Wendell Berry— The Farmer Poet

Sometimes serendipity just happens.  And it happens at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.   Well I guess that’s why they call it serendipity.   Tonight my wife was going to a dinner as part of a meeting about sustainable agriculture and community sponsored agriculture.   Asbury University is going to start a student farm,  to help students who are going to do overseas missions so they will be able to help the people they will serve with something as basic as subsistence farming.  (praying give us today our daily bread).   She promised good food, so, I went along.   It was held at Emmert Farms, which is owned by the University of Kentucky and used as a training and test farm.  Its only ten minutes from our house, and is right on the back side of Waveland, the historic home that belonged to Daniel Boone Bryan.

Well the food was all local grown and raised stuff, and was wonderful, including Valentine’s homemade bourbon ball ice cream  (double yum).  We toured the farm before supper, sat down to dinner, and were in due course to be entertained by a Bluegrass band from Winchester (what else would you expect when you live in the Bluegrass section of the Bluegrass State?).

Quite unexpectedly, and without warning (no one told us who the after dinner speaker would be), Wendell Berry stood up and read us a story called “Sold” about the selling of a widow’s farm because no one could take care of it any more.  It was a moving, and sometimes humorous, and often poignant recitation in a good ole Southern voice.  Afterwards, Wendell took questions.  I asked what was the connection between his art and his farming, his writing and his life on the land.   He and I have one thing in common— both been named Kentucky poet of the month.   He said that farming like poetry, is an art.  And he does the best he can to connect the two, all the time.   So he tells stories about farms and farming, writes poems about God’s good creation,  and about how the meek shall inherit it—- in the Kingdom.

I was thrilled to finally meet the man who is one of my inspirations— a good and godly farmer who believes in creation care (time to sing a chorus ‘This is my Father’s world’).   One of his wise sayings on this night was that if we don’t practice temperance when it comes to the earth, we will never again reap its abundance.  We have to care for the earth, if we care about it’s sustaining us.

The fact that the man is a farmer shouldn’t fool you into think he is uneducated.  In one of his answers to one question, he recited how nature is a major theme in Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Pope, giving examples in each case, and reciting passages.  It was impressive.  Wendell’s mind is a sharp as the blades on his plow, but he’s no spring chicken (born 1934).   I decided we need more Christian poet farmers.  We need less assumptions about farmer’s being uneducated bucolic folks.  As Wendell said on this wonderful  night, farm work is not ‘mind numbing work’ though it is certainly hard work, and he never met a farmer that didn’t also have a good mind.

What was it Jesus said when he wanted to talk about spreading Good News—- “a sower went out to sow his field….’.   There is a connection between farming and the good news if you believe the parables.   It’s a great pity that less than 2% of Americans these days either grew up on, or have ever really experienced life on a farm.   For in some ways, the further removed we are from the Creation, the further removed we are from our Creator.    Think about these things.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I am not sure people that grow up to be poet farmers now would be the same. Large corporate farms dominate. I am just finishing Hannah Coulter and as someone that is the right age to be one of her grandchildren, I relate to the distance I feel from my own farmer grandparents. I loved them and spent a fair amount of time with them. But we are in different worlds. My cousins that stayed in the area mostly live in small surrounding towns working decent jobs. I have one cousin that runs a saw mill with his father and ‘still does things the old ways’. My uncles best friends are all the amish in the area. But it is a generation that will not raise again. Computers and technology have come to dominate the world. Which makes Berry even more important.

  • mike helbert

    I remember spending a couple weeks each summer with my aunt and uncle on their dairy farm. As a kid of 11 I got to help with the chores…milking the cows, driving a tractor to bale hay, hauling the bales into the barn. And, of course, fishing. Now, 40 years later, the farm has been sold, my aunt went home to be with Jesus many years ago and my uncle is retired. I used to love going for long walks on their property. I still love it in the country. There is a closeness with creation and Creator that is palpable. It also seems that the creative juices flow just a tad easier there.

  • Pat Uriba

    “He and I have one thing in common— both been named Kentucky poet of the month.”

    Kinda tacky vanity. “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.”

  • http://desertmountaintimes.com Dan

    Why so quick with a critique on an author’s honest kinship remark, Pat? Who is speaking for you?

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben

    Hi Pat:

    I said this directly to Wendell when I met him not as a boast but quite the opposite— it was one of the few things we have in common. I consider him a much more important person and literary figure than myself for so many reasons.



  • http://jmichaeltilley.blogspot.com/ J. Michael Tilley

    ” For in some ways, the further removed we are from the Creation, the further removed we are from our Creator.”

    What do you mean by creation?

    I can think of two different ways of taking it, but each interpretation renders farming (even Wendell Berry anti-agribusiness farming) more problematic than you suggest here. First, it could be that creation is what God produced in Genesis 1 & 2. In which case it seems that agriculture and farming is far removed from creation. God created plants, animals, human beings, the soil, ect. and he in the four-fold command in Gen. 1, he gives human beings the task of subduing the earth. But agriculture in the sense of plant cultivation, soil conservation, and so on and so forth are not created under this way of taking the claim. It follows that contemporary agriculture even in its best form is far removed from creation.

    I can imagine a response that it deals with creation in a way that other fields don’t, but I don’t find this response compelling. The service industry employee deals provides services to human beings (part of God’s creation), and the computer technician worked with materials cultivated and construction out of God’s creation. These seem to be similar to the farmer.

    Another way of taking creation would be to not make a sharp distinction between God’s creation and his providential direction and care for his creation that results in agriculture, metallurgy, and so forth. In which case, once again, it doesn’t seem that farming is closer to creation than the service industry employee or the computer technician. God is creatively at work in human activities associated with farming and human activities in the service industry and with computers.

    In either case, I don’t understand what you mean by creation or how it justifies your praise of the farmer for being closer to creation.

    Of course, I understand the point that not understanding farming can render significant portions of the Bible opaque to contemporary ears (particularly Jesus’ parables), but I took your claim about being close to creation differently.

    Thanks for your reflections!

  • Kelly Lawson

    I am ATS alum (M.Div., 2010), and am now working at World Hunger Relief, Inc. in Waco, TX (http://worldhungerrelief.org). We are a working and teaching farm/Christian non-profit org, focused on sustainability and community development. If any of the AU student farmers are looking for a post-college sustainable agriculture internship (our internship is 1 year long), send them our way. Would love to have more Wilmorians here in Texas…

  • http://www.travismamone.net/ Travis Mamone

    Wendell Berry is one of my heroes. All the stuff people have been talking about nowadays–creation care, food justice, community, etc–Wendell’s been writing about for years!

  • R Ffletcher

    Where did Wendell grow up? I grew up in southern Gentry County north of Maysville, Missouri and a Wendell Berry lived just a short distance from my family. He had a brother, Sanley, and sister Marilyn. Just curious to see if this is our old neighbor. Roena Gossett Fletcher.