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I’ve been a follower of the Art of the Rural group for quite a while now, and it’s heartening to read about the many endeavors across the country that bring vitality to rural life through the arts.

And, I might add, rural life brings vitality to the arts as well. In an increasingly suburbanized country, being versed in country things gives a dimension to one’s work that is inaccessible to those who are not so fortunate. I think of Huckleberry Finn’s intimacy with the rhythms of the river, Whitman’s “plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams, stout as a horse,” and of course, work after work by Robert Frost. You don’t have to know the rural to appreciate these works, but it certainly helps.

This subject has been on my mind recently because I’ve had Anais Mitchell’s “Young Man in America” album in my car. I know next to nothing about Mitchell, but did read somewhere that she grew up on a farm. This upbringing seems particularly relevant in a song like “Shepherd,” where an understanding of the needs of farm life adds both complexity and pathos to what is already an infinitely sad song.

Reading comments about “Shepherd” on YouTube, I was struck by the disparity between those who saw the shepherd as heartless, or at least clueless, at the end of the song, and those who saw the song as a re-enactment of a familiar rural tragedy. The song reminds me of Frost’s “Home Burial,” in which the sensitive wife cannot bear the farmer’s return to labor:

“You could sit there with the stains on your shoes / Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave / And talk about your everyday concerns.”

Likewise, after the immense tragedy of the song, the shepherd “held the cleaver and the plow / and the shepherd’s work was never done.”

If you grew up on a farm, or if you know what it’s like to live on a farm, you know that human tragedy only interrupts the work of the farm, and that the labor must continue. Feelings may be buried, or repressed, or let out in some other way, but the cattle must be milked and the hay must be brought into the barn. The beauty and tragedy of rural life are particular in their application, and I wonder if the knowledge of these things will become lost to the coming generations.

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