What You Should Know by Russell Libby, a review
A Review of
What You Should Know: A Field Guide to Three Sisters Farm
Poems by Russell Libby, Blackberry Press, Brunswick, Maine, 2013
To purchase the book, click on the cover image, or here.
This book of Russell Libby's poems was published almost exactly one year after he died at 56. It's a collection he wrote over the last two years of his life and left unfinished in a folder on a shelf by his bed. His widow Mary Anne and their three daughters ---Anna Grace, Margaret Jane, and Rosa May, for whom the farm was named -- ordered them, corrected spelling, and fixed typos. When I painted a portrait of Russell for the Americans Who Tell the Truth project. I had not painted him because of his poetry, rather because of his determined advocacy for organic farming, his success at building the movement of renewed local agriculture, and his fierce opposition to the terrible ramifications of industrial farming and its contamination of land, water, and air. As Russell said, "If contamination is the price of modern society, modern society has failed us."
Although his poetry speaks nothing of political urgency to reform the way we treat nature and ourselves, I could have painted him for that, too. The voice of these poems is meditative, gentle and unpretentious. It comes from the person Russell was when his primary concern was stewardship of his own back yard and the land he could wander through on foot. It speaks with deceptive calm, free of artifice. I say "deceptive" because these poems are the work of a consummate artist. For the most part they are addressed to a future owner of Three Sisters Farm, an owner in the next generation or the next millennium. In Changing Weather, a poem that muses without alarm over the local effects of climate change, he says:
The poison ivy and bedstraw
are already thriving,
getting stronger each year.
You'll have to be more diligent
than I've been
to keep them at bay.
Russell guides you to the features of this land -- the springs, the wells, the wild and cultivated fruit trees, the streams and ponds, the old stone walls, the depleted and the revived pastures, the sources of clay, the groves of cedar, maple and brown ash. You walk with him as he meanders in the woods as well as into the history of the land and into its possible futures -- depending on who you are and how well you care for it. The poems are like an eccentric codicil to a will, or curious appendix to a deed, or -- more likely --notes pinned on a mudroom wall. They are the most generous gift from a person who has lived successfully in a place -- telling you all you need to know to flourish and to understand the continuum you are part of:
I have my own simple rules.
Look for straight trees.
Help them grow.
--from Rules for Trees
They are written with such apparent, conversational ease that it's easy to miss their subtlety -- the deeper meanings camouflaged as though by protective coloration. In the same way one can sniff an apple blossom and not notice the immobile, white crab spider, or walk along the edge of a field and nearly step on a woodcock nesting in a tangle of identically colored dry leaves and grasses, one can be lulled by Russell's casual voice and miss his layered richness. One needs to walk about in the poems, take one's time, backtrack, use all one's senses. While talking about his grapes, he says:
I won't name the varieties,
since the oldest tags are gone
and my notes are scattered and incomplete.
But you will be able to harvest
a hundred pounds of grapes each year
so long as you keep them pruned,
and the juice they make
is sweet in deep winter.
--from The Grape Trellis
Russell modestly admits to his less than meticulous record keeping, but records the deepest of appreciations -- which he shows both in his care for the vines and his savoring of the product. But, even more, he allows you to have equal appreciation because of his care.
A major theme of Russell's is time. There are as many varieties of time here as there are apple trees: geologic time, human history time, future time, seasonal time, present time, the time of grass, the time of trees, the time of utility, the time of joy, time altered by climate change, pruning time, water's time, scything time, marking time. But Russell's achievement in relation to time is to be so present that general means of keeping time are irrelevant:
I think I'll go outside and start counting.
One year, work begins; two years, ideas;
Three, plan to stay; by four, lose track of time.
I don't need a calendar anymore.
I just open my eyes, walk out the door.
Hairy woodpecker, feathers puffed with air?
It's winter, near zero, bring in more wood.
-- from Marking Time
One feels Russell's presence in time particularly in Scything in the Orchard:
… The quiet of no engine,
first veery calls from the pines, a nighthawk flies above.
The loudest sound is the ringing as I locate another stone with my backswing,
and the dry hiss as the grass separates from its roots.
Again and again as Russell talks about the utility of work in the woods and gardens and fields, he reminds us that we are only partly alive if we don't also live in delicious wonder. At the end of a poem that recounts the history of his rhubarb patch and all the hard work it took to revive it after he had let it be overgrown by weeds, he says:
This row will feed you
for a long time to come.
Or you can just enjoy the towering flower-stalks
come late June, and the way
the bees gather.
-- from Rhubarb
There is also a sense of the time of Russell's imminent mortality. Many of the poems were written when he knew he would not survive his cancer. This time has an elegiac tone, but it is not sentimental or self pitying. It simply is. His time on this land will be part of its record; he seeks no special consideration. Many of the poems mention the names of previous owners of this land going back 200 years, some mention neighbors and what knowledge they have shared with him. He sees himself from the vantage of 200 years in the future when the owner will read his name on a deed and intuit how well he kept the land:
A clean cut,
The limb falls away,
on branches that
were hidden below.
-- from A Clean Cut
The cumulative affect of reading and re-reading these poems is similar to making a new best friend. One of the bits of advice that this friend is offering is that no matter how badly humans have desecrated the environment, the major piece of restoration has to be getting to know the land intimately. It's tempting to say to oneself, "Oh, I wish I had known Russell, wish I had had been blessed with the opportunity to go tramping with him, follow the various watersheds till they emptied into Torsey Pond, learned to prune and graft apples from him, helped him pick the stones forced up by the spring thaw in his fields, had him lead me to the five springs hidden in the woods not far from his house." Well, the blessing is you still can. You can read his poems and by virtue of his easy, generous voice be in his eyes, his mind, and his heart rather than walking along behind.
Robert Shetterly, December 2013