The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

“Where” is a long pastoral meditation on the history and uses of the fifty-acre farm (Lane’s Landing) in Henry County, Kentucky, which Wendell and Tanya Berry purchased in parcels between 1965 and 1968. The poem exists in two forms: a longer, didactic form originally published in Not Man Apart (1975) and Clearings (1977), and a shorter, revised, more lyrical version that appeared later in Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (1985). The two versions are so different that they could almost be considered as separate poems.

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The original, longer version of “Where” shifts between an impersonal, historical, third-person point of view and a more distinct first-person poetic voice (it is the dominant voice of Clearings, the Wendell Berry persona of the farmer-poet). The revised, shorter version of the poem retains more of the impersonal third-person perspective and lacks a clear persona except for an occasional personal pronoun, so that the speaker’s presence is merely implicit in the poem.

The original version of “Where” addresses the general questions: “Who owned this land before me?” and “What was its history?” Berry traces the previous ownership of the fifty-acre farm back almost two hundred years to the original land survey by two Scots-Irish settlers, Thomas and Walker Daniels, when it was part of a thousand-acre tract on the Kentucky River. Then he recounts how the land was successively subdivided and sold for profit by subsequent owners, none of whom ever kept it long or passed it on to his or her children.

Part 1 deals with the ten-acre Lane’s Landing tract—composed of a steamboat landing, general store, and garden plot—purchased in 1894 by Beriah Tingle, who kept it until 1919. It passed through four more owners before Wendell and Tanya Berry purchased it on February 7, 1965.

Part 2 meditates on the confused factual history of the land that is recorded in dusty deedbooks on the courthouse shelves. The poem draws some cultural lessons about the consequences of poor husbandry and neglect of the land for quick profits: the lessons of greed, laziness, and indifference. Standing in contrast is the character of John R. Tingle, brother of Beriah, who successfully farmed the adjoining forty-acre tract from 1904 until 1954.

The third part of “Where” recounts the history of that forty-acre tract, which passed into the hands of an absentee owner, a Louisville developer, who misused the land and held onto it for speculative purposes until the Berrys were able to purchase it in 1968 at an exorbitant price, extending their farm to fifty acres.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

The original, longer version of “Where,” which seems more coherent, is divided into three parts: Part 1 contains 115 lines, part 2 has 202 lines, and part 3 has 60 lines. Each part of the poem is divided into stanzas that are a sentence or two in length. Part 1 contains eight stanzas, part 2 has six stanzas, and part 3 has three stanzas. The meter is free verse with approximately three stresses per line, which resembles a blank verse trimeter but is looser in form.

The revised version of “Where” eliminates parts 1 and 3 entirely and retains only the first 140 lines of part 2. It contains five stanzas. All specific references to the names of previous owners are dropped, creating a more generalized lyric meditation on the fate of the land. What is lost is the sense of a specific place and historical record. The theme of the poem—the consequences of poor husbandry—becomes more generalized, and the sharpness of the specific references is lost.

The style of “Where” is deliberately terse and understated: images of silence, decay, and ecological degradation predominate. Images of lost primordial richness—clear creeks, tall hardwoods, and black topsoil—contrast with the washed-out gullies, eroded furrows, and scrub growth of the present. The land has been despoiled, and the original settlers are gone, leaving little tangible evidence of their presence beyond their gravestones, silent “as fossils in creek ledges.”

In the revised version of “Where,” the poem’s apparent persona—“the watcher”—is thoughtful and meditative. He notes the quick scurry of a field mouse, the clear notes of a redbird (cardinal) in the top of a sycamore, brief interruptions in “the one/ silence that precedes/ and follows us.” The poem proceeds through a series of absences and negations—“no one remembers;/ there is no language here”—because too much of the land’s history has transpired elsewhere, in the halls of the state capital, where the fate of the land was brokered by the rich and powerful. The tangible, local, cultural memory is gone, except for the old property deeds on dusty courthouse shelves, which are as useless as “old/ boundary marks.” Yet the watcher affirms that “the land and the mind/ bear the marks of a history/ that they do not record.”

This elegiac tone is somewhat tempered by the cautious affirmation of the third stanza: “the mind still hungers/ for its earth.” Somewhere, the agrarian dream of “an independent/ modest abundance” survives, though haste, indifference, restlessness, and careless husbandry have discouraged the growth of a prosperous, local, rural culture. People do not yet understand the land well enough to create a sustainable, independent local culture.

Stanza 4 rehearses an ecological myth of a fall from innocence and primeval abundance and offers a muted hope for eventual redemption through wiser, less destructive patterns of land use. From primeval forest, to rich farmland, to eroded gullies, “The land bears the scars” of heedless use. Through images of erosion, floods, tree stumps, and silty creeks, the narrator laments the wasted legacy left by the early settlers and their descendants. “A mind cast loose/ in whim and greed makes/ nature its mirror,” the narrator affirms, “and the garden/ falls with the man.” The oblique allusions to the story in Genesis of man’s creation and fall reinforce the implicit judgment of environmental destruction. The ruin of the land resulted from the wrong vision—a vision of greed and quick wealth. “Such a mind is as much/ a predicament as such/ a place,” the narrator concludes.

Like Adam and Eve expelled from Eden, the narrator is left with the dilemma of trying to recover what has been lost. Like Adam and Eve, he is left with a hard-won moral understanding, but he may also claim the legacy of those few who came before him and loved the land, seeing the possibility of a good life there.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

Cornell, Robert. “The Country of Marriage: Wendell Berry’s Personal Political Vision.” Southern Literary Review 16 (Fall, 1983): 59-70.

Ditsky, John. “Wendell Berry: Homage to the Apple Tree.” Modern Poetry Studies 2, no. 1 (1971): 7-15.

Freyfogle, Eric. “The Dilemma of Wendell Berry.” University of Illinois Law Review 1994 (2): 363-385.

Hass, Robert. “Wendell Berry: Finding the Land.” Modern Poetry Studies 2, no. 1 (1971): 16-38.

Hicks, Jack. “Wendell Berry’s Husband to the World: A Place on Earth.” American Literature 51 (May, 1979): 238-254.

Merchant, Paul, ed. Wendell Berry. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1991.

Morgan, Speer. “Wendell Berry: A Fatal Singing.” Southern Review 10 (October, 1974): 865-877.

Nibbelink, Herman. “Thoreau and Wendell Berry: Bachelor and Husband of Nature.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 84 (Spring, 1985): 127-140.

Pevear, Richard. “On the Prose of Wendell Berry.” Hudson Review 35 (Summer, 1982): 341-347.

Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Smith, Kimberly K. “Wendell Berry’s Feminist Agrarianism.” Women’s Studies 30 (2001): 623-646.

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Themes