John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
When you flush the toilet, do you know where your shit goes? Sure, in most cities, it flows into the main sewer system until it reaches a waste-water treatment plant somewhere on the outskirts of town. But then what happens to it? Do you have any idea? If your first response is, “Ask somebody who cares,” then you need to read David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces. Now.
Despite its goofball title and jokey tone, The Origin of Feces is a deeply serious work of environmental science that strives to do for how we think about shit what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have done for how we think about what we eat. In just more than 200 breezy, gag-filled pages, Waltner-Toews argues that by crowding people into cities and animals onto factory farms we have turned shit from a vital part of a healthy ecosystem into a toxic waste that must be managed. “We are taking a brilliantly complex diversity of animal, plant, and bacterial species,” he writes, “and transforming them into a disordered mess of bacteria and nutrients. We are transforming a wonderful complex planet into piles of shit.”
Unlike journalists such as Schlosser, Pollan, and Malcolm Gladwell who have led the charge in recent years to popularize abstruse scientific findings for lay readers, Waltner-Toews is himself a veterinarian and epidemiologist who teaches population medicine at the University of Guelph, near Toronto. Unfortunately for American readers, Waltner-Toews is also a Canadian whose new book is published by an independent Canadian publisher, ECW Press, which means The Origin of Feces will have nowhere near the public profile of a new Gladwell or Pollan tome.
This is a crying shame. I cannot think of a more necessary work of popular science since Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which together pulled back the curtain from the American agricultural-industrial food complex and helped kick the slow-food movement into gear. In some ways, though, those books had an easier time of it. While industrial feedlots and food processing plants may be largely invisible to most consumers, we eat the results of this industrial approach to food, which in a lot of cases tastes pretty awful. You don’t have to be an organic farming purist to be willing to pay a little extra to buy whole foods that taste better and, by extension, do slightly less damage to the planet.
No matter how pure your eating habits, however, your shit still stinks, and unless you are living in a yurt in the wilderness, it still gets flushed into the same sewage-treatment system that everybody else uses. Like so many of the systems that undergird a modern industrial society, waste management is opaque to everyone outside a tiny coterie of specialists — until, of course, there is an outbreak of food-borne illness or a fish-killing algae bloom caused by agricultural runoff, in which case we run around looking for villains, who are almost by definition not ourselves.
Waltner-Toews aims to tear down the mental wall we have built between ourselves and our crap and show us that what we excrete is not simply toxic sludge, but an essential, nutrient-rich link in the life cycle of our planet. To do this, he says, we must first find a good way to talk about shit. Early on, Waltner-Toews takes his reader on a whirlwind tour through the etymology of dozens of terms we use to describe what comes out of our asses, from the profane (“shit” and “crap”) to the euphemistic (“poop” and “BM”) to the technical (“biosolids” and “fecula”). This chapter is hilarious and often enlightening. Who knew that “excrement” comes from the Latin word excernere, “to sift,” or that the Middle English word “crap” found a place in the modern lexicon in part by its association with Thomas Crapper, who popularized the use of the flush toilet?
But here as elsewhere in the book, Waltner-Toews’s purpose is deadly serious. The way we talk about shit, he points out, lays bare the way we think about this basic byproduct of human life — which is that, most of the time, we’d rather not think about it at all. Shit embarrasses us. It’s dirty and smelly, and in colloquial language it is the go-to term for everything from outrageous lies (“bullshit”) to illegal drugs (“really good shit”) and worthlessness (“a piece of shit”). But when we are forced to think about its real-world consequences, we quickly retreat to vague technical terms like “biosolids” that have the advantage of not having any real meaning to most people.
This matters, Waltner-Toews argues:
We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural or urban waste problem…In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don’t have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be.
Waltner-Toews spends the rest of the book giving his reader the language, and the knowledge, to begin imagining alternatives to our present industrially engineered solutions to our quickly multiplying waste problems. His central point is that in a healthy, bio-diverse ecosystem, shit is neither waste nor a problem. For millions of years, animals have been eating plants and other animals and shitting out whatever their bodies couldn’t use, in the process distributing seeds that have allowed stationary plants to spread and providing nutrients to fertilize the soil and feed billions of insects and smaller organisms.
But by concentrating people and the animals we eat into increasingly industrialized spaces, we have severed the vital link between shit and the natural biological processes that have been cleaning it up and re-using it for as long as there has been life on our planet. One result is pollution, which, as Waltner-Toews suggests, is just a word we use to describe what happens when a substance — carbon dioxide, say, or pig shit– gets concentrated in one place faster than the natural systems can recycle it. Another outcome is a rise in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, most of which are caused by animal or human shit finding its way into our food. The separation of people and animals from the surrounding biosphere also contributes to broader systemic imbalances that lead to problems like extinction of species that depend on healthy ecosystems, famines resulting from nutrient-starved soils, and widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers designed in part to make up for the lack of natural shit-based fertilizer.
The problem of shit, Waltner-Toews says, is a classic “wicked problem,” meaning a problem that can’t be solved by straightforward science and engineering without creating a whole set of new problems. We can, for instance, pump pig shit into vast manure lagoons and pump the animals themselves full of antibiotics that help them avoid diseases derived from eating shit, but ultimately the toxic brew in those manure lagoons has to go somewhere and antibiotics have a nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
The Origin of Feces is better at describing the wickedness of this problem than at articulating solutions, which get high-falutin’ and improbable in a hurry. Drawing on the work of scientists who see the complex interactions in natural ecosystems as “panarchy,” and quoting the philosopher Arthur Koestler, who saw each living thing as a whole unto itself and also a part of something larger, which together he called a “holon,” Waltner-Toews uses the term “holonocracy,” which he says “embodies a way of interpreting nested social and ecological changes and implies a new way to think about management and governance based on those observations.”
Yeah, I know. I didn’t really follow that, either. In later pages, Waltner-Toews thankfully returns to plain English and argues that the problem of shit is merely a particularly unpleasant manifestation of the more generally unsustainable nature of our industrial age, which has created “too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places.” He details some nifty small-scale solutions involving the repurposing energy-rich shit into fuel or animal feed. But at the macro-level, he seems to be saying that a comprehensive, systemic problem of this kind demands an equally comprehensive, systemic solution, which, if I am reading him right, means seriously rethinking industrialized agriculture and urbanized population. Which — call me crazy — I don’t see happening anytime soon.
But of course the very difficulty Waltner-Toews has explaining his solutions for a non-specialist audience underscores the fundamental wickedness of the problem. The Origins of Feces is a genial book, and often a kick to read, but I put it down thinking two things: 1. I will never look at shit the same way again; and 2. We are in deep shit. That Waltner-Toews, clearly one of the smartest guys in the room when it comes to this issue, cannot explain a solution in terms I can understand makes me think we are in even deeper shit than he claims.
I’ve been on the Internet since I was fourteen years old. I’ve always loved it here. But a few months back, I found myself a bit troubled by what I perceived to be a difference in the way my mind was working. I would be at my desk writing and then I’d be on Twitter or Gmail or CNN, with no clear recollection of having decided to drop one task and switch to another. It was as if my brain, craving stimulation beyond the meticulous working out of plot issues, had jumped to a new task of its own accord. I wasn’t always this distractible.
The problem reminded me of muscle memory. I used to be a dancer, and my training was intense. After a certain amount of physical training, either in dance or in athletics, certain actions become almost unconscious. After all these years away from dance I can still assume a perfect arabesque line. I have a visceral memory of exactly what a triple pirouette feels like, the precise coordination and timing required, although I doubt very much that I could execute one anymore.
I began to realize that after all this time on the Internet, I’d trained my brain to expect a new stimulation every few minutes. After a short period of concentration on a given task, my brain would do what I’d trained it to do: it would turn its attention to something else. Concentrating on a single task for an extended period of time—as is required when one’s reading a book, for instance, or writing one—had become unsettlingly difficult.
I only occasionally read non-fiction, but I was struck by Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains from the moment I saw the title on a bookstore shelf. Carr describes the same phenomenon in his own life. “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense,” he writes,
that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
The Internet, he writes, is a system that might as well have been designed to foster distractedness. When you’re reading a book it’s easy to sink into the text—what Carr calls deep reading—for long periods. There’s nothing in that medium but the text itself. Reading on the Internet is a different matter. The Web is designed to allow you to move rapidly between interlinked pages, but even if you don’t click a link every few minutes, this is an arena of constant distractions. Even if one of those infernal pop-ups doesn’t float across your screen and demand your attention, even if there aren’t two or three animated banner ads flashing their messages above and to the side of the text you’re reading, there are usually links embedded in the text itself, and the second or two it takes to evaluate whether or not the link’s worth following forces a break in your concentration. In the meantime, you’re waiting for two or three important emails, and it’s been a few minutes since you last checked Twitter or Facebook, and what’s the weather supposed to be like later? Your brain is constantly switching tasks.
Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain changes in response to experience. The human brain remains plastic, which is to say malleable, throughout our adult lives, meaning that new connections between neural cells are continually being forged. The changes wrought by neuroplasticity aren’t trivial; a famous 1990s study of London cab drivers (cited in this book) found that cabbies who’d been navigating London’s complex street system for two years or longer displayed a measurable increase in the size of the posterior hippocampus, a section of the brain associated with spatial memory, and that the longer a cabbie had been driving, the larger this part of the brain tended to be.
The advantages to this structural flexibility are obvious. Your brain is somewhat less plastic now than it was when you were a child, but it’s never too late to learn another language, or the street grid of a new city, or how to program an Excel spreadsheet. As you gain expertise in your new skills, new connections are forged and existing connections strengthened.
However, there’s a downside. “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism,” Carr writes,
a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.
The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes [the research psychiatrist Charles] Doidge, is that for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid behaviors’. The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed.
In other words, if you’ve spent so much time online that you’re accustomed to focusing on something new every few minutes, you might have a hard time reading deeply for long periods of time without checking your BlackBerry, or writing uninterrupted at your desk without wandering into Twitter. As you continue to switch rapidly between tasks, the neural connections that have developed in response to this behavior continue to strengthen, while unused circuits weaken and fall away. Your brain is continually fine-tuning itself. “This doesn’t mean that we can’t,” Carr writes,
with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What it does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become … the paths of least resistance. They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it is to turn back.
The Internet has trained us. Which is to say, of course, that we’ve trained ourselves, since the Web is the most human of endeavors; we code the Web and we design its flashing graphics, we write its content and speak to one another through its zeros and ones. We’ve created an ever-more-speedy experience, and we’ve adapted to that speed. “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” Carr writes. “Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.”
Both statements, of course, apply to the Internet.
Carr has a weakness, here and there, for telling us what we already know. (“The ability to exchange information online, to upload as well as download, has turned the Net into a thoroughfare for business and commerce.”) There’s an unsettling inclusion, in the midst of far sounder studies, of what looks to me like junk science: a 2008 Adweek magazine study that followed four (4) typical Americans for a day and noted that what they all had in common was that none of them opened a book. Four isn’t a persuasive sample size.
He makes a couple of assumptions that I disagree with, most notably in a discussion of the ways in which a gradual shift from printed books to ebooks might change the way authors view their work, given the impermanence of electronic text:
Even after an ebook is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated… It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.
To which I can only reply: try writing for the Internet. (He does in fact write for the Internet; he must just experience it differently than I do.) Any mistake I make in a piece published online will be immediately pointed out to me in the comments section, with varying degrees of helpfulness or malice. Yes, I can log into WordPress and fix the mistake, but the cost of imperfection is public embarrassment, and the sharp-edged business of publishing books is genteel by comparison.
But by and large, I found The Shallows to be a persuasive and interesting work. The New York Times, however, was unconvinced.
Jonah Lehrer began his career as a scientist. He was a double major in neuroscience and English, and spent some years as a technician in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. He’s gone on to distinguish himself as a science writer. In his New York Times review of The Shallows, he notes that “[t]here is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain.
Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.”
Being able to process information quickly is useful, but it doesn’t quite negate Carr’s thesis, which is that the neurological changes brought about by Internet usage can erode our ability to focus deeply for prolonged periods and that this has implications for society at large. What the video game studies (pdf) suggest is that gameplay—which Carr views as a useful proxy for certain aspects of Web use—can “induce a general speeding of perceptual reaction times without decreases in accuracy of performance.” Or as Carr puts it, “video game playing improves performance on tasks that require rapid shifts of visual attention. Clearly, an important benefit, but hardly a proxy for deep, critical, or conceptual thinking.”
Toward the end of The Shallows, Carr discusses a study that measured concentration and attentiveness in people who, before they were subjected to the researchers’ tests, spent an hour walking in a woodland park; they performed much better than a group who spent an hour walking on a busy downtown street.
Walking on an urban street is certainly analogous to the experience of spending time on the Internet: a chaos of bright lights and fleeting interactions and fast movement, stimulating and by turns interesting and banal. In the course of an impressively gentlemanly post-New York Times review debate on Jonah Lehrer’s blog, Carr wrote that “[w]e love the city street and the web for many good reasons, but we should also be aware that that they aren’t conducive to some of the deepest—and to me most valuable—forms of thought our brains are capable of.”
I followed Lehrer and Carr’s discussion, and what I found most interesting about it—aside from the sheer civility of discourse, which made me long for a magical alternate-universe version of the Internet where everyone’s reasonable and trolls don’t exist—was that no clear victor emerged. Both have considerable evidence at their disposal to back up their points of view.
But there, in the quote above: to me most valuable. The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.
I wouldn’t want to give up the sheer vertiginous over-stimulation of walking down a Manhattan street, any more than I’d want to give up the Internet. I live in a metropolis for a reason. But what if your work depends on the ability to fall into a state of deep focus for long periods?
Carr is the author of two other books, and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. His degrees are in literature and language. Although he’s done his research, it seems to me that he’s approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.
In search of greater productivity, I downloaded an ingenious application a few months back. (Note: I am not being paid to remark on its ingeniousness.) It’s called Freedom, and it turns off the Internet for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours. It costs ten dollars. Turning the Internet back on once you’ve launched the program requires restarting your computer, which is both such a colossal hassle (ask me how many Word documents I have open at the moment) and such an admission of weakness (what, you couldn’t go 120 minutes without checking your email?) that I’ve never done it.
At first when I turned off the Internet, I would automatically drift into Twitter or Gmail or CNN anyway. The familiar pattern: I would be working and then I would switch tasks almost without realizing what I was doing and find myself staring at a browser window or at Tweetdeck. It would take a moment to remember that I was actually offline.
I’ve been trying to retrain myself. A few months after downloading Freedom, I’ve noticed a change. I’m much more productive than I was a few months ago. I can write for longer periods now, uninterrupted. Sometimes even when I’m not running the application, when the bright lights of the Internet are available at my fingertips.
(Image: Mini Cooper New York City, from norriswong’s photostream)
In 1887, Hamlin Garland, then a 27-year-old aspiring writer, traveled by train from Boston back to his family’s farm in Ordway, South Dakota. Having spent most of his life in the Midwest, and shuttling around the Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin, Garland was familiar with agrarian life, but with his return, he had evolved: “The ugliness, the endless drudgery,” he later wrote, “and the loneliness of the farmer’s lot smote me with stern insistence.” Once he arrived at home, he was even more shocked. “I found my mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous sunburnt, treeless plain, with no expectation of ever living anywhere else.” He continued: “Deserted by her sons and failing in health, she endured the discomforts of her life uncomplainingly…” This encounter would have a profound impact on his life. Garland worried that he was “without power to aid my mother in any substantial way” and didn’t know what to do about it. The answer, then, must have seemed obvious: he would write short stories.
Garland’s first effort was the story “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip,” which later became part of his first collection Main-Travelled Roads, published to acclaim in 1891, but now mostly forgotten. Garland wrote the stories under “the mood of bitterness.” Mrs. Ripley, probably based on Garland’s own mother, is described in the story as “pathetically little, wizened, and hopeless in her ill-fitting garments” and with “withered and shapeless lips.” (His mother was one of the first to read the story.) Stuck in her house for many years, Mrs. Ripley suggests to her husband Ethan that she travel across the country to visit her relatives, whom she hasn’t seen since before the couple moved west. Ethan is genuinely surprised when he finds out she has spent years ferreting away coins for the trip — but the reader isn’t; we’ve have grown accustomed to her sharp and smart tongue.
Downtrodden and oppressed women, in fact, resonate in Main-Travelled Roads. Mrs. Haskins, the homeless wife in “Under the Lion’s Paw,” “like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens.” Julia Peterson had been working the fields on her father’s farm — toiling “Among the Corn Rows” — and dreaming of a husband to take her away, when she instead receives a sudden proposal from a modest local farmer, Rob. He makes a telling comment after he finds her tiredly plowing: “‘You’re pretty well used up, eh?'” Mrs. Sanford, in another story, starts her own general store when her husband’s bank fails and convinces him not to skip town to avoid his debts. And then there is Agnes, perhaps the toughest of them all, who in “A Branch Road” is forced into a marriage with a violent man after she thinks her beau stood her up. In fact, most every story of Main-Travelled Roads has a heroic, burdened woman. “Cut off from human community,” wrote Joseph McCullough in his introduction to the volume, “[the farm wife] is destined to live in a depressing, lonely life, with little or no intellectual, sexual, or emotional fulfillment.”
Garland’s obvious concern for the plight of women in the late 19th century American Midwest was not just a product of concern for his mother, though — he was actively involved in the day’s politics. Generally, the criticism of his fiction has been for its obviously political overtones. Take, for example, “Under the Lion’s Paw,” which was written under the influence of politician and political economist Henry George, and with the express purpose of persuading voters to enact a land value tax, which Garland contended more fairly excised wealthy property owners. Garland supported Populist candidates (including, along with his contemporary Willa Cather, William Jennings Bryan during Bryan’s 1896 presidential run). Sometimes the stories of Main-Travelled Roads are distractingly political, but other times an emotional core reveals itself, as when the poor farmer Grant, angry at the return of his prodigal (and successful) brother in “Up the Coolly,” says: “A man like me is helpless… Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain’t any escape for him. The more he tears around the more liable he is to rip his legs off.”
Eventually, though, Garland grew weary of writing fiction. Perhaps this was for the best, as the quality of his writing had been diminishing since Main-Travelled Roads; even the later stories (added to the volume after initial publication) find Garland drifting toward the sentimental. Instead of telling fictional stories of farmers like his family and friends, Garland focused on telling his own — and by extension his family’s — story.
Born in a farm near West Salem, Wisconsin in 1860, Garland had been christened Hannibal Hamlin Garland, after Abraham Lincoln’s then-presidential running mate. Garland’s father was strict, his mother stoic. Continually moving the family, Richard Garland never had much luck farming. But his travails, and his difficult relationship with Garland’s mother, Charlotte, would provide his son with a rich source of material. There are echoes in many of the early stories.
Garland moved to Boston in the fall of 1884, and became enthralled with its in-bloom literary scene, culminating in a meeting with William Dean Howells in 1887 (not long before he returned for his career-forming trip back west). Howells was perhaps the biggest influence on Garland’s career, both in its development and in its success: he reviewed Main-Travelled Roads in Harper’s, calling it “robust and serious.” Starting in Boston, Garland would have a lasting influence on Stephen Crane, mentoring Crane and reading his manuscripts.
Son of the Middle Border was the first significant result of Garland’s turn away from fiction — although in 1894 he had produced a work of realist literary theory, Crumbling Idols, which Crane read fervently. Son of the Middle Border appeared serially before arriving as a book in 1917. It received such acclaim that he wrote Daughter of the Middle Border, the story of his wife’s family — he had married Zulime Taft, the sister of the sculptor, Lorado Taft, in 1899 — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He continued on to Trail-Makers of the Middle Border and Back-Trailers of the Middle Border a few years later. The latter completed the series by depicting the return of several members of his family back east.
Although his production later in life probably stained his reputation — Garland had turned, in the late 1920s, to credulously investigating psychic phenomena — the stories of Main-Travelled Roads remain nuanced and enlightening, pioneering pieces of realist fiction. And despite much of the criticism it has received — essentially for being didactic and dreary — Garland always ensured that there were some lessons that could not be taught, and some bright spots in the most dreadful existence. Mrs. Ripley, after her vacation, finds her life on the farm to be bearable again. In “A Day’s Pleasure,” a distraught wife enjoys an afternoon respite with some genuinely kind, wealthy benefactors. Mrs. Sanford continues her store even after her husband’s investments rebound, deciding she’s a better mother for working, too. Even poor Agnes escapes her misogynist husband by running off with her childhood sweetheart, baby in her arms, searching out a life east. Howard and Grant make peace after Howard scrounges up his money to buy the family’s old farm back. There are no easy solutions for these characters, and certainly no political ones. With his fiction, Garland said he sought to “touch the deeper feelings of the nation.” It is a shame that more are not reading these stories, which reach out from a hardscrabble time, and which still mirror our own.