Wendell Berry, Roots to the Earth

I just read Roots to the Earth, a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose on American rural life. It is a meditation on living well.

The book first appeared a quarter century ago in a portfolio illustrated with Wesley Bates’ woodcuts. Three years ago, Larkspur Press released a limited edition of one hundred copies. Last year, Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press made the book available to the general public.

Even at one remove from a letterpress printing, this affordable volume is lavish. Bates’ illustrations recall the work of Rockwell Kent, Lynn Ward, and other midcentury traditionalists. However, while Kent and Ward foregrounded their figures against midnight-dark skies, Bates opens his to the light. That echoes the generosity of Berry’s poems and recalls as well some of the cheer found in children’s books, which may explain why Skylight Books displayed the copy I bought in the store’s kiddie section. I think that’s a mistake. True, there’s no reason that older children can’t read Roots to the Earth. Yet it’s adults who are likely most receptive to Berry’s themes of faith, frugality, steadfastness, dignity and humility. Adult experience often teaches something about the cost of abandoning traditional values.

In writing of “traditional values,” I know I’m invoking a sort of a rural idyll, the kind embraced on the right by Christian homeschoolers and on the left by back-to-the-land organic farmers. Either way, it’s something of a mirage. When Berry wrote these pieces, in the early 90s, the opioid epidemic was still twenty years off. But even then, America’s rural communities and economies were in deep trouble. The market prices for wheat, corn and cotton had tumbled by 50% or more in the two decades before Roots to the Earth took shape. Plummeting income and growing debt had squeezed out many smaller operations. Berry’s own farm in Lane’s Landing, Kentucky, is hardly typical: he owns 125 acres, about a quarter the size of the average American farm. Corporations do most of the farming these days, and most of America’s farm counties have lost people and vitality.

Yet, as William Carlos Williams says, we don’t usually turn to poetry for the news. Instead, it’s a sense of our deeply buried selves. Berry knows about the life and death of seasons, and wants us to know, too:

The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine thing. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing…

What miraculous seed he has swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?

Berry does not imagine that most of us will return to the land. But he hopes to bring us closer to it. Elsewhere, he notes that, of  the vast majority who do not farm, there are many who are “venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production, and they are demanding better food and, necessarily, better farming.” He is cautiously optimistic that knowledge, both technical and spiritual, remains within our reach.

Berry does not easily fit into contemporary political categories. He believes in family and in commitment to family. He believes in God and sees the work of God in the land, the house and outbuildings, the lives of his neighbors and the love he has for his own family. Many religious conservatives (notably Rod Dreher) admire him greatly. Yet, as Dreher himself has lamented, Berry’s pacifist and communitarian sensibilities often bring him closer to the Christianity of Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter (another farmer) than to readers of Crux or First Things. As he explained to an audience of Baptist ministers back in 2013, gay marriage leaves him entirely untroubled. (Left to his own devices, he would get government entirely out of the business of “licensing” marriage; no adult should need state permission to publicly declare a mutual and lifelong commitment, he believes).

But if Berry often stands with the Left, he is not really of the Left, at least not the Left of the early 21st century. True, he vocally and consistently opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights in 1960s, earning him a loyal audience that has stuck with him. But he has rejected the Left’s rush to secularism, and disdains the Left’s growing tendency to replace communitarian mutualism with a doctrine of unalloyed personal liberty and tribal loyalty. His poems (particularly in the collection Sabbaths) testify to his commitment to equality within marriage. But he does not shy away from the idea that men and women have distinct though not segregated lifetime vocations. Of his farm, writes:

The buildings are all womanly. Their roofs
are like the flanks of mares, the arms and the hair of wives.
The future prepares its satisfaction in them.
In their dark heat I labor all summer, making them ready.
A time of death is coming, and they desire to live.
It is only the labor surrounding them that is manly…

After a day’s hot and exhausting work he returns to the house where

                                    …The wifeliness of my wife
is its welcome, a vine with yellow flowers shading the door.

Similarly, Berry can be confused for an radical environmentalist. He is a Kentuckian who called back a donation of his personal  papers to that state’s university – his alma mater – because the institution takes money and curricular direction from coal companies whose strip mines and toxic runoff are, in his view, vandalizing the central Appalachians.

However, Berry is no purist, not regarding the environment generally and not regarding animal rights. Livelihoods depend on working the land, and those livelihoods should not be lightly tossed aside to defend abstract principle. He’s grown tobacco from his youth (though he doesn’t anymore), and, as in “The Fearfulness of Hands that have Learned Killing,” he knows how to slaughter a creature for its meat or to put it out of the agonies of accident, illness, and age. He accepts the cost of his power:

With my hands from boyhood
I formed the small perfect movements of death,
killing for pleasure of wantonness, casually.
Manhood taught me the formal deadliness
of hunter and farmer, the shedding
of predestined blood that lives for death.
Only marrying and fathering lives
has taught me the depth of ruin,
and made me feel quick in my hands the subtlety
and warmth of what they have destroyed.

The skill that is prepared in me is careful
and terrible. There is no life I can think of
without sensing in my hands the answering power.
I shall not go free of the art of death.

He can rejects the technophilia common to both the Right and Left. In 1987, he famously announced (in a 1987 article reprinted in Harper’s and widely republished) that he’d never buy a computer:

To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:

  1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
  2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
  3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
  4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
  5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
  6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
  7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
  8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
  9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

We might argue (and many letter-writers did) that numbers 1-8 are backward-looking, rejecting technology prematurely and underestimating its contribution to personal productivity (though, having written more than seventy books in pencil, it’s not an argument Berry himself would embrace).

Number 9, however, was prescient. The digital world certainly has replaced and disrupted much that is good, including family and community relationships. In fact, “disruption” has become a technophilic mantra, suggesting a pathological disregard of permanent ties of affection and responsibility. It remains to be seen whether such cultural transformations will create something better than what’s being destroyed.

If his politics are out of step with the ritual cant of both Left and Right, his poetry is even less at peace with our shared cultural sensibilities. His language is conversational and fully accessible. Though there are other writers adept at preserving conversational rhythms of English idiom (Mark Jarman and Abby Chew come to mind) few combine a commitment to rural life with a deeply ingrained faith in its capacity for human regeneration. Agrarian, elegiac, aphoristic and morally grounded: to find a similar sensibility, I have to go back to Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost – a long way back indeed.

I first read Berry thirty years ago, when I found November Twenty Six Nineteen Sixty Three in a used bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. Illustrated by Ben Shahn, it is an elegy to John F. Kennedy; the date, four days after the assassination, is that of his funeral. Originally published in The Nation, it is brief, clear, pointed, and rewards repeated readings. For years, I did re-read it, to U.S. History classes on the murder’s anniversary. I’ve read the poem aloud maybe sixty times, and have not tired of it. As Shahn describes it, the poem

was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, [Berry] discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared.

Every line in that poem begins with the phrase “We know…” And that is true to Berry’s ultimately hopeful sensibility: at some deep level, we know how to act: it’s a matter of training, yes, but of committing ourselves to the rediscovery of our own deepest selves. (For more about this poem, see the Smithsonian’s tribute here).

Embedded in all of Berry’s work is the idea of choice – choosing to take a day of rest, choosing to remain with one person, choosing to produce as well as consume, choosing to embrace the cycle of life and death and, in doing so, understand ourselves from an early age to stand within that cycle. As Christians put it, echoing Aquinas and Aristotle, this makes for an “ordered life,” which is why conservatives like Dreher find Berry, among the last of the radical agrarians, so congenial.

In Berry’s vocabulary, choice (like mercy in Mary Szybist’s work) is not an individual act, completed and receding into the past. It is instead a discipline: a lifelong practice which we must master and to which we must surrender. Every day, we rededicate ourselves to our choices: to remain in a committed relationship, to do needful work well, to suppress or rein in our many appetites.

Were a child to find Roots to the Earth while reading with her father or mother at Skylight, these are the ideas that would seem the strangest. No wonder: a child’s full life is as yet unlived, and still promises a future rich with choices not yet settled upon. For me, on the cusp of 60, Wendell Berry’s poems make perfect legible sense.

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