This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.
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.
This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.
This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?
Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.
Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.
Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.
The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.
Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.
To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?