I read Wendell Berry’s The Farm on a rainy afternoon in late July. It took me fifteen minutes, and I enjoyed it. Then I began to think back to the first time I heard about and read other work by Berry, back in the ’90s.
On leaving city life and resettling my family in rural Québec over 20 years ago, I knew the most important thing to look for in the first property I would buy was land. Was there enough light to grow vegetables? I must have been an unusual sight for the real estate agent. After touring the run-down bungalow I would eventually buy, I headed to the backyard with a shovel. “Sandy here. Clay over here,” I said. “Some topsoil. It’ll do.” I bought the house in August and dug its first gardens that fall. I’m still digging.
But I was ignorant. I’d grown up in the next village over from my new house, and had gardened there, under the supervision of my parents. I remembered two things: that the area where my horse’s corral had been had produced amazing tomatoes without artificial fertilizer long after the horse was history; and that on a day when I’d been digging the soil, dressed in baggy pants and a plaid shirt, I’d leaned on the shovel and thought, “I wish I could do more of this.” But I was a musician heading off to college that fall, and spent the next 24 years pursuing that and various other dreams.
Now I was back on the land and wanted to grow organic vegetables. I quickly read what books were at my local library, but was hungry for more. In Harrowsmith magazine I found mention of the Canadian Organic Growers, an association that, for a ridiculously low membership fee, would not only mail me educational material but pay for the return postage!
So while wind and snow whipped around the house, I read Eliot Coleman, Heather Apple, Jennifer Bennett, and others. And I read Berry. I forget exactly which book. Perhaps it was The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, 1977. In it he writes (according to the online blurb) about how an estrangement from the land has resulted in a loss of community, loss of respect for human work, and destruction of nature.
Now, I could argue with him that common causes and likes make for community in city or country. I might even make the case that pride in the value of good work may be found in an office or in other non-farm settings. But I can’t disagree with his third point: the destruction of nature through some farming practices. (We’ll leave aside the misuse of agricultural-grade land for industrial and residential purposes.)
And now for the poem. He begins with a gentle suggestion.
“Go by the narrow road
Along the creek, a burrow
Under shadowy trees
Such as a mouse makes through
Tall grass, so that you may
Forget the paved road you
Have left behind, and all
That it has led to.”
Reducing the reader to a mouse snuffling its way from hole to seed and back to hole takes some of the pressure of being human away. But Berry isn’t satisfied with that. He would raise us up and offers a further choice.
Best, walk up through the woods,
Around the valley rim,
And down to where the trees
Give way to cleared hillside,
So that you reach the place
Out of the trees’ remembrance
Of their kind; seasonal
And timeless, they stand in
“The place” is his, or, a, farm and he reminds us that it was made at the cost of some of the trees.
“… and you
Have passed among them, small
As a mouse at a feast,
Unnoticed at the feet
Of all those mighty guests.”
See what he did there? Brought the mouse back, to try to teach us to have a sense of proportion regarding our place in the biome.
Berry brings us through the woods to a clearing where there is
“… a farm
Little enough to see
Or call across – cornfield,
Hayfield, and pasture, clear
As if remembered, dreamed
And yearned for long ago…
That is the vision, seen
As on a Sabbath walk:
Of human life whose terms
Are Heaven’s and this earth’s.”
Note the word selection: little, clear, remembered, dreamed, yearned for long ago, vision. And the Sabbath walk and reference to Heaven. He is framing an Eden, no? And then comes the invitation:
“Stay years if you would know
The work and thought, the pleasure
And grief, the feat, by which
This vision lives.”
Then follows the telling of yearly tasks. He begins with late fall as he prepares the land for next year’s planting and fells trees for firewood. He cuts only the inferior trees, bringing space and light to the woodlot. “In spring / The traces of your work / Will be invisible.”
And so it goes. The lambing season; guarding the sheep from stray dogs, coyotes. Yet “Coyote’s song at midnight / Says something for the world / The world wants said.” And “You’ll like to wake and hear / That wild voice sing itself / Free in the dark, at home.”
The plowing, disking and furrowing; spreading manure; planting, weeding. Rotating crops; one field which grew corn (a most greedy crop) last year to be regenerated by sowing a cover crop, a green manure, that will be turned over and under to enrich the soil. “The land must have its Sabbath / Or take it when we starve.” After four years, the field will be healthy enough to grow corn again.
He repeats that we should be grateful. “Be thankful and repay / Growth with good work and care. / Work done in gratitude, / Kindly, and well, is prayer.” And that love is at the bottom of a proper stewardship of the land. “To farm, live like a tree / That does not grow beyond / The power of its place.”
And he plants a garden of vegetables to eat, trade or sell. He keeps a cow for milk and doesn’t shy away from the calf’s eventual slaughter. Likewise, a pig and chickens are fed scraps and are eaten in their turn. And he is thankful.
Aside from the ethics of eating animals, which is beyond the scope of this essay, what Berry describes is the more or less closed loop of a self-sufficient farm. You need animals for dung. Dung is for land enrichment. Animals eat crops from land. Humans eat crops plus animal products. Perfect. Or is it?
Getting away from the poem for a moment – (don’t worry, we’ll return) – is Berry advocating a return to an Eden which never existed? Is The Farm, despite its beautiful imagery, a myth?
Most farms today, organic or otherwise, are factory farms. That is to say, they farm using pesticides, just different ones; they hire poorly paid migrant workers; they pollute the surrounding water and land with their run-offs of pesticides and manure. So where is the benefit of the closed loop, the organic small farm, and is it even possible?
About the harvest, he writes
‘Too much for us,’ you’ll say,
And give some more away –
Or try to; nowadays,
A lot of people would
Rather work hard to buy
Their food already cooked
Than get it free by work.”
But I don’t live where I can garden, much less farm, you might say. Hello? There are such things as allotment or community gardens, and if there aren’t, agitate for them. Berry mentions gleaning: taking wild fruits, nuts. There are city groups that do this. They even approach private citizens who have an apple tree, say, with the fruit falling on the ground, and offer to pick the fruit for a share of it. It you can’t find such a group in your neighbourhood, start one.
If you can’t garden or farm or glean, and if you can afford it, buy organic, thereby contributing to a reduction of harm to the land and supporting a (somewhat) less rapacious and damaging agriculture. It’s not perfect but it’s better than the modern factory farm. If you can’t afford organic (I can’t), buy local, buy seasonal. Try not to buy too many processed foods. Little steps, adding up.
But to those of us who can grow some of our own food, The Farm sings like a sweet hymn.
“And so you make the farm,
And so you disappear
Into your days, your days
Into the ground.”
I like that. All my days going into the ground where all good and bad things go.
Throughout the poem, Berry talks about hard work. He doesn’t mention the sweat, the biting insects, the aching muscles, the tasks that must be done right now. But he does say “And it is who you are / And everything you’ve done.” And I can honestly say that along with raising my child and holding my books in my hands, the other greatest satisfaction of my life has been eating the asparagus or the pea, raw from my garden; picking gooseberries under a late June sun; digging the last carrots from a frost-crusted row in late November.
“You will work many days
No one will ever see;
Their record is the place.
This way you come to know
That something moves in time
That time does not contain.”
And there it is, the true pleasure of working soil and land: that time slows, you think of the task, your mind stills even as your body sweats. A meditation.
Remember the beginning of the poem when he brought us out from the trees to the farm’s clearing? At the end of the poem, he brings us back to the trees.
“To rest, go to the woods
Where what is made is made
Without your thought or work.
Sit down; begin the wait
For small trees to grow big,
Feeding on earth and light.
Their good result is song
The winds must bring, that trees
Must wait to sing, and sing
Longer than you can wait.
Soon you must go.”
“The garden’s final yield
“And thus the year comes round.”