Listen to the Land


Mark Bittman recently interviewed Wendell Berry — poet, essayist and “the soul of the real food movement” — and gave us thoughts and sentiments that will likely linger in the deep recesses of our minds and rise to the surface at unexpected times.

“Every bit of erosion becomes a tiny tragedy,” because soil is filled with life right down to its smallest particle, and we derive life from its multitude of lifeforms doing the work of soil fertility. Erosion of soil erodes our life force. Walt Whitman saw in a single blade of grass the entire cosmos.

“Every bit of forest floor becomes a bit of the genius of nature,” genius because in the forest there is zero waste; the ecosystem works perfectly, existing in ideal balance. There is a certain beauty to the efficiency, diversity and productivity of the forest ecosystem. That is why Berry says, “if you imitate nature…you’ll use the land wisely.” Imitate the forest, and you will cycle back the nutrients you use and waste very little. This implies that the opposite — trying to beat nature, game the natural ecological system — means wasting the inherent fertility of the land. Loading the ground with chemicals, imposing an unnatural uniformity and monotony on the land, translates to an unwise abuse of the land.

Read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s article about Big Agriculture’s mistaken assumption that it can impose its will on nature.

“Listen to the land.” When we are able to see that our basic livelihood depends on the vitality of the land, listening to the land will simply mean listening to our innermost selves, to the place in all of us where our deepest truth resides.

Berry says that when you have a newborn lamb in your barn, “your impulse is to stay there and help it nurse and see to it and all. After a while you know that the best thing you can is walk out of the barn.” Communion with nature means trusting in the inherent harmony of natural processes. Maybe instead of trying to dominate and shape them, we should partner with these processes and imitate the breathtaking wisdom and genius of it all.

Here is what William Wordsworth (late-18th and early-19th century English Romantic poet) has to say, in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, about the sort of harmony in nature that Berry has illuminated for the world through his writing:

And I have felt
a presence that disturbs me with the joy
of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
of something far more deeply interfused,
whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
and the round ocean, and the living air,
and the blue sky, and in the mind of man –
a motion and a spirit that impels
all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
and rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
a lover of the meadows and the woods
and mountains, and of all that we behold
from this green earth, of all the mighty world
of eye and ear (both what they half-create
and what perceive) – well pleased to recognize
in nature and the language of the sense,
the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
of all my moral being.

The poetry of the land is all around us, there to be received and heard as long as we are ready to listen for it. We are all poets, we all can have our ears to the ground, in tune with the music of the core of our being.

2 Responses to “Listen to the Land”
  1. Seth says:

    Hey Eric,

    I’ve been reading “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann and came along a quote at the head of a chapter that seems to flow with this post. It’s a quote from that grass blade lovin’ Whitman.

    Walt says “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on- have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear- what remains? Nature remains.”

    The quote is immediately followed by Hartmann:

    “One of the first rules of tribal life is that humans are dependent upon their environment. When city-states were created, the man-made environments of buildings and streets helped us forget our sacred connection with the Earth and all living creatures. We viewed our sustenance as coming from the artificial environment of the city, and so our places of worship moved from the cathedral of nature into man-made buildings…

    “Now our environmentally destructive actions are bringing us face-to-face with the natural world we have so long neglected or treated like an enemy to be subdued.”

    ‘Listening to the land’ has brought me many insights and remembrances. I have found surrender, trust, and gentle compassion. As you and Wendell suggest I believe these to be some of my and our deepest truths.

    We must remember we are part of the infinitely wondrous fabric of creation Wordsworth calls forth and the mystery that propels it. Our role is not to secure knowledge and dominion over creation but to participate in it. In cities and with lives and experiences rooted in the tar and asphalt that separates our shoes from earth we need these calls for us to remember. Thank you for reminding us.

    • ehimmel says:

      Hey Seth,

      Thank you for that comment, I really appreciate it. I will have to check out that Hartmann book you mentioned. The part of the quote that stood out was the reference to the cathedral of nature, as it gets to the heart of where we lost our way and what we are missing in the city life – a sense of reverence, a sense of deep gratitude, for what is underneath the tar and asphalt, and what is all around us, waiting to partner with us in the repair of the world and ultimate flourishing of the world; essentially, our deepest Truths are all around us, but we are oftentimes reluctant to face them. Wordsworth certainly spoke of nature in that way, as did Whitman. The call is remember this all is important, because it can be so easy to forget amidst our daily worries and burdens.

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