The Mad Farmer: Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Poetic (Part 3)

(Editor’s Note: This is 3 of 5 in a series of posts where our friend Thomas Turner (of EverydayLiturgy.com) explores the prophetic voice of Wendell Berry through his poetic character ‘The Mad Farmer’.)

household is community microcosm

The Household is the Microcosm of All Community (original art by Jean-François Millet (II))

Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” makes clear the aims of the true farmer and agrarian: to rewrite our culture. The Mad Farmer warns that mass-marketing, profit, and middle-class’s insatiable need for consumption will lead us into a mindlessness and carelessness that allows us to be manipulated and controlled by politicians and corporations. The Mad Farmer thus advises us, when feeling suffocated by the overwhelming powers to not revolt with arms but to “Be like the fox/who makes more tracks than necessary,/some in the wrong direction./Practice resurrection.” This illustration is the way Berry seeks to rewrite the ills of modern industrial agriculture. We must do so by plowing the village green and by practicing resurrection in the places the generals and politicos have frustrated and fragmented with machines and chemicals: the home and our local community.

The home was once a place of domesticity in its most egalitarian sense, as Berry writes,

“a man who is in the traditional sense a good farmer is husbandman and husband, the begetter and conserver of the earth’s bounty, but he is also midwife and motherer. He is a nurturer of life. His work is domestic: he is bound to the household. But let “progress” take such a man and transform him into a technologist of production (that is, sever his bonds to the household, make useless or pointless or “uneconomical” his impulse to conserve and nurture), and it will have made of him a creature deformed, and as pained, as it has notoriously made of his wife.”

Berry sees in the effects of the “exploitive industrial economy” that both men and women “are suffering for the same reason: they are in exile from the communion of men and women, which is their deepest connection with the communion of all creatures.” This is why the Mad Farmer desires that farmers and their spouses go off as pairs to begin households, for the household is the microcosm of all community. If there is disunity in the household then there is disunity in the local community and the culture in general. Berry sees the reversal of the exploitive industrial economy and agribusiness beginning with the reversal of land trends in America. The first amendment to the “Mad Farmer Manifesto” is a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “… it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

The landholders, a household held together by more than sexual energy and economic obligation, but by a desire to mutually care for each other as caretakers of their home and land, is the rewriting of current agricultural and fiscal policy: to not trust the people with the means of production, but to only trust corporations. This means that the Mad Farmer must go to the margins, to live in a way that is good for home and earth but peculiar to a culture that has lost its way.