What miraculous seed has he swallowed
That the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth…
This line from the poem The Man Born to Farming pretty much sums up how I feel about Wendell Berry. I’m a huge Berry fan; I love his non-fiction activist works, his poetry, and have recently become enamored with his fiction. I’m really pleased that he has a couple of private presses that are also fans so that some of his work gets the fine press treatment.
In his introduction to Wendell Berry’s Roots to the Earth, illustrator Wesley Bates writes, “Farming is the most essential of human activities and its vitality is of utmost importance to us and to future generations.” If you have read much Berry, you will know that he is NOT talking about corporate farming but more of the traditional family-based small farms that this nation was founded on and which have increasingly been pushed aside as mechanization and corporatization have replaced the sweat-equity of farmers. Berry’s roots reach deep into the earth in his native Kentucky, so deep in fact, that after spending time at Stanford University, Europe under a Guggenheim Fellowship, and New York University, he re-settled on a homestead in Henry County Kentucky close to where he was born. He’s been there ever since, farming and writing, writing and farming. Deeply influenced by the Gospels but somewhat critical of modern Christianity, he fell into the habit of taking walks in the woods around his farm on the Sabbath. From those meditative walks came much poetry that has been published as the Sabbath Poems. But Roots to the Earth eschews those meditative themes for the earth and the farming thereof.
In The Buildings, Berry portrays the farm buildings as having feminine characteristics, while the labor around them is masculine. Wesley Bates achieves his intention of making his engravings “companion pieces” to the poems, as the engraving following the poems hints of a woman supine, legs out, belly swollen with fecundity, breasts ready to feed the earth. In The Current, Berry ties the act of putting your hand in the ground to farm with all the farmers who have worked that ground before, all who are cleared the land for their lodges and graves only to have the forest close back upon them, and to possibility of his descendents reaching into the same ground. Bates again following the poem with an engraving suggesting a son or grandson helping to clear a field and enclose it with a stone wall. The Fearfulness of Hands That Have Learned Killing describes the awe of learning to kill that comes with farming and hunting, “the shedding of predestined blood that lives for death.” The acts of marrying and fathering balancing the acts of death and teaching restraint, wisdom, and pity.
There is no life I can think of
without sensing in my hands the answering power.
I shall not go free of the art of death.
Larkspur Press’ edition of Roots to the Earth is a stunning book. The paper used to cover the boards is exquisite. The use of two papers, mouldmade Somerset Book from St. Cuthberts Mill and handmade Gampi Torinoko by the late Masao Seki in Japan, provides a nice contrast throughout the book. Both are creamy papers sensuous to the touch, with the illustration paper (the Gampi Torinoko?) providing an interesting visual contrast to the solid uniformity of the paper used for the text. Unlike all of my other Larkspur Press books, this is a large book measuring about 9.3” wide by 10” high, adding to it’s uniqueness.
Wendell Berry is a national treasure. I hope the 80 year old has plenty more time to enlighten and entertain us. And I hope that the Larkspur Press continue to delight us with lovely editions of his work.
Like a tree, he has given roots
to the earth, and stands free.