Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite books. He was not much fond of fiction, but he found in Defoe’s 1719 novel a brilliant exposition of the “origins of economics.” Left alone on a deserted island with few tools or resources, Crusoe has to “invent” a little plantation to secure his life force, and to provide a steady supply of food, clothing, and shelter for what, at the time, he expected to be a lifetime of living entirely alone as far from the amenities of civilization as possible.
My friend Russ Eagle, of North Carolina, best known as the self-styled “hero of the Wendover Death March,” was the recipient of the Robinson Crusoe seed gambit two summers ago in Montana. You will recall that the marooned sailor Robinson Crusoe found a tiny bag one day among the things he had been able to rescue from the ship. He overturned that bag and out dropped a couple of barley seeds. (The entire passage appears at the bottom of this post.)
At first, Crusoe was not aware of what he had nonchalantly dumped out of the bag. He shook out the contents of the bag over the ledge of his quarters so that he could put it to other uses. Imagine his surprise a few weeks later when the grain sprouted!
Crusoe’s first impulse was to thank God for his Providence. His second thought was to husband those few barley stalks so that they would produce full heads of grain; and then to store all of those seeds for a second planting, and a third…. Within a relatively short amount of time, Crusoe had all the grain (and meal) he could possibly want. In fact, he produced significant surpluses of grain! Unfortunately, he had no ready market to exchange what he had in surplus for what he needed.
The barley seed episode is one of the great moments in English literature. It appealed to Jefferson, who subscribed to the economic theory of physiocracy (i.e., that all wealth comes from the earth and humans merely co-operate with the natural fecundity and abundance of the earth).
So, at the annual Lewis & Clark summer tour, I contrived to get a single pea seed from my garden into the hands of Russ. This before he made his run as the “hero of the Wendover Death March.” His instructions were to husband that one pea seed, save all of the bounty at harvest, and proceed on until he became the pea king of Carolina, or at least provided a living template of Defoe’s genius.
Here is the evidence, a photo just forwarded to me by the “hero of the Wendover Death March,” who clocked in last summer at three hours, one minute, thus making the nearly-impossible eight mile hike faster than anyone except Chad the Tree Dork, who was held back by circumstances, and Robin the Wood Nymph, who actually took a nap near the top of the ridge to permit the HoWDM to “win” the ascent.
Jefferson would be proud. Russ’s challenge is to continue to grow these peas until he can host, at Fort Benton, a pea dinner in the manner of Jefferson and his neighbors.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t read Robinson Crusoe, I highly recommend it as one of the most interesting of all English novels–a book of astonishing insights into how humans organize and reshape their environment to serve their needs.
Here is the requisite passage:
In the middle of all my labours it happened that, rummaging my things, I found a little bag which, as I hinted before, had been filled with corn for the feeding of poultry—not for this voyage, but before, as I suppose, when the ship came from Lisbon. The little remainder of corn that had been in the bag was all devoured by the rats, and I saw nothing in the bag but husks and dust; and being willing to have the bag for some other use (I think it was to put powder in, when I divided it for fear of the lightning, or some such use), I shook the husks of corn out of it on one side of my fortification, under the rock.
It was a little before the great rains just now mentioned that I threw this stuff away, taking no notice, and not so much as remembering that I had thrown anything there, when, about a month after, or thereabouts, I saw some few stalks of something green shooting out of the ground, which I fancied might be some plant I had not seen; but I was surprised, and perfectly astonished, when, after a little longer time, I saw about ten or twelve ears come out, which were perfect green barley, of the same kind as our European—nay, as our English barley.
It is impossible to express the astonishment and confusion of my thoughts on this occasion. I had hitherto acted upon no religious foundation at all; indeed, I had very few notions of religion in my head, nor had entertained any sense of anything that had befallen me otherwise than as chance, or, as we lightly say, what pleases God, without so much as inquiring into the end of Providence in these things, or His order in governing events for the world. But after I saw barley grow there, in a climate which I knew was not proper for corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startled me strangely, and I began to suggest that God had miraculously caused His grain to grow without any help of seed sown, and that it was so directed purely for my sustenance on that wild, miserable place.
Chapter Five: “Builds a House”