Wendell Berry makes me cry sometimes… and by “sometimes” I mean: all the time. Every time I find the time to read his words, I curse the fact that I’ve gone so long without reading him.
Berry lives on a farm near his birthplace in Port Royal, Kentucky that he has maintained since returning home from college in 1965. The author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Berry’s writing celebrates the holiness of life and everyday miracles often taken for granted.
For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.
Berry is a reproach to me, and a reminder… a reminder that this is the kind of work that should be dominating my waking hours. That there is a higher calling in my life that is being squandered in pursuit of daily bread. Usually after reading Berry I find myself staring at a mirror in the middle of the night, “What are you doing?”
I should be living my calling. Writing. Unleashing the tempest that rages within me. Building worlds out of words.
Life has been in my way. Existence has hindered my life. My reading has been hit and miss of late. Things have been busy, and not a little unorganized. Turning 40 a couple of weeks ago was a nasty knock upside the head. Not in the vain, “Boo hoo, I’m not as young as I used to be!” sort of way, but in that sober sense of mortality. Reaching a mid-point in anything tends to provoke some level of introspection, I guess.
Over the weekend I happened across Berry’s epic “Manifesto,” an impassioned call to arms for anyone seeking to live a life of significance. Not a significance in the form of fame and glory, but something far deeper… something more profound.
The first stanza is an accusation and condemnation. Do you want instant gratification? Bigger, better, faster, more? If so, here is where it leads: desolation. An empire of dirt. Ruin.
“Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery anymore. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.”
I got chills just typing that. I don’t know of a better rebuke of our era: you will have a window in your head. Terrible, gloriously terrible.
However, he doesn’t just abandon us to this wasteland. The rest of the poem contains some of the most uplifting verse written by an American since Walt Whitman. Like the great “Bard of Democracy” himself, Berry contrasts and contradicts himself in the abundance of minimalism.
In the second stanza he demands that the reader “every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.” It’s a soaring patriotic anthem for anarchists, especially this amazing line: “Denounce the government and embrace the flag.” Awesome.
But it’s the third stanza where he really starts building up a head of steam.
“Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.”
This poem was written in 1991, when worries over “Y2K” first started to become a media buzzword. Berry is flipping the script. Instead of terror at the widening gyre of civilization, have faith in the immutability of Creation. Plant sequoias, he says. A massive tree that can live for hundreds of years.
Berry would have you truly cultivate that which you have inherited, not because it brings you reward now, rather that you are part of something far surpassing yourself. “Your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.” This strikes a deep chord with me, both as a son and as a father who takes great pride in his family.
Cultivation, the action and process of developing… something. People, plants, a society… whatever. Berry wants you to get your hands dirty. This idea continues into the fourth stanza: “Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.”
We are so afraid of time, of how quick our durations pass. Berry does little to assuage this, and yet he would have us better understand our purpose. We each may only be leaves falling from a tree, our words and deeds becoming little better than mulch, but from such material comes the nourishment of ages still to come. To put it plainly: yes, your life is short and eventually you’ll die. So you might as well live in such a way as to strengthen the future.
How do you do this? Enjoy your life, but do so in a way that is conscientious.
“Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.”
The poem’s closing stanza evokes Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” with a lovely pastoral image of a couple resting in a field together, juxtaposed against an unease and wariness of the military-industrial complex that borders on prepper paranoia. But the final line is absolutely perfect:
Wow… I wish I had that tattooed on my chest, or at least screenprinted on a t-shirt. Practice resurrection. Cultivate enlightenment. Make rebirth a habit. Exist in revival. Perfect.
I read this poem some years ago, and it was certainly powerful then, but now it really resonates in a way that my words really aren’t expressing. Yes, I’m getting older. Yes, the duration of my moments seems to be diminishing. However, I do not bemoan this reality.
Time will have its way with me regardless. So let me live while I can. I need to get to work.