30days30poets: Wendell Berry’s “The Man Born to Farming”

April 15th, 2013

Last year, the essayist, poet, novelist, and farmer Wendell Berry delivered the 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the time, David Skinner, editor of Humanities Magazine, wrote that Berry “is the sum of his beliefs. . . . Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks. . . . He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible.”

Born in 1934, Berry grew up working on his family’s farm in Newcastle, Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky. After serving as a creative writing fellow in the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University, he became a professor of writing and literature at New York University. He soon returned home to Kentucky, however, teaching at the University of Kentucky, buying a farm near Port Royal, and pursuing a long career of writing. He is the author of more than 30 books, comprised of novels such as Nathan Coulter (1960) and The Memory of Old Jack (1974), nonfiction and essays such as The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977) and Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1992), and collections of poetry such as The Broken Ground (1964) and The Mad Farmer Poems (2008), among many others. Today, he continues to live on the farm he bought in 1965. 

In today’s poem, “The Man Born to Farming,” Berry describes the farmer, whose life is divided into the same seasons of the crops he grows. “He enters into death yearly,” Berry writes, “and comes back rejoicing.” As you read the poem, pay attention to the imagery Berry uses: he describes the soil as a “divine drug,” and he likens the farmer’s thought to “pass[ing] along the row ends like a mole” and his sentences to “a vine clinging in the sunlight.” How do these descriptions give a voice and overall feeling to the poem? In what ways is the farmer’s life changed or affected by his farming? What is his relationship to nature? Compare the poem to another by Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things.” In what ways are the themes of the two poems similar? Do they provide a critique of modern city life?

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. . . .

Read the rest of the poem in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.



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