Most of the artwork through this post is by Joe Jones (1909-1963) who painted midwestern wheat fields, segregation in the south, and the effects of The Great Depression on American farmers. The above painting The American Farm (1936) captures the stark ruin of soil and crops and the precarious struggle for life in rural America. The figure of the farmer in his fields features in Wendell Berry’s poetry as well. Here is another painting of Jones entitled Raking Hay (1931) and a poem from Berry’s collection Farming: A Handbook (1970).
The Man Born To Farming
The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?
Chapter Seven of Berry’s The Unsettling of America, entitled “The Body and The Earth,” presents the famous scene from King Lear, of blind, old, foolish Gloucester ready to jump to his death from the Dover cliffs–that is, he thinks he stands above the beach and sea, but his estranged son Edgar begins a transformation of the old man that will lead him to embrace life, rather than ending it. Here is a drawing by Boardman Robinson, On the Cliff: Gloucester and Edgar (1938).
Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
Set me where you stand.
Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.
Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking: fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou farther off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.
Now fare you well, good sir.
Gloucester jumps and falls, though not very far, not very far at all. Then Edgar again plays a role, this time pointing out to Gloucester that some deceiving fiend was high above on the cliffs, but the gods must love him because though he fell so far here he is alive.
I do remember now: henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die. That thing you speak of,
I took it for a man; often ‘twould say
‘The fiend, the fiend:’ he led me to that place.
For Berry, this is the transformative ritual–a “rite of death and rebirth.” Gloucester in his misery, he has understood too late that he misjudged his sons and, of course, he’s had his eyes destroyed, has sought death, and in so doing has renewed his commitment to live. This a question of human limits, of understanding the placement of people within nature, of awakening into the human condition. This sense of proportion, of a healthy perspective that sees humans in the correct ratio to the rest of existence Berry finds within the care of the earth and other human beings–“our demands upon the earth are determined by our ways of living with one another; our regard for one another is brought to light in our ways of using the earth” (131). Here is Harvest Scene (1939) by Joe Jones.
The farmer embodies this physical and conceptual grounding in the earth and also serves as a sign for any, who through their vocation, seek to attach themselves to the world in such a way that the perspective is right and a ritual acknowledging death and life is renewed. For Michael Pollan this is knowing your ingredients, shopping in such a way that sustains best farming practices, and relearning the knowledge our grandmothers had in the kitchen, for Daniel Barber this is connecting his restaurant to local, organic farms, and letting the farms and seasons dictate his menu, for Joel Salatin it’s knowing all the plants in his pasture and utilizing plants and animals to increase the richness of his soil. For Judy Chicago, this is collaborating with other artists, researching past and present, in order to create a dinner table that reveals women who have been buried and forgotten. We don’t have to blindly crawl to Dover in order to throw ourselves over a cliff, we can, through rituals that ground us in the world, awaken a keen sense of who we are and in what relation we stand, create, eat and live in the world–a sustaining sense.