A poem for these times

Last week I left town for a few days to join some friends who were walking a segment of the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail. Instead of spending the night on the trail, we opted for a modest bed and breakfast in the equally modest Hot Springs, N.C.

That is where I saw this Wendell Berry poem framed and hung on the wall. It has stuck with me.

Berry, who wrote the poem in 1973 and lives and works a family farm in Kentucky, calls it, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

It starts:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

Poetry is a lot to take in. So after the first day of walking through the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains, passing five people all day, I paused before a visit to the town’s mineral springs hot tub, where we went to soak our flatlander-challenged bodies, to stand in the hall and read the poem again. Here are the second and third stanzas:

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. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

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. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

On the drive back to Savannah we did not listen to the news, but sitting in the back seat I did read the paper. Nothing had changed except for the worse.

People were fleeing the hurricane in Texas, driving five miles an hour, turning off their engines and pushing their vehicles to save gas. The governor of Texas boasted of an exit strategy, only he forgot to factor in the number of cars with the availability of highways.

A bus carrying 25 elderly people exploded in flames when a spark from bad brakes combined with the oxygen masks tethered to their sides.

Back home I learned of a BBC program, “Newsnight,” on the poor in America, “the richest country on earth.”

The producers, who chose to film in Savannah because of its likeness to New Orleans, concluded that most Americans in poverty are not black, despite the pictures from New Orleans.

Still, the program asked, “Why is a black American child five times more likely to live in poverty than a white child? Why is a black American baby more likely to die in the months after birth than a Cuban baby or one born in Beijing?”

The big question for Bush, the program asks, is how far the U.S. government can and should help the poor.

Here is the fourth stanza of Berry’s poem:

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion -- put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Finally, the same day my neighbor, Stephen Horcha -- an idealist who runs a bike repair shop across the street, usually for nothing, which is why he probably has trouble making his rent -- organized a car-free day in Savannah, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue came out with this bombshell: To save fuel, he decided the state’s public schools should be closed two days last week. This announcement came late on a Friday, without consulting local educators.

No mention of what people were supposed to do with their children while they worked. No thought of what message this was sending to children (your education is expendable). No suggestion of carpooling, more bike paths, conservative use of air conditioning in public buildings.

Here’s the last stanza of Berry’s poem:

Go with your love to the fields. Lie down in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.

E-mail Jane at gofish5@earthlink.net