Wendell Berry is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and editorial, as well as a cultural critic and a farmer. Frances O'Roark Dowell's The Second Life of Abigail Walker begins with an epitaph taken from one of his poems. Berry lives in north central Kentucky on a 125-acre farm called Lane's Landing. The intersection of humanity and landscape, the conviction that human beings must learn to live in harmony with the organic rhythms of the land, is at the center of his life's work. He specifically believes the answers lie in local connections, in people understanding and relating to the land that is directly under their feet.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (written in 1973) from which Frances O'Roark Dowell takes her epigraph, is a poem about just that. In it, Berry warns that mass marketing, profits, and our seemingly insatiable appetite for stuff (and more stuff) will be our demise, and that the only way for us to save ourselves, our society and, truly, the world, is to practice resurrection. Which is to say we must do things and do them close to home. Plow our own fields. Plant trees. Plant our bare feet in the dirt. Listen to the earth, each of us, with our own two ears.
Berry urges us to act close to home, and this is just what Abby does. In the process she befriends a fox, and like this fox, she treks in many directions until she finds her true path.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.
Want more of everything ready-made.
Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord.
Love the world.
Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Expect the end of the world.
Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child
Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade.
Rest your head in her lap.
Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.
Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
Wendell Berry delivered the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The annual lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. You can read the full text of his lecture here.
Photograph of Wendell Berry from The Fellowship of Southern Writers
This article was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the
August 2013 paperback release.
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