Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Wendell Berry

Berry’s on my mind because I just taught his poem “Enriching the Earth” to my second-year poetry students this week, and was dismayed (though not at all surprised) at how little they knew of the world they inhabit. We live in the industrial age of food, where an ever smaller number of people grow the food we all consume. It’s been the focus of many books and discussions recently–Fast Food Nation, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma to name a couple–and yet it doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact on public consciousness.

Berry’s poem begins with a straightforward statement: “To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass / to grow and die.” Death is the focal point of the poem, in fact, in the sense that death must occur for life to be possible. His speaker plows in not only “the seeds / of winter grains and of various legumes,” but also stirs in offal, generally associated with dead animals, in order to “[serve] the dark.”

But it’s not that the farmer is separate from the cycle he or she moves in sync with. Berry’s farmer, even though he or she may not understand the cycle fully, is still linked inextricably to it, it “gives a wideness / and a delight to the air,” he says.

It’s the following lines that are the most powerful to me, though:

It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.

Those are strong words, that one lives at the expense of life, and yet most of us do to some extent. We don’t put back into the earth what we take out of it. The environmental challenges we face today and into the future are directly tied to that problem–Berry’s world of using legumes and offal to enrich the earth is quickly vanishing. As Michael Pollan points out ably in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re eating oil, because of the ubiquity of petroleum based fertilizers.

A couple of my students looked shocked when I pointed that out to them–the sad thing was that most didn’t seem to mind.

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March 13, 2008 - Posted by | Enriching the Earth, Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Wendell Berry

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