In Praise of John Stewart Collis

There are a lot of agrarian authors for agrarian-minded readers to choose from. Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry come to mind immediately. Joel Salatin, John Seymour, E.P. Roe, William Cobbett, Liberty Hyde Bailey, and even Henry David Thoreau also fall into the category of popular agrarian writers. Were I to ponder further, I’m sure I could come up with many more names but, at the moment, I’m too enthralled with John Stewart Collis to give mind to any others.

I discovered Collis’ book, The Worm Forgives The Plough, in the best way.... by “chance” at our local library's yearly used book sale.

Marlene and I took numerous boxes of books to the sale this year. They were from my mother and father’s house, which, since the passing of my father, we are trying to clean out. My mother loved to find good old books at yard sales and she loved to show them to me. I’m much the same way. The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree, eh?

But I’m trying to reform my ways. To cut back on my habit of bringing home far more books than I will ever read in my lifetime. So I told Marlene very specifically that we were going to drop our donations off and I would not spend any time browsing the many tables. But I lied. It was too much of a temptation. 50-cents for any paperback!

Thus I discovered The Worm Forgives The Plough, and I couldn’t be more pleased. The book, published in 1973, is actually a compilation of two books that Collis wrote in the late 1940s. They consist of a series of essays that are recollections from the years Collis worked as a farm hand in England during World War II.

John Stewart Collis was not born to farm work but he was a willing student. And it so happens he was a student of rural life and ways when farming was still done much the same as it had been done in England for centuries prior to the agricultural industrialization we see today. As Collis states it in the Preface...

"This book was written just before both the corn-rick and the hay-rick were deemed unnecessary by modern methods. The change of scene followed rather swiftly. Thus this book is about the last of its kind that can now be written in England."

In the postindustrial era that lies before us, I believe we will see a return to traditional ways of farming. With that in mind, The Worm Forgives The Plough provides a glimpse into what farming will be more like in the days ahead.

But a more important reason to get this book is that, if you like to read of the old rural ways of life, you simply will not find a better book. John Stewart Collis is a remarkably good writer. His memories, his observations, and his opinions of those years he spent working the land are expertly crafted and a pure delight to read.

One of the things I especially like about Collis' essays is that they are honest recollections; he does not romanticize. He tells the truth about how dull and brutally hard farming could be, but there is beauty in such a life and he captures that too. The following essay (slightly shortened by me) is an example of what I like about John Stewart Collis.

Before you read the essay I want to make sure that you understand the old meaning of the word “corn” that Collis uses. When he speaks of “the rising corn” he is not talking about corn on the cob, or maize. He is speaking of growing seeds. Check out this definition of corn from Webster’s 1828 dictionary for a more precise definition.


The Third Day of Creation
By John Stewart Collis

A fortnight to three weeks having elapsed since I broadcast seed with Arthur, I decided to have a look at that field. ... 

On approaching the field I saw a low green mist clinging to it, which turned out to be substance in the nature of grass, now covering what had been the brown surface of the field. I dug up a spadeful. We had sown a mixture of oats and peas. Those handfuls of round and oblong caskets that I had helped to broadcast, had performed a peculiar act after leaving the hand and reaching the soil. Quite dead in the sack, it had seemed; but on touching the soil they had become animated, alive, and full of surprising moves. It were as if that little oat-seed, a tiny and inferior-looking piece of matter such as one might chip off a log, had been galvanized on being touched by Earth—making me think of gunpowder when touched by Fire. The envelopes had exploded. The pea seeds, those hard little balls like dented miniature ping-pong balls, had softened and shot downwards white webs and claws as long as my fingers, and shot upwards into the air a complicated system of green tubing and frills. The oat seeds, the shape of tiny fish, had performed a similar feat below and had sent up into the air long thin pieces of material like green ribbons. No matter how they had fallen on the ground or how they lay when they had fallen, they had all exploded in two directions only—down and straight up. None slanted, all persevered the perpendicular.

We glorify the present only when it has become the past. This is a recognized tendency in terms of history. It is equally true in terms of metaphysics. We imagine that Creation took place in the remote past. No doubt it did; but the same thing takes place today. The Third Day of Creation, as fabled in the book of Genesis, happens once every year no less certainly than the Sixth Day happens all the time. If this were not so the world would speedily dissolve. As I stand beside the rising corn I feel no need to have been present on the Third Day of the First Week, since I am witnessing the same thing. The same Force is at work, the same Voice obeyed. That which I would have seen then, I see now—sheer miracle, pure purpose. He who tries to dispose of this, uttering some mumbo-jumbo about ‘chance’ or ‘mechanism’ is the only real heretic, the only real atheist. All other denial, all other unbelief is mere speculation, and of no consequence. But this denial of clear witness is not speculation, and reveals the denier, not as a clever casuist, but as a stupid ass.

I have spent some time in the company of the philosophers and the priests, and have taken long journeys with them in search of the Absolute. It was all necessary. For only then could I understand that it was not necessary, and if we will but look out of the window the answer is there. It is clear to me now that if we take the trouble to regard phenomena, with the eye, not of a child, but of an adult who weds intelligence with wonder, we shall soon find ourselves at ease with The Problem of Purpose and all the rest of it.