Saturday, February 11, 2012

`A Depth of Shared Experience'

I’m rereading Verlyn Klinkenborg’s first and still-best book, Making Hay (1986), devoted to precisely what its title says on farms in the upper Midwest and Montana. It opens memorably at a dance in a VFW hall in Luverne, Minn., “twelve miles east of South Dakota, ten miles north of Iowa,” and proceeds to describe the machinery, agronomy and culture of hay. Klinkenborg was raised on an Iowa farm and writes at least partially from inside his subject, sometimes about members of his family who farm. He’s no dilettante but works from an informed and sympathetic distance.

Years ago, as a newspaper reporter inspired by Klinkenborg’s book, I spent a summer periodically visiting a dairy farm in Saratoga County, N.Y., describing the hay crop and the family that depended on it. The experience confirmed my belief that farmers, even the most laconic, are among the best talkers. Few are given to romanticizing their livelihood and most are constitutionally allergic to bullshit, the metaphoric sort. They live too close to the soil and weather, and the vagaries of the economy, to prettify things or make a lot of excuses. It’s an unforgiving way to earn a living, and whining gets them nowhere. In his first chapter, Klinkenborg writes:

“The scene at the VFW renews the sensation you get as you drive across Midwestern farmland. However the terrain tips and rolls, however the fences and runoffs mark a field, whether the soil carries soybeans, sorghum, corn, oats, or alfalfa, the black earth has only one purpose: getting the crops up.”

I’ve also been reading the poems of Timothy Murphy, a farmer who lives in the Dakotas. In his work I hear a farmer’s bluffness and stoicism. I like his “Elsewhere” (Very Far North, 2002), and everyday see its lesson confirmed:

“A goose in the yard yearns for a barn,
and the penned bird, to go free.
The returning salmon yearns for the tarn,
from which its fry will flee.

Elsewhere…what is the lasting charm
for the creature in misery?
A fisherman longs for the land-locked farm
its tenant would trade for the sea.”

Never content with our lot, never grateful for our gifts, we gaze longingly and resentfully at the other guy – this is human nature, a state of aggrieved entitlement, most recently and loudly embodied by the Occupy crowd. Samuel Johnson anatomized it in The Rambler #63:

“That all are equally happy or miserable, I suppose none is sufficiently enthusiastical to maintain; because though we cannot judge of the condition of others, yet every man has found frequent vicissitudes in his own state, and must therefore be convinced that life is susceptible of more or less felicity. What then shall forbid us to endeavour the alteration of that which is capable of being improved, and to grasp at augmentations of good, when we know it is possible to be increased, and believe that any particular change of situation will increase it?”

Spoken like a true (eighteenth-century) farmer. In an interview in the euphoniously named Shit Creek Review, Murphy is asked if he has a “perfect reader” in mind when he writes. After acknowledging some of the poets he admires and would like to please, he says:

“…I value the farmers who read my farm poems, the hunters who read my hunting poems. They can’t read as poets would, but they have a depth of shared experience the poets lack.”

That hits home. How long is it since you’ve read a poet, or any writer, who possessed “a depth of shared experience” with his subject and his readers? You’re likely to learn more about the facts of life and death, and hear more good hard-headed sense, from a farmer. Murphy’s “Failures of Promise” is collected in The Deed of Gift (1998):

“A flock of crows
found a road-killed ewe
frozen in the snow.
A drowsy bear
dragged a leg-shot deer
to its deadfall lair.
The lamb in the ewe
and the fawn in the doe
were devoured unborn,
and November snows
buried the standing corn.”


William A. Sigler said...

The word “envy” implies one wants to have what someone else has, and I doubt the farmers in the occupy movement want to be like the people who are illegally foreclosing on their farms and forcing them to grow pesticide-poisoned crops. They just want to continue farming the way they always have done. For generations, the passing down of the family farm was a right, like jobs in the steel mill in Pittsburgh. That has changed, and the world in Darwinian fashion punishes a lack of adaptation. For human nature is forever torn, as Dr. Johnson suggests. Gratefulness for the abundant gifts we do have includes gratefulness for our greatest gift, pain, the one that teaches us how to move forward with our lives. Many people get stuck in guilt over one’s worthiness to receive the positive things, just as many people get stuck in trying to fight rather than learn from the pain. I believe we can evolve to a more harmonious, grounded state within ourselves, and become once again stewards of this wonderful planet.

Julia said...

Wouldn't it be wonderful if "Elsewhere" for each of us was a farm? I hope too that we can evolve to a more harmonious and grounded state within ourselves, and become those stewards. Somehow we must start with getting back in touch with the outdoors; going outside in the wind, the rain or the sunshine and opening our senses to nature.

Chuck Kelly said...

I know this isn't farming, but regarding authors writing about shared experiences, I like Gordon MacQuarrie's Old Duck Hunter stories.

Timothy Murphy said...

An old friend called my attention to this.I'm pleased by Patrick's close readings and concise comments on these earlier poems. My publisher has sent him my three newest books, and I hope we'll hear more of his reflections on yours truly.

Helen Pinkerton said...

I'm very happy, Patrick, to see Tim Murphy's poetry given attention in "Anecdotal Evidence." In a review for "Modern Age" of the anthology "Grace Notes: Poetry from the Pages of 'First Things,'" I single out his devotional poem "Augustine's 'Confessions,' 10.27.38" as the most memorable poem in an anthology of high quality poems. It is a strong adaptation of Augustine's prose account of his coming to an understanding of the divine "beauty" through sight, hearing and touch. Murphy is a master of English meter and rhythm. I hedged this judgment a bit by opining that Richard Wilbur's devotional poem in syllabics, "Psalm" was arguably the best. In these regions it is hard sometimes to decide. (The review will appear sometime this year.)