Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1970-1977

Although I tend to agree with the philosophy presented in Berry’s
Collected Poems
written between 1970 and 1977, I don’t particularly identify with them. The poems written in 1970 are entitled Farming: A Handbook, and the truth is that although I’ve always had a vegetable garden, I’ve never seen myself as a “farmer,” nor do I identify with the world in that way. Although I’ve increasingly felt that American agriculture is going the wrong way and that large companies threaten the very nature of agriculture, I am not a farmer, never have been, and have no desire to be one. I identify with nature as wilderness, not as farmland. In other words, I find it much easier to identify with Thoreau’s attitude toward nature than I do Berry’s. I’m a city boy who returns to nature to seek a deeper understanding of who I am, not a farmer who earns his existence by staying in touch with the soil.

Despite finding much that was amusing and insightful in Berry’s “Mad Farmer” poems, I didn’t identify with them on a deeper level. There were, though, some poems I did identify with. For instance, “A Standing Ground” reminded me that my new home doesn’t have any berries growing yet, and I have a hard time calling a house a home, unless it has berries growing in the yard:


Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng, though hit be smal…

However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to start your day than to walk out into the backyard, pick a cup of fresh raspberries for your morning cereal, and sit down to a hardy, healthy breakfast.

I also strongly identify with the sense of place found in “The Current:”


Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness.
a flickering sap coursing upward into his head
so that he sees the old tribespeople bend
in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening
to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left
in the earth rising into him like a seasonal juice.
And he sees the hearers of his own blood arriving,
the forest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground
to lie still under the black wheels of machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth
flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.

Though I’m no farmer, I can certainly identify with this sense of place. I’ve always identified with the Puget Sound, even though I lived hundreds of miles away in Vancouver, WA. More than that, I found it quite difficult to move away from the two homes I’ve owned as an adult. After planting trees and digging gardens, I identify with those homes and hated to go back and find that the new owners had built a storage shed over the garden that I worked so hard to enrich with organic soil through composting or that they’d cut down a tree I planted thirty years ago. Though I’ve never know the continuity of a “family farm,” it seems to me a noble tradition, one that our nation abandons at our own peril.

3 thoughts on “Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1970-1977”

  1. I have seen it written of Mississippians, of which I am one, that we tend to stay in our home state more than others; that we have an attachment to the soil, much like the Irish, that keeps us here. I am an avid gardener, and these poems tell me that Berry must have also been a gardener. I’ve often said that I unwind from my job as a database administrator by sticking my hands in the dirt – now i find poetic confirmation of my feelings!

  2. You and I are probably “gardeners,” Harry, but Wendell is an honest-to-goodness farmer, a teacher who left NY and California to return to the family farm in Kentucky to make a living farming.

    I’m interested in his background since he dedicates poems to both Ken Keysey and Gary Snyder. One has to wonder if he didn’t take the hippie “back-to-the-earth movement” a lot more seriously than his friends on the West Coast.

    After helping my father-in-law harvest hay on his Eastern Washington wheat farm, I knew that life wasn’t for me.

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