Wendell Berry’s Latest Poem


I just noticed this poem, published at the end of last month by the New Yorker.  Wendell Berry is not only a poet, novelist, and essayist, but also (and he would probably say foremostly) a farmer.  He has a way with words and with soil, and that’s rare.  Anyway, check out his new poem: A Speech to the Garden Club of America, my favorite part of which I quote below. 

The garden lives by the immortal Wheel

That turns in place, year after year, to heal

It whole. Unlike our economic pyre

That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,

An anti-life of radiance and fume

That burns as power and remains as doom,

The garden delves no deeper than its roots

And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.


  1. A Poetic Response to Wendell Berry’s Speech to the Garden Club of America
    by Anthony D Jacques

    Don’t get me wrong, I like a good fruit,
    But I prefer mine in salad, not in a suit
    For all this guy knows about meter and rhyme
    I’d say his misinformation is a crime
    Fire is a natural part of the cycle
    Of forest and grassland’s very survival
    Our human attempt to control this occurrence
    Keeps fires at bay and gives false reassurance
    We sit in our homes, quietly unaware
    Of the tinder box we’ve made, a hundred miles square
    And for him to suggest that fire is bad
    Denies the progress upon which he stands
    And looks down his nose at great men of science
    As if he knows better, an act of defiance
    Toward men of invention, of toil and labor
    But Wendell Berry plants a garden to savor
    And writes, I would bet, from a comfortable chair
    In a comfortable room, breathing suitable air
    But the way that he tells it you’d think he was gagging
    As if all his neighbor’s rooftops were sagging
    Beneath the grim weight of fossil fuel ashes
    That we send to the sky without batting our lashes
    He stands on the backs of life-changing advance
    And shrugs his tan shoulders, a cursory glance
    Is hardly given to the fact that he assumes
    That we’re all to blame for the atmospheres fumes
    But now to get to the heart of the matter
    Which is the extent of this human factor
    When one considers all of the things that burn
    Or the beings that exhale CO2 in their turn
    We humans have little for which to take credit
    And many ‘beliefs’ could use a good edit
    But of course Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize
    For spreading ‘awareness’ and fleecing our eyes
    So it must be true, what the Hell do I know?
    It’s the end of the world as we know it, uh oh.

    (P.S. This may be the cold medicine talking… I dunno.)


  2. Tony,

    You’re a good poet. I believe the fire Mr. Berry is referencing in his poem is not the cycle of forest fires per se, but rather he uses it as a metaphor for global warming, a rather apocolyptic, scorched earth vision, but nonetheless… Of course, I take it you believe global warming to be a conspiracy which Al Gore has tried to pull the wool over our eyes about.

    Right now, I am in the process of convincing myself that the pile of dirty laundry in my floor dirtied itself, and is just undergoing a natural cycle of stink, therefore, I am under no moral obligation to change my lifestyle (i.e. wash them), because I did not cause anything!


  3. Thanks,

    I did enjoy the fairly recent headlines reporting how even uncharacteristically cold weather & higher snowfall all have global warming to blame.

    I tried to read the articles without laughing.

    The fire cycle is vital for the earth’s health. It not only keeps low lying brush in check, it helps fertilize the soil afterward. Which is good for… growing food, which is right up Berry’s alley.

    Many small fires here and there are much better than catastrophic ones, for the environment, at least. This is a relatively recent realization for conservationists, which is why they now start small ones once in a while to keep things in check.

    And of course, fire is one of the most important discoveries mankind ever made. Sure, we should be responsible with it, but let’s not look down our noses at it.

    Global warming is a real thing, but it’s sort of like how the fire cycle works. Fortunately, no one had an agenda to convince people forest fires were evil.

    The amount of man-made greenhouse gasses is so infinitesimally small compared to what mother nature provides herself to keep things balanced, which is also what makes life possible, that fearing it just makes me chuckle.

    Mankind does posses the ability to drastically change the world, but I would say that threat is nuclear weapons in the hands of crazy people, not through driving sports cars or SUV’s.

    Global warming is a heated debate… but for the wrong reasons.

    As for the rest of his poem, farming is great. Another very important factor in man’s survival.



  4. ADJ,

    I’m not sure if you read the whole poem that James linked but Berry is referring to burning fossil fuels both for his flight to the event and for the ever increasing demand for energy.

    Fossil fuels are limited resources and regardless of the empirical weight for or against global warming we would do well to take note of limitless human consumption; both as a moral issue concerning greed and stewardship – for ourselves AND our offspring – and as a simple issue of how we meet our desires.

    Berry lives on a farm and produces near everything he uses. Not on a “comfortable chair” judging from afar. There are many who talk but not walk, but Berry is not one of them.


  5. I haven’t read the whole poem but I don’t see why the fire has to refer to global warming. Coal mining has done plenty of damage without having to be blamed for that too. Even if it did cause it.

    The point being, Berry’s saying a whole lot more than just some trite political cliche.


  6. Andrew,

    Thanks for commenting. Don’t take Anthony too seriously, he’s grinding a different axe.

    You’re right, Berry talks of the direct environmental destruction caused by fossil fuels (i.e. coal), but in the context of the poem as a whole and the corpus of Berry’s work as a whole, there is no doubt that he sees climate change as being intricately connected to fossil fuel consuption. Climate change might be a cliche, and it certainly has far reaching political (as well as social and moral) entailments, but I disagree with your use of the word trite.


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