By Janet Walgren
When Leo Tolstoy was at the height of his career as a writer of novels, he turned to writing folktales, some rich with poignant illustrations of the futility of lives wasted on the acquisition of stuff. One such folktale entitled How Much Land Does a Man Need? was written in 1886.
An elder sister came to visit her younger sister in the country. The elder was married to a tradesman in town, the younger to a peasant in the village. As the sisters sat over their tea talking, the elder began to boast of the advantages of town life: saying how comfortable they lived there, how well they dressed, what fine clothes her children wore, what good things they ate and drank, and how she went to the theatre, promenades, and entertainments.
The younger sister was piqued, and in turn disparaged the life of a tradesman, and stood up for that of a peasant.
“I would not change my way of life for yours,” said she. “We may live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in better style than we do, but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb, ‘Loss and gain are brothers twain.’ It often happens that people who are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is safer, though a peasant’s life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.”
Pahom, master of the house, was lying on the top of the stove as he listened to the women’s chatter.
“It is perfectly true,” thought he. “Busy as we are from childhood tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!”
The women finished their tea, Chatted a while about dress, and then cleared away the tea-things and lay down to sleep.
But the Devil had been sitting behind the stove, and had heard all that was said. He was pleased that the peasant’s wife had led her husband into boasting, and that he had said that if he had plenty of land he would not fear the Devil himself.
“All right,” thought the Devil. “We will have a tussle. I’ll give you land enough; and by means of that land I will get you into my power.”
The folktale goes on to tell how Pahom managed to purchase land of his own on terms. The village commune wanted to buy the 300 acres, but the Evil One sowed discord among them and they could not agree on terms so the land was divided and sold, Pahom buying 40 acres.
Pahom was quite content for a time, but then he tired of his neighbors cattle straying into his pastures and imagined that one of his neighbors was stealing his wood, so he complained to the court. After a time, he had become an enemy to his neighbors and had alienated the entire town. Then word came that better land was for sale elsewhere:
Pahom’s heart kindled with desire. He thought:
“Why should I suffer in this narrow hole, if one can live so well elsewhere? I will sell my land and my homestead here, and with the money I will start afresh over there and get everything new…”
Pahom sold his land and homestead for a profit and purchased land elsewhere and worked it for a profit, but was not content. Again he sold his land. As the story winds down, Pahom had heard tale from a tradesman of more land:
“There is more land there than you could cover if you walked a year, and it all belongs to the Bashkirs. They are as simple as sheep, and their land can be got almost for nothing.”
“There now,” thought Pahom, “with my thirteen thousand rubles, why should I get only thirteen hundred acres, and saddle myself with a debt besides? If I take it out there, I can get more than ten times as much for the money.”
Pahom traveled to the land of the Bashkirs where he agreed to purchase as much land as he could walk around in a day from sunrise to sunset for 1000 rubles.
Pahom lay awake all night, and dozed off only just before dawn. Hardly were his eyes closed when he had a dream. He thought he was lying in that same tent and heard somebody chuckling outside. He wondered who it could be, and rose and went out, and he saw the Bashkir Chief sitting in front of the tent holding his sides and rolling about with laughter. Going nearer to the Chief, Pahom asked: “What are you laughing at?” But he saw that it was no longer the Chief, but the dealer who had recently stopped at his house and had told him about the land. Just as Pahom was going to ask, “Have you been here long?” he saw that it was not the dealer, but the peasant who had come up from the Volga, long ago, to Pahom’s old home. Then he saw that it was not the peasant either, but the Devil himself with hoofs and horns, sitting there and chuckling, and before him lay a man barefoot, prostrate on the ground, with only trousers and a shirt on. And Pahom dreamt that he looked more attentively to see what sort of man it was that was lying there, and he saw that the man was dead, and that it was himself! He awoke horror-struck.
Pahom awoke and prepared for the day. He arrived at the appointed spot and placed the 1000 rubles in the Chief of the Bashkirs’s hat and set out on his journey figuring that he could easily do thirty-five miles in a day. He at first walked slowly then picked up his pace. He encircled a choice piece of meadow here and an extra nice piece of land there and then turned at noon to start another leg of his journey.
By evening, he could see that he was still quite a ways from his mark and panicked that all would be lost if he didn’t arrive at his starting point by the setting of the sun.
He took a long breath and ran up the hillock, it was still light there. He reached the top and saw the cap. Before it sat the Chief laughing and holding his sides. Again Pahom remembered his dream, and he uttered a cry: his legs gave way beneath him; he fell forward and reached the cap with his hands.
“Ah, that’s a fine fellow!” exclaimed the Chief, “He has gained much land!”
Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead.
The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.
His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.
Russian Stories and Legends, Leo Tolstoy
I had the second of two yard sales last Saturday. I am trying to get rid of my excess stuff. My stuff was mingled with other peoples’ excess stuff so there was a lot of stuff to get rid of. I can’t help wonder as I see mothers drive up in expensive vehicles, that cost more than a house used to cost, to drop off their crying children at the babysitters at 5:30 AM so that they can go work for a meager profit, or when I see the proliferation of the Mc Mansions on the foothills and read of the rapidly rising housing foreclosure rates, how much stuff is enough?
I watched the Mormon Tabernacle Choir record their broadcast yesterday. As I heard their stirring voices mingle with the music of the orchestra, and heard the somber cry of the trumpet and bugle playing taps as I watched video clips of military personnel and military graves, my thoughts returned to this Tolstoy folktale and I wondered how much stuff is enough.
I pondered if our lust for stuff cost only just one life, would it be worth it? What if it were your son on the battlefield, what if it was your daughter, what if it was you? What if it were your family – neglected as you fight the battle of commerce just to get more stuff? Then I asked myself the searching question, how much stuff is enough?
I hope that you will ask yourself that question too!