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Geoff’s Giftings for October, 2023
Dear Poetry of Nature Friends,
This day is a gift.
On Meeting the Great Man
More likely than not you’ve already read poetry by the Kentucky farmer-agronomist-poet-novelist-essayist and untiring champion of the Common Good Wendell Berry. Here’s a imaginative, mysterious poem of his I like:
To the Unseeable Animal
My Daughter: “I hope there’s an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it.”
Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have walked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.
~ Wendell Berry, from Farming: A Hand Book
Yes, oh yes-- and to add to that, the great American pacifist poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) wrote: “May your own special Animal of Light come safely to you.” What would that feel like?
About fifteen years ago, my friend Dan and I went to hear Wendell Berry and his daughter Mary speak at the annual Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, 7 hours from where we live in NW Arkansas. Mr. Berry was joined by other speakers at the event, including Land Institute founder Wes Jackson and other kindred visionary agronomists, environmentalists, eco-activists, philosophers, historians, and other uncategorizable geniuses who have collaborated on a massive research-demonstration project over the past 5 decades.
Wendell Berry has been a steady supporter of the Land Institute’s collaborative world-work, which has extended to more than 40 participating countries. Its central practical focus 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 process of genetic modification that Monsanto and other eco-thieves are so recklessly pursuing, but by slow, patient observation of the growth patterns and productivity of many generations of carefully interbred varieties of naturally occurring 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 are all called to 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.
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 quietly after funerals:
Water into water, earth into earth,
Breath into breath, light into light,
Singing into singing, birth into birth,
Thought into thought, sight into sight.
Let this man’s makings be unmade,
Let stillness be, let peace come
To this place that was a man.
I waited a long time in a long line for a moment to sing my setting of his poem to Mr. Berry and thank him for his irreplaceable work. The I Ching says, “It furthers one to meet the great man.” That’s how I felt about meeting Wendell Berry.
If you’d like to learn more about him and his deeply down-to-earth, deeply connected spiritual work, you can go to berrycenter.org. As far as I’m aware, there’s no writer with more moral force and compassionate clarity working in America today.
You might go back to "To the Unseeable Animal" poem and re-read it slowly to yourself silently or out loud, then rest and see whether any feelings, images thoughts and memories it evokes suggest a poem of your own to you, perhaps a poem about an animal you have known or seen or dreamed or imagined as you felt into the hidden life of the land and mind.
Please Touch the Earth with Love,