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     A farmer goes to the bank every week, takes out $100 in ten dollar bills, then stands on the street selling the bills for $9 each.  Then he deposits the money he has left and goes home.  After he’d been doing this for several years a friend finally asked him why, and he said, “It’s cheaper than farming!”

     This is just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of jokes about the farming, homesteading, and the back-to-the-land lifestyle.

     It started, after all, with Adam and Eve: What excuse did Adam give his kids about why he got kicked out of Eden?  “Your mother ate us out of house and home.”

     Everyone who homesteads knows the plusses of this lifestyle, the major one being perhaps the most obvious: you get to work where you live, and live where you work.  But it has its drawbacks, of course.  Self-sufficiency is an always-elusive goal, and cash concerns, as expressed by the farmer mentioned above, sometimes dominate even when we don’t want them to.

     One way to make a million as a farmer, it is said, is to start with two million and work really hard.  Another way to put it: if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying til you’re really in trouble.

     One hungry homesteader complained, “What happened?  My homestead used to produce produce!”

     A broke homesteader decided to make some extra money at watermelon season.  He went around to the local farmers and bought their watermelons for fifty cents apiece, then took them to the farmer’s market in town and sold them all at 2 for a dollar.  When he got home his thrifty wife noted that he didn’t have any more money than he started out with.  “What are you going to do next?” she asked him.  “I guess I better buy a bigger truck.”

     The fact is, there is humor in adversity.  That’s why the most basic comic scenario is, or used to be, the sight of someone slipping on a banana peel.  As the great “cowboy comedian” Will Rogers put it, “Everything is funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.”  Rogers knew that we all like to laugh, if we’re human, and what happens to others can activate our chuckle app.  But it’s also true that if we’re lucky humans, we can also laugh at ourselves every once in a while.

“Everything is funny as long as it’s
happening to someone else.”
—Will Rogers

     A great example of “the yoke’s on you” comes from the lore of Norwegian immigrant farmers who settled across the top strip of the Midwest, where, presumably, the snowy weather would have looked inviting.  The “Lena and Ole” humor of this group is notable and has long been collected, some of it spread to a larger audience by Garrison Keillor on his wonderful show, A Prairie Home Companion:

     Ole put on both his winter jackets when he painted the barn in July, because the directions read, “Put on two coats.”

     When her husband died, Lena told the funeral director to write this obituary for the local newspaper: “Ole died.”  The gentleman was surprised that she had so little to say and urged to think of a bit more to put in the newspaper.

     “Isn’t there anything else you want people to know?”

     “Okay, I just thought of something,” Lena responded, “You can say—Ole died.  Boat for sale.”

     In fact Keillor himself said it best (from www.garrisonkeillor.com):

“Ole lay on his deathbed,
He knew he was going to die.
And then he smelled a beautiful smell
Of Lena’s rhubarb pie.
He crept downstairs to the kitchen,
There it was, he let out a moan.
Then Lena whacked him with a broom:
That’s for the funeral. Leave it alone.” (Garrison Keillor)

     The Amish also have a tradition of laughing at themselves.  Though some of the stories about them come from outsiders looking in, just as many are made up by the plain people:

     The Amish flu is like this: first you get a little hoarse, and then you get a little buggy.

     A robber decided to break into an Amish shop.  He figured the Amish being nonviolent, the owner wouldn’t resist so he could easily get away if he was caught in the act.  As he was prying open the cash register, the Amish proprietor appeared with a shotgun.  He told the thief, “I would never harm anyone, but I am about to shoot right where you’re standing.”

     It’s a funny thing about laughter…

     Why do we like to laugh at ourselves?  Could it be to upstage someone who wants to laugh at us, by making them laugh with us?  Or is it that maybe there’s something that starts in the brain and ends up in the vocal chords, and just has to come out?

     Surprisingly, making jokes is a relatively new talent among us humans.  The great philosophers never or rarely mentioned humor as an important element in our lives—in fact, it should be said that some of the most famous ancient moralists like Plato and Aristotle were suspicious of laughter.  They considering it to be “mockery” and even asserted that comedy should be tightly controlled by the government.  All through the Middle Ages, among literate folk, humor was decried as godless.  Some philosophers considered it wicked to laugh because it meant we were expressing superiority over others.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes referred to laughing as a kind of “grimace” and humor as an outbreak of “scorn.”  Early Puritans thought of humor as sinful, right up there with lust and avarice.

     By the 20th century, though, laughing became acceptable (even among Puritans after a while), seen as being a necessary relief mechanism.  The Roaring Twenties really got the ball rolling here in America.  Suddenly, skirts were high and humor was low, and both were there for all to enjoy.  Giggles, guffaws, and chortles came out of the closet.

     Even Sigmund Freud weighed in, considering laughter, as you might expect, as a way of expressing repressed emotions.  He went a long way to explain this, as Freud would.  He liked to use the example of humor typified in a story by Mark Twain.  It seems a workman was blown sky high by a workplace explosion; when the man recovered he found that his pay had been docked for absence from the worksite.  Freud considered that the laughter that this kind of story evokes allows us to release pent up energy: we first of deal with the pity we feel for the worker, suddenly transformed into our relief at the ridiculous conclusion.

     In the Bible, there is a story about a group of children laughing at Elisha because he was bald; Elisha cursed them and “two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them.”  Obviously Elisha did not share my husband’s folksy sense of humor.  Recently I heard him tell our five-year-old neighbor, Eli, that God had made him bald so He could look down and see Donnie’s beautiful head.

     This made me think: if humor is really a new thing, maybe it is our American love of freedom that let the laughter genie out of its tightly corked bottle, with anything and everything being fair game for funnies.  There must have been joking, even back when the philosophers were so worried about it.  What were they scared of?  That someone would make fun of them?  We Americans have long been known for our disrespect for kings and lords; that’s what the American revolution was all about. Humor gave us the freedom to laugh in the king’s face.  At a certain point, somebody said, “Laughter is the best medicine.”  It was finally good for us!

     Consider our first humorist, Ben Franklin.  Though some of his one-liners seem a bit staid by today’s raucous standards, the man himself was pretty way out there for his times.  His “Poor Richard” was the voice though which he expressed a lot of wisdom in a light, accessible form:

     Plough deep, while Sluggards sleep; And you shall have Corn, to sell and to keep.

     Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.

     Where there is hunger, law is not regarded; and where law is not regarded, there will be hunger.

     Like Freud, I think Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, writing in the late 19th/early 20th) is hilarious.  In fact, most of us probably consider Twain to be a quintessential American humorist.  When on his western travels he saw a dugout homestead on the Great Plains and wrote: “It was the first time we had ever seen a man’s front yard on top of his house.” (Roughing It)  He also recalled a visit to one of the tiny budding townships on the Great Plains of Nebraska where, he said, “The hotel-keeper, the postmaster, the blacksmith, the constable, the city marshal, and the principle citizen and property holder, all came out and greeted us, and we gave him good day.”

     Twain practiced the story teller’s art when it came to humor.  As he described it,  “The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”

     To further the notion that joshing in the face of danger is an American skill taken to the limit, and that Americans do not mind laughing at themselves, there is no better example than the humor of the Great Depression.

     Another great jokester, Will Rogers, had this to say, among other things, about the Great Depression: “The money was appropriated for the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy.  Mr. Hoover didn’t know that money trickles up.  Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow.  But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands.”  And, “Last year we said things can’t go on like this, and they didn’t. They got worse.”

     From the homesteader’s point of view there could have been nothing worse, probably, than the Dust Bowl.  Many hopeful immigrants and Easterners had bet on their farms in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, only to have them dry up in this horrific, slowly developing natural disaster.

     Yet the Dust Bowl engendered a lot of jokes (from various websites):

     A Dust Bowl farmer went to get a loan, but the bank turned him down when they saw his farm blow past the window.

     People told tales about seeing birds flying backwards during dust storms to keep from getting sand in their eyes.

     There were a whole series of jokes about dust and real estate.  Kansas farmers had to pay taxes in Texas because that's where their farms had blown.

     Other farmers would have to wait until spring to plow when the south winds would blow their farms back up to them.  Others didn't have to worry about rotating their crops—the wind did that for them.

     Housewives scoured pots and pans by holding them up to keyholes during dust storms for the sandblasting effect.

     One farmer and his son went to town and met another farmer on main street during the drought years.  "Looks a bit like rain," said the second farmer hopefully.  The other replied, "Well, it doesn't matter much one way or the other to me; I've seen rain.  But," he said pointing to his teenage son, "the boy here..."

     Others remember how a ‘30s dust storm was so thick that a salesman saw a prairie dog 20 feet above ground digging frantically to get back to its burrow.

     Then there was the Dust Bowl homesteader who got knocked out by a raindrop was revived by his wife pouring a bucket of sand on his face.

     My dad used to pace back and forth when those dust storms were blowing and say, “There’s a lot of real estate exchanging hands today!”

     I reckon my uncle will be along pretty soon.  I just saw his farm go by.

     Did you hear about the Dust Bowl motorist who suddenly encountered a 10-gallon hat perched upon a dust drift?  When the motorist lifted the hat he found a face staring at him.  “Can I help you in some way?” the motorist asked.  “Give you a ride into town maybe?”  “Thanks,” replied the buried man, “but I’ll make it on my own.  I’m on my horse.”

     Times have changed… but it’s still funny to make fun of ourselves and mine laughter out of our frustrated attempts to make a living, or just a life of self-sufficiency, on the land.  Now that we have become modern, sophisticated homesteaders (as I assume you are since you are reading this article, meaning that somewhere in your life there is a computerized device with access to internet service), our jokes have changed somewhat.  Here are some I saw recently (from various websites):

     Turkeys conferring in the barnyard: “Uh-oh, dudes, it must be getting close to Thanksgiving—the farmer just unfriended me on Facebook.”

     John Deere stands behind all their equipment—except the manure spreader.

     An agriculture student said to a farmer: "I know you want to use organic methods, but if you were to switch over to standard agricultural techniques, a little of this new chemical fertilizer for example, I think you’d be surprised.  Why I’ll bet this tree alone would give you twenty-five percent more apples.”  “I sure would be surprised,” said the homesteader.  "This is a pear tree.”

     How does a farmer send messages?  By e-i-e-i-o-mail.

     Technical computer terms:

     Log on: put another one on the fire.

     Log off: it’s hot enough now.

     Lap top: where the cat naps.

     Modem:  what I did in the wheat fields today.

     A wise saying from Mark Twain seems as apt in our health-obsessed times as it probably was back when he penned it: “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not.”

     And this one, from Twain, hasn’t changed much either:

     What is the difference between a taxidermist & a tax-collector?

     The taxidermist only takes your skin.

     And this one may be my favorite (after Donnie’s story of his bald head, of course):

     Interviewer: "Congratulations on winning the $140 million dollar Powerball lottery."

     Homesteader: "Thank you."

     Interviewer: "Do you have any special plans for spending all of that money?"

     Homesteader: "Nope. Not really.  I'm just gonna keep homesteading until the lottery money is all gone." 

 

 

 

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