Originally published in portfolio form by West Meadow Press in 1995, this edition of Roots to the Earth weds the poetry and prose of beloved American author and environmentalist Wendell Berry with the vibrant wood etchings of celebrated artist and wood engraver Wesley Bates. In his introduction to the 2014 collection, Bates wrote, “As our society moves toward urbanization, the majority of the population views agriculture from an increasingly detached position . . . In his poetry [Berry] reveals tenderness and love as well as anger and uncertainty . . . The wood engravings in this collection are intended to be companion pieces to . . . the way he expresses what it is to be a farmer.” A work of art, Roots to the Earth is a must-have for admirers of Berry’s profound vision, as well as for afficianadoes of wood engraving.
“Mr. Berry is a sophisticated, philosophical poet in the line descending from Emerson and Thoreau.” —The Baltimore Sun
“[Berry’s poems] shine with the gentle wisdom of a craftsman who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and wonder of life.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Wendell Berry is one of those rare individuals who speaks to us always of responsibility, of the individual cultivation of an active and aware participation in the arts of life.” —The Bloomsbury Review
“[Berry’s] poems, novels and essays . . . are probably the most sustained contemporary articulation of America’s agrarian, Jeffersonian ideal.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Wesley Bates has had a long association with Mr. Berry. He is an acclaimed artist who is primarily known for his brilliant wood engravings, but also works in various other mediums. Bates was born in the Yukon Territory and for many years has had a studio in Ontario where he operates the West Meadow Press.
Gray Zeitz is the founder and operator of Larkspur Press, producing dozens of fine, letterpress, hand-bound editions of works by Kentucky poets and writers for nearly 40 years. Zeitz is the most important designer and printer working in Kentucky and has published at least a dozen beautiful, handmade chapbooks by his friend, Wendell Berry.
Read an Excerpt
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?
The buildings are all womanly. Their roofs are like the flanks of mares, the arms and the hair of wives.
The future prepares its satisfaction in them.
In their dark heat I labor all summer, making them ready.
A time of death is coming, and they desire to live.
It is only the labor surrounding them that is manly,
the seasonal bringing in from the womanly fields to the womanly enclosures. The house too yearns for life,
and hot paths come to it out of the garden and the fields,
full of the sun and weary. The wifeliness of my wife is its welcome, a vine with yellow flowers shading the door.
The seeds begin abstract as their species,
remote as the name on the sack they are carried home in: Fayette Seed Company Corner of Vine and Rose. But the sower going forth to sow sets foot into time to come, the seeds falling on his own place. He has prepared a way for his life to come to him, if it will.
Like a tree, he has given roots to the earth, and stands free.
Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness,
a flickering sap coursing upward into his head so that he sees the old tribespeople bend in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left in the earth rising into him like a seasonal juice.
And he sees the bearers of his own blood arriving,
the forest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground to lie still under the black wheels of machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.
While we unloaded the hay from the truck, building the great somnolence of the ricked bales, the weather kept up its movement over us, the rain dashed and drove against the roof, and in the close heat we sweated to the end of the load. The fresh warm sweet smell of new timothy in it, the barn is a nut ripened in forethought of cold. Weighted now, it turns toward the future generously, spacious in its intent, the fledged young of the barn swallows fluttering on the rim of the nest, the brown bats hanging asleep, folded, beneath the rafters.
And we rest, having done what men are best at.
THE FARMER, SPEAKING OF MONUMENTS
Always, on their generation's breaking wave,
men think to be immortal in the world,
as though to leap from water and stand in air were simple for a man. But the farmer knows no work or act of his can keep him here. He remains in what he serves by vanishing in it, becoming what he never was.
He will not be immortal in words.
All his sentences serve an art of the commonplace,
to open the body of a woman or a field to take him in. His words all turn to leaves, answering the sun with mute quick reflections. Leaving their seed, his hands have had a million graves, from which wonders rose, bearing him no likeness. At summer's height he is surrounded by green, his doing, standing for him, awake and orderly.
In autumn, all his monuments fall.
THE FEARFULNESS OF HANDS THAT HAVE LEARNED KILLING
The fearfulness of hands that have learned killing I inherit from my own life. With my hands from boyhood I formed the small perfect movements of death,
killing for pleasure or wantonness, casually.
Manhood taught me the formal deadliness of hunter and farmer, the shedding of predestined blood that lives for death.
Only marrying and fathering lives has taught me the depth of ruin,
and made me feel quick in my hands the subtlety and warmth of what they have destroyed.
And still I have killed for pity, and felt open in my mind the beautiful silence, the sudden ridding of a hurt thing's pain. I am dumbfounded at the works I have accomplished at the bounds of mystery, seeing it flow out red and mute, matting the hair of my hands.
The skill that is prepared in me is careful and terrible. There is no life I can think of without sensing in my hands the answering power.
I shall not go free of the art of death.
ENRICHING THE EARTH
To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal and the decay of the growth of past seasons and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. Against the shadow of veiled possibility my workdays stand in a most asking light. I am slowly falling into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness and a delight to the air, and my days do not wholly pass. It is the mind's service,
for when the will fails so do the hands and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest and most mute is at last raised up into song.
THE BRANCH WAY OF DOING
Danny Branch is older than Andy Catlett by about two years, which matter to them far less now than when they were young. They are growing old together with many of the same things in mind, many of the same memories. They often are at work together, just the two of them, taking a kind of solace and an ordinary happiness from their profound knowledge by now of each other's ways and of how to do whatever they are doing. They don't talk much. There is little to explain, they both are likely to know the same news, and Danny anyhow, unlike his father, rarely has anything extra to say.
Andy has always known Danny, but he knows that, to somebody who has not long known him, Danny might be something of a surprise. As if by nature, starting with the circumstances of his birth, as if by his birth he had been singled out and set aside, he has never been a conventional man. To Andy he has been not only a much-needed friend, but also, along with Lyda and their children, a subject of enduring interest and of study.
Danny is the son of Kate Helen Branch and Burley Coulter. His family situation was never formalized by a wedding between his parents, who for various and changing reasons lived apart, but were otherwise as loving and faithful until death as if bound by vows. And Danny was as freely owned and acknowledged, and about as attentively cared for and instructed, by Burley as by Kate Helen. He's my boy,' Burley would say to anybody who may have wondered. 'He was caught in my trap.'
And so Danny grew up, learning by absorption the frugal, elaborate housekeeping of his mother through the Depression and afterward, and grew up also, from the time he could walk, in the tracks of his father which led to work, to the woods, to the river, sometimes to town. Danny learned as they went along what came from work, what came, more freely, from the river and the woods, what came even from the easy, humorous talk of his father and his friends.
The whole story of Burley Coulter will never be known, let alone told. Maybe more than his son, he would have been a surprise to somebody expecting the modern version of homo sapiens. He loved the talk and laughter of work crews and the loafing places of Port William, but he was known also to disappear from such gatherings to go hunting or fishing alone, sometimes not to be seen by anybody for two or three days. Everybody knew, from testimony here and there, from gossip, that he had been by nature and almost from boyhood a ladies' man. Little girls had dreamed they would grow up and marry him, and evidently a good many bigger girls had had the same idea. But he remained a free man until, as he put it, Kate Helen had put a bit in his mouth and reined him up. But nobody had heard much more than that from Burley himself. He was full of stories, mostly funny, mostly at his own expense, but they never satisfied anybody's curiosity about his love life. He never spoke disrespectfully of a woman. He never spoke of intimacy with a woman. And so Port William speculated and imagined and labored over what it believed to be his story, receiving the testimony of many of its own authorities: 'Why, he did! I know damn well he did!' And Burley quietly amused himself by offering no help at all. It is possible, Andy thinks, that Burley was the hero of a work of fiction, of which he was hardly innocent, but a work of fiction nevertheless, composed entirely in the conversation of Port William.
Burley knew the way questions followed him, and he enjoyed the chase, preserving himself unto himself sometimes, like a well-running red fox, by arts of evasion, sometimes by artful semi-truths. Those who thought to catch him were most apt to catch a glimpse as he fled or perhaps flew, a mere shadow on the horizon. When he stood and faced you, therefore, as he did stand and face the people he loved, his candor would be felt as a gift given. But in ordinary conversation with the loafers and bystanders of Port William, he could be elusive.
'Where was you at last night, Burley? I come over to see you, and you wasn't home.'
'I stepped out a while.'
'Well, I reckon your dogs must've stepped out too. I didn't see no dogs.'
'My dogs do step out.'
'Reckon you all was stepping out off up Katy's Branch somewhere?'
'A piece farther, I reckon.'
'Well, now, where?'
'Well, till full day I didn't altogether exactly know.'
'If I couldn't hunt and know where I was, damned if I wouldn't stay home.'
'Oh, I knew where I was, but I didn't know where where I was was.'
Danny, his father's son and heir in many ways, always has been a more domestic man, and a quieter one, than his father. In 1950, two years after the law allowed him to quit school and he started farming 'full time' for himself, he married Lyda, and the two of them moved in with Burley, who had been living in the old house on the Coulter home place alone ever since his mother died.
For seven years Danny and Lyda had no children, and then in the following ten years they had seven: Will, Royal, Coulter, Fount, Reuben, and finally ('Finally!' Lyda said) the two girls, Rachel and Rosie. Lyda, who had been Lyda Royal, had grown up in a family of ten children, and she said that the Lord had put her in this world to have some more. Like Danny, she had grown up poor and frugal. 'If my daddy shot a hawk that was killing our hens, we ate the hawk.'
She was about as tall as Danny, stoutly framed but not fat, a woman of forthright strength and presence whose unwavering countenance made it easy to remember that she was blue-eyed. She and Danny are the best-matched couple, Andy thinks, that he has ever known. That they had picked each other out and become a couple when they were hardly more than children and married before they could vote seems to Andy nothing less than a wonder. He supposes that they must have had, both of them, the gift of precocious self-knowledge, which could only have seemed wondrous to Andy, whose own mind has come clear to him slowly and at the cost of much labor.
For a further wonder, Danny and Lyda seem to have understood from the start that they would have to make a life together that would be determinedly marginal to the modern world and its economy — a realization that only began to come to Andy with the purchase of the Harford place when he was thirty. It was already present in Danny's mind at the age of sixteen, when nearly everybody around Port William was buying a tractor, and he stuck with his team of mules.
Marginality, conscious and deliberate, principled marginality, as Andy eventually realized, was an economic practice, informed by something like a moral code, and ultimately something like religion. No Branch of Danny's line ever spoke directly of morality or religion, but their practice, surely for complex reasons, was coherent enough that their ways were known in the Port William neighborhood and beyond by the name of Branch. 'That's a Branch way of doing,' people would say. Or by way of accusation: 'You trying to be some kind of Branch?' To such judgments — never entirely condemnatory, but leaning rather to caution or doubt or bewilderment, for there was a lot of conventional advice that the Branches did not take — it became almost conventional to add, 'They're a good-looking family of people.' The good looks of Danny and Lyda when they were a young couple became legendary among those who remembered them as they were then. Their children were good-looking —'Of course,' people said — and moreover they looked pretty much alike. Danny and Lyda were a good cross.
Their economic life, anyhow, has been coherent enough to have kept the Branch family coherent. By 2004, Branch children and grandchildren are scattered through the Port William neighborhood, as Lyda says, like the sage in sausage. They stick together — whether for fear of Lyda, or because they like each other, or just because they are alike, is a question often asked but never settled. Wherever you find a Branch household you are going to find a lot of food being raised, first to eat and then to sell or give away, also a lot of free provender from the waters and the woods. You are going to find a team, at least, of horses or mules. But there are Branches catering to the demand for heavy pulling horses. Some keep brood mares and sell anything from weanlings to broke farm teams. If a team will work cheaper or better than a tractor, a Branch will use a team. But with a few exceptions in the third generation, they also can fix anything mechanical, and so no Branch has ever owned a new car or truck or farm implement. Their habit is to find something that nobody else wants, or that everybody else has given up on, and then tow or haul it home, fix it, and use it.
As they live at the margin of the industrial economy, they live also at the margin of the land economy. They can't afford even moderately good land, can't even think of it. And so such farms as they have managed to own are small, no better than the steep-sided old Coulter place where Danny and Lyda have lived their married life, no better even than the much abused and neglected Riley Harford place that Andy and Flora Catlett had bought in 1964.
The Branch family collectively is an asset to each of its households, and often to their neighbors as well. This may be the surest and the best of the reasons for their success, which is to say their persistence and their modest thriving. When the federal tobacco program finally was defeated, and with it the tobacco economy of the small farmers, and when, with that, the the long tradition of work-swapping among neighbors, even acquaintance with neighbors, was petering out, the Branches continued to swap work. They helped each other. When they knew their neighbors needed help, they went and helped their neighbors. If you bought something the Branches had for sale, and they were always likely to have something to sell, or if you hired them, they expected of course to be paid. If, on the contrary, they went to help a neighbor in need, they considered their help a gift, and so they would accept no pay. These transactions would end with a bit of conversation almost invariable, almost a ritual:
'Well, what I owe you?'
'Aw, I'm liable to need help myself sometime.'
The old neighborly ways of Port William, dying out rapidly at the start of the third millennium, have survived in Danny and Lyda Branch, and have been passed on to their children. The one boast that Andy ever heard from Danny was that he had worked on all his neighbors' farms and had never taken a cent of money in payment. After his boys grew big enough to work, and he knew of a neighbor in need of help, instead of going himself he would sometimes send a couple of the boys. He would tell them: 'If they offer you dinner, you can eat, but don't you come back here with any money.'
This uneasiness about money Andy recognizes from much else that he has known of the people of Port William and similar places. Free exchanges of work and other goods they managed easily, but transactions of money among friends and neighbors nearly always involved an embarrassment that they had to alleviate by much delay, much conversation, as if to make the actual handing of cash or a check incidental to a social occasion. It was not, Andy thought, that they agreed with the scripture that 'the love of money is the root of all evil,' but that from a time even older they held a certain distrust against money itself, or the idea of it, as if a token of value were obviously inferior to, obviously worse than, a thing of value. And so a man, understanding himself as a neighbor, could not accept money as in any way representative of work or goods given in response to a need.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Roots to the Earth"
Copyright © 2014 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE MAN BORN TO FARMING,
THE FARMER, SPEAKING OF MONUMENTS,
THE FEARFULNESS OF HANDS THAT HAVE LEARNED KILLING,
ENRICHING THE EARTH,
THE BRANCH WAY OF DOING,