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.
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.
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.
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
Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman