Two Wendell Berry Poems on Humility

From his Kentucky farm where he has long disdained use of a computer and rails against modern sins such as strip mining, industrial agriculture and unrestrained market capitalism, 84-year-old Wendell Berry occupies a unique place in contemporary American letters.

Throughout his prolific output of novels, short stories, essays, and poetry totaling some 50 volumes, he is at once the stodgiest of conservatives, a thoughtful curmudgeon standing stoutly for the old ways of fidelity to family, place, religion, and modesty of expression.

At the same time, he remains a darling of Subaru-driving outdoorsy liberals who cotton to his outspoken environmentalist views, pacifism and anti-materialism.

Personally, I have been both inspired and exasperated by him, but I have never for a second doubted his sincerity or intelligence or devotion, and he is always worthy of attention.

Berry’s is a world of overalls and unlocked doors, long days in the fields and iced tea on porches, where the talk with neighbors is unhurried and of local doings, weather and family.

It is also a world that takes Christianity seriously, noting the gospel’s overriding themes of humility, peace-making and concern for outcasts and the poor.

The humility, though, shows up again and again in his spare language of the working rather than academic class, with plainspoken sentiments and God-fearing characters, absent artifice or adornment.

For Berry, however, humility is never equated with meekness. His long career of political activism has taken dead, often scathing aim against war (Vietnam, Iraq), environmental degradation, and greed, both corporate and personal. He is not one to cut deals with either the devil or fools in order to further a cause.

Two poems illustrate this well. They are from his decades-long “Sabbath” series, drawn from his ritual of walking his farm on most Sundays, letting inspiration have its way if it will. (Given the series’ quantity, it usually does.)

The “Sabbath” poems are bunched by years and then given numbers, though they appear in various volumes of his poetry, mixed in with other works. Let’s consider two poems now, written a year apart and published in his 2010 volume, “Leavings.”





If there are a “chosen few”
then I am not one of them,
if an “elect,” well then
I have not been elected.
I am one who is knocking
at the door. I am one whose foot
is on the bottom rung.
But I know that Heaven’s
bottom rung is Heaven
though the ladder is standing
on the earth where I work
by day and at night sleep
with my head upon a stone.

Ah yes: salvation. Berry’s version doesn’t much mirror the Bible-thumpers proclaiming the Good Word and calling on sinners to repent, prostrate themselves at the rostrum (preferably with checkbook in hand), and be “saved” on the spot. 

Berry is instead “knocking at the door.” Perpetually, one suspects.

And just to emphasize the point, he suggests, without initially naming it, a ladder, whose “bottom rung” he knowingly occupies. Just another slightly messed up pilgrim, trying to make sense of things from a less than exalted and anointed view.

But here the poem turns to its second major point, which makes a powerful case for the goodness of this earth that Berry tries to protect at every turn with the fierce devotion and practice of his words.

It turns out that “Heaven’s bottom rung is Heaven,” and the ladder, far from being a mere implement to get him away from somewhere he’s trying to escape, is itself part of that Heaven already.

And what does one do in such a Heaven? The same thing one always does: “work by day and at night sleep.”

And for an extra, departing flourish that emphasizes one should not be preoccupied in that Heaven with creaturely comforts, sleep is with one’s “head upon a stone.”

So this poem begins in humility, its narrator accepting that God plays no favorites, least of all favoring the narrator himself. Then it pivots to an almost silent proclamation that the earth is good and incarnation is itself heavenly, Heaven’s bottom rung on earth still being Heaven.

Where Berry calmly holds fast, carrying on his work, ever faithful.





I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

Berry’s identity and literary output is indelibly linked to his life as a farmer. And however honorable that ancient calling may be, farms desecrate the untrammeled land that once was, in favor of order, cultivation, and output.

The farmer makes peace with this reality in order to feed himself and perhaps his neighbors in exchange for goods of their own. This is human economic activity, stirring up the dust of the earth and making of it something else, for the baseline cause of survival.

But sometimes, the earth strikes back (pollution, global warming), or simply has the last laugh, as we see in this poem of Berry’s hapless cultivation of a field that simply refuses to do his bidding of producing food for human consumption.

After pouring time and money into the field for what we must assume was years, in work from which Berry (let us not forget this) derived great joy, he gives it up, allowing the forest to grow its trees back, young and exuberant.

Sure, it was “wasted effort” at “failed work,” but in a much larger sense which Berry not only grasps but celebrates, he recognizes the rich lessons the forest’s triumph conveyed to him.

Then he bows his head in acknowledgement, and having “learned something of my place,” can say with all humility and the grace it inevitably brings if we but allow it:

I welcome back the trees.”


The Boss, exuberant as ever…


Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Pencils and paper by J.S. Clark

Antique farm equipment by Sarah Hina, Athens, Ohio

Leaf by Andrew Hidas

7 comments to Two Wendell Berry Poems on Humility

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I was born in a small farming town that teemed with humility. After I moved to Los Angeles in 1962, I thought about how different my life had become. I think I was in the 9th grade when I wrote this as an “image” of growing old there, so far removed from the fast pace of the city.

    A Hot Afternoon

    It was a hot afternoon. A boy in blue jeans and no tee shirt fished by himself on the north side of his family’s pond. Some cattle drank lazily nearby, although far enough away so as not to scare the fish. A tractor rumbled toward the farmhouse over an unpaved road, which meandered alongside the pond, lazy like the cattle. Dust rose out from beneath the large tires and settled on the boy’s wet brow. He spent most of the remaining day shooing away the flies that found his dirty sweat more attractive than the cattle’s odor.
    It was a hot afternoon. The barbershop had two Casablancas going around, but neither did much good against the heat except to make a lot of noise. The drugstore across the street had run out of peppermint candy, and Mr. Granahan had closed his store for an hour to see his son pitch in his first little league game. Mr. Granahan had often said, “There is no reason that my little Billy can’t be a Spahn someday. He’s left-handed, ain’t he? Fast, too.” The Market down from Granahan’s hadn’t the usual hubbub that afternoon. Only three chickens had been sold that morning, and one chicken I think may have been stolen, too. It was just too hot for anything but tar.
    I died on that hot afternoon, well into my eighties. Those last few years were spent sitting with that boy by the pond, watching the cattle sip, the fish nip and the time pass. After Martha died, I’d sometimes walk into town, the long way, across the tracks, through the little league park, toward the dairy Queen where the juke box was always playing full blast, and then back again to wherever I began.
    I’m dead, but I really don’t care. After Martha’s passing, life didn’t seem the same anymore. My sons are married, living in the city, faraway. I’d get letters from them every now and then, which was nice, yet they seemed to make me lonelier. I’d read them in the coolest corner of the barbershop, and each time I’d fall asleep despite the noise of the two fans. I’d wake up wondering when I would die. Perhaps it was wishing. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter much now. I’m dead, and it’s a hot afternoon.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Quite a piece for a ninth grader, Robert. Even more amazing that you managed to hang onto it!
      Was at my sister-in-law’s house last week and she directed me to her basement where I apparently had stored a number of boxes for oh, the past 45 years or so. Spent a long morning and then afternoon sorting through all manner of high school and college-era items, including letters, class papers, even school newspaper articles I’d written, most all of them deeply embarrassing, rife with shallowness and pomposity. Oyyy…Your little tale here is closer to Proust, by comparison!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    My parents migrated to Southern California from a hardscrabble upbringing and early adulthood in smalltown Western Kansas where my sister (15 years my senior and now deceased) was born. The simplicity and humble surroundings in which we lived throughout my upbringing in San Diego and then Los Angeles often seemed incongruent and, admittedly, embarrassing to me in the go-go glitz and pace of LA. My sister lived much longer (and harder) in the early years of my parent’s attempts to adapt to life in California that included my father’s depression and alcoholism and my mother’s constant worry and fear that the world was going to hell. Orma, my sister, only began to grow out of her absence of self-esteem and almost paralyzing humility toward the end of her remarkable life. My folks exuded the humility and pleasure-taking in life’s simple things despite efforts by their 1st generation Southern California son (me) to persuade them otherwise. You have touched me deeply with this post, Andrew, and I thank you for that.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Your thoughts here provoked many more thoughts of my own, Jay, having to do with being a kid and navigating the dawning, piece-by-piece realization of one’s socioeconomic “place” in the world. My own background is much like what you describe. I well remember the struggle for my mom to pay bills at month’s end while my dad was off gobbling up as much overtime as he could stand. How he awoke at 4 a.m. to make a long commute across the greater LA Basin, often not coming home till 6 and beyond, then Saturdays and even Sundays too, whenever there was a need. At a certain early stage of development, one just thinks this is the way life is, until later the realization dawns: Not for everyone, it isn’t. Yet we managed, survived, never went hungry, a single office worker’s modest income supporting six kids and eventually saving up enough to buy a comfortable home in a safe neighborhood. Unthinkable today, no matter how much overtime one takes on.

      So there is this issue of how coming from modest circumstances shapes one’s character, as it undoubtedly did yours and mine. Learning the value of and having a model of hard work, of “what it takes,” is an overwhelmingly positive thing, I think, but there is also a point, past the merely “modest circumstances” stage and descending instead into grinding poverty, where people can become more beaten down than inspired, discouraged and desperate rather than ambitious. The social-psychological -spiritual interweave determining how a kid grapples with all that and where he/she takes it is complex almost beyond measure. I just feel fortunate I was born into the circumstance I was, and not some other far more challenging one that so easily defeats the most vulnerable among us. Thanks for putting real life clothes on what is far too often an abstraction, a mannequin, about which our society makes harsh judgements and decisions impacting real lives.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Jay, your post is more than touching. It’s honesty is both refreshing and admirable. Do you know what I remember the most about your parents other than the kindness they showed me? It’s your mother playing the piano. Strange how we remember certain things that to others seem so trivial…hell, i’m just happy I can recall anything that occurred nearly six decades ago.

    Drew, like Jay, thanks for traversing.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    oops…should be “its” instead of “it’s”…too early in the morn to post.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Thanks for your touching and heartfelt responses Andrew and Robert; my lifelong pals. Robert, i greatly appreciate your memory of my mother playing the piano. She was quite talented, especially for someone who never formally studied music. She learned from her mother while growing up in Colby, Kansas; at one time earning money at the local movie theater accompanying silent films. I still have her piano, but was too damned stubborn to take lessons from her in my childhood. A do-over I wish I could have.
    The truly heroic person in my family was my sister who grew up during the most difficult years of my parents’ economic and psychological struggles. They were, as Andrew writes, descending into grinding poverty and completely out of their element in San Diego when a close friend threw them a lifeline by inviting them to live in their home. My sister was shuttled from school to school, giving her none of the stability of home and friends that blessed my upbringing. Years of courageous self examination, three marriages and two wonderful daughters ultimately brought her peace prior to her sudden and unexpected death 3 years ago, only two weeks short of her 80th birthday. Few people understood or knew about how tough and resilient my beautiful, artistic and elegant sister was to come through as she did from her difficult past which began in Norton, Kansas. Her grit and determination continue to inspire me during these “re-potting” years of elderhood.

Leave a Reply