In 1970, Richard Ketchum and his wife moved from New York City to a farm in Vermont. Four years later, he helped found Country Journal, a magazine about rural life. One of the magazine's regular features is Ketchum's "Letter from the Country," an opinionated essay on whatever he is in a mood to write about. Nearly 75 of these essays have been collected in "Second Cutting," giving Ketchum's common-sensical Yankee musings a wider audience.
Transplanted city dwellers always run the risk of sounding sanctimonious in their praise of the country, and Ketchum occasionally falls into this trap. His adopted community sounds a little too cozy, and some of his stories about goats, chickens and cats have a my-isn't-that-cute flavor to them. But Ketchum is more than just a cheerleader for the good life of the country. He is sane and steady in his attitude toward the world and outspoken against unnecessary encumbrances on our time and thoughts.
Folks in the country, he tells us, are not in very good shape. He wonders what it means that American farmers now earn most of their money at jobs away from the farm. Every year, 3 million acres of farmland are lost to land "developers." Ketchum has seen the number of farmers in Vermont dwindle from 19,000 in the 1940s to 3,500 today, with only a fourth as much land under cultivation. He admits that Vermont was never a leading agricultural state, but he warns that dependence on other parts of the country for food is a precarious existence. When he goes to the store and finds acorn squash--perfectly packaged by nature--wrapped in plastic, he begins to suspect that "somehow, somewhere, a lot of cream is being skimmed off the middle." Seeing too many wasteful practices encouraged or condoned by government and commerce, he says "the time has come to shuck off the unnecessary frills that add little to the quality of life."
Ketchum has a knack for showing how the greedy and insensitive people of influence can inflict inconvenience and misery on the unsuspecting. He takes aim at meddlers who can't leave well enough alone. He resists having the metric system pushed down his throat and wonders what gives telephone companies the arrogance to put in new equipment or methods of billing and then raise the rates without asking their customers. He takes the U.S. Postal Service to task for wanting to eliminate 12,000 small-town post offices while spending millions on a scheme to build every American post office in a standard style.
With examples of inefficiency increasingly common, Ketchum observes, "One trouble with our society is that we are designing everything for the convenience of machines instead of the convenience of people." Citing great claims the Postal Service has made for a machine that sorts 1,100 pieces of mail per man-hour, Ketchum points out that the machine also sends one letter in six to the wrong address. The figures are even less impressive when we learn that 1,700 pieces of mail can be sorted by hand in the same amount of time.
After the accident at Three Mile Island, Ketchum traveled to Pennsylvania to talk with Amish farmers living near the nuclear plant. It struck him as more than a little curious that the simple people without electricity or automobiles were more efficient and more forthright than the bureaucrats and engineers of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In spite of all the boosterism for nuclear power, Ketchum reasonably asks, "Why should intelligent people tolerate an energy system that requires an evacuation plan?"
Not all of the essays in "Second Cutting," however, are complaints about modern American life or gloomy forecasts of the post-industrial age. Like another New Englander, E.B. White, Ketchum can write interestingly on topics that would sound trite or sentimental in lesser hands. He takes pleasure in the small joys that come his way. Animals, in Ketchum's view, add "motion and life to the landscape" and "remind us of lessons we so often forget." Memorial Day in his small town prompts an elegy not to the martial world but to a "part of our youth that passed so quickly, so long ago." Lilacs bloom from soil that holds the bones of fallen soldiers. To Ketchum, it seems that Memorial Day is always bright and sunny, signaling the coming of summer. "The earth will be warm now," he reflects. "It will take care of its own."
In each of Ketchum's essays, the language is crisp and smart. He strides swiftly into his story and does not linger over unnecessary points. There is something recognizable in his remarks because he relates them to common experience. Appealing qualities of modesty, tradition and domestic contentment come forward. Ketchum does not long for the days of fishing holes and quilting bees, but he does leave the sobering impression that, with our desire for progress, we have lost something valuable as a culture.