Helping the Land to Remember: Poems, Faith, and Farming

backlit blossom

Anatoth Community Garden’s founder, Fred Bahnson, spent a season starting garden workdays (and our garden network meetings) by reading a poem. You’d be surprised how smoothly a strategic planning meeting goes after everyone in the room has spent a few minutes quietly listening to something beautiful. Fred ended all his emails that year with three lines from Rainier Marie Rilke: “Though he works and worries, the farmer never reaches down to where the seed turns into summer. The earth grants.”  On stressful days, when my inbox was full, those lines of poetry were welcome reminders to, as the bumper sticker says, “Let go and let God.”

I haven’t had too many meetings with Fred these past couple of years, but I try to keep a little poetry in my days to keep me on track. In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to share with you three poems that I find myself turning to often.

First is who will be the messenger of this land by North Carolina poet Jackie Shelton Green, a copy of which stays taped to the filing cabinet beside my desk. Green’s poem starts with a call to remember the history of North Carolina’s woods and farms, including the painful history of slavery and dispossession. She asks:

who will help this land to
remember its birthdays, baptisms
weddings, funerals, its rituals
denials, disappointments,
and sacrifices

who will remember
to unbury the unborn seeds
that arrived
in captivity
shackled, folded…

And then she reminds us, that despite – and sometimes because of – these histories, we have the power to create beauty and nourishment, for ourselves, our land, and our communities:

we are their messengers
with singing hoes
and dancing plows
with fingers that snap
beans, arms that
raise corn, feet that
cover the dew falling from
okra, beans, tomatoes

Too many North Carolinians, especially those in rural and food insecure communities, still find themselves in hurtful, desperate situations. Green’s poem reminds us that facing those struggles head-on can lead to places of beauty and joy that can sustain us.

The second poem is the very different Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry, who is from neighboring Kentucky. Berry’s “mad farmer” reminds the reader that not everything can be boiled down to logic.

So, friends, 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.

In community gardens and at community meals around our state, I’ve seen people of faith who live this out, people who are willing to tackle logistics and budgets, but who started their ministries without knowing exactly how things would work. They got started because they felt called to do something, not because they knew how to do it.  It’s not something you’ll hear me suggest at any “how-to” workshop, but this philosophy has resulted in several incredible ministries that touch the lives of thousands of people in our state. Berry reminds us that sometimes doing the foolish thing is the best way to do something lasting, meaningful and holy.

The last poem I want to share with you is Sarah Lindsay’s Zucchini Shofar. Lindsay uses a moment of ritual during a Jewish wedding to illustrate the beauty and blessing that lie in the seasons of a garden and the temporary pleasures of good food:

No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple’s ceremonial ram’s horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.
Shall we measure blessings by their duration?

This poem usually finds its way onto the wall beside my monitor come conference-planning season. When it comes time to gather people of faith from all over the state to eat a meal together and talk about food, farming, and faith for a day, I like to return to this light-hearted poem and its reminder that passing moments and hour-long meals can be just as holy as things that last. “Do we want butter that endures for ages, or butter that melts into homemade cornbread now?,” Lindsay asks. I’ll take choice number two.

What about you? Do you have any favorite poems about faith, food, gardens, and farms? If so, please share them in the comments!

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