It’s a hackneyed cliché that great poets, writers, thinkers, are seldom recognized by their contemporaries. Cultures are so caught up in their own little dioramas, the bigger pictures often pass by unseen. Perhaps future generations will recognize Wendell Berry as the greatest poet, writer, thinker of our time.
Wendell’s spent much of his eighty years being FOR what our whole culture’s AGAINST: small-farm organic agriculture, with an extremely close, sustainable connection to the land. He’s written dozens of books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of essays, received much recognition; continuously crusaded against strip mining and mountaintop removal; prefers a team of horses over a tractor, and a deluxe two-hole composting outhouse over a septic system.
I first met Wendell in California in the Sixties: he taught a writing seminar on the second floor of the Inner Quad, around a large oval table. Wendell was not having an easy time getting across to us dozen West Coast undergraduates the essence of his Agrarian Jeffersonian philosophy. At one point a frustrated guy named Obadiah contributed to the conversation by spending five minutes crawling around under the table.
Last week, we found out on-line (uufranklin.org) that, for Sunday’s service, our friends Paul and Lara were re-enacting a Sun Magazine interview with Wendell, so we drove over. Lara, a take-no-guff New Orleans lady, was wearing a beautiful feather-in tanned chicken hide hat; Paul, unadorned, appeared exactly as he is: organic, sustainable, off-the-grid, bio-intensive. When we started reading the Responsive Reading from the back of the UU songbook, I thought it sounded a lot like Wendell; turned out, it was Wendell. Here it is:
November 2008, A Poem
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow growing trees on a ruined place,
Renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
Then a long time after we are dead,
The lives our lives prepare will live here,
Their houses strongly placed upon the valley sides,
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run clear as we never know it,
And over it the birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down the old forest,
An old forest will stand, its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing out of the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting,
Memory, native to this valley, will spread over it like a grove,
And memory will grow into legend,
Legend into song, song into sacrament.
The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds,
Will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.