03/24/15

Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin: Caretakers of the Earth

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It seems to me that Wendell Berry and W. S. Merwin share much in common. They are both essayists and poets (and both ecopoets I must add), they are dedicated environmentalists, and they both take care of a piece of ground, treating them very painstakingly for their preservation for future generations. Berry is a small farmer in Kentucky; Merwin is conservator and gardener of a native palm garden in Hawaii.

In “A Vision” Berry speaks of giving back to the earth and what it means to be a good steward of it. And from that will spring the promise of a rich, sustained land. Through hard work, the hard work of physically tending to the plants, not taking from and abusing the land wholesale for the sake of monetary gain, will sprout the promise of “abundance.”  His promise is this:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, . . . (Selected Poems 102)

Berry lists the richness of this world if we will just preserve it: clear rivers, birdsong, green meadows, springs, and old forests. Berry’s natural world will have families “singing” in the fields.  Whatever is taken from the earth is returned to the earth.  Berry is a farmer on his modest plot in Kentucky who speaks in “Enriching the Earth” of plowing in clover and grass to feed the soil, of planting grains and legumes to be plowed in later when they have grown, thus, to be an organic farmer, as “natural” as possible, and not dependent on the wide array of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers used by mainstream agriculture.

Merwin has long been known for his heartfelt ecological positions on many issues, from the protecting of the whales and the diminishing animal species on earth to the preservation of native plants in Hawaii to his concern over our often tainted air and water.  Merwin’s own palm forest that he is restoring had been the victim of logging, erosion, and detrimental agricultural practices (The Merwin Conservancy).  Merwin’s palm collection contains 2,740 individual trees, of more than 400 taxonomic species and 125 unique genera. The collection contains 900 different horticultural varieties. This garden is one of the largest and most diverse palm collections on earth (The Merwin Conservancy). Thus, when he writes in “Garden Notes” of:

a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights
looking at the sky
made of daybreak the morning sun
and the whole of daylight (The Moon Before Morning 21)

. . . we know that this is the garden, these are the very plants, he has invested much of his life into.

Merwin’s Conservancy attests to the fact that he wishes to dedicate a part of his life to a parcel of the earth and it shows us that in whatever we do in relation to the earth we can take care too. Berry has long been the small farmer working at odds with and in spite of the agricultural-chemical-industrial complex. Two poets working in small, sustaining ways relative to the forces of commercial agriculture and land development which works most of the time against common sense. These poets simply call for sustainable living.  The earth has long been giving her signals of being scarred and depleted. Berry often speaks of “industrial” agriculture’s depletion of the soil, massive soil erosion, pollution by toxic chemicals, depletion of aquifers, exploitation of cheap labor, genetically modified food, and the list goes on (“Death of the American Family Farm”). The problems are ubiquitous. But some in commercial agriculture are catching on to Berry’s and Merwin’s wisdom. Some land developers are saving native forests and fields on the properties that they put into commercial use. These two poets have for decades been crying out against the metaphor of “the machine,” as Berry puts it, in which the machine believes it owns all.  Nature has two strong voices saying “no” to the machine.

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Jane Frazier
Lincoln University of Missouri

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Works Cited

Berry, Wendell.  “Death of the American Family Farm.” Organic Consumers Association. Home Page. Organic Consumers Association.  2002. Web. 18 March 2015.

Berry, Wendell.  The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.  Washington: Counterpoint,1998. Print.

Merwin, W. S.  The Moon Before Morning.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2014.

The Merwin Conservancy.  The Merwin Palm Collection.  The Merwin Conservancy. 2014. Web.  18 March 2015.