Sowing Clover…by Tonya Stiles

February 2, 1968

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

                                    -Wendell Berry


 I can’t help but feel we should be in mourning. It seems the world is ending. For all I know, it’s already ended. I don’t mean that we are all going to die tomorrow, or that fire is raining out of the sky, (though I won’t rule out that possibility for the future.) I’m not expecting the imminent coming of the Antichrist, or Christ Himself, or any other supernatural interventions. For all I know, it may not be such a grand event, the end of a world. It could be said that the world has ended, and been reborn in other forms, over and over again through the millennia; that possibly it draws to a close every few decades, or every few months, or every few seconds, and the possibility for rebirth is as uncertain each morning as is the expectation between the inhaling and exhaling of breath. Each second could be the moment of death, as it could be the moment of rebirth.

All I know is that the world is not well. Hundreds of millions of us in America woke up this September the 11th and looked back on our last decade, feeling what? What accomplishments could we find to praise? What of the hopes which had flurried within us in the weeks and months after the attacks—that we could rise from the ashes? That we could turn so much death into a greater rebirth? What had those hopes amounted to in the interceding years? Nothing. Our faith in the whole notion of rebirth has been squandered—perverted into greater materialism, war-making, zealotry.

In Europe, the London fires are still simmering and the flames are raging in Greece. Soon, they look to spread across the continent. In every European country, as in the United States, the talk is of continued growth—of becoming more “business-friendly”—and of corresponding cuts in the safety net for children, the poor and the elderly. There is no other option. The whole organism of Capitalism survives on the strong company devouring the weak company—“competition,” after all, is the name of the game. If there isn’t enough capital to feed the economy, then the poor will be its food. What else did we expect when we determined that our morality and our “business sense” ought to be kept separate? The amoral system will grow wealthier as it divorces itself more and more from human emotions. But, while companies pull in greater profits, the fragile moral system will weaken and eventually collapse.

The economy was once a tool for us to yield either for right or for wrong. Now it consumes us. The economy decides whether a war is justified or not. The economy decides whether we ought to help the disabled or the disenfranchised. The economy determines our political alliances. Universities, which used to house all our most fanciful ideals, must focus on profit margins. The ever-lauded “marketplace of ideas” is now a literal marketplace, and those ideas that don’t feed the economy must be discarded.

Surely this must be the end. The weariness that overwhelms us, like that of the phoenix preparing itself for the flame, must be some sign that this world—the world in which human lives are bought and sold using numbers that correspond to nothing at all—is drawing to its close…



And yet.


Jim and I attended an Amish Heritage celebration recently. We watched as men in their traditional black hats and full beards displayed their antique tractors for a small stand of onlookers. Women, in their long dresses and white caps, sat in the hundred-degree heat comparing their hand-stitched quilts. Children raced each other in horse-drawn buggies down the street. For those of us non-Amish in attendance, it was an exercise in anachronism. Like visiting colonial Williamsburg, or a Wild West show in Deadwood. The difference, of course, was that these people weren’t actors. Their plain clothing wasn’t intended as costume. And, as we walked into the local hardware store, the wares displayed made it clear that these people lived their anachronistic lives every day, whether we were watching them or not.

Three aisles of the store were devoted to oil lamps—full lamps and also the separate bases, stems, and the delicate hardware required for regular repair. Another aisle displayed a wide array of replacement handles for shovels, picks, axes, and trowels. Clearly, the customers of this store were far more inclined to repair their broken tools than they were to replace them outright. I was reminded of a quotation from a recent interview with Wendell Berry, the environmentalist and poet:

“Luddism has been far too simply defined. It doesn’t mean just the hatred of machinery. Luddism has to do with a choice between the human community and technological innovation, and a Luddite is somebody who would not permit his or her community to be damaged or destroyed by the use of new machinery. The Amish, for instance, have succeeded simply by asking one question of any proposed innovation, namely: “What will this do to our community?”

This, perhaps above all else, has been the question plaguing humanity since the discovery that a rock, when wielded by the proper hands, may also be a weapon: what is the healthy relationship between humans and our tools? And, is efficiency—brought by the promise of a new tool—always the appropriate goal? Surely the momentum which has brought this moment to its crisis is powered by the ever-seductive temptation of new things, greater efficiency, and higher profit margins. What recourse do we have, those of us in mourning, but to step out of the lockstep march toward “the future?” If not to reverse course, at least to say, “This far. No further.”

By the time this issue of the Zephyr goes to print, Jim and I will be married. It is an oddly hopeful thing to do, for two people so exhausted of their hope for the world. But, on our wedding day, we won’t be two citizens of the world. We will be citizens of our family, of a small community of people we love, and of a tradition which has somehow endured despite all the forces which would render it irrelevant. Like sowing clover, as wars rage and greed consumes around us, we have to place our faith where life flourishes regardless of economies and nations.

This is what stymies despair. That dignity exists, and integrity exists, within communities and families—within those people who, regardless of their relationship to us, become our family. And, while we look at the larger world with sadness—even revulsion—we are also stewards of this smaller world, in which we can cultivate ourselves and each other as we would cultivate land under our stewardship. We can practice discernment. We can choose for our own small community of two or three or four, like the Amish have chosen, to let in what is healthy and to refuse as much of the unhealthy as we are able.

In this small world, we can maintain the moral sense which is otherwise lost in the frenzy of the marketplace. We can tend to our families, our friends, and keep each other strong, so that perhaps we can weather the fall of nations and the collapse of economies. This is the world that matters, after all. This world, in the end, is all that is worth keeping alive.


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2 comments for “Sowing Clover…by Tonya Stiles

  1. Scott Thompson
    October 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    To quote old Jack Burns in Edward Abbey’s novel Good News, “You said it, Professor, them’s my feelings, too.”

  2. Dave Yarbrough
    October 2, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Beautifully written. Very true. I took a blanket to my neighbor yesterday for her new born son. She insisted I take home some elk meat to sample. It’s a very small world that matters most. It’s the world that keeps us true. I hope her son experiences the same small world of mutual kindness and generosity.

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