Great Work is Done While We’re Asleep: Wendell Berry versus Dow Chemical

I tend not to like much modern poetry.  I realize that this may say more about me and my ignorance than about the poetry.  Nonetheless, I tend not to get too far beyond the Romantics.  Then again, I’m very much of the Romantic period.

But I’m now reading very slowly through Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems.  I like it very much.  I’ve marked just a very few poems that I keep returning to and rereading.

Berry is a novelist, essayist, farmer, poet, environmentalist, and agrarian critic of modernity.  What a career!  He wrote his sabbath poems on thirty-five years of Sundays as he walked alone through his Kentucky farm.

In one of my favorite poems from the collection (1979, number 10), he starts by describing the great toil, aching hands and sweating faces that goes into farming.  And then, he reminds us

And yet no leaf of grain is filled

By work of ours; the field is tilled

And left to grace. That we may reap,

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

Throughout all of Berry’s works, he returns to a vision of farming as a care-taking done in cooperation with and in humble gratitude to the woods, the fields, the animals, and God.  How different from our monocultured, rationalized, industrial farming that obliterates the wood, the insects, the animals, history, generations, cooperation, and God.

We genetically engineered crops to be resistant to herbicides so that we could dump the chemical on our fields and kill off all of our crop’s competitors without harming the crops.  The result, besides the spraying of even greater amounts of poison onto our food than we did before genetic engineering, is that “weeds” evolved to resist the herbicides as well.

The solution?  More genetic engineering to create crops resistant to a different herbicide.  The USDA recently approved the use of Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo crops and herbicide.  Now Dow waits for approval from the EPA, which they already said they’ll give.  The inevitable outcome?  “Weeds” that are resistant to both and yet another generation of excessive use of poisons in our soil and on our food.  The solution?  You get it.

What if, instead we followed the “vision of what human work can make”

A harmony between forest and field…

In that healed harmony the world is used

But not destroyed, the Giver and the taker

Joined, the taker blessed…

1979, VIII

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