The Poem that Changed my Life

I was miserable. Angry and stressed out. My law practice was so “successful” that it left me little time for anything else. I felt like I was wasting my life.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one morning while I was leaving home for the office my wife Cherie handed me a copy of something she’d copied out of Orion Magazine. It was a poem by Wendell Berry.

I’d heard of Wendell Berry. I knew him as a moderately well-known regional novelist, but I’d never read any of his work.

I took the poem with me and read it at my desk that morning. It rocked my world. I think it’s fair to say that the poem changed my life.

Inspired by it, I began to read more of Mr. Berry’s work, beginning with his essays and poetry. I had found a voice that made sense to me in inexplicably profound ways, amid what I recognize in retrospect as a deepening mid-life crisis.

Not long after Mr. Berry lit (or revealed) a fire in me, Cherie told me that he was going to be speaking at an event in Louisville called the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. Without hesitation I said we should go to it.

At that time I had little interest in agriculture. I grew up on a farm, working in the fields from when I was seven years old. I knew from an early age that I didn’t have the aptitude for farming and that I was destined and designed for something else. And I couldn’t have defined “sustainable agriculture.” So the subject of the conference didn’t interest me much, but the chance to see and hear Wendell Berry did.

Mr. Berry was the keynote speaker at the conference. Southern SAWG, as it’s called, is a conference for farmers of a particular sort. I passed the time waiting for the main event by attending two days of breakout sessions. The focus was on practicalities, not philosophy. While the “why” overlaid everything, the emphasis was on the “how.” Quite unexpectedly I found myself inspired. My deep desire to return home to the farm where I grew up, my yearning for a more meaningful purpose in life, and the intense appeal of agrarianism, all collided. We had already bought the family farm at that point, to prevent it being sold. Now I understood what I should do with it, and with myself. It was a watershed turning point in my life.

In hindsight it’s funny that the Wendell Berry appearance itself was sort of anti-climatic. He gave no fiery exhortation to the faithful (as I had expected). Instead, he began by saying, “They asked to me to speak. I told them that I will not speak, but I will read,” (if possible, try to imagine that as Wendell Berry would say it) then proceeded to read a humorous section from one of his novels.

But the inspiration I found at that conference snowballed and within a few years I left my law practice, at the peak of a hard-earned career, for a life raising goats, pigs, chickens and vegetables. A couple of years later Mr. Berry spoke again at the conference, this time delivering something like what I had expected the first time. We even got to meet him at a book signing.

Us and Wendell Berry.png

But it all began with a poem Cherie thought I would enjoy. I kept the copy she gave me on my desk and read it hundreds of times over the years. It inspired the the title of this blog.

So, with that long-winded introduction, here it is.

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

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 millenium. 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.