David Grayson’s Under My Elm

elm 1#1162 in Life’s Little Instruction Book says: “Try to find a copy of the book Under My Elm by David Grayson (Doubleday, 1942). You might have to order it.

I did have to order it.  Here are the passages I marked:

I don’t know what it is, but there is something about steady manual labor like this, alone in the fields, that gives one a curious deep satisfaction. I like the sense of doing hard work that is also useful work. One’s mind at first drops asleep, except for the narrow margin relating to this or that repetitive process. One lets go, calms down. For hours, sometimes, while at such work, I came near the point of complete mental vacuity. The mind sets itself the minute task it has to do and goes off somewhere to its own high pastures, serene uplands, to rest and play. The hours pass magically: the sun that was low when the work began rides high in the heavens—and suddenly the mind comes home again. It comes home refreshed stimulated, happy. I always know the exact moment of its arrival. Yesterday it did not return until I had nearly finished my work in the field. It seemed to cry out: “What, asleep! Listen to the bobolinks.”
I straightened up quickly and realized that I had been working for several hours without hearing or seeing much of anything—this literally. The whole world now became flooded with delightful sounds, not only the bobolinks, but a hundred other voices both of nature and human nature, so that I had a deep and indescribably friendly feeling towards all things. I thought it good and beautiful to be there and to be alive. Even the grass clinging wetly to my legs as I walked seemed consciously holding me close to the earth; and the shovel held warmly, even painfully in my blistered hands, was proof that I had at last become part of a universal process. These sensations, even as I set them down, seem difficult to express, but they were there, and they were true and sound. (11-12)


elm 2Steve had been working all day, harrowing and fertilizing his tobacco land, and should, I suppose, be properly tired. But the weeds in the onions are growing! Down on his knees he went and began weeding. A moment later his wife was at his side. The children cried a little, for they were tired and hungry and wanted to go home, but soon whimpered down. I wondered what an American family I know of, which keeps a nurse for each of their weakling children and a second girl to help the nurses, would say to this way of “raising” children! These two little Poles are magnificent physical specimens, and the boy, when clean, is really beautiful. At eight-thirty when it was too dark to see, the family trailed homeward, Steve carrying the little boy in his arms. Can these people be beaten? (86-87)

How men and women live—all men and women—what they think about, how they work, and love, and suffer—surely there is nothing richer or more fascinating to watch and to enjoy than this. One may find adventure on any hillside, romance in any valley—if he possess the eye to see it and the understanding to write it down. (77)


I stood there a long time looking at those men and that dismal scene. It came to me with indescribable power that here was new hope, here was the new life, here was beauty. Here were men back on the land, patiently digging, sowing, harvesting, as always there have been from the beginning of time. These men, I thought, will again save the world. (132)


I think no moment of the year is like this, so disturbingly beautiful. (168)


I am impatient these days: there is not enough time in this one life. I need more lives; I have made plans already for three or four. I could easily expand to ten or twenty, all full-flavored, ardent, interesting. Full of curiosity! Looking into the sciences one after another, traveling to unexplored places, not only geographical, but psychological, social, economic; reading all the good books I do not yet know, and in all the languages; meeting every interesting human being then alive and with leisure—with leisure!—to know, to talk, to love. And to write! Time to write, and having written, to rewrite. I have enjoyed this earth; the only flaw is that my time here is too short. (187-188)


One who has never tried it does not know that he can double the yield of life—add immeasurably to his understanding and his joy—by fitting words to his adventures. To live interestingly and deeply, and to tell oneself about it afterward, is to squeeze the last drop of nectar from the wild grapes of experience. (191)


It is certain, to an uninteresting man nothing interesting ever happens; to an interesting man, everything. (195)


Panacea: in times of sadness, the strong, warm earth—the little, smiling, permanent things. (196)


Looking back, I have this to regret, that too often when I loved, I did not say so. (199)


“To live within limits, to want one thing, or a very few things, very much and love them dearly. Cling to them. Survey them from every angle, become one with them—that is what makes the poet, the artist, the human being.” –Goethe (212)


Almost every pure joy of life comes of the effort to look at life clearly, honestly, understandingly; to know its realities. To face it; to meet its grimmest challenges. There art has its roots; there the passion to see, which is science, has its deep beginnings. Everything that is creative arises out of the effort to know the truth, and knowing it, to use it. And it is only where there is fearless honesty that there can be joy. (230)


Defer life—and lose it. Wrestle with this moment; do not let it go until it blesses you. (255)

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