Walt Whitman’s Ode to the Harvest

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The peak of the harvest, at once miraculous and commonplace, calls for nothing less than an ode by one of America’s most enthusiastic and passionate chroniclers of the everyday, Walt Whitman. Whitman lived through most of the 19th century, in eastern and midwestern America, and his walks and observations survive through a series of moving and life-affirming poems.

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As I turned to the Japanese haiku masters to help honor the turning of summer to fall, I turn now to Walt Whitman to give voice to the harvest and those who work tirelessly, often against time and weather, to glean it.

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This Whitman poem is called The Return of the Heroes – fittingly, I think, as those who work the soil and care for animals to provide food for themselves and others are often humble heroes. The poem is accompanied by photos I took over the last couple of weeks in the vineyards of Napa Valley, CA, as the wineries prepare for their harvest, or crush.

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The Return of the Heroes

(also known as A Carol of Harvest)

For the lands and for these passionate days and for myself,
Now I awhile retire to thee O soil of Autumn fields,
Reclining on thy breast, giving myself to thee,
Answering the pulses of thy sane and equable heart,
Tuning a verse for thee.

O earth that hast no voice, confide to me a voice,
O harvest of my lands — O boundless summer growths,
O lavish brown parturient earth — O infinite teeming womb,
A song to narrate thee.

All gather and all harvest ..

Harvest the wheat of Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, every barbed spear under thee,
Harvest the maize of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, each ear in its light-green sheath,
Gather the hay to myriad mows in the odorous tranquil barns,
Oats to their bins, the white potato, the buckwheat of Michigan, to theirs;
Gather the cotton in Mississippi or Alabama, dig and hoard
The golden sweet potato of Georgia and the Carolinas,
Clip the wool of California or Pennsylvania,
Cut the flax in the Middle States, or hemp or tobacco in the Borders,
Pick the pea and the bean, or pull apples from the trees or bunches of grapes from the vines,
Or aught that ripens in all these States or North or South,
Under the beaming sun and under thee.

– Walt Whitman

From Leaves of Grass

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Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

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8 Responses to Walt Whitman’s Ode to the Harvest

  1. Nice. We’re already crushed and barrelled around here. Word is it was another fine year, too!

  2. Hi Ed! Thanks so much for coming by! I just revisited your blog, http://wardinfrance.blogspot.com/. What a delight! I love your walks around your richly historic French city and your tales of bountiful local food. Are you near a winemaking region? I’d love to hear more about that.

  3. I worked the grape harvest in Ed’s part of the world –Provence. At that time 1971 Provencal wine was just vin ordinaire. No fancy labels or varieties. Payment was 5 francs/per day, 1 bottle of wine, a place to sleep, and all the potatoes, onions, and tomatoes you could pick. But it was a lot of fun.

    Tried to get taken on in the Chateauneuf-du-pape region but they were full up.

    • Hi David! It’s always great to see you. That’s fascinating that you harvested grapes in Provence. Of course it all sounds terribly romantic. I’m sure it was a wonderful experience. Were the wines very different in the Chateauneuf-du-pape region? (I may be showing profound ignorance.) Are you still a fan of French wines?

  4. Ahem.

    Languedoc-Rousillon, where I am (not over in snooty Provence), is France’s largest wine-growing region. That being the case, of course, an awful lot of it has a deservedly bad reputation, but there are many, many producers of astonishing wine here, some of which can be reached with the Montpellier city bus-line! We’ve also got France’s oldest continually producing winery, the Abbaye de Valmagne.

    Sad to say, not much of it gets to the States, and what I’ve seen so far hasn’t been really top-notch stuff. So you have to come visit to get a taste of the real good ‘uns.

  5. This was a luscious post.

    I have lain(?) on a furrow’d length of earth and smelled and contemplated the harvest as a boy in Pennsylvania. I’d completely forgotten those memories until you and Whitman brought them back in a rush.

    Thank you!

  6. Suzi

    Do yourself a favor and buy a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape for your birthday or anniversary. Open it up with a $10. bottle of wine from Provence and compare. If you are feeling adventurous, do it as a blindfold test.

  7. Thanks, Ed and David, for popping back in to report. It seems I’m going to have to get myself to Montpellier and various other parts of France. (There are worse assignments.) I am charmed by your take on your adopted city, Ed.

    David, your timing is excellent. My birthday and anniversary are both next week. This calls for two bottles — actually, four! And your price is right. I’ll report my findings! (We’re always doing blind taste tests around here — potato chips, you name it.)

    And, Lippy, I’m very glad I could bring back this earthen memory and the time of life that produced it by allowing for field-laying (and possibly cloud-watching — am I right?) We all could use more of both.

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