For Thomas Jefferson, to say nothing of his political ancestor Edmund Burke, the order of mankind is rural and agricultural. Agrarianism, the argument goes, is what keeps citizens in harmony with one another and with the land. It inhibits the disaffection and dissipation that comes from urban life. It prevents the moral-free existence of cities where nothing is sacred. You could say urbanism connotes modernism, and you can’t have that on the farm, can you? Where would we be then?
In a week of apocalyptic news from Washington—witnessing along with everyone else the president’s horrible failure of leadership in withdrawing from the Paris Accord—I have been looking elsewhere for quiet stewardship. I’ve been seeking a poem that shapes an American experience of the land, and of preservation and conservation, such as Larry Levis’s “Some Grass Along a Ditch Bank.” The poem reflects on Levis’s father working on the family’s grape farm in California. I submit it to you not as a pollyanna-ian take on agrarianism, but on my faith in the ways nature persists.
I don’t know what happens to grass.
But it doesn’t die, exactly.
It turns white, in winter, but stays there,
A few yards from the ditch,
Then comes back in March,
Turning a green that has nothing
To do with us.
Mostly, it’s just yellow, or tan.
It blends in,
Swayed by the wind, maybe, but not by any emotion,
Or partisan stripe.
You can misread it, at times:
I have seen it almost appear
To fight long & well
For its right to be, & be grass, when
I tried pulling it out.
I thought I could almost sense it digging in,
Not with reproach, exactly,
But with a kind of rare tact that I miss,
Sometimes, in others.
And besides, if you really wanted it out,
You’d have to disc it under,
Standing on a shuddering Case tractor,
And staring into the distance like
Somebody with a vision
In the wrong place for visions.
With time, you’d feel silly.
And, always, it comes back:
At the end of some winter when
The sky has neither sun, nor snow,
Nor anything personal,
You’d be wary of any impulse
That seemed mostly cosmetic.
It’s all a matter of taste,
And how taste changes.
Besides, in March, the fields are wet;
The trucks & machinery won’t start,
And the blades of the disc won’t turn,
Usually, because of the rust.
That’s when you notice the grass coming back,
In some other spot, & with a different look
This time, as if it had an idea
For a peninsula, maybe, or its shape
Reclining on a map you almost
Begin to remember.
In March, my father spent hours
Just piecing together some puzzle
That might start up a tractor,
Or set the tines of a cultivator
Or spring tooth right,
And do it without paying money.
Those rows of gray earth that looked “combed,”
Between each row of vines,
And run off to the horizon
As you drive past?
You could almost say
It was almost pretty.
But this place isn’t France.
For years, they’ve made only raisins,
And a cheap, sweet wine.
And someone had to work late,
As bored as you are, probably,
But with the added headache of
Owning some piece of land
That never gave up much
Without a mute argument.
The lucky sold out to subdividers,
But this is for one who stayed,
And how, after a few years,
He even felt sympathy for grass—
Then felt that turn into a resentment
Which grew, finally, into
A variety of puzzled envy:
Turning a little grass under
With each acre,
And turning it under for miles,
While half his life, spent
On top of a tractor,
Went by, unnoticed, without feast days
Or celebrations—opening his mailbox
At the roadside which was incapable
Of looking any different—
More picturesque, or less common—
The rank but still blossoming weeds
Stirring a little, maybe,
As you drove past,
But then growing still again.
What is at stake in the Republican Party’s and President Trump’s war on the environment as much as on the future of the planet with his promises to keep America’s dirty power plants open and to reopen our coal mines? For one thing, he’s robbing the future of existence. What the Paris Accord sought to accomplish was to prevent the rise of the planet’s temperature to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the hope that the worldwide effort would stall ice melt, the rise of the oceans, and the loss of coral reefs. In the meantime, the accord was meant to encourage the rapid growth in renewable energy, again worldwide, to close the gap, as Bill McKibben writes—
…between what physics demands and what our political systems have so far allowed in terms of action… The effects [of Trump’s decision] will be felt not immediately but over decades and centuries and millenniums. More ice will melt, and that will cut the planet’s reflectivity, amplifying the warming; more permafrost will thaw, and that will push more methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The species that go extinct as a result of the warming won’t mostly die in the next four years, but they will die. The nations that will be submerged won’t sink beneath the waves on his watch, but they will sink. No president will be able to claw back this time — crucial time, since we’re right now breaking the back of the climate system.
A poem like Larry Levis’s “Some Grass Along a Ditch Bank” reminds you that being on the edge of the natural world is like being on the edge of time. It’s as if the figure in the poem is day by day participating in a preemptive act to safeguard the nation’s ancient language of working the land without abandonment even as the modern world—the modernist, human, urban world—conspires against it. There’s a kind of joy to be found in the bleakness, in the arduousness of farming in a hostile environment against the insatiable terrain. The scale seems true, at least.
The huge stage of international politics with its shimmering curtains and klieg lights seems far removed from the “rows of gray earth” tended to in this poem. And yet we must celebrate this closeness to the edge of the soil as, before long, we find ourselves threatened by our own ease and comfort and predictability.
This is part fourteen of a twenty-one part series. Here are links to parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. These pieces will appear every two weeks. We value your feedback and your suggestions for other pieces to be included in this list of poems which shaped, and continue to shape, America.