I really want to like Wendell Barry. To quote my favorite blogger ever (and I read a lot of blogs), Slacktivist, “He is a poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, husband, conservationist, radical and gentleman.” He’s also considered a huge leader in the sustainable agriculture movement. And on first read, I really loved the poem Slacktivist posted, “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” I think I even reposted it on my Livejournal some time back.
But then as I read the incredibly insightful comments from the regulars at Slacktivist, I realized it had some – problems. Patriarchal ideas, paternalism, and perhaps most problematically (in that it was the most prominent), an over-romaticization of the agrarian life. I’m not a farmer, but I knew a lot of them in college. Even though I didn’t particularly like all of them, I knew that as farmers, they worked incredibly, incredibly hard. One of the women said her parents, who were in their 60s, labored sun-up to sun-down to barely make a living. And these were farmers that had and used the “benefits” of modern agriculture, like hormones for dairy cows. As much as I’m opposed to these measures, I know sure as hell they don’t make that work anything resembling easy. As for the rest of the poem, I like my vacation with pay, thank you very much. And this line, “Praise ignorance / for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.” What?! So yeah, problems.
But on the other hand, I really love some of the ideas in his poem. Lines like “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias” and “Practice resurrection” make me slobber in poetic jealousy. Which is why I was inspired to write a response. I haven’t written poetry in a long time. In fact, the last time I wrote a good amount of it was in college for a creative writing class. But this was ringing in my head so much that when I tried to take a nap yesterday, I couldn’t sleep. And I was really, really tired. As I do most of my food work in D.C., this is about planting and growing and harvesting in the city. Which is much more truth for many people these days than any rural idyll.
Song of the Urban Agriculturalist
Find glory in all the wrong places
Abandoned buildings – parking lots – fenced off land
Consider how they may be whole again
Plant things of beauty and nourishment
For there is nothing more lovely
Than a good meal well-shared
Feel the soil under your feet and in your fingers
Build patience for all that eats your garden
But remember even Thoreau cursed the rodents
Do not shy away from dirty hands
No matter whether small or weathered
Join with them in friendship and grace
Embrace children eager to learn
And those who do not yet know
Appreciate all who teach in love
Listen in wisdom to generations before
Weigh their lessons and stories
And learn what to keep and what to forsake
Respect not only those who sow
But those who weed and reap, who cook and serve
For they too often toil without rest
Serve first those who suffer most*
Spend time with the powerless
And grow together, building justice
Practice forgiveness, kindness and most of all love
For it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres
Love never fails.
* “Serve first those who suffer most” is borrowed from my friends at the Emmaus group H.O.M.E. Chris and I had the honor of working with these folks for a month just after we got engaged. If someone asked me to describe someone living a Christ-like life to the fullest, I’d point to them.