An American Homeplace

In september of 1971, Donald McCaig and his wife, Anne, experienced the urge felt by many young Americans to return to the land, moving from their home in New York City to western Virginia. They purchased an abandoned farm and, with the help of their rural neighbors, set about learning the skills necessary to be farmers and sheep ranchers. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the McCaigs have remained on their farm.

In the first of five sections, McCaig relates in fascinating detail the history of the farm from discovery of the area by Virginia Governor Spotswood’s expedition in 1716 and the first settlers in 1740, through McCaig’s own arrival in 1971.

The second section covers the art and practice of farming and ranching, from hay making to sheep shearing. McCaig is a realistic writer. He does not romanticize the hard work involved in keeping the farm operating, nor does he bemoan endless toil and hardship. One short chapter relates the roadside hunting by boys who, for fun, shot from their car two of the McCaigs’ ewes, leaving three orphaned lambs. McCaig denounces them with dignity, rather than condemning all hunters.

The third section discusses the animals, the sheep and the dogs who work them, the McCaigs’ partners in their enterprise.

The fourth section describes the McCaigs’ neighbors, from the fire department volunteers to the “lost boys,” natives of the valley who returned from failed lives and businesses to lead simpler, though aimless lives.

Section 5, “The Land Stewards,” consists of interviews with such individuals as Wendell Berry and Helen Nearing and their views of the land and its continuing importance to Americans. Throughout the book, McCaig’s belief in the life he has chosen is clear.