The Place of Stones, and Wendell Berry’s Poetry – Part Two: “The Stones”, “The Peace of Wild Things” and “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Stones and the places they come from are closely related to each other and each provides meaning to the other. I like to know where a stone comes from. In the previous Post in this series, I showed the following photos of  eight stones and eight places and asked, What place does each stone come from? Can you put them together? In Part One, I revealed the places of the first four stones. In this Post, I will reveal the places of Stones #5 and #6.  

The other main theme of this series of Posts is the poetry of Wendell Berry. He once wrote a poem about stones, from a farmer’s point of view. They are obstacles, needing to be broken up and removed so that the land can be cultivated. But Berry also shows regard and respect for these stones, for what he calls their music, mute in them until he labours over them. I like that image, for the stones I polish reveal their own music – their colours and bands and grains – through the process of tumbling.

“The Stones” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “Farming: A Handbook” (1970)

I owned a slope full of stones.
Like buried pianos they lay in the ground,
shards of old sea-ledges, stumbling blocks
where the earth caught and kept them
dark, an old music mute in them
that my head keeps now I have dug them out.
I broke them where they slugged in the dark
cells, and lifted them up in pieces.
As I piled them in the light
I began their music. I heard their old lime
rouse in breath of song that had not left me.
I gave pain and weariness to their bearing out.
What bond have I made with the earth,
having worn myself against it? It is a fatal singing
I have carried with me out of that day.
The stones have given me music
that figures for me their holes in the earth
and their long lying in them dark.
They have taught me the weariness that loves the ground,
and I must prepare a fitting silence.

But Berry knows that stones are not only to be removed and piled to the side of fields. They are always underfoot, providing a place to stand. Stones also provide rich imagery, in plays with words. I have used stones as “milestones” to encourage and reward and acknowledge research students that I have supervised – see “Hard Won and Well Deserved! The Final Thesis Milestone” and “Nine Milestones at Journey’s End“. Berry has used the images of  the”stepping stone” and the “sounding stone” in this extract about walking down a stream he names Camp Branch:

From “The Book of Camp Branch” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “Leavings” (2010)

How much delight I’ve known
in navigating down the flow
by stepping stones, by sounding
stones, by words that are
stepping and sounding stones.

Going down stone by stone,
the song of the water changes,
changing the way I walk
which changes my thought
as I go. Stone to stone
the stream flows. Stone to stone
the walker goes. The words
stand stone still until
the flow moves them, changing
the sound – a new word –
a new place to step or stand.

Stone #5, a sandstone with fossil sea shells (4 to 5 million years old), was collected from Place F, Bluecliffs Beach, Te Waewae Bay in Southland, just on the other side of the Waiau River mouth from Gemstone Beach (see southlandnz.com/western-southland)See the end of this Post for more information on Bluecliffs Beach.

Stones belong to a natural reality, currently partly shaped by what people might do – quarrying, building roads, tumble polishing. But stones have a much longer history than people have, and will remain long after us. They belong to a wild world, as much as we domesticate them through our use of them. In another poem, Berry refers to the peace he finds when amidst wild things, something shared by the rockhound. Berry prefers “still water” while the gatherer of beach stones prefers “ever-moving water”. 

“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “Openings” (1968)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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

I consider Berry’s thinking to be wise and insightful, even though I might not always agree with him. For this reason, when I was looking for an appropriate and significant piece of literature to open the concluding chapter of my doctoral thesis, I chose one of Berry’s poems:

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry
from his book of poems “The Country of Marriage” (1973)

…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…
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
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…
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
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?
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it… Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

In my thesis, I called Berry’s perspective on life an “anti-modernist” one. He is highly critical of the main tendencies of modern agriculture and their impacts upon the environment and upon the values and way of life of the traditional farming community he admires. He intensely dislikes the idea of applying industrial principles to agriculture. And he is highly valued by many Americans for his views and how he communicates them (as is apparent in this Humanities article).

Stone #6, probably some form of chalcedony, was collected from Place H, Slapton Sands, Devon, England (see the TumbleStone Posts “Slapton Sands, Part One: A Visit, Mid-2016” and “Slapton Sands, Part Five: Beach Stones in the Rough“).

The main interest of my thesis was how Christian-based farming groups might offer insights into sustainable and regenerative forms of agriculture. I explored the meaning of stewardship and noted how it could be defined as “earthkeeping”. I sided with Berry when he wrote that “Stewardship…involves long-term courage, perseverance, devotion, and skill… It has to do with everyday proprieties in the practical use and care of created things – with ‘right livelihood'” (“The Gift of Good Land”, page 275). For Berry, a vital farming culture entailed what any healthy culture entailed: “…a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assumes that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well” (“The Unsettling of America”, page 43).

The next Post in this series, “The Place of Stones, and Wendell Berry’s Poetry – Part Three: ‘The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer’ and ‘How to Be a Poet'”, looks at the theme of contrariness in Berry’s writings.

*******

NOTE ON BLUECLIFFS BEACH (Place F)

Bluecliffs Beach, Te Waewae Bay, has not appeared in TumbleStone before so here is some more information on it. Most of the stones on the beach are larger than those further eastwards, towards Gemstone Beach. The waves are rougher and more powerful.

See here for its location on Google Maps in relation to Orepuki. This blog post by a Primary Science Teach identifies the shells in my stone as most likely clams. Bluecliffs Beach features in the excellent book, “The Kiwi Fossil Hunter’s Handbook” (2010) by James Crampton and Maianna Terezow, available for $35 from the GNS Online Shop.

 

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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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