"Born to Farming: Connection and Reincarnation in the Poetry of Wendell Berry"

    This is another piece, a shorter "critical appraisal essay," that I wrote for my Craft of Writing class. I checked out half a dozen collections of poetry from the school library, but Wendell Berry's "Farming: A Hand Book" caught my attention. He writes pastoral/nature/farming poetry that actually results from his lifestyle as a farmer. Sometimes political, sometimes meditative, usually simple and earthy, always authentic. He's lived in Kentucky with his wife and family(?) for the past two decades, farming the earth organically (using horses not tractors, for example) and writing poetry, essays, fiction, etc. He inspires me to do likewise.

    "Born to Farming: Connection and Reincarnation in the Poetry of Wendell Berry"

    Farming: A Hand Book is Wendell Berry’s guide not to the literal techniques of farming, but to living as “the grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming” (3). First published in 1967, the work is divided into three unnamed sections of poetry and a short play entitled “The Bringer of Water.” The second section of poetry contains a series “Mad Farmer” poems, which allow Berry to express more fiery and provocative sentiments through an alter ego. Occasional internal rhyme is the closest he comes to any conventional poetic device, and his diction is straightforward and unostentatious. Overall, the poems are simple, peaceful, usually pastoral, and advocate a lifestyle of the same qualities. More than just an agricultural activity, farming is presented as a way of living, thinking, and being that is rewarding, beautiful, and sustainable. It is the ideal life.

    As a farmer, Berry has a view of the world that is joyfully reincarnational, of life as “only the earth risen up a little way into the light, among the leaves” (20). To him, life is cyclical: “Going and coming back, it forms its curves, a nerved ghostly anatomy in the air” (7). Thus, he will “take [his] stand on the earth like a tree in a field, passing without haste or regret toward what will be, my life a patient willing descent into the grass” (31). Ultimately, Berry sees an organic sameness between human and plant life and a union of every life with the earth--all are dust, either constituting life or nourishing it. The farmer’s life is but one stage of this cycle.

    This reincarnational understanding stems from the farmer’s central concern of connection: connection to his own birth, present existence, and imminent death; to his family and community; and most vitally with the earth, even a specific plot of land, as the context and source of his life. First, the meditative quality of Berry’s writing is an example of him connecting to himself as a farmer and is a model for others to do likewise. Part of the farmer’s meditation is appreciating the roots of his birth and the fruits of his present life. Another is coming to face his mortality. Death is presented as good and necessary, as “the seed of the beginning and the end” (31)--the last that the farmer sows. By understanding the cyclical nature of his life, he will be able to connect with it.

    Secondly, human relationships are a foundation of the ideal life. Several poems explore the idea of human connection in spite of humanity’s tendency towards inhumanity. They show that the simple and peaceful farmer will inevitably face isolation from the brooding events of the outside world. And yet, if he will “purge [his] mind of the airy claims of church and state, and observe the ancient wisdom of tribesmen and peasant, who understood they labored on their earth only to lie down in it in peace, and were content” (20)--if he can do this, he will be capable of establishing more humane connections with the larger community. These social connections contribute to the evolving rotation of life, as individuals die but the community continues. Marriage especially is an elemental relationship, seen as a source of restful security and identity (“Air and Fire”) and fiery renewal (“Earth and Fire”). It is the source of the family and all of its inner life and connections. In marriage, the farmer and his wife die to themselves but provide life to each other and to future generations--it makes the farmer “time and again, a new man” (47).

    Lastly, “A Standing Ground” explains how a farmer’s connection with a literal place on earth will keep him from becoming “uprooted” in a more figurative sense. Ironically, turning away from crowds to be “apart” holds the “promise of life and peace” and “the healing shadow of the woods.” The farmer by his work is capable of “Enriching The Earth,” as another poem title suggests, and through this he brings forth further life. Only as he serves and becomes unified with the earth on which he lives will he be able to live fully or combat evil.

    Farming: A Hand Book is an instructive chronicle of Berry’s own life as a farmer. In it, he has laid down from mind to page his crop of words, which in turn offers seed to readers and inspires them to also grow into the rich life of the farmer. This life’s agricultural work, it’s holistic connectivity, and it’s simple, meditative, and peaceful nature would allow them to live more meaningful and moral lives. Quietly from outside the city, they could sow change in and offer nourishment to other humans and the earth, even into death. Should they choose the farmer’s life, they will surely keep Wendell Berry’s manual close at hand.


    "Soaring Up Into Womanhood: Femininity from the Perspective of an Early Girl Scout Handbook"

    The Girl Scouts of America once played a significant role in the development of young women, and it persists today as a unique component of American childhood. Throughout the organization’s history, it has helped shape the identities of girls. The groups’ early handbooks, though, are filled with stereotypes that strike contemporary readers as bizarre, old-fashioned, even harmful. These source materials are valuable artifacts, providing a first-hand perspective on the beliefs of their authors and readers. They can be used to locate and analyse gender stereotypes that were part of the larger culture.

    Throughout the group’s early publications, one discovers the characteristics desired of young girls and the roles they are expected to fill as they grow into adult women. The fourth edition of the Official Handbook, published in 1923, lists ten qualities desired of girl scouts in its section “The Laws of the Girl Scouts” (4-12). Girl scouts are to be trusted, loyal, useful and helpful to others, courteous, cheerful, thrifty, and clean. It is notable that these merely describe what a girl scout is to be, in contrast to the action-oriented identity of boys that had developed by the 1968 Boy Scout Handbook. Boys Scouts are members of a troop and a worldwide brotherhood, busy in the great outdoors, prepared for service, dressed in uniform, adorned with scout badges, and out on the scouting trail towards citizenship, career, and manhood (13-26, 379). This contrast between the boys’ external achievements and the girls’ internal qualities reinforces the stereotype of girls as primarily passive creatures. In fact, the only verb that appears on the girls’ list is in the seventh law: “a girl scout obeys orders” (9).

    Each of the Girl Scout’s laws comes with further explanations that reveal the culture’s view of women. For example, the law of courtesy means that “it is not enough for women to be helpful in this world; they must do it pleasantly” (7). Or, for a girl scout to be truly obedient, “she must remember to obey first and complain afterward” (9). It is important for women to be thrifty because “no matter how much money a man may earn, it is usually the women of the family generally have the spending of most of it” (10). Therefore, a girl must learn to save and to spend “on some system,” lest she become “niggardly” or go in debt. The fate of her family, her community, and her country depend on this saving and spending--one of the few active roles expected of women in that day.

    Lastly, a Girl Scout should remember “health is probably a woman’s greatest capital” (10). Thus the tenth law:

    Just as she stands for a clean, healthy community and a clean, healthy home, so
    every Girl Scout knows the deep and vital need for clean and healthy bodies in the
    mothers of the next generation. This means NOT only keeping her skin fresh and sweet and her system free from every impurity, but it goes far deeper than this... (12)

    A girl must tend to her mind and spirit as well as keeping her skin attractive, for she somehow has been objectified by her culture as a sign of her family and community’s well being.

    Girl Scouts have clear roles planned out for their futures: either homemaking or healthcare. The introduction to these roles comes even earlier than the Girl Scouts, in the Brownie Scout program. According to the Brownie Scout Handbook of 1956, members “learn how to do things to help other people, especially those at home” (28). As part of their education, then, they have “a good time keeping house at troop meetings” (28) and learn to use kitchen utensils, take care of young children, and entertain guests--valuable training for what their culture will expect of them as adults.

    After the Brownie Scouts, girls are invited to become full-fledged Girl Scout Guides, a title explained in the Foreword of the 1923 Handbook as “a good and helpful comrade to her brother or husband or son”. As background, the text offers an inspiring history of the girl scouts’ predecessors, including Sacajawea and Louisa May Alcott. Sacajawea, “The Bird Woman,” is praised for her “great virtues of daring and endurance...out-of-door wisdom and self-reliance” (23). And yet, the story continues, “a country full of ‘Bird Women’ could not be said to have advanced very far in civilization.” So the manual offers this warning: “let every Scout who finds housework dull, and feels that she is capable of bigger things, remember this: [Louisa may Alcott] had to drop the pen, often and often, for the needle, the dish-cloth, and the broom” (24). The story concludes: “to direct her household has always been a woman’s job, in every century, and girls were learning to do it before Columbus ever discovered Sacajawea’s country” (24).

    A few pages later, it is admitted, “we no longer believe that housekeeping should take up all a woman’s time” (25). Instead, a girl will become the envy of older generations of women when “she has learned how to manage her cooking and cleaning and household routine so that she has plenty of time to spend on other things that interest her” (25). Thus the expected role of a woman remains clear.

    The pinnacle of a scout’s development is The Scout Aide merit badge, which “will probably be regarded by the outside world as the most important decoration the Girl Scouts can win...any grown girl or woman should be proud to own it” (105). The primary subject in The Scout Aide program is the art of the Home Maker, or “Keeper of the House.” The pages in this section are dedicated mostly to the kitchen and its floor, the stove and icebox, dish washing, and the proper handling of waste. It also focuses on the good manners and social forms necessary for the woman’s job of entertaining, such as being sure to “stand where guests can see you at once when they enter” (129). A specific accomplishment is earning the merit badge for cooking, a sign that meals can be planned “in such a way that nothing is wasted and that the family is satisfied and well-nourished” (133). Finally, if a girl scout has ambitions outside the house, she can choose from several subject titles in the field of healthcare: child nurse, first aide, home nurse, or the more indefinite “health guardian.”

    The central message girls learn in the Scout Aide program is that household economics is “the great general business and profession of women,” and “if it is raised to the level of the other great businesses and professions, and managed quickly, efficiently, and economically, will cease to be regarded as drudgery and take its real place among the arts and sciences” (105) While this sounds like a noble aim, the only hope it gives is that girls may someday raise their assigned lot in the home to something equaling the tasks and roles of men. It does nothing to broaden the options of maturing young women.

    In the first half of the twentieth century, there were clear expectations of what a woman was supposed to be like and to do with her life. An essentially passive nature was assumed in females of the time period, and homemaking and healthcare were their prized occupations. Early Girl Scout handbooks are a direct entry point to the culture that held these expectations.


    every gentle air, pt. 2

    The re-release of Every Gentle Air, Pt. 2 is now available for purchase from The Record Machine's online store: merchline.com/therecordmachine/. The original edition was a run of 100 hand-painted CD-Rs (yes, with acrylic paint) that came packaged in hand-made booklets with hand-sewn green seed pouches. How handy. Overall, the project included contributions from over a dozen musicians, sound people, artists, writers, helpers, and friends. This new edition has professionally-done packaging and CDs and one more song than the original. Copies are $10. You can sample a trio of the songs here: myspace.com/everygentleair. Perhaps you'd like to take a closer look?