The Wild Empty Lot

My dad recently sent me a book of selected poems from Wendell Berry. Poetry is something I miss a lot from my library back home that I gave away when we moved to Bolivia. I have some mp3s of Berry reading his poetry on an episode of Speaking of Faith (now called On Being) called Land, Life, Poetry and Creatures in which Krista Tippet interviews one of my theological crushes, Ellen Davis. Listening to them, I realized how life-giving those poems and those of Mary Oliver are to me. This collection contains some of my favorite poems as well as many I haven’t read yet.

Since Berry’s work and poetry is intimately connected to the themes of this blog, I thought I might reflect on them from time to time. I’ve also found that poetry can often be a way to get at truth from another angle. It opens up meanings and words in ways that straightforward prose, essays or narrative cannot. Its dearth of words leaves room for our minds and hearts to grasp for something more, fill in the gaps and imagine new worlds.

The second poem in this collection is “The Wild” from The Broken Ground (1964). While I’m tempted to simply reprint the complete poem for you, I’m sure it probably violates copyright laws. Even though I prefer the creative commons or other means of managing intellectual property that is less onerous and restrictive, I also don’t want to get sued by his publisher. I also think Berry should get paid for his work. Hopefully, you will be inspired to buy one of his books, if you haven’t yet.

The first stanza of this poem says,

In the empty lot–a place
not natural, but wild–among
the trash of human absence,

This alone is pregnant with meaning. Berry pictures an urban lot somewhere in the midst of human community surrounded by lots that are not empty. We tend to think of empty lots as non-places, or un-places. They are a sort of emptiness and void reminiscent of Genesis 1 where the Spirit hovers over the formless waters (One of my favorite Hebrew phrases: “tohu wa bohu”) prior to creation. It is as if this empty lot does not really exist or have meaning until developers come along to put in a strip mall or build a house.

Berry reminds us that this empty lot is indeed a place. Before anyone develops it and after it has been abandoned it continues to have place-ness. The middle section of this poem describes what gives this seemingly abandoned place its existence, the wild, “not natural, but wild”. “Natural” is a word that is now regulated by the USDA to describe food products that fit some specified regulations that may or may not in fact be what we would consider natural. “Wild” is also such a word, primarily used to describe salmon caught rather than farmed. However, “wild” seems to retain some of the meaning that words like “natural” or “organic” have lost due to overuse, misuse and abuse. Wild still means something that is beyond our control, something not tame. Humans can create “natural” or “organic” systems that mimic what happens in nature, but we cannot create wilderness except by removing our control. Perhaps permaculture systems come closest to mimicking wilderness, but they are still systems that we create and control in some sense and never quite attain the status of “wild”.

In “the trash of human absence” we are reminded that even in our abandonment of these non-places there are remnants of our presence. This refuse reminds us that there is a human presence that surrounds this emptiness. Human presence would not tolerate such filthy conditions, but the birds, locusts, weeds and flowers have not yet learned to build trash cans, much less use them. These remains of civilization become part of nests, part of the wild, while continuing to remind us of the human absence present in this lot’s abandonment.

Berry concludes with this stanza,

the ground is wise. They are
its remembrance of what it is.

The first sentence begins, “In them…” In the wild things, the “warblers and tanagers”, the empty lot keeps its memory. The wisdom of the ground may refer to the soil biology that we have really only recently begun to understand is the foundation and health of all life in ecosystems. These wild things remind the empty lot of its identity beyond the definitions imposed on it by urban planners. This empty lot has a meaning that is more than zoning districts can define. Even those of us who want to reclaim and redeem these “wasted places” would do well to remember that before our hand touches that soil the wild has already begun to reclaim and redeem it.

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