May 8, 2009
Yes, it is Spring time. The sun is out and I have a splinter in my index finger from helping to weed a friend’s garden. With the sun on our necks and the promise of tomatoes, sweet peas, and yellow carrots (yes, yellow carrots!) sprouting in our brains we chatted about this and that, you know, the usual things: The G20, herbs that work with white fish and poetry, specifically about the garden poems of Emily Dickinson.
Now, try to forgive my ignorance, but I’d never realized that Dickinson was an avid gardener and I certainly never figured she might be more known during her life as a gardener than as a poet. However, the internet argues that this is the case and there is even a book about Dickinson and her relationship with her garden from the less argumentative Harvard University Press. If you need some kind of proof, I found this delightful poem called “In the Garden”.
Anyway, all of this got me thinking about a book I recently read cover to cover – Clearing by Wendell Berry. “None of us,” says Berry, “can in a true sense own land. We can only hold it in trust.” While I wouldn’t want to quote this line to someone who has gone through a foreclosure, I admit as someone who owns nothing that there’s a simple beauty to this notion.
Indeed, there is a philosophy growing in these poems and they offer a gentle direction for a way we may strive to live our lives. This slim and readable volume even begins with a quote from the I Ching: “what has been spoiled through man’s fault can be made good again through man’s work”. From there Berry describes in a plain-voiced poetic prose the land he and his wife hold and saved from ecological disaster via hard work. Listen:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.
Published by Harcourt, 1977
Find the book, tend the garden you hold dear, taste the dirt under your nails. I’m going to go find a pair of tweezers.