*apologies to Caroline Alexander, whose account of Earnest Shackleton’s antarctic expedition, of the same title, is unparalleled; all coincidences intended
I began to be followed by a voice saying:
“It can’t last. It can’t last.
Harden yourself. Harden yourself.
Be ready. Be ready.”
The first verse of Wendell Berry’s “Song in a Year of Catastrophe”. Hard not to pause.
High up in our barn, Berry sits on the shelf, aside Maxine Kumin. Kumin’s “The Immutable Laws” begins “Never buy land on a slope/my father declared the week before his heart gave out.” That was the poem in mind after an afternoon working the steep South Field here, but failing eyesight and a tired reach landed on Berry’s “Farming Handbook” by mistake. Hard not to open a book once you’ve picked it up. Hard not to pause on “It can’t last.”
“Go under the leaves,”
it said, “for what is living there is long dead in your tongue.”
And it said, “Put your hands
into the earth. Live close
to the ground. Learn the darkness.
Gather round you all
the things that you love, name
their names, prepare
to lose them. It will be
as if all you know were turned
around within your body.”
Kumin wrote on her farm over in Warner, not that far from Roxbury. “We bit down hard on a derelict dairy farm/of tilting fields, hills, humps and granite outcrops.” Nye Hill had milch cows dating back to 1796, but it was never a dairy farm. Tilting fields, hills, humps and granite, plenty. Warner, Roxbury, same glacier. Warner has a Town Almoner. Almoner! Like Ray Wylie-Hubbard sings, “Some things here under heaven are just cooler’n hell.” An almoner’s as cool as it gets. Check out Jules-Alexis Muenier’s “Breviary” (1886). Roxbury has a Welfare Officer. Doesn’t have the same ring. A town elder suggests we visit the issue at the next town meeting.
And I went and put my hands
into the ground, and they took root
and grew into a season’s harvest.
I looked behind the veil
of the leaves, and heard voices
that I knew had been dead
in my tongue years before my birth.
I learned the dark.
“Never bet what you can’t afford to lose,/he lectured. I bet my soul on a tortured horse/who never learned to love, but came to trust me”. Anatole France wrote “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” If we get trust in return, that will be enough.
And still the voice stayed with me.
Waking in the early mornings,
I could hear it, like a bird
bemused among the leaves,
a mockingbird idly singing
in the autumn of catastrophe:
“Be ready. Be ready.
Harden yourself. Harden yourself.”
“Spend your money close to where you earned it,/he dictated. Nothing made him crosser/than wives who drove to New York to go shopping/when Philly stores had everything they needed.” And Philadelphia has the ReadingTerminal Market, a winner on that count alone. Roxbury doesn’t have much by way of shopping. A small seasonal farm stand Monday evenings outside the Meeting House, but that’s more for the communion as for anything else. An article in Slate Magazine back in May noted Warner had a coffee shop, folks hung out, rather wonderful. The article was about its closing.
And I heard the sound
of a great engine pounding
in the air, and a voice asking:
“Change or slavery?
Hardship or slavery?”
and voices answering:
And I was afraid, loving
what I knew would be lost.
“This, the grab bag of immutable laws/circa 1940 when I was the last/child left at home to be admonished:” Kumin must have grown up in the age before thirty year-olds moved back in, if they ever left at all.
Then the voice following me said:
“You have not yet come close enough.
Come nearer the ground. Learn
from the woodcock in the woods
whose feathering is a ritual
of the fallen leaves,
and from the nesting quail
whose speckling makes her hard to see
in the long grass.
Study the coat of the mole.
For the farmer shall wear
the greenery and the furrows
of his fields, and bear
the long standing of the woods.”
“Only borrow what you know you can repay./Your mother used to run up dress-shop bills/the size of the fifth Liberty Loan,/his private hyperbole. It took me years/to understand there’d been five loans/launched to finance the First World War,/the one he fought in, the war to end all wars.” Shakespeare’s Polonius said neither a borrower nor a lender be. Benjamin Franklin said a penny saved is a penny earned. Every year, Franklin County over in Massachusetts holds the best apple cider festival imaginable. People come from all over, from as far away as England. Not this year. Nye Hill Farm was established in 1790 in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, Roxbury was incorporated in 1812, and a lot of wars have followed, many after the war to end them all. Berry is writing of one in his poem, at least in part. Kumin makes the point later in hers.
And I asked: “You mean a death, then?”
“Yes,” the voice said. “Die
into what the earth requires of you.”
“What would this man who owed no man, who kept/his dollars folded in a rubber band,/have thought of credit cards, banking on line?/Wars later, clear as water, I hear him say/reconcile your checkbook monthly, and oh!/always carry a clean handkerchief.” Unlikely Kumin’s father imagined the use to which that handkerchief might be put today. And tough times, for many, to reconcile a checkbook. Roxbury has “Neighbors Helping Neighbors”, started this past March. Residents might need help staying connected with the world – phone, internet, television – people pitch in to make sure they can. It’s handled by the town Welfare Officer but that’s way like something an almoner would do.
Then I let go all holds, and sank
like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,
and at last came fully into the ease
and the joy of that place,
all my lost ones returning.
A writer emailed a short while back, she was writing a piece on our town, could we talk? She accepted an invitation to visit, and we did, talk. About the farm, she asked who inspired us. A couple of local old-timers came to mind, we’ve written of them here. We added the writer and activist Michael Pollan. We almost forgot the orchardist Michael Phillips. We did forget Eliot Coleman, of all people. And because one gets the sense of whether another person might understand, we confided that Mary Oliver and Jane Kenyon influence much of what we do, and we even quoted Fred Rogers. We could have said Wendell Berry, writing from his farm in 1968. And Maxine Kumin, writing from hers in 2007. But we hadn’t yet trudged up the steep south slope and climbed the stairs to the top of the barn, to reach for the wrong book, only to find the right words. Berry endured 1968, his unwavering belief in mother earth sustaining him. Kumin endured 2007, her memory of a father’s love and bemused admiration for his wisdom sustaining her. We will endure 2020, inspired by old farmers, good writers, holistic orchardists and timeless poets, sustained by neighbors, friends and family.
Wendell Berry’s “Song in a Year of Catastrophe” and Maxine Kumin’s “The Immutable Laws” have been reprinted here in whole not part without permission. We’re hoping that, in the event this comes to the attention of Mr. Berry himself or Ms. Kumin’s estate, we might get a letter of protest suitable for framing. The address is Nye Hill Farm, 250 Middletown Road, Roxbury, New Hampshire 03431.