Author Interviews
6:18 am
Sun July 28, 2013

'Rural Life' Adds Natural Color To 'The Grey Lady'

Originally published on Sun July 28, 2013 12:31 pm

Verlyn Klinkenborg's essays about life on his farm in upstate New York have run in The New York Times since 1997. With a long family history of farming, his agricultural roots run deep into the soil.

"All of my aunts and uncles farmed; all of my cousins still farm," he says. "The home farm where my dad was raised has been in my family since the early teens, and ... following the track of modern agriculture, has changed its character hugely over time. But it's still in the family."

A new collection of his essays, More Scenes from the Rural Life, tells of cows going for milking "with all the gravity of a town woman carrying a hot dish to a church supper." And he describes giving his pigs regular, serious brushings — "one of the great joys in a pig's life."

Klinkenborg tells NPR's Susan Stamberg about how he got started writing about such things and how he still finds so much on the farm to write about.


Interview Highlights

On how his rural column in a big city newspaper began

"The editor of the editorial page, when I was hired, Howell Raines, wanted to revive a tradition that had been part of the Times for a long time, which was a nature essay, usually on the Sunday page. ... And Howell was a fly fisherman, and I was writing a lot about fly fishing at one point, and my name got stuck in his head somehow. ... And he invited me to try a few pieces, and they worked out really well, and then after realizing that I could probably write about something besides nature, he actually asked me to join the board full time, which I did. ....

"I often talk to readers who basically think of me as the sort of ice cream sundae at the end of the page or something like that. One of the reasons it stuck is because, though this is a very urban paper with a very urban readership, everybody has their daydreams. And everybody over a certain age has a connection to a farm that's not very far in the past."

On returning to rural life on his own farm in upstate New York

"I bought it in '97, and it was a source of great amusement to my cousins and uncles. For example, when they heard that I was raising pigs, they just loved that. Because I had always been the school kid, I was the kid who went off to college and went off to graduate school and basically did things that were out of their realm, in some ways, just as they seemed to be out of my realm for a while.

"But when I wrote Making Hay in '86, my first book, it took me back into that agricultural world and re-acquainted me with the work they do and who they were, and it was really a wonderful re-introduction. So for me it was a chance really to try to understand what you might call the life cycle of nature. And even though I'm not making my economic living from this farm, I'm still surrounded by animals. I'm still surrounded by the patterns that surround most farmers."

On whether he has seen everything there is to see on the farm

"Well, there are days when I wonder that, but the fact is that there's an endless variation. And the weather patterns are never the same; the way the pastures are grazed is never the same. Odd things happen. ... Basically, there's always an errand or a task or a burden that leads you out onto the land. And the moment you get onto the land, everything changes in front of you, no matter what you think you've seen before."

On advice to aspiring writers

"The simplest way to put it, I think, is to make sure you're keeping your language as simple, as straightforward as possible, and to trust the reader. And by that I mean trust that the reader's perceptions resemble your own perceptions. ...

"So many young people I meet are just as perceptive about the world around them as I or any other writer happens to be, but they don't believe that their perceptions actually matter because nobody's really taught them that they do. And acquiring that conviction, that what you notice really makes a difference and can be communicated in a way that makes a difference, is really a huge step forward."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

The good, grey Times stopped being grey years ago once the New York newspapers started running color photographs, but the news remains pretty grey most days. Page one reports of conflicts, brutalities. Page two - ads for $3,000 Chanel purses. Get to the editorial page and the seriousness continues, except every now and then when Verlyn Klinkenborg writes an editorial about life on his farm in upstate New York. He tells of cows going through milking, quote, "with all the gravity of a town woman carrying a hot dish to a church supper." And giving his pigs regular serious brushings, quote, "one of the great joys in a pig's life." A collection of his editorial essays is just out. It's called "More Scenes from the Rural Life." Verlyn Klinkenborg joins us from our bureau in New York. Hello to you.

VERLYN KLINKENBORG: Hello to you.

STAMBERG: Now, before we launch into the good, grey NPR grilling, could you please read this little bit of something for us so that people can hear your writing? I've been thinking that it is broiling hot across most of this country, so how about a passage on snow? You'll cool us off. You wrote one in March in your second year on the farm.

KLINKENBORG: OK. Here goes. This is very much an end-of-March, desperately tired of winter piece. (Reading) I'd like to be able to hear the snow melting. A low whoosh would do. A sigh from the snowpack as it yields to the sun's existence. I'd settle for a barely audible scream. The sound the snow melt actually makes, the aural glittering of a dozen rills, is too diverting to suit my darker emotional needs. We had more than a hundred inches of snow this winter. It's not enough that it should melt. It should suffer as it melts. For the past five months, I've walked back and forth to the barn over a sheet of polar ice. Now, it groans as I step along it. I enjoy the sound. I send the horses up and down the ice sheet then I follow in the tractor. I am breaking up winter while I have the chance.

STAMBERG: Makes me feel cooler already. Thank you very much. Now, you have been doing your New York Times essays since 1997, and they appear on the pages of a paper that is the ultimate big city publication. So, tell us how that came about.

KLINKENBORG: Well, it's really interesting. The editor of the editorial page, when I was hired, Howell Raines, wanted to revive a tradition that had been part of the Times for a long time, which was a nature essay, usually on the Sunday page, originally written by Hal Borland but then by Edward Hoagland. And it had vanished for some time. And Hal was a fly fisherman, and I was writing a lot about fly fishing at one point, and my name got stuck in his head somehow. And I kept hearing from friends who had been fishing for Hal, and they kept saying that he had brought my name up. And one day I finally wrote to him and said I keep hearing that you bring my name up. What's this all about? And he invited me to try a few pieces, and they worked out really well. And then after realizing that I could probably write about something besides nature, he actually asked me to join the board full time, which I did.

STAMBERG: That's sort of the ultimate blessing, isn't it, to be on the editorial board?

KLINKENBORG: Well, it was interesting and it was really - it's been a tremendous education for me. All of my colleagues came up through the newsroom. They're all incredibly skilled journalists, but I've been a freelance writer but I'm really essentially an academic. So, they basically whisked me in the 10th floor window directly to the editorial page without all that preparatory treatment.

STAMBERG: And what about your agrarian creds? Your father, I know, he had a farm in Iowa.

KLINKENBORG: Well, he was actually a farm boy. But, yeah, I guess the agricultural credits are pretty deep. All my aunts and uncles farmed. All of my cousins still farm. The home farm, where my dad was raised, has been in the family since the early teens, and has - following, you know, the track of modern agriculture has changed its character hugely over time, but it's still in the family. It's still being worked.

STAMBERG: And what about you now? When did you buy that upstate New York farm of yours?

KLINKENBORG: Well, I bought it in '97 and it was a source of great amusement to my cousins and uncles. For example, when they heard that I was raising pigs, they just loved that. Because I had always been the school kid. I was the kid who went off to college and went off to graduate school and basically did things that, were, you know, out of their realm in some ways, just as they seemed to be out of my realm for a while. But when I wrote "Making Hay" in '86, my first book, it took me back into that agricultural world and re-acquainted me with the work they do and who they were, and it was really a wonderful re-introduction. So, for me it was a chance really to try to understand what you might call the lifecycle of nature. And even though I'm not making my economic living from this farm, I'm still surrounded by animals. I'm still surrounded by the patterns that surround most farmers.

STAMBERG: Yes. And being on the farm and then writing about the farm just adds the smell of newly mowed grass to the pages of that often dreary, or anyway terribly depressing, newspaper.

KLINKENBORG: Well, I often talk to readers who basically think of me as this sort of ice cream sundae at the end of the page, or something like that. One of the reasons it stuck is because, though, is it's a very urban paper with a very urban readership. Everybody has their daydreams. And everybody over a certain age has a connection to a farm that's not very far in the past.

STAMBERG: A little bit more reading now, please. This is a family program, and it's on a Sunday morning. But your take on turkey making is - it's just so elegantly done. Could you look at page 12, please?

KLINKENBORG: (Reading) I looked out on the pasture last Sunday morning and saw a tom turkey fully inflated, bestriding a hen. He let himself deflate until he looked no different from the rest of his harem, who are slender birds. Then he blew himself up again. His body swelled and turned black before my eyes. He became globular. He turned blue and white in the face and red in the waddles. His wings fell to his side and his primary feathers reached out to the ground. His tail fanned out and pivoted side to side as he shuffled forward like a dancer in "The Mikado." This was spring in all its glory, all its urgency. Then he trailed his way uphill toward the other male and they dueled with each other as though they were dueling with a mirror. The hens kept after the cracked corn and never once looked up.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: It's wonderful. Boy, you are, for big and little things, obviously, the consummate observer. But let me ask you this. As extraordinary as that scene is, how can you not, in all these years, really seen everything there is to see on your farm?

KLINKENBORG: Well, there are days when I wonder that, but the fact is that there's an endless variation. And the weather patterns are never the same, the way the pastures are grazed is never the same. Odd things happen. You know, I came back from California after spending the spring there and I realized, I saw how much the farm had grown up in the time that I'd been gone, how much brush had accumulated, for example. So, it was suddenly time that we begin bush-whacking and re-fencing. And basically, there's always an errand or a task or a burden that leads you out onto the land. And the moment you get onto the land, everything changes in front of you, no matter what you think you've seen before.

STAMBERG: Verlyn Klinkenborg, I wonder whether you have some advice for young writers. I wonder how they, even some old ones, can learn to think as you do, that green is the color of hope.

KLINKENBORG: Well, I think - I mean, I spend a lot of my time teaching young writers. And in fact, my previous book just before this is called "Several Short Sentences about Writing" and there's nothing but advice to young writers. But the simplest way to put it, I think, is to make sure that you're keeping your language as simple and as straightforward as possible, and to trust the reader. And by that I mean trust that the reader's perceptions resemble your own perceptions. So, that in a sense you have a certain faith in the authority what you notice. What I mean by that is so many young people I meet are just as perceptive about the world around them as I or any other writer happens to be, but they don't believe that their perceptions actually matter because no one's really taught them that they do. And acquiring that conviction, that what you notice really makes a difference and can be communicated in a way that makes a difference, is really a huge step forward.

STAMBERG: Verlyn Klinkenborg. The new collection of his essays for the New York Times is called "More Scenes from the Rural Life." Thank you very much.

KLINKENBORG: Thank you.

STAMBERG: Maybe just one more?

KLINKENBORG: Sure. (Reading) The days still come in order. Grey light collects in the bedroom long before dawn. Then comes a bleached noon and nearly always a threat of late afternoon thunderstorm. When rain falls, it's a relief. The darkness is annotated by fireflies, who have been unusually numerous - or is it unusually bright this year? The crickets are winding away as if they were somehow reeling in August. Moths beat against the window and now and then I feel the presence of a bat feeding among them. I'm laying in all the thinking I can against a time when summer is in short supply.

STAMBERG: Verlyn Klinkenborg. You can read and excerpt from "More Scenes from the Rural Life" at our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Rachel Martin is back next week. I'm Susan Stamberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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