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Radical Dissent: Poetry By Wendell Berry and the Mad Farmer

Written by Jason Winton : May 23, 2008

Wendell Berry is one of my favorite authors and, perhaps, one of my favorite humans (at the very least, an exemplary man). I wrote him a letter last year to express my gratitude for his books and to ask his advice about my upcoming graduation/anxiety over an impending “Career.” He responded back pretty quickly. When his letter arrived, my wife knew about it before I did but kept it a secret all day. She was waiting until I could see for myself his personal envelope. Let me just say, her patience wasn’t for nothing. One of the biggest smiles I’ve had in a long time snuck right up—like an upturned watermelon poking out of my mouth. To tell you the truth, I almost yelped!

Mr. Berry seems to embody an aged aesthetic—like an expensive bottle of wine. In our culture of immediate consumption, trash heaps, and throw-away containers he narrates a relevant (not pre-packaged) vision of community wholeness: a delicate balance between the tannins, fruits, and acidities of deeply imagined membership and radical dissent. Yet many modern readers and critics feel satisfied labeling Mr. Berry as merely a “regional” author, unwittingly relegating his poetry, prose, and fiction into the dark cellars of marginal notoriety. And it seems Mr. Berry is perfectly fine with that arrangement—much like his satisfaction in traditional farming. In fact, though this tends to infuriate the naysayer, he actually prefers working within certain small-scale and low-tech limits—i.e., using independent publishing houses and refusing a computer. As a result, his work, rest, and play—as both an author and farmer—tends to produce a taste that is borne along the so-called periphery.

Despite flying under the mainstream radar, many prominent reviewers across dividing lines count him as one of America’s most vital prophetic voices alive today. He has inspired many of us to work with our hands so to speak and to do so creatively in light of the Industrialists’ and Militarists’ technocracy we currently find ourselves in. He represents a subversive and creative outpost for economic and ecological health (i.e., true sustainability), and yet somewhat surprisingly he has not been given a prominent voice in the American social and political conversation. However, through his writing and way of life, he has been able to at once reassure many of us about what is true and to invite our cooperation in his ongoing “resistance.”

Copied below are two poems written by his infamous agrarian anarchist, the Mad Farmer. This character, like Mr. Berry, embodies a biting (yet magnetic) religious, economic, and political conviction—and demonstrates a truly paradoxical and inspiring path. As you read these poems keep in mind the language he uses and the relative ease by which his message and critique can be applied to the political/economic life of modern evangelical communities. And let me know what you think.

The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. “Dance,” they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
“Pray,” they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,”
I told them “He’s dead.” And when they told me
“God is dead,” I answered “He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.”
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. “Well, then,” they said
“go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,” and I said, “Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?” So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

Wendell Berry
from Farming: A Hand Book

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. 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
any more. 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.
So, friends, 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.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
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.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry
from The Country of Marriage

Author Bio:: The most important details anyone might need to know about me are the following: (1) I am married to a beautiful Peruvian woman (who, incidentally, knows how to make the best ‘comida peruana’ in the whole-wide-world!) and (2) my current life consists of graduate school, social work, writing, and procrastination–the real way to get stuff done! You can read my further ramblings at www.waysofresistance.com.

Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com


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Comments

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    I really like that second poem. I have never read Wendell Berry before, but if this is indicative of the kind of things that he writes, I may have just found a new favorite author.
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    The book I started with, in case you want to read more, was Berry's novel Jayber Crow. One of my favorite all-time-quotes comes from his main character, Jayber, who quietly confesses to the audience:

    "I am, I suppose, a difficult man. I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think" (p. 320-321).

    Anyway, I think that's a good place to start.
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    Thanks
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    Mr. Berry rocks my socks off... acoustically of course.
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    For anyone that's interested, I had prepared these questions based on the poems and my own thoughts about them but decided not to include it at the last minute. I didn't want to detract from the intent of the piece: an introduction to Wendell Berry and his poetry. But now it doesn't really matter because they will be in the comments section! Here they are:

    Which cultural/religious/economic pressures most threaten our community's liberation--such that we need to draw from the Mad Farmer's resistance and/or contrariness?

    Are we aligning with ideas that are foreign to Jesus’ message by embracing industrialist/militarist/capitalist ideology or economic practice?

    The Mad Farmer exhorts in the latter poem, “Practice resurrection.” What newly resurrected ideas or rhythms should we invite into our own communities?
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    Speaking for my own community, if there were no industrialist/militarist/government props, it would blow away with the prairie wind. We've got an Army base/bombing range, a tire and cardboard factory, a state university, the Indian/Native American tribal cabals and casinos, a major defense contractor headquarters, box top stores, a wildlife refuge, and probably many other players I don't know about all within a 50 mile circumference.

    People should plain old not be living here in the concentration they are. Agriculture has been a failure, but no one wants to admit it. The Feds bail out the farmers year after year. Oil is not such a major factor, though a little still is pumped further east. The Complexes keep the people here, like a gully collecting tumbleweed. I think it would be perfectly sane to move out and turn the land back over to roaming tribes and herds of bison.
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    Anna, good comments...have you ever read (or heard of) Wes Jackson? He founded the Land Institute in Salina, KS. They have been working to promote and research Natural Systems Agriculture for over 20 years, an approach that sees nature (not corporate or agro-business interests) as the measure for health and membership. On their website (http://www.landinstitute.org/) they state the reason behind their conviction, "The tendency of all natural ecosystems is to increase their ecological wealth. For instance, all prairie, left alone, recycles materials, sponsors its own fertility, runs on contemporary sunlight, and increases biodiversity." They seek to honor and mimic this system in the production of food for humans.

    As a side thought (though an important connection to make), how can this type of thinking inform the ways we have learned to do evangelical church planting, evangelism, discipleship programs, etc.? What would it be like to find God at work in our place (sustaining it, loving it, holding it together) vs. importing Jesus-y products from the "experts" who live at a distance and do not honor the local names?
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    Yep, I started reading Jackson, Berry, and Logsdon over 12 years ago. They are the trifecta of Land-Loving authors.

    The problem is that our physical landscape will not support any large scale (and small scale is stretching it) agricultural methods. The land is suited for grazing animals; following with the Jacksonian wisdom, we should be herders/gatherers here.

    Sorry to sound so pessimistic. I am actually trying to see how humans could creatively dwell...or maybe just leave it alone.
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    what address did you use to contact berry?
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    Hopefully you'll check back, Sue...http://library.louisville.edu/government/states/kentucky/kylit/berryadd.html
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    Up until this past week i mostly read Wendell Berry's essays. But then on Monday someone presented one of Mr. Berry's pieces of poetry to me.

    Right after our encounter i made a trip to our local library to check out one of his books of poetry.

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