I grew up basically in the 19th century, on a 280 acre (110 hectare) cattle ranch surrounded by miles of virgin forest full of wildlife, bear, mountain lions. No phone. No electricity, we made our own. It was called the “Rough Diamond Ranch”. We had our own cattle brand. And after my dad wasn’t around, on the ranch were my grandmother and grandfather, my mom, my aunt, my three brothers, and my three cousins. Another place, another time.
The nearest town was five miles of bad dirt road downhill. It consisted of a single weathered combination store/bar/post office/gas station. The grade school was in town. It served all the children from the other ranches for miles around. It was tiny, even though it was for first through eighth grades and served a large area. One year there were a total of twenty-one kids in the school, and seven of them were my family from the ranch.
Now, a remote cattle ranch in the middle of the forest primeval is a wonderful place to grow up. It abounded with opportunities for us kids to fail at all of the pursuits of life, and fall and stretch our length in the dust, and stand up and go again until we finally succeeded. Because when you live where there are no electricians or plumbers or mechanics on call, and no phone to call them even if they were there, failure isn’t an option—if something needs fixing, you fix it because you have no other choice.
However, despite providing the world’s best education about life, the drawback of living on that kind of isolated ranch, fenced in by endless forest, is that all you know is that tiny remote part of the earth. There was no TV, and our tired old radio barely picked up stations talking about stuff of no interest to me. I don’t remember ever seeing a black person, much less talking to one.
However, back then in the 1950s when I was in grade school, there was a town library. It was housed in a minuscule old toolshed that had room for the librarian and about four kids at a time. It was open one afternoon a week.
And for me, that tiny town library became a magical portal to the world’s mysteries, where any book that I picked off of the shelves might tell me about some part of life I’d never heard of. What I found I liked best were biographies. I would check out books about Kit Carson, and Geronimo. I read about the lives of Presidents and explorers and pirates. I read about the lives of scientists.
As we all did, I had my heroes. Heroes are very important to humans, look at the myths and legends we have. But I had real-life heroes. Captain Jack of the Modocs. Jim Bridger. Hey, I was a kid in the wilderness, gotta like Indians and mountain men. Abraham Lincoln, of course.
Some of my heroes were scientists. I read book after book about scientists. The big three for me were Thomas Edison because … well, because he was Edison and taught himself; Nikola Tesla, because of his ability to do strange things with electricity; and George Washington Carver, because he came from a farm like me, and because of his passion to use his knowledge to help poor people.
George Carver was a man who got an education through his own unending efforts. He was born into slavery about 1864. His mother was stolen when he was an infant. After the Civil War ended in 1865, he and his brother were raised by the white couple who had previously owned them … life is always more curious than we can imagine.
He went to school obsessively from childhood on, and after much frustration from the racism of the time he eventually earned a masters degree in botany.
Among other things, he was very concerned with what the mono-cropping of cotton was doing both to the soil and to the people.
For the soil, he was one of the earliest people to recommend crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing plants … a practice that we followed on the ranch. I remember reading that he was an early advocate of that and being proud to be still following his prescient lead.
For the people, he was a fanatical proponent of the lowly peanut. To start with, peanuts are a nitrogen-fixing plant. This means they actually add nitrogen to the soil, and so they could be used in a crop rotation with cotton.
More to the point, peanuts are a very valuable food item to this day. Look at the number of items in the stores that have to be specially marked for those folks with peanut allergies.
They grow in poor soil, don’t require fertilizer, and they keep in the shell. As a result Carver advocated that the poverty-stricken families plant them as a food source. His work provided untold nutrition to some of the poorest people in America at the time, black southern sharecroppers.
All of this traces back to George Washington Carver. He worked tirelessly developing peanut products—peanut butter, peanut flour, peanut oil, he ended up with well over a hundred different ways to utilize peanuts and peanut shells. His work ethic was legendary, he never slowed down.
What George Washington Carver proved to me was that a man could overcome endless adversity if he had both passion and compassion, he worked hard, and he persevered through disappointment and adversity.
And I can think of few better lessons that a young man in the middle of nowhere could possibly learn.
So for my contribution to Black History Month that started today, February 1st, I want to stress that black history is all of our history, and that the contributions of black men and women are so strong and pervasive and supportive that they inspired a child who had never met a black person in his young life
I learned through my reading that just as a black botanist’s work fifty years earlier had made our very ranch soil more fertile, my own life on the ranch had been enriched and inspired by that same black philosopher’s vision.
So this paean to George Washington Carver is my own poor contribution to Black History Month, and my shout-out to all of my black relatives, friends, inlaws, outlaws, and people of color around the planet about a man who inspired my own life.
Can’t say fairer than that,