Sunday, February 8, 2009

An Elegy

February 8, 2009

Requiem (excerpt)

by Wendell Berry

Though the green fields are my delight,
elegy is my fate. I have come
to be survivor of many and of much
that I love, that I won’t see
come again into this world.

The word requiem is often associated with the Mass for the dead, but according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, it also means rest. An elegy is a song of mourning. Our reading of Wendell Berry’s work this week and all of our discussion and postings about family members who have died made me get out Wendell Berry’s The Wheel, a collection of poems that celebrate the great circle of life while mourning both people and ways that have passed on.

The two excerpts I am posting have a deeper meaning for me today than they did 25 years ago when Mr. Berry signed my copy of The Wheel. I understand them so much better but now I wonder what losses he must have had in his life to have written these poems so long ago. But of course he wasn’t much older than I am now when he wrote them. By the time you reach my age, there are substantial losses. He speaks of the connection between the living and the dead and the connection of the land between the living and the dead. Another of the poems in this collection called “Rising” says, “There is kinship of the fields that gives to the living the breath of the dead.” His poems are gentle and quiet but they speak of people and things that won’t “come again into this world.”

As we start our garden in the back, I look back to my childhood and my youth when farming was a way of life with us. Since my son was born eighteen and half years ago, I have tried to share with him my knowledge and experiences. I have so desperately wanted him to love the earth and the joy of growing things, of harvesting and eating the fruits of your labors. Loving the land and growing things are so much a part of who I was and who I am, somehow I thought it would be in his blood too. It is not.

It saddens me that I cannot seem to impart this tradition, this fundamental relationship with the land to my son. I do not want to see him become a consumer, one of those strangers so far removed from the earth. But he is not a farmer. He will help. If asked. He doesn’t volunteer though.

I remember when he was a baby of two and three, asking to pick the herbs growing by the house. He would crush the mint, the basil, the sage in his tiny hand to smell the sharp scent. We picked plums and figs from the trees still warm from the sun. So much time has passed since then. I don’t think he will ever love the earth the way I did. The way I do.

My son’s grandparents are all dead now. My parents were farmers and so were their parents before them and beyond for I don’t know how many generations. Most young people today don’t care about the old ways of doing things. Who will be left to remember, to tell, when the last of us are gone?

The backyard soil that Albert turned with such hard work is cold now and hardening in the sun. It is still too cold to plant anything. But we talk about what to plant where and how much. Beans, tomatoes, greens, for sure, and herbs; a real herb garden, not a few pots on the porch. We will plant and we will tend and we will harvest. Albert grew up in a Hong Kong high-rise but his love for cooking ties him to the land in a different way. My son will eat the fruits of our garden and perhaps the love of the earth will seep into him with the warmth of the sun, or maybe not. Perhaps when I am gone, too, he will remember. But still, I will rest easier in the night knowing the plants are growing in the back yard.

In Rain (excerpt)

by Wendell Berry

Let the rain come,
the sun, and then the dark,
for I will rest
in an easy bed tonight.

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