machinery and just about everything he touched, except for the family he loved and that loved him. This book is rich in the seasonal texture of rural Illinois. Guebert knows how to turn a phrase to conjure spring blossoms emerging or an August day in the hayfield, so that one can almost smell the hay, feel the cow’s warm breath or wonder at a starlit winter night.
Life is not just a job. Yet we must work to survive. How do we take that necessary task and make it human and rewarding? The stories here are not just colorful characters and lush, ripening bottomlands, rather it is a family that makes a way of life, woven together in kitchen table mutual dependence. These are real family values, not political slogans. Our current ethos tells us we must all be lone individuals, making our way through a wicked world.
There is a better way and that is to humanize work, not just enrich ourselves. Guebert reminds us of that alternative perspective, a view his German Lutheran parents and family passed through generations. Doesn’t matter whether you are baling hay, laying asphalt or punching little computer keys, there are lessons and contemplations here that relate to all. This book is rich with humor, humanity and natural descriptions that will bring a smile to the face.
Land of Milk & Uncle Honey, By Alan Guebert with Mary Grace Foxwell
University of Illinois Press $17.95
Reviewed by Mike Matejka
So take a trip down where the Kaskaskia flows into the Land of Milk & Uncle Honey and you might just find yourself on that floating river of your own life, contemplating values and real meaning.
More information about where to purchase the book and upcoming author events throughout Illinois and elsewhere may be found at farmandfoodfile.com.