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.

Manifesto:
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.

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29 comments on “The Poem that Changed my Life

  1. I’m familiar with his work-I have a few of his books on my shelf of “special reads”….but I had not seen this poem. I just know that I NEVER felt right doing what everyone else always did. That’s one of the best parts of growing older. You stop trying to fit in and let your real self emerge. It makes for a rewarding life…..even if it isn’t filled with “things”.
    Have a good week

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I spent much of my life as a conformist, or chasing after what I thought it meant to be “successful.” I was pretty stubborn about answering my call. Fortunately for me I finally got around to being more sensible, and this poem helped me along the way.

      Like

  2. thesnowwoman says:

    I had never read that before, it is wonderful. I can understand how it inspired/inspires you.

    Like

  3. hilarymb says:

    Hi Bill – fascinating change in your and your wife’s life – wonderful. Then to read how it all happened … love it – thanks so much for sharing … cheers Hilary

    Like

  4. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, great poem. I too in a way came back to my roots with gardening. It’s not exactly the family farm but we never had a generational farm. My uncle’s farm that generated many youth memories is in the beginning of a generational farm for his family. My uncle passed on a couple years ago. He was the second generation for the 160 acre farm. Now it’s still in the family but is rented out to farmers with big machinery that farm thousands of acres. The younger generation just don’t seem to want that kind of life. All my ancestors up until mainly my generation were Midwest farmers. My great grandpa came to the United States in the late 1800s at age 12. My Mom’s side of the family goes a little farther back. Today, there just seems to be a migration to the cities and suburbs.

    I’ve always admired your decision to give up a successful career and as you say raise goats, pigs, chickens, and vegetables. I can definitely see why the poem would inspire you to seek out an unstressed life. Well, probably not totally unstressed but in a different way. I think you have heard me say before that, “I believe God designed our bodies to work hard physically and go to bed tired.” Stress doesn’t seem to be a problem when that happens within reason. I’ve had to learn not to push the old body too hard.

    This is the time of the year here in Nebraska when the soil it just right for preparation. It’s not too wet and not too dry. And yet the moisture level allows for making nice prepared beds. It’s good to smell the healthy earth as it wakes up. I have five beds prepared and seven more to go. The sweet corn fortress has been expanded with four more beds. I’m not sure if they will all be sweet corn but they will be protected with electric fence wires.

    Have a great inspirational day on the White Flint Farm.

    Nebraska Dave

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joanna says:

      “The younger generation just don’t seem to want that kind of life.” Not sure I agree with you there Dave 🙂 It would seem that many from the older generations were also in a hurry to get out of it, leaving our youngsters with precious little heritage to carry on with. I think quite a few younger folks would like to give it a go but our generations have raised the stakes to get into it and it is very hard for the younger generation to break into it due to the high expectations of a capital intensive agricultural landscape.

      Liked by 2 people

      • NebraskaDave says:

        Joanna, it is true those that want to live on the land find it expensive to do so first starting out. Good land in Nebraska runs upward of $8,000 to $10,000 an acre. Being in the heart of farm land, I see as the older farmers retire or die the younger kids either sell the farm or rent it out to larger farmers. In my area if the farm isn’t at least 1000 acres, it’s just not a farm. It’s not uncommon for farms to be 5,000 and 6,000 acres. Many home places of the farms that are either bought or rented out stand vacant and deteriorating. As you say there is a grass roots movement to return to homesteading but I just don’t see it in my state. I’m glad there’s an interest in doing such things and I always wanted to return to the country but life just didn’t allow that to happen. Now I live precariously through vacant lot gardening to satisfy my homesteading needs. Thank you for your insight to my comment.

        Have a great day.

        Nebraska Dave

        Like

      • Joanna says:

        It does sound dire in Nebraska and I am glad that land costs in Latvia are not as high. Unfortunately there are bureaucratic hurdles instead – long story. Let’s hope that ways are made for those who want to support a thriving rural lifestyle are able to do so and I hope some of my research will help along the way

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Dave. Maybe someday all humans will live in cities, with robots producing food on what was once our rural homesteads. Let’s hope not. I’m glad there are folks like you modeling urban agriculture for the future generations who can’t afford and wouldn’t want 6000 acre mega-farms.

      Like

  5. Like the fox, leave a confusing trail. When we become predictable, when we become pawns, something is lost. Humanity fades. I can see why you loved the poem, Bill. The fewer the things we own; the fewer the things that own us. –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dearest Bill,
    That was quite an inspirational poem for you at a time you needed it.
    Cherie was intuitive; as women often appear to be…
    Glad you followed your heart!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Some of my friends who know the story say Cherie knew exactly what she was doing when she gave me that poem and when she mentioned that conference. 🙂 Her influence on my life course has been inestimable.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Zambian Lady says:

    Very interesting story. My parents’ generation made a beeline for the cities in their youth, but my generation is going into farming. I bought a ten acre plot almost 15 years which I have been developing remotely as I am away from home. However, the main reason I bought it was because I just wanted fresh air away from the city, but I have been hearing my land calling me to produce something. I am not yet ready to go back, but we will see. It has been good reading your posts.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I think that more and more people have stories like yours now. There are plenty of us who are natural born city-folks. But I’m convinced that there are also millions of us who feel an attachment to land and place that is damaged by urban living and who yearn for an agrarian lifestyle. My hope is for a world in which we can all self-actualize, regardless of which direction we feel drawn to.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Scott says:

    I remember my watershed moment. Suddenly most of what we were doing made no sense. We’re on a totally different path now! Thanks for reminding me. Enjoy!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Good for you to have the courage to make the move Scott. I’ve enjoyed following along on your journey. Even though our move was radical, there’s no denying that, I was careful and cautious too, creating a chance that it wouldn’t happen. Luckily for me things worked out, and I had a life-partner who shares my values (the importance of that is something we’ve discussed before).

      Like

  9. Michelle says:

    Wonderful poem; inspiring story. Just this morning my 15-year-old son (we’re old parents) was bemoaning his lack of friends, his not fitting in, in part because he is a “country boy.” I will read him this poem this evening. Maybe a line or two will sink in….

    Like

  10. Joanna says:

    Great poem and something that struck me was the
    “Listen to carrion — put your ear
    close, and hear the faint chattering
    of the songs that are to come.”
    As someone coming towards the end of a PhD and hoping to graduate next year, I hope to be able to lean in close and hear those faint chatterings and write about those songs that are to come, wrapped up in a dissertation 🙂

    Like

  11. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, well you made me feel better by saying that it still took you quite a few years to execute your plans even when you knew the direction you should go. I know quite well the direction I want to take, but life seems to dictate otherwise sometimes.
    But I guess, like Berry says, “Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.”

    Your poem came at a time I was listening to Joanna Macy and to Satish Kumar talking with Charles Eisenstein. And it all flows nicely into one big symphony.
    “Say that the leaves are harvested
    when they have rotted into the mold.
    Call that profit.”

    It is magical how one poem, one book, one person, one example can change the whole course of our hearts. I was listening to the Ted talk by Sean Prentiss, the author of ” A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave” and he described how “Desert Solitaire” by Abbey changed his life, the whole course of his life. I know I had read a few life-changing books or poems like that of my own. And your blog. And that alone, is worth living for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      It’s so true Bee. I’ve read about people who had their epiphany then just ditched it all and took the plunge. It wasn’t that way with me. At my core I’m conservative and I felt a powerful sense of duty to my family. So I plugged away for many years after I plainly knew I was not on the right path. Sometimes it seemed that my goal was so far away that I’d never reach it. My father died of a heart attack at age 49 and both is father and grandfather had died in their early 50’s, so the risk seemed very real. Looking back now I guess I’m glad that I did it, as it has made our transition easier in some ways. But if I had run out of runway while still slaving away at my desk, it would have been a very bad decision. Mr. Berry’s poem helped keep me inspired.

      Charles Eisenstein has so much wisdom to offer in our time.

      Thanks as always for your kind words. I hope you’ll share some of the books/poems that have helped you on journey.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. barnraised says:

    This is so lovely. And neat to see how.you came about your blog name based on it too!

    Like

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