February 2nd, 2015
Cut and Run
When’s the last time you encountered a non-processed food that didn’t have a story? Identifiably farmed products more or less require a cloak of narrative, because market research reveals that shoppers are not merely drawn to it, but will fork over more money for narratized food. At the same time, this storytelling bombardment has the effect of reducing most of these stories to a kind of design feature, a wallpaper, ubiquitous but ignored.
That’s exactly how it is with a carton of eggs currently residing in the cool and dark (the likely unneeded cool and dark) of my refrigerator. It was happenstance that, this time, I read the copy on the inside of the carton’s lid, which outlined how the egg farm had begun in 1949, when a husband and wife from Latvia immigrated to this corner of the country. To be honest, it would be hard to find a more generic tale, the old world farmers coming to America to find prosperity on the new frontier and so I was well on my way to forgetting all about it when I thought, “wait, there was no Latvia in 1949.”
And that’s pretty much true. The existence or non-existence of Latvia is a complex subject, because the Latvians spent hundreds of years ruled by neighbors such as Germany, Poland and Russia. Ruled, but not assimilated. Down through the centuries, the Latvians retained their language and traditions, preserving their fundamental identity, so much so that in the wake of World War I, Latvia declared its independence and achieved it. At least until the next war.
That’s when Latvia became part of the bloodlands fought over by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, square in the sights of the carnage wrought by both sides, together, apart and at war — the absolute nadir of civilization in Europe. When (most) of the killing was over, Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. In 1949, the surviving well-off farmers were deemed to be an obstacle to Soviet agricultural planning and 17,000 were exiled to Siberia. It’s right around this point that my “generic” Old World farmers managed to procure passage to North America.
On that boat, they had with them what the egg carton describes as “their two young children” and that raises a question — just how young? Were they born into the conflagration, or in the dazed aftermath, a time when the war was over but the suffering lingered? In my imagination, the farmer-parents were overwhelmed by the surprise of finding themselves alive at the end of the war, the unexpected discovery that they had a future. The presence of death often inspires an acute sense of carpe diem, a drive to get on the business of life and so they did.
In one way, our couple was just doing what farmers — which is to say almost everyone for almost all of history — had always done: left in search of greener pastures. From the Wheat-Beef People of prehistory to the Donner Party, they’d always been willing to take a leap into the unknown to do it. The American pioneers were often lured by fantastical texts touting the wonders of the west, frequently written by people who had never laid eyes on it. So, too, I imagine our Latvian couple, deep in the Soviet Zone, hearing stories of the American G.I.’s, with their limitless supplies of candy and cigarettes, denizens of a land of unimaginable abundance.
Was it hard to make the choice? Whatever was out there in the unknown could not have been more frightening than the utterly known inferno they had just endured. But at the same time, it is almost certain that our couple were part of an unending string of generations that had worked these fields, heirs to centuries of a deep and abiding life with this land. In a way, it was almost timeless, medieval and modern blended together in a way that we cannot even dimly comprehend, no matter the aid of our smartphones.
They felt what they were leaving, but maybe it didn’t matter anymore. Maybe the land was lost. Maybe everyone was dead. But without doubt, whatever had worked for so long, wasn’t working any more. So, they stopped trying to make it work.
Sixty years on, their leap of faith is proven. One of those small children born in the bloodlands grew up to head the family enterprise; what began in 1953 as a door-to-door egg selling effort now employs 70 people and keeps nearly half a millions hens in conditions that make it the highest rated large egg producer in their corner of the country.
Implicit in this tale is the validation of all those themes in the high school history texts — America the land of opportunity, the land of refuge, the place to begin again and find prosperity. Those themes are real, though I’d say it wasn’t so much the fruit of a novel and exceptional social scheme as much as lucking into a continent fantastically endowed with unpillaged resources and in the care of peoples tragically vulnerable to European diseases.
But there’s a curious thing about the American Dream. It assumes that time and progress tumble forward for the huddled masses until Lady Liberty waves the checkered flag and then, suddenly, it stops. Dream achieved, fade out, roll credits. We may have a Religion of Progress, but it’s in the service of refining a social and economic arrangement that can’t progress because this is the be-all and end-all.
The story on the inside of the egg carton validates the national narrative. But underneath that story, it has something more timely and subversive to tell us — that when the way things have always worked stops working, it’s time to do something else.
Existentialism on the Latvia/Lithuania Border by Christiaan Triebert
The Old World Horizon by Liga Eglite
The New World Horizon by Christie Fierro
Opening the Door to a New Life? by Vadim Timoshkin