Agrarian Poetry: Why We Need Its Prophesies and Imagery Now, More Than Ever

Agrarian poetry? Agrarian prophesies? Agrarian urgencies? One might wonder whether any 21st century preoccupation with agrarian values and agrarian ideals comes as too little, too late, for less than one in six of all Canadian and U.S. citizens live in rural areas outside of towns, cities and suburbs.

But listen up. Look again. The New Agrarianism is emerging in Western Canada and the United States, and it is not strictly restricted to the rural domain. Nor does it a necessarily stem from some romantic desire to re-enact the social behaviors and morays associated with rural populaces of by-gone eras. Instead, this New Agrarianism is emerging within urban as well as rural communities, among young and old. It may indeed be the set of values and operating principles which can obliterate the rural-urban divide which both characterized and crippled North American cultures during the second half of the Twentieth century.

But what exactly does agrarian mean, and why are the concepts associated with it being used once more as rallying cries, decades after most North Americans have become disenfranchised from the land and a half century after most agrarian populism blew away with the winds of change?

If we return to its entomological roots, agri- can be traced as far back as the proto-Indo-European noun * éǵros, which has cognates not only in Old English, but in Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit as well. As used over the centuries in Europe and England, this term refers to a constellation of activities, values and premises regarding human relationships to cultivated soil or to the land in general. As a prefix in Latin, and then Old, Middle and Modern English, ager- and agri- relate to soil, fields, farms, land, terrain, landscape, territory, and country  in ever-widening circles and ever-rippling “energy fields.” In the related term agriculture, based on the Latin ager + colere, we see the relationship between humans and the land circumscribed by the activities and values of cultivating, tilling, stewarding, tending and safeguarding.

As few North Americans now remember, rural residents of Western Canada might consider themselves to be in the center of origin for North America’s agrarian political and social movements. As Bradford James Rennie has documented, Alberta was the epicenter of the first tidal wave of agrarian thinking in North America. Beginning with Henry Wise Wood’s ascendency as the galvanizing agrarian leader of populist movements nearly a century ago, political organizations such as the United Farmers of Alberta and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation gained enough steam to become the precursors of the New Democratic Party in Canada.

These constituencies emerged out of the first Back-to-the-Land Movement in North America, one in which intellectuals, social critics, journalists, teachers and activists became wary of the perils of industrialization. They left cities in droves and re-grouped as rural-based intentional communities that were often self-sufficient food, fiber and fuel. Between 1914 and 1937, the UFA grew to include 40 percent of the male-dominated households in Alberta, and spread throughout Canada, electing many members to Parliament. And yet, after World War II, about the time that Henry Wise Wood himself passed away, his politically-motivated constituencies factionalized, fragmented and faded away.

While it has been largely dismissed by historians as short-lived, rather parochial political movement; it was no such thing. In fact, many of its concerns are being rearticulated today. It was, and is, a philosophical critique of the direction that North American society at a large has been drifting. It has claimed that “the deteriorations of country life pose problems for the Nation as a whole.”  Not merely a political party, the United Farmers briefly overlapped with the Country Life Movement, which sought to reverse rural economic decline and the depopulation of the countryside. They also had some philosophical overlap with advocates of Arcadianism in Canada, as well as the Grange and the Southern Agrarians in the U.S. Together, they once forged the largest and longest-running agrarian populist movement in North American history.

Back in Alberta, Henry Wise Wood had conceived of farmers and other rural food producers as a distinct social class from that of urban capitalists who were for the most part place-less and irresponsible in their relationships with those who brought them their daily bread. As Wood argued with much the same fervor recently found in the Occupy Wall Street movement, these untethered urbanites controlled most of the savings and loan firms, most of the long-distance transportation systems, and most transnational grain commodity trade, disproportionately profiting from the sweat, skills, talents and intelligence of farmers and ranchers. Wood’s proposed solution was a kind of democratic, communal economic solidarity expressed through rural co-ops which would defend the interests of their particular agrarian occupations in the class struggle against place-less urban capitalist ideologues.

While Wood clearly hoped for broader justice and equity in society, he made little room for alliances with the sympathetic still stranded in cities. At the same time, long term demographic trends were running against him, for one in three Canadians lived on farms in 1931, on in 46 live on farms today. The same trends transformed the U.S.; in 1930, one in five U.S. citizens were farmers but 44 percent of the population lived in rural areas; today just 1.5 percent are farmers and ranchers. In fact, seventy-five percent of all fruits and vegetables hand-harvested in the U.S. are picked by foreign-born farmworkers, and not by those born in the USA.

This demographic shift to city life has been seen by many observers to have made agrarianism irrelevant. But in less than a century, North American residents suffered the largest loss of orally-transmitted traditional knowledge about growing and putting up food that has happened in human history. Worse yet, Twentieth Century agrarian spokespersons such as Henry Wise Wood, Wendell Berry, Helen and Scott Nearing, Ralph Borsordi, and Louis Bromfield have often been diagnosed by urban critics as being afflicted with a nostalgic  dysfunction that has symptoms of being “anti-urban,” “luddite,” or “retro.”

Of late, agrarianism has once again come into fashion, with some proponents such as Eric Freyfogle and David Walbert trying to differentiate their philosophies as Neo-Agrarian. On his website, www.newagrarian.com, Walbert offers a brilliant articulation of the how new agrarianism can be distinguished from earlier forms of agrarianism that may have been flawed by romanticism, classism or naiveté:

“New Agrarianism, most importantly, is not about preserving a way of life or recreating the past; it is about building the future. New Agrarianism is about creating a new kind of rural community, one that is genuinely rural but that is fully a part of twenty-first century American society.”

My old friend David Orr offers an even a broader definition of new agrarianism:

“Agrarianism… is no small, whittled-down philosophy for rural folks. It is, rather, a full-blown philosophy rooted in the realities of soil and nature as ‘the standard’ by which we also come to judge more. It is grounded in farming, but is larger still. The logic of agrarianism …unfolds like a fractal through the divisions and incoherence of the modern world.”

Today there is a Young Agrarian movement in Canada linked to FarmFolk/CityFolk, the Greenhorns and National Young Farmer’s Coalition in the United States; these groups correct the flaws of former expressions of agrarianism by welcoming both urban and rural food producers, and making strong alliances with urban food activists and consumers as well.  They are part of a larger and more aggressive Slow Food, Good Food and Just Food Movement that does not privilege rural residents over urban ones, as long as they are all striving for food justice and land health. The activities of these youth groups are inspiring in and of themselves, but they have also taken inspiration from the great agrarian prophets which preceded them.

For that reason alone, I’d like to turn to considering some of the prophetic  agrarian voices of the West during the last century, noting why they may have been unfairly dismissed or neglected by most students of North American literature, but why their importance has grown nonetheless.

Agrarian poetry plays many roles in our society and takes many forms, some of them traditional, while others are quite novel and edgy. They include cowhand recitations, new Western songwriting, sheepherder’s ballads, farmers’ prayers and even prose-poems, graffiti and cowboy jazz.  Many of these spoken artforms are meant to entertain and humor us, but others can make us howl, weep, or well up with wonder, anger or remorse.

But that is not all. Cowboy poetry, farmers’ prose-poems and other agrarian literatures also help us re-member enduring rural values, skills and expressions that may still help guide our relationships with changing landscapes rather than being dismissed as obsolete. They can help us re-story and thereby restore the land itself with elements continuous with the past that deserve to be held dear in the present moment. With less than two percent of all citizens of North America identifying themselves as farmers or ranchers, the poetry which keeps these values, skills and expressions alive is needed now more than ever before in American history. Why? As I said earlier, North Americans have recently suffered the greatest loss in traditional knowledge relating to food production and land management than has occurred in any place or time in human history, but we hardly recognize that fact. With climate change advancing, water and food security may eventually trump every other issue facing us in the West. As Margaret Atwood pointedly quipped about the coming climatic changes in 2010,  “Go three days without water and you don’t have any human right. Why? Because you’re dead.”

And so, there is one function of the agrarian poetic tradition that may be known well among its practitioners but remains little discussed among society at large: its visionary or prophetic function. I wish to focus on this particular function of agrarian poetry because I feel that more than ever, diverse agrarian voices need to be heard for what they are telling us about how to live—or not to live—in the future.  Without being polemical, poetry can expose the damage that has been done to our watersheds and foodsheds, and therefore to our communities and our bodies whenever we get these relationshipst out of synch.

This damage is glaringly evident to any storyteller living and working in the Canadian and American West. Where I live on the U.S. Southwest, just four states have contributed no less than one fourth of all the ranchland and farmland lost in the U.S. over the last quarter century, as our ruthless economy has stripped and mauled such lands into submission. What Sunbelt developers call housing developments should truly be called arrested development, because they seldom allow the “unfolding” of opportunities and insights that Orr champions in his definition of agrarianism. We have all witnessed rural places once highly regarded for their abundance of game, the prodigious-ness of their herds and flocks, and the diversity of their fruits and roots that are now designated as “food deserts” by the USDA. We have all heard urban planners claim the highest and best use of the water now used to grow food and forage would be to shunt it into cities for more lawns, swimming pools, fountains, golf courses, and shoddy subdivisions disguised as gated communities. We have all been insulted by the hip but cynical urban intellectual who regards the cowboy’s life or farmer’s life as merely quaint, rural throw backs, and traditional agriculture as something only to be cherished by romantics who wish to ignore or impede the acceptance of post-modern realities.

I would argue that the images, ideas and values of our best agrarian poets are our culture’s antibodies that will potentially protect us from a host of diseases in the future, and that dismissing the preoccupations of agrarian poetry as things of the past is both problematic and perilous. Agrarian poets have arisen in many societies whenever estrangement from the land threatens to undermine the very core of our existence. Listen to theologian Ellen Davis (2009, p. 120-122) who has argued that agrarian poetry and prophesy have historically played essential roles in righting the course of cultures gone astray:

“… If the message of new agrarian writers may be rightly called ‘prophetic,’ the more important fact is less widely recognized: The message of the earliest prophetic writer in the Bible was distinctly ‘agrarian.’  The eighth-century prophets Amos and Hosea were probably the world’s first agrarian writers…This sudden outburst of rural prophesy, apparently unprecedented in the depth and range of it vision and replete with language and images that evoke the experience of farmers, seems to have been prompted by a large scale transformation of both the land and the rural economy.”

In essence, agrarian poets and prophets have emerged from farm and ranch country whenever their way of life has been threatened by political, economic or military forces that have ignored or even broken the covenant between rural communities and the land. It is no wonder that America witnessed a flush of agrarian poets such as Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ole Rolvaag and Hamlin Garland as the Industrial Revolution hit the East and Midwest. Later, it produced John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Service and H. L. Davis when industrialization reached the West Coast.  But we need not look further than our back doorstep in the windswept West to find the resurgence of agrarian poetry alive and well in North America. The current generation includes Wally McCrae in Montana, Linda Hasselstrom in South Dakota, Drum Hadley in Arizona, Doug;las nger in Nevada,  Sharon O’Toole in Wyoming, Vess Quinlan in Colorado, Paul Hunter in Washington, or Bryan J. Smith , Ian Tyson and Corb Lund in Alberta.

One might ask how we distinguish agrarian poetry from other forms of agrarian philosophy, political activism, prophetic prose. I would argue that the poet’s use of sensuous imagery and compelling narrative rather than a reliance on didactic rhetoric is what sets the agrarian poets apart from their brethren. They remind us through visual images, sounds, fragrances and flavors what we may be in risk of losing, and what we need to tenaciously keep dear.

The reason that the more sensuous of the agrarian poets are more effective in reaching us has been elegantly stated by David Stendl-Rast (p. 19, 34):

“Common sense tells us there is nothing in our intellect that did not enter through the doors of perception. Our loftiest concepts are rooted in sense experiences. Only by going to the roots can we ‘dig’ great ideas. People who are too fastidious to dirty their hands by coming to grips with concepts at their roots are left with notions that are literally ‘cut and dried.’ Cut off from the senses, dry reasoning turns into non-sense…. [In contrast], healthy sensuousness rises from root to vine to leaf to fragrant blossom. With poetry, it is not all that different. No one reads poetry in search of moral improvement; it is the sheer beauty that [draws us…Thus, quite unawares we get accustomed to {a new] way of looking, which prepares us to face the demands of real life with [an] unflinching courage.”

As an example of this sensuousness, let us recall the first and last few verses of Wally McRae’s haunting homage to “the ghosts” looming within many obliterated Western landscapes, Things of Intrinsic Worth:”

 

Remember that sandrock on Emmells Crick
Where Dad carved his name in ‘ thirteen?
It’s been blasted down into rubble
And interred by their dragline machine.
Where Fadhis lived, at the old Milar Place,
Where us kids stole melons at night?
They dozed it up in a funeral pyre
Then torched it. It’s gone alright…
There’s a railroad loop and a coal storage shed
Where the bison kill site used to be.
The Guy Place is gone, Ambrose’s too.
Beulah Farley’s a ranch refugee.

But things are booming. We’ve got this new school
That’s envied across the whole state.
When folks up and ask, “How’s things goin’ down there?”
I grin like a fool and say, “Great!”
Great God, how we’re doin’! We’re rollin’ in dough,
As they tear and they ravage The Earth.
And nobody knows…or nobody cares..
About things of intrinsic worth.

 

Of course, some of the poetic prophets have made us realize just how  we’re losing what we value by confronting the cold-hearted materialism of those who are unsettling the West. Listen to the conversation among businessmen whom Drum Hadley overheard in the Palm Court Restaurant in New York City, as laid down in his poem, Our Lands in the Belly of the Beast:

 

Take them, invite them out to lunch, don’t get attached,
It’s money, it’s property, it’s real estate, it’s things, you say.
Do you want to sell?

What do you want to pay me to sell it for you?
We made fifty or sixty million. He died penniless.
His children asked us for one thousand dollars for the funeral.
It was tax deductible. Of course, we gave it to them…”

 

While some of these prophetic poets dwell on what damage segments of humankind have obviously wrought upon us all, others focus on how one responds to the ways nature itself is changing, with or without human prompting. Consider these excerpts from Linda Hasselstrom’s Drought Year, with their sense of foreboding:

 

I dreamed I slept alone in a drought year,
and now I do.
I lie in the short grass;
water is a dream.
All day I was fuel for the sun
burning like wildfire over a dry land…
I dream you died in a drought year,
and you did…
I dreamed myself a dry woman
and I am, the juice gone
out of me. My skin is fragrant
with prairie odors.
I am drying grass, wind-bent.
Long tough roots grapple
deep into the baked prairie earth.
Leaves die, but roots dream
in crumbled sod,
wait for rain.

 

But the drought experienced in Western North America is not merely in the sky or in the topsoil; it is also in the aquifers that we have mined beneath our feet, and in the unraveling of rural communities that we have allowed to become fragmented. Lisen to Texas poet and songwriter, Andy Wilkinson, speak what has happened to the tribe that became too dependent on mining the Motherlode Aquifer:

 

Humbling enough is this waste of our own making;
here, where we once believed rain followed plow, believed
boosters, promoters, and huckster developers,
hitched-up our wagons to forty small acres, plowed
fence-row to fence-row with cash crops on bank notes, built
churches, raised children and sent them to colleges,
sent them to wars, sent them out of the hinterlands,
sent them to places that never relinquished them.
Here, from the land of the mother-lode aquifer,
people are leaving for jobs in the popular
cities, are leaving as victims of bottom-line
corporate discounters driving off businesses
started by yours and my mom-and-pop grandparents,
corporate farmers replacing the families,
swashbucklers, slashing and cutting, efficiency
chanted as mantra, while nobody’s answering
who will take care of the mother-lode aquifer?

Fear lines our pocket-books, fear comes in quarter-inch
four-by-eight plywood sheets nailed over window panes,
fear grows in weeds in the sidewalks of vacancies,
fear breeds the desperate bargaining: jobs! bring us
jobs! bring us jobs! bring us jobs! bring us anything,
bring us the worst of your wastes and your prisoners,
radioactive and toxic, the detritus,
social and otherwise, flushed from the gutter-pipes
laid from the centers of power and influence,
aimed at the weak, at the people of choicelessness,
stumbling around in the wastes not their own making,
wastes that will poison the mother-lode aquifer.

 

Responding to another omen, Russell Libby’s Pledge  wrote when he saw this headline: “Now the Pentagon Tells Bush: Climate change Will Destroy Us”:

 

If this is true,
that the world we have known
will not be,
that ice and storms from the North
will be matched by dry wind from the South and West,
where else to be but here?

…We could move with the many,
but that only concentrates the problems to come.
And the mysteries, the questions—
I’m curious about what might still grow where.
The Russett from the Bean Road should fruit soon.
Sheep still make sense, for now; chickens, too.
The energy of seeds, their sharing.
Vikings ate elymus, the wild rye-grass, for grain;
Can we, too?
..If the world we know is to crumble,
the world we create can only start where we are.

My last breath will still carry hope
for the future,
and love for the present, and you.
though many dark days may yet pass.

 

Perhaps because of the constant challenges faced by farmers and ranchers merely trying to maintain their hold on some land, their poets are exceedingly willing to joyously express their gratitude when a windfall comes their way. In Where Hope Springs, Paul Hunter describes the fortuitous moment when

 

…below the barn in the pasture
Edwin one day deep in
the worst of the Depression found
a soft swampy spot where
water seeps out of the ground

dug in there for the catchment
formed up and poured the cement
framed in and lidded a pumphouse
commenced to watering livestock
seventy-five years or more

no matter what else became of
the herds the crops every dry spell
run clean like a cloudburst
spilling sweet water aplenty
hope never once has run dry.

 

John Dofflemeyer, cowboy poet of the Sierras, reminds us that this is an era during which we are best to huddle with other Firekeepers:

 

No smoke, no bright Hudson Bay
colored stripes, stirring flames,
we look outside to gray silhouettes

of ridges hazed away, still dry
and waiting for any kind of rain.
Oak leaves and twigs in the dark,

split cordwood aflame, you kept
the coals alive for a week, ready
for warm words anytime of day.

You are forever exposed there
in the camera of our minds—
huddled together stirring flames.

 

I’ll leave off with my own ode in the face uncertainty, Sowing Circle:

 

We sow these words
like seeds to the wind
hoping they will find
the earth they need
to endure the drought
and bear the fruit
for us to eat in a future
more unfathomable than ever.

After dawn, we moved
stone next to stone
to terrace a slope
with the lingering hope
of keeping a little earth in place
even when everything around us
seems to be raging loose.

Such measly gestures
done with rough hands
burning minds pumped up hearts
cannot forestall any flood nor any drought
but you tell me, just how will sitting on our asses
ever keep us rooted or even fed
in the face of all this uncertainty?.

 

In weaving such images into agrarian prophesies, Western poets and poet-farmers somehow transform the bitterness of life on this earth at this moment into something sweet and redemptive. We become, as Rilke put it, “…the bees of the invisible. With total absorption, we gather the nectar of the visible into the great golden honeycomb of the invisible.”

 

Literature Cited:

Davis, Ellen F. 2009. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Dofflemeyer, John. 2011. Firekeepers. Dry Crik Journal. www.drycrikjournal.wordpress.com/2011/.

Goodrich, Charles. 2010. Going to Seed: dispatches from the Garden. Silverfish Review Press, Eugene, Oregon,

Hadley, Drummond. 2005. Voice of the Borderlands. Rio Nuevo Publishers, Tucson, Arizona.

Hasselstrom, Linda. 1994. Drought year. Pp 44 in John Dofflemeyer, ed. Maverick Western Verse. Gibbs Smith ublishers, Salt Lakec City, Utah.

Hunter, Paul. 2008. Come the Harvest. Silverfish Review Press, Eugene, Oregon.,

Libby, Russell. 2007. A Late Pastoral. Blackberry Books, Nobleboro, Maine.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. 2010. Sowing Circle. Broadside released by FOodPOetsCOllective, Sabores Sin Fronteras Foodways Alliance, Tucson, Arizona.

Orr, David. 2003.  The uses of prophesy. Pp. 171-189 in Norman Wirzba, ed. The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community and the Land. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington KY.

Rennie, Bradford James. 2000. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: the United Farmers of Alberta and Farm Women, 1909-1921. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, CA.

Rilke, Ranier Marie. 1962. A 1925 Letter to W. V. Hulewiscz, November 13th. Samntiche Weke.  Volume 1. Insel-Verlag, Hamburg, Germany.

Stendl-Rast, David. 1999. A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness. Crossroads Publishing, New York.

Walbert, David. 2008. The eight-fold agrarian way.  www.newagrarian.com

Wilkinson, Andy. 2011. The Motherlode Aquifer: A Poem. On Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges cd, The Motherlode Aquifer. Yellowhouse Music, Lubbock, Texas.

 

Bionote: Gary Paul Nabhan is an Ecumenical Franciscan brother and orchard-keeper of Spanish heirloom fruit and nut varieties on five acres at his home in Patagonia, Arizona. He also serves as the Endowed Chair for Borderlands Food and Water Security of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, which recently co-hosted the first-ever Border Food Summit. He is the author of one book of poems (Creatures of Habitat, Tangram Press) and twenty-fivebooks of creative non-fiction, largely about sustainable food and agriculture. His newest book of essays, Desert Terroir, links natural history, agricultural history and food history in the Southwest borderlands.  It is available from the University of Texas Press. See www.garynabhan.com for more of his writing.

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