Farming the Moon

Dave Lovewell opined that since suicide is an irrational act, it might be pointless to look for a reason for Will McDonald to have ended his life right in the middle of spring plowing on his new farm south of Lovewell in 1913.  Then Dave thought of a reason.

A few years ago I was browsing microfilmed newspapers looking for the moment when Thomas Lovewell reconnected with his long-lost daughter Juliana, who had been living for several years as Julia McCaul.  I never did find that moment, but I believe I discovered evidence that Thomas Lovewell convinced his newspaper friends to hush up the story of his reunion with his daughter.  I also ran across a number of stories of suicides.

Knowing that Juliana died in the spring of 1894, I started sorting through news items from the Courtland Register from the beginning of 1893.  I became very proficient at recognizing certain words as they scrolled past at high speed (Unfortunately, the lag-time of lcd screens renders this an impossible feat in the digital world).  For instance, I could pick out “Lovewell” and “McCaul” from a sea of words zipping by at the rate of a few pages a second.  Very quickly, I realized that I was seeing another word over and over again: “suicide.”  An ailing woman put a gun to her head.  An estranged husband put one to his.  An old man stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest with a penknife.  A few people swigged acid.  A girl tried twice to overdose on morphine.  The deceased was liked by all who knew him, just before he blew his brains out.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but 1893 was the start of an economic depression that dug in its heels for most of the decade.  It was a grim time of belt-tightening, eating moldy bread, foreclosures, despair, and the temptation of an easy way out.  The depression of the 1890’s and the wide gulf between the haves and have-nots was also the setting for a famous poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson, one with a surprise explosive pop at the end.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

I thought Will McDonald’s suicide might be like Richard Corey's, one without apparent motive, perhaps not quite a suicide at all but a moment of disorientation in the wake of heatstroke.

Then Dave got back to me.  He knew the old McDonald farm.  Cecil “Sam" Lovewell had tried to make a go of it in the 1930’s before finally sowing it back to grass.  “Pretty good pasture to this day,” according to Dave, who reminded me that the land just south of there had been in my family.  I remembered it as my aunt’s farm where I used to play in the shale ravines with tops that glistened with mica crystals.  I had a look at a satellite image of the old McDonald farm on my maps app.  It was even closer to the range of hills south of Lovewell and was crisscrossed with shallow gullies.  Just looking at the topography on an iPad made the prospect of farming that land look about as promising as farming the moon.

Did Will McDonald come to the same conclusion?  Did it occur to him that he might never support his family on this rugged patch of earth?  Perhaps he had one last go at a stubborn furrow before blunting his plow and said, “Enough.”  His widow Addie announced after his death that she would bring her family there from Cuba.  Her son Francis came back from California and helped to keep the place going until at least 1920, when the census finds the family intact, continuing to till the soil and hang on to Will McDonald’s farm.

In the preface to his 1993 “The Book of Guys,” humorist Garrison Keillor announced that he might even be able to guess Richard Corey’s motive.

... And he was rich, a man of style and grace,

And married to a beautiful woman named June.

And yet none of us wished that we were in his place.

We knew June and she was a bitch.

And one calm summer night under a beautiful moon,

Richard Cory put a bullet through his head.

No big surprise if you knew June.

© Dale Switzer 2023