The real two cultures

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The real two cultures

Goats on the hillside in Vermont. Photo by Anne Buchanan

I am a geneticist, my sister works a dairy farm. Our lives are so different we might as well be living in parallel worlds

Anne Buchanan is a research associate in the anthropology department at Penn State University, and author of The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Co-operation in the Making of Living Things (2009).

2400 2,400 words
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‘I had to take a sick baby goat to bed with me last night,’ my sister said. ‘I found her lying in a corner of the greenhouse barn getting ready to die.’ ’Did she make it?’ I asked. ‘Yep,’ said Jennifer. ‘I tubed her and gave her some electrolytes when I brought her in, fed her and wrapped her up in a towel, and took her up to bed. She peed all over me around 5am, so I brought her downstairs and put her in the barrel with the two boys. It’s a bit crowded, but they’re all going out to the barn today anyway.’

Jennifer and her husband Melvin work Polymeadows Farm, a small goat dairy farm and dairy plant in Vermont. They are currently milking about 120 goats. During kidding season, twice a year, the newborns spend their first night in a barrel of hay in the kitchen. This is important during Vermont winters, but also in summer, so that Jennifer knows the kids are healthy before they go out and join the rest.

My sister and I live very different lives. She’s a dairy goat farmer and I do genetics research at Penn State University in the middle of Pennsylvania. I spend much of my day at a computer in my small office, or sometimes in the genetics lab that I manage, and she spends her days outdoors, haying, watering and graining her goats, bottle-feeding the babies, milking the dams, or in the dairy plant making cheese or yogurt and bottling milk.

I go up to the farm as often as I can, sometimes three or four times a year. The days there are endless in the way that the long summer days of childhood are, capped by the kind of exhaustion that overtakes you when you haven’t remembered to pace yourself. Which you don’t as a child, because why would you? And at the farm you can’t because there is always more to do.

When I’m there, the day ends for me only when I’m too tired to do any more, but often for Jennifer (and always for her husband Melvin) the day doesn’t end until well after midnight, when the last of the goats has been milked, the milking machine sterilised and the milking parlour hosed down, the barn checked for newborns, the yogurt put to bed.

My sister calls me early every Saturday morning while she’s doing chores: bottle-feeding the youngest kids, haying and graining the rest, or getting ready to go to the farmers’ market. She tells me who’s about to give birth or who just did, what she’s got to sell at the market, what the weather’s like and whether Melvin thinks he’ll be able to hay that day.

Fifty years on from Snow, the idea that it’s possible to be well-educated in both science and the humanities is pretty much a pipe-dream

One Saturday in early spring, she told me they had plans to go to a play that evening. I was surprised because weeks can go by with Melvin never leaving the farm, and even then it’s usually work-related. Jennifer sometimes jokes that he’s allowed time off only once every two weeks — and then only briefly. I emailed the next day to ask her about their night out:
Me: How was the play?
Jennifer: We didn’t go. Had a goat in labour — having trouble — at the last minute, then had to feed the little ones after that, and have had to be in and out checking on that doe — she had a nice little girl, but keeps looking like she wants to have another. But I’ve felt inside her twice and can’t find another. Then we went down to shovel out the calf barn. Can’t get anyone else to help with that, because it’s the weekend, and Easter at that!!

The life of a small dairy farmer is demanding; even an evening off can require weeks of advance planning, only to be waylaid at the last minute by an animal in need. Being so tied to the cycle of life is a rarity, now that so few of us make our living off the land.

And most of us live such non-physical lives that we have to make a point of getting exercise. Jennifer doesn’t have much patience with exercise per se, but she usually tells me this while she’s lugging two five-gallon buckets of water up the hill to the goats in the barn, or 25lb pails of grain to the milking parlour — four at once.

Jennifer worked as an occupational therapist until she gave that up to farm full-time. She and Melvin have had goats now for more than 10 years. Unlike Jennifer, Melvin was born into dairy farming. Now in his 50s, he grew up haying the fields he still hays, and milking cows in the same parlour where he now milks goats. He has set up for milking twice a day for most of his life, rounded up cows from the fields and into the holding area in the barn and then into the parlour. He has dipped every single teat in antiseptic, clapped on the cups of the milking machine, and dipped each one again when he was done. He has sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of milk to market in his time, and mucked out the barns countless times.

Farmers have an old saying: ‘I’ll keep farming until the money runs out.’ Working a small farm makes for a hardscrabble life — no time off and always something more to do, usually for very little pay. But, after the animals are hayed, grained, watered, milked and midwifed, sick ones taken care of, hooves trimmed, bales of hay stacked in the haymow or the driveway ploughed — and more often than not, the neighbour’s too — broken pipes fixed, the neighbour’s errant cows shooed back into their fields, milk processed and yogurt made, the broken hay tedder repaired midfield, lunch served and dinner prepared; if there’s any time left in the day, and amazingly there often is, Jennifer and Melvin are free to do whatever they want to with it. They answer to no one. They can make jam, build retaining walls, throw together a loaf of bread, make soap, sew scrub suits for the daughter who’s a nurse, install an outdoor wood-burning furnace. Melvin has even been known to come in from milking at 2am and pick up whatever history book he’s currently reading and not get to bed until dawn. It’s a demanding way to live, but Jennifer and Melvin love it. Small farmers have to love what they do, because they’re not in it for the money.

In 1959, the English novelist and physicist C P Snow delivered a lecture called ‘The Two Cultures’ at the University of Cambridge. In it he described a divide between scientists and literary intellectuals in the world of academe. He lamented the passing of a time when educated people from all fields shared a common body of knowledge, read the same books, understood — at minimum — the basics of each other’s disciplines, and spoke at least the rudiments of the same language. Snow was saddened that, by 1959, his literary friends no longer understood the concept of acceleration or mass, and his scientist friends no longer read Dickens.

Academics measure their year by semester and holiday breaks, farmers measure theirs by season

Snow’s concern was not so much that people ought to share a culture for its own sake, but that without a shared intellectual culture, we would not be equipped to address the problems of the modern world. In particular, he worried about overpopulation, nuclear war, and the increasing gap between rich and poor nations. Ultimately, in spite of the two cultures divide, he believed that science would solve these problems, and that, for example, there was absolutely no reason that poverty would not be eliminated by the year 2000.

Snow’s lecture was published as a book, Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), which is still available today, and still widely read, at least among academics. Some of his predictions, such as the end of poverty, were so wrong that it’s easy to characterise him as terribly naive. And, 50 years on, the idea that it’s possible to be well-educated in both science and the humanities is pretty much a pipe-dream. With the exponential growth of knowledge, particularly in science and technology, it’s hard to see how it could be any other way.

The super-specialisation required by an ever-expanding knowledge base does have consequences, beyond mere spats over academic funding. Public health administrators know little about medicine; postgraduates in science studies or bioethics often have very little training in science; geneticists might never have seen a living example of the animal whose genes they study; liberal arts graduates have little idea how to interpret the weekly newspaper stories touting the discovery of genes for this or that disease. Yet the dominance of science and technology over other aspects of our society in the US has become clear in recent times. And this dominance introduces an important layer of artificiality that comes between most people in the industrialised world and the more nuanced natural world in which they actually live. To most people in the industrialised world, food might as well be made by machines, not by plants and animals, so little is the communication and understanding between city and country.

Snow’s idea of two cultures seems quaint in today’s university. What he saw as one divide in 1959 has grown, 50 years later, into a never-ending network of hairline fractures and unbridgeable canyons. On any campus today you can almost hear these cracks open and widen.

This means that a lot of time and money gets spent on reinventing wheels. It means that people are unaware of important findings in other fields that would be useful for them to know, or that people who should be talking to each other simply don’t. And, if we trust in science and technology to solve most problems, it allows us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for preventing crises in the first place. This is not a naturalist’s view of science, a view grounded in observation and love of nature. This is a science that can overcome the laws of nature. This is modern science.

But when I leave academia behind and am stacking hay or feeding goats, the idea of Snow’s two cultures shrinks into insignificance, or even irrelevance. Viewed from so far away, those two cultures on isolated, protected university campuses (there are good reasons that academia has been called ‘the ivory tower’) merge into one, dwarfed by a much greater chasm — between the academy and the outside world. On one side, at Polymeadows Farm on the hill, there’s hard physical work with survival on the line. And on the other, in the valley I call home, there’s the life of the mind, where the main thing at risk is whether our research papers will be published, and where we have to force ourselves to make a ritual of going for a run, in order to remember that we’ve got a body and that it needs some care.

‘What’s Melvin up to today?’ I asked my sister. ’He’s out tedding the fields,’ she replied.

When we had this conversation I had never heard of tedding. Every word I don’t know is a window into the cultural divide, attached as it is to a set of practices about which I know little or nothing. Some words describe equipment I have seen when I drive by farm fields but never thought about — tedders, diskers, seeders — and some evoke a history as old as agriculture itself, since soil has been prepared for tillage as long as people have been planting crops, whether with hand-held sticks, crude implements pulled by animals, or mega-machines specialised to a single task.

We’re all far more dependent on the toil of poorly rewarded farmers than the vast majority of research by very well-paid scientists

The vocabulary of farming is a constant indicator of the divide, but there are many other landmarks. Separate calendars, for example: academics measure their year by semester and holiday breaks, farmers measure theirs by season — planting, haying, breeding, birthing, harvesting. Or even by weather report. If it’s going to rain tomorrow, there will be no mowing of standing hay today because it won’t dry, but class will still be held. And the seasons are likely to be delimited by events that most indoor-bound workers fail to notice. My sister text-messaged me one late April to say that the barn swallows had returned that very afternoon.

The sets of risks that farmers and academics are exposed to scarcely even overlap. Farming has one of the highest accident rates in America, and, to compound the problem, many farmers in the US have no health insurance. Most professors get good coverage through their employer. Society has decided we have very different economic worth, too. Small farmers, on average, earn less than half of what professors do. Farmers are at the mercy of unpredictable events beyond their control — drought, rain, animals contracting disease, the price of grain, the ever-declining price the farmer earns for produce sold at market, the cost of health insurance — while unpredictability has been fairly well eliminated from a professor’s working life. (A professor with tenure, at least.) Yet we’re all far more dependent on the toil of poorly rewarded farmers than the vast majority of research by very well-paid scientists.

I recognise that I could make similar comparisons between academics and miners, or soldiers, or athletes or musicians or visual artists. The singular difference here is that farmers provide the rest of us with sustenance. They are tied to the land and the seasons in ways that most of us can, and do, ignore.

I was at the farm once when we got word that a grant we’d applied for had been funded. This is always good news to an academic. But out feeding kids, when I explained the project to my sister, she asked: ‘Why is that important?’ Not sceptical, she really wanted to know, but I had trouble explaining.

Seen from the farm, C P Snow was right about two worlds that hardly intersect. But he was wrong about which ones. There are two cultures: farming — and everything else.

Read more essays on general science, sociology and work


  • Lester

    Wonderful article.

    The fascinating phenomena of academia being no less susceptible to the
    human condition regardless of its underlying philosophy and methodology
    is very revealing.

    C.P. Snow was right. There is no external reason why poverty is not eradicated. But he was wrong because there is an internal reason stemming from the way we create our social world (within modern economies). Poverty will never be eradicated in our current paradigm. Poverty is a deeply integrated part of the current landscape.

    He was right because we could get rid of poverty if we focused our energies internally instead of externally. But as the article deftly illuminates, the symbolic value of the external, the perfect, the countable, the belief in a society functioning healthily from values of fundamentally separable subdivisions of life that will somehow lead to a overriding comprehensible theory, and our inability to take on a holistic interactive model of which we are an integrated part all conspire to disable us from altering the course we are set on. Like Academia we have separated ourselves from the act of living in a real environment and coupled ourselves to the theory of living in a symbolic environment.

    Hope lies in reattaching ourselves. Will Academia be part of the drive? Difficult to say but it's clear that deep intuitive relationships with the environment are not easily forged from static separation units called offices.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thank you, Lester. You ask whether academia will be part of the drive for change. The academy is certainly being shaken up these days, in response to both internal and external forces. Where it will land is still an open question.

  • Michel

    As per my view, the 2 real cultures here need to be more defined. I believe that on Earth we have a strict dualism between Biodiversity (life and its quality to complexify itself) against environment. Humanity can't develop sustainably without realizing it. One culture is nurturing life (thenceforth fulfilling easy finalist biodiversity way) and the other one is investing in environment (with ruling the causal physical laws).
    I feel Jennifer's job by nurturing life protects life. The other culture doesn't see that one need for development.
    A more correct view would help all to understand better the implicit relation between the two cultures.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thanks, Michel. I am sure there are many ways to see this. This is just my own.

  • Shannon Kate

    This was beautifully written. And it helps me to understand how lucky I am that I live in a place where all those amazing worlds collide (I'm a humanities major who does bio-science units and comes home to grow medical herbs and food crops and read fantasy novels).
    I think a lot of people today have decided that because they are in a) culture they are too far removed to add even a little of b) culture to their lives - be it farming and everything else, or arts vs sciences or old vs new. With the internet it's so easy to learn things that before may have seemed impossible. Grow food or chickens. Study how your brain works. Read the classics. Learn a martial art. The world today could be a wonderful collection of random genres (with people growing broccoli in their gardens and helping the load of local farmers). Close the divide.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thank you. I love your holistic and positive outlook! The whole Eat Local movement, which you allude to, is a vibrant and interesting one. Perhaps if it teaches enough children that milk doesn't just come from the grocery store, the cultural divide might lessen.

  • Daphne

    Really enjoyed this, it opens up big questions about how we live day to day and what we value, without being preachy. Lovely writing.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thanks so much.

  • Daniel Parker

    I'm just now getting to read this Anne, and as others have commented, this is great thinking and writing. I love the imagery you conjure here.

    I also find similar dualities between people who are in the same discipline. Take public health for example. The realities of people who work in the field with something like malaria are often quite different than the realities of people who are working in a lab or those who do purely theoretical work. I see importance in all of these settings, but of course the seasons, funding, and realities of every day work for each are quite different.

    Great article!

    Dan Parker

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thanks so much, Dan! You make a very good point, that field work of any kind is perhaps always a different animal from the purely theoretical. I didn't discuss the temperament issue in the essay, really, which surely in part determines how people choose to spend their time. Some people could never sit behind a desk, while others wouldn't farm for anything. Indeed, Melvin thinks sleeping 8 hours in a row would be really boring -- if he ever had to do it!

  • Terry Melton

    Anne, how lucky you are to have such an intimate view of this other life. It seems that most of us are so busy defining ourselves as part of a group: political faction, career channel, or educational achievement that we narrow, well into adulthood, the vistas that are right in front of us. We read widely, we travel, we feel worldly, but until we've put in the time we can't really cross divides like the one you describe. Great piece.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thank you so much, Terry. I do feel very lucky to have the chance to spend time on the farm (which I hope to do again in a few weeks!).

  • Edward W. Hessler

    What a lovely, mindful and deeply appreciative essay. I grew up surrounded by farms and farm fields, in that transition between tractors and horses. The farmers put up with me and let me "help" with chores and daily work--haying, spreading manure, cleaning barns, feeding the cows, collecting eggs, milking (but I was far too slow although I was allowed the ritual squirt-into-the-cat's-open-mouth and marveled at how easily the farmer stripped the last streams into the bucket), cleaning chicken coops.... You stirred these memories and I'm grateful for that. How hard the work and how accepting of it, these farmers were.

    The ending made me smile and think, spot on. Border crossings are so interesting and make me glad for the diversity of life and occupations.

    I couldn't help but think that David 'hisself would have an observation or two/three on local living and traveling. Here is one from this fluent observer of life: "The discoveries which we make abroad are special and particular: those which we make at home are general and significant. The further off, the nearer the surface. The nearer home, the deeper." (Thoreau, Journal 7 September 1851.

    My thanks.
    I want nothing new, if I can have but a tithe of the old secured to me. I will spurn all wealth beside. Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nrer and nearer here! [Journal, 1 November 1858]

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thank you. I'm so glad this piece evoked such good memories. And such lovely quotes from "David 'hisself". Border crossings indeed -- a friend described this essay as a "bilingual mini-ethnography." I liked that.

  • Patrick Clarkin

    I really enjoyed this, Anne. It made me think about not just the divide between farmers and everyone else, or people in the humanities and scientists, but any two groups. There's a kind of evo-devo parallel to it. An individual enters into a population or social class with a long history behind it either at birth or some later point. Then the individual develops within that setting, learning the customs of their group until they grow farther away from an individual who enters another group. Then they can hardly talk to each other and declare the other ignorant about something that seems patently obvious to them. It takes effort to cross that divide.

    • Anne Buchanan

      Thank you, Patrick. I love the parallels that this essay is evoking in other people. Perhaps after all I am describing the human condition. I thought of this while reading Joe Moran's piece on shyness yesterday, where he talked about how difficult it is to enter another's world.

  • springaldjack

    Within the university the more important gap than that between disciplines is the gap between tenured/tenure track faculty and the adjunct and graduate instructors that universities increasingly use because of their cheap (and disposable) nature.

    But then farming is both a world of small independent farmers like your sister and her husband and a world of large agribusiness concerns that run huge farms. Both a world of people intimately tied to a single place, and of migrant workers many of whose lives are often (in this country) marked by concerns that they will be removed from a nation-state that both depends on their labor and outlaws their presence.

    I generally think that at some point we have crossed (or were always on the wrong side of) a line between divisions that are necessary for human beings to navigate the vastness of human culture with detailed techniques of producing food, art, scientific knowledge, computers, and so on, to an atomization that prevents not just the sense of community but the sense of solidarity from forming.

    • Anne Buchanan

      You're right, those are sharp, severe divides of a different sort. Divides of power and money that both create and feed on cultural divides.

  • Monika

    Fantastic blog. Actually the photo is awesome. Goats are amazing animal and goat farming is very pleasuring and enjoyable.

  • joe average

    That's a very enjoyable essay--thanks for sharing. You are fortunate in having an intimate and ongoing connection with a very different way of life.

  • mreed12

    For the last paragraph, from a farmer, thanks for noticing.

  • Rafe Husain

    The 5% of farmers feed the 90% of us who are not. Farmers are exploited or not paid their true worth in the 1st world and third world.