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Song in a year of Catastrophe

There is a poem by Wendell Berry that means a lot to us. We usually circle back to it every spring at some point. In our early years of farming we would just start crying when we read it. In those early years the sheer rush of spring was so overwhelming and exhausting that we would almost break every year.

We (I) tend towards summoning strength when things get tough. We try to work harder or longer or think harder and plan better. Farming is a LOT of work and it is VERY complicated.

I think everyone can understand the clenching "hold on" mentality when things get hard.

But sometimes the end of the tunnel is further then your strength can carry. What then? Sometimes the disaster is just bigger then you. What then? Part of the human experience is being very very very small in a giant unyielding world. If you don't get overwhelmed by overwhelming things then something is wrong--you are probably lying to yourself.

This poem helps us remember that there is another way. Perhaps the fear (of fear) that keeps you clenched is what's actually wearing you down. And perhaps death isn't really death. Everything on the farm actually suggests that death is really life...

Here's the poem:

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

"It can't last.  It can't last.

Harden yourself.  Harden yourself.

Be ready.  Be ready."

"Go look under the leaves,"

it said, "for what is living there

is dead in your tongue."

And it said, "Put your hands

into the earth.  Live close

to the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all

the things that you love, name

their names, prepare

to lose them,  It will be

as if all you know were turned

around within your body."

And I went and put my hands 

into the ground, and they took root

and grew into a season's harvest.

I looked behind the veil

of the leaves, and heard voices

that I knew had been dead

in my tongue years before my birth.

I learned the dark.

And still the voice stayed with me. 

Waking in the early mornings,

I could hear it, like a bird

bemused among the leaves,

a mockingbird idly singing

in the autumn of catastrophe:

"Be ready.   Be ready.

Harden yourself.  Harden yourself."

And I heard the sound 

of a great engine pounding

in the air, and a voice asking:

"Change or slavery?

Hardship or slavery?"

and the voices answering:

"Slavery!  Slavery!"

And I was afraid, loving 

what I know would be lost.

Then the voice following me said:

"you have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground.  Learn

from the woodcock in the woods

whose feathering is a ritual

of the fallen leaves,

and from the nesting quail

whose speckling makes her hard to see

in the long grass.

Study the coat of the mole.

For the farmer shall wear

the greenery and the furrows

of his fields, and bear

the long standing of the woods."

And I asked: "you mean a death, then?"

"yes," the voice said.  "Die

into what the earth requires of you."

Then let go all holds, and sank

like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,

and at last came fully into the ease

and the joy of that place,

all my lost ones returning.

--Wendell Berry

I honestly can't read that poem without a chill.

And in case you are interested, there is a musician named Hiss Golden Messenger who wrote a song called "Drum" that uses some of the lines from that poem. It is a favorite (we love all his music).

We are still learning what it means to "[sink] like a hopeless swimmer into the earth / and at last [come] fully into the ease and the joy of [this] place". Its something like humility. It takes a lifetime to learn.


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