The Place of Stones, and Wendell Berry’s Poetry – Part One: “The Sycamore” and “The Farmer and the Sea”

I always have to know where a stone comes from. I don’t feel I understand it until I know where was its last place of resting. (And of course there is also the question, where was it before that?) Here are eight stones and eight places. What place does each stone come from? Can you put them together? In the course of the three Posts in this series, I will reveal where each stone belongs.

My concern with “place” goes back a long way in my thinking and is partly why I became an academic geographer. My doctoral thesis, “Geography and religion, agriculture and stewardship: The practice of agricultural stewardship in the Christian Farmers Federations of Canada“, advocated a form of agricultural stewardship that respected the uniqueness and peculiarities of people and places, of culture and geography. It was partly inspired by writers like Wendell Berry, a writer and farmer from Kentucky who has developed critical insights into the social and environmental problems of modern large-scale agriculture.

Stone #1, an iron stained quartzite, was collected from Place D, Budleigh Salterton, Devon, England (see the comments on this stone and place in a previous Post Twelve Stones, Part Three“).

Wendell Berry’s 1977 book “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” became one of the key texts of the US environmental movement. His 1981 book “The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural” examined important examples of farming which respected the land and the people who farm it, including small farms in the US, the Old Order Amish and the traditional potato cultivators of the Andes in Peru.

Once when asked about the virtues of viewing the fragile Earth from space, Berry said that he preferred a different kind of view. “I’d want to get closer, walk around on it, even get down on my hands and knees. That’s how I prefer to see Earth.” That’s the only way to find good stones too!

Stone #2, a jasper, was collected from Place A, Waikaka, in the Shepherd’s Creek near the primary school (see Jasper Stones and Petrified Wood, Shepherd’s Creek, Waikaka“).

Wendell Berry is also a poet, and I used one of his poems, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”, as the opening to the concluding chapter of my thesis (see the next Post in this series). But it is another of his poems, “The Sycamore”, that is my favourite, that expresses perfectly the significance of place and growing things to Berry: 

“The Sycamore” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “Openings” (1968)

In the place that is my own place, whose earth I am
shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,

hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in that has not harmed it.
There is a hollow in it that is its death, though its living
brims whitely at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.

Over all its scars has come the seamless white of the bark.
It bears the gnarls of its history healed over.
It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.

It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.

I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

Stone #3, quartzite, was collected from Place E, Birdlings Flat, Canterbury (see, for example, My Visit to Birdlings Flat, Day 1 of 2“).

The life history of a tree is different from that of a stone – a stone cannot recover from its wounds, and maybe the land feeds from a stone and its erosion rather than feeding from it. Berry is also aware of this:

“The Farmer and the Sea” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “Farming: A Handbook” (1970)

The sea always arriving,
hissing in pebbles, is breaking
its edge where the landsman
squats on his rock. The dark
of the earth is familiar to him,
close mystery of his source
and end, always flowering
in the light and always
fading. But the dark of the sea
is perfect and strange,
the absence of any place,
immensity on the loose.
Still, he sees it is another
keeper of the land, caretaker,
shaking the earth, breaking it,
clicking the pieces, but somewhere
holding deep fields yet to rise,
shedding its richness on them
silently as snow, keeper and maker
of places wholly dark. And in him
something dark applauds.

(You can hear this poem read here by Michael Moerman)

For more on Wendell Berry, see Wikipedia and poetryfoundation.org

Stone #4, a breccia, was collected from Place B, Riverton, Southland (see, for example, The Seven Stages in Tumble Polishing Stones: Stage One, Stone Collection, Riverton, 2-6 November 2017“).

In the next Post in this series, “The Place of Stones, and Wendell Berry’s Poetry – Part Two: ‘The Stones’, ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ and ‘The Mad Farmer Liberation Front’”, I will identify the places of Stones #5 and #6.

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Author: tumblestoneblog

Retired Academic, male, living in the New Zealand countryside with his wife, two cats (Ollie and Fluffy), two horses (Dancer and Penny) and a shed half-full of stones. Email john.tumblestone@gmail.com.

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