Before I tell you about my visit to the Land Institute and my brief meeting with Wendell Berry there, let’s go directly to a poem by that great Kentucky farmer-poet-novelist-essayist-and untiring champion of the Common Good:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
My God. Folks, if I ever receive and write a poem of that quality, I will be SO grateful.
My old bud Dan Vega and I just got back from hearing Wendell and his daughter Mary speak at the annual Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, about 6 and 1/2 hours from where we live in Fayetteville in NW Arkansas. He was joined by other speakers at the event, including Land Institute founder Wes Jackson. Long story short, Wes and the other visionary agronomists, environmentalists, eco-activists, philosophers, historians, and uncategorizable geniuses he’s working with over the past 4 decades have collaborated on a massive research-demonstration project, the central practical focus of which is the gradual development of hardy, drought and insect resistant, soil-enhancing, erosion-preventive, high-yield perennial grains to replace more labor intensive, less soil-protective annual crops. This is not being done by the same kind of genetic modification that Monsanto and other eco-thieves are so recklessly pursing, but by slow, patient observation of the growth patterns and productivity of many, many generations of carefully interbred varieties of naturally occuring grains. If you’d like to know about the Land Institute and its essential work, you can go to http://www.landinstitute.org
Now then [what a peculiar phrase, mingling timelessness and time!] about Mr. Berry…his writings are profound, beautiful, and crucial to the nth degree, if you believe like I do that we MUST ALL find healthy ways to further conform our daily lives, and our agriculture, and our means of energy production, to the changing reality of our natural ecosystems. Now, to my meeting with the great man: In his A Place on Earth, a novel originally published in 1967, Berry included a brief poem which one of the novel’s characters recites over the grave of a fellow citizen in the close-knit farming community in Kentucky that has written about again and again in his semi-autobiographical fiction. A few years back, I put that poem to music and have played it a few times at gigs on harmonium, and have PRAYED it a few times silently, or rather quietly and privately, after funerals.
So, as I considered what I might like to say to Wendell if I got an opportunity to meet him, I decided that I’d sing him my setting of his poem, as well as of course thanking him for his irreplaceable work. All of which I did, and I can yet see his eyes so alive and close to mine as I ululated the tune to him there on the dusky prairie at the end of his long day as a speaker and honored participant at the Land Institute gathering. When I finished the short song, Wendell said, “You didn’t sing that while they were hauling somebody’s ass to the graveyard, did you?”
A bit taken aback by his question, swiftly brought back down to my own little “place on earth,” and feeling more than a little pretentious for approaching Wendell so abruptly in such an offbeat way, yet I was also well aware of the humor of the situation and the American Zen disposition of the interchange. So I responded to him “Not…right…then.” Then we shook hands, I offered Wendell another heartfelt “thank you,” and we went on our separate ways.
I walked away feeling a little hurt and irritated at having wanted to give Mr. Berry an artistic gift in return for all his work has given me, and not feeling that it had been totally received. Yeah…I felt humbled, but over the next hour or so, along with the hurt and humbling there arose a strong sense that I had indeed received something important in that interaction, which certainly included the little hurt and the humbling and what they may have “learned” me about myself, but also…something else. In a small and playful way, Wendell stuck it to me. Sure, I was a tad deflated and irritated, but also, as a result of our brief connection , SOMETHING of Wendell’s own energy and sensibility penetrated me in way that will stick with me and continue to in-form me over time. I don’t have words for what that SOMETHING was, or a tune for it, for that matter. I only sense that it broke some new ground and will work inside me productively for a long time to come. Our little “dokusan” (an encounter of student with Zen master) planted a seed in me, and I am willing to let it grow.
The I Ching says, “It furthers one to meet the great man.” I don’t feel less great myself, just taken by surprise, informed, and inspired in a way I hadn’t expected to be, as a result of meeting Wendell Berry.
If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Berry and his deeply down-to-earth, highly spiritual work, you can go to http://www.wendellberrybooks.com
As far as I’m aware, there’s no writer with more moral force and compassionate clarity working in America today.