DIALOGUE - ISSUE #9
When anxious about the state of the world, poetry can provide solace.
We all have places we turn to when dealing with complicated feelings. For me, that place tends to be poetry. I recently rediscovered a collected volume by the US nature poet, activist, and farmer, Wendell Berry, on my bookshelf, and found that it resonated anew. I love how Berry’s poetry illuminates a way to have a connection with the earth that is concerted, active, contemplative, and deeply spiritual. For Berry, spiritual ecology is a practice of reverence. His poems are meditations, and observant ones at that: a set of gentle signposts for communing with the natural world.
“‘Except in idea, perfection is as wild / as light; there is no hand laid on it,” reads Berry’s poem The Design of a House, “But the house is a shambles unless / the vision of its perfection / upholds it like stone. / More probable: the ideal / of its destruction: / cloud of fire prefiguring / its disappearance.”
That metaphor brings to mind the words of the environmental activist Greta Thunberg at Davos in 2019, when she declared: “Our house is on fire”. In fact, fire and burning come up as frequent motifs throughout Berry’s work; in The Want of Peace, he writes: “We sell the world to buy fire, / our way lighted by burning men, / and that has bent my mind / and made me think of darkness / and wish for the dumb life of roots.”
I’m struck here by the dissonance between the sonic texture of these lines and the sentiments they express. My first impression of these lines is that they are reminiscent of a prayer: the lyrically-placed line breaks, the cataloguing of human fallibility, the plea for intervention. Reading closely, there’s more to unpack. The speaker’s wish for “the dumb life of roots” is a complicated one. It is a nod to the exhausted desire to let the world’s problems be someone else’s issue, to be subsumed by the comfort of blissful ignorance. Yet, as we know, roots are the essential foundation of all plant life. They may play a subterranean role, but hardly an unimportant one.
Berry brings us to the notion of grounding. Some people look heavenward, Berry writes in his poem, Below, toward abstracted symbols, whether technological or religious. “But I aspire / downward,” he counters about two thirds of the way through the poem. Notably, this is the first instance in the poem that he has spoken in the first person rather than from an omniscient third-person perspective. In poetry, we call this a deictic shift: a moment when the speaker or voice of a poem changes, signalling an altered perspective or a conclusion. “Flyers embrace / the air, and I’m a man / who needs something to hug. / All my dawns cross the horizon / and rise, from underfoot. / What I stand for / is what I stand on”. Until this point, the poem has comprised airy, short vowels and sibilant consonants. Now, along with this tonal shift, we find longer vowels and stable, sturdy slant rhymes (horizon, rise). The sound of the language itself is grounded in the earth.
So what is Berry saying? His ethos is distilled neatly in The Peace of Wild Things (see next page) - perhaps his most famous poem. In it, he articulates how he reckons with anxiety about the state of the world. Crucially, it’s not by retreating to an insular or myopic bubble. Rather, it’s by slowing down and communing with elements of nature that are omnipresent, operating on their own timelines of stillness, presence, and unhurried grace. It’s about loving awareness as a radical act, earthing oneself as a means of preservation. Sinking feet into soil. It’s about intentionally seeking out calm, reverence, and mindfulness in the midst of crisis.
This text is an edited version of The Rhizome newsletter which you can sign up for at: wheretheleavesfall.com
Wendell Berry, excerpts from “The Design of the House: Ideal and Hard Time,” “The Want of Peace,” “Below,” and “The Peace of Wild Things” from New Collected Poems. Copyright © 1968, 1996, 1980, 2012 by Wendell Berry. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Counterpoint Press, counterpointpress.com.