Sunday, February 20, 2011

An Ode to the Old Ways

While studying English as an undergraduate, I took the opportunity to enroll in a course called “Literature and the Natural World.”  It was a course that ultimately changed my path of study, as it introduced me to an emphasis known as “Environmental Inquiry” that in turn led me to pursue a minor in Geography.  I came to call the course “Wilderness Lit,” as we spent a good deal of time dissecting the differing definitions of wilderness as the essence was addressed through time by various nature writers (conservationists, preservationists, transcendentalists alike) and as it was addressed by us personally.  We read works by those arguing that true nature was wilderness—the most pristine of the pristine yet untouched by humans—and also works by those arguing that nature, although not wilderness, was still nature even when altered by human activity.  I do not recall today the exact piece we read by Wendell Berry, but his name has remained locked in my memory as one of those arguing for the pastoralism of humanized nature and for the magic of agricultural preservation specifically.  His name has come up a number of times in class with Dr. Wright as well, and I found myself curious to refresh myself with his writing.

Coincidentally, one of first poems I found was “At a Country Funeral,” first published in 1973 in Berry’s The Country of Marriage and later reprinted in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry in 1998.  It is not a new poem, but the theme Berry addressed struck me as if he had written it today in response to our readings last class dealing with old timers and newcomers to rural communities.  Berry is a farming man, and he embraces the small-time, old-school methods of horse and plow over the agribusiness, big-time farming he argues has led to the decline of rural, small-town community culture.  “At a Country Funeral” is an eloquent appraisal of this old-timey culture, complete with a romanticization I’m sure Salamon would welcome wholeheartedly. 

At a Country Funeral
                   By Wendell Berry

1                       Now the old ways that have brought us  
2                      farther than we remember sink out of sight  
3                      as under the treading of many strangers  
4                      ignorant of landmarks. Only once in a while  
5                      they are cast clear again upon the mind  
6                      as at a country funeral where, amid the soft
7                      lights and hothouse flowers, the expensive  
8                      solemnity of experts, notes of a polite musician,  
9                      persist the usages of old neighborhood.
10                    Friends and kinsmen come and stand and speak,  
11                     knowing the extremity they have come to,  
12                     one of their own bearing to the earth the last  
13                     of his light, his darkness the sun’s definitive mark.
14                    They stand and think as they stood and thought  
15                     when even the gods were different.
16                    And the organ music, though decorous  
17                     as for somebody else’s grief, has its source
18                    in the outcry of pain and hope in log churches,  
19                    and on naked hillsides by the open grave,  
20                    eastward in mountain passes, in tidelands,  
21                     and across the sea. How long a time?  
22                    Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide my  
23             self in Thee. They came, once in time,
24                    in simple loyalty to their dead, and returned  
25                    to the world. The fields and the work  
26                    remained to be returned to. Now the entrance
27                    of one of the old ones into the Rock
28                    too often means a lifework perished from the land  
29                    without inheritor, and the field goes wild  
30                    and the house sits and stares. Or it passes  
31                     at cash value into the hands of strangers.  
32                    Now the old dead wait in the open coffin  
33                    for the blood kin to gather, come home
34                    for one last time, to hear old men
35                    whose tongues bear an essential topography  
36                    speak memories doomed to die.
37                    But our memory of ourselves, hard earned,  
38                    is one of the land’s seeds, as a seed
40                   is the memory of the life of its kind in its place,  
41                    to pass on into life the knowledge
42                    of what has died. What we owe the future  
43                    is not a new start, for we can only begin  
44                   with what has happened. We owe the future  
45                    the past, the long knowledge
46                   that is the potency of time to come.
47                    That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.
48                   The community of knowing in common is the seed  
49                   of our life in this place. There is not only  
50                    no better possibility, there is no
51                     other, except for chaos and darkness,  
52                    the terrible ground of the only possible
53                    new start. And so as the old die and the young  
54                    depart, where shall a man go who keeps  
55                    the memories of the dead, except home  
56                    again, as one would go back after a burial,  
57              faithful to the fields, lest the dead die  
58                    a second and more final death.

The first lines are strikingly similar in sentiment to Salamon’s contrast of old timer and newcomer: Berry explicitly references “the old ways” being trod upon by “many strangers/ignorant of landmarks,” or in other words who have no connection to the symbolic meanings and time-treasured physicalities attached to the land.  He goes on to contrast these “strangers” with “friends and kinsmen” who attend a country funeral (line 10), who return to their roots to honor the old lifestyle and to reminisce with and listen to “…old men/whose tongues bear an essential topography/speak memories doomed to die” (lines34-36).   Berry’s use of the word topography is surely not incidental, for he elicits imagery of hillsides, fields, and log churches—all rather romantic rural appeals—in addition to tying memory to land (lines 37-38): he is making clear connections between the people, the land, and the culture that binds the two.  This culture is endangered by the other of “the stranger,” for with their intrusion is the loss of the way of life linked to the land.  When Berry writes of “…a lifework perished from the /without inheriot, and the field goes wild /and the house sits and stares.  Or it passes/at cash value into the hands of strangers,” (lines 28-31)  he is lamenting this very loss of culture, a culture built on tradition passed from generation to generation: “We owe the future/the past, the long knowledge/that is the potency of time to come” (lines 44-46).      

Lines 53-54, “And so as the old die and the young/depart” seem to signal Berry’s own departure from Salamon’s line of thought.  He is not claiming that only the best and brightest leave a rural community but that is the whole of the young generation who make an exodus.  This seems slightly incongruous with Berry’s earlier lines about those who “come home/for one last time” (lines 33-34) until we realize it is the dead themselves waiting for this return, and that it is the memory of these dead that will keep drawing the departed youth back home again.  Ultimately, however, this cycle should end once all the youth who have departed die themselves, but without that that connect to the land that will draw the present youth back to hear the memories of the culture and pass it on.  So here again I am presented with what I see as a troublesome view on the cycle of coming and going: who are these “strangers” or newcomers that both Berry and Salamon speak of and what are their cultural backgrounds?  Berry paints an extremely bleak future for his beloved rurality—that there are only those who go, returning only for a quick lesson in culture before leaving permanently once more.  Salamon asserts that newcomers have no culture near the depth of the old timers’ culture, and therefore threaten to encroach and erase the core of community culture.  Either way, Salamon and Berry seem in conversation with each other: tight-knit rural communities—the most wonderful kind of community—are in danger of dying.  Berry’s “country funeral” may not necessary be one taking place in the country, but in fact the funeral for the country itself.      


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very interesting. It seems to me that Berry laments not, so much, the newcomer as he chastises the young for departing. He writes of their leaving as almost a betrayal.

    Although I like Berry's essays and novels I've never particularly cared for his poetry but I like this piece a lot. I will be thinking on it for quite a while.


  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. A little off in the analysis. Read Berry's bittersweet but deeply beautiful short novel _Hannah Coulter_ and what he is saying will become clearer. It's essentially this poem in novel form.