Reflections on a Wendell Berry Poem

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Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message they observe is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.  I’m thankful that I came across one of Berry’s poems this week, especially at this time of year when Spring reminds me of the promise of renewed life.  I find myself needing hope these days for a variety of reasons, but particularly in my work as I struggle with a sense of the lack of meaningful accomplishment.  Mr. Berry is writing to me.  So here’s the poem, “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.

I don’t know if you ever feel a sense of despair over parts of your life or the lives of those you care for.  I do … especially lately.  Maybe it’s the stage of life I’m in, roaring into my second half with lots of dreams and hopes, when at the same time having to come face to face with a more honest acceptance of mortality and that all my dreams might not end up being fulfilled and that many of them could’ve been a tad unrealistic anyway.  Maybe it’s a wrestling with what success is and isn’t – the difficult task of having to redefine it in more congruent ways – and yet still deal with a deep passion to have my life count for something significant.  Maybe it’s also seeing my parents reaching their sunset years and struggling with health and mortality, realizing that I’m the next generation in line to take their place, having to pay more attention to my own health needs as time goes on.

We all face a sense of despair in various ways and for various reasons.  Sometimes it steals our sleep.  Often it steals our peace.  Too often it robs us of joy.  We lose hope.  What then?  Pop the pills?  Swallow the antidepressants?  Escape or run away?  Stay in bed?  Smother the ones we’re worried about with our presence?  Hang on for dear life just because we’re afraid of losing?

Here’s where I’m moved by Wendell Berry’s perspective.  Notice his process of dealing with his despair.  “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” Berry has discovered that nature’s ability to exist in peace is directly related to it not “taxing their lives with forethought of grief.”  One of our homo sapien challenges is that because we have the ability to ponder, reflect, and evaluate everything, we are tempted to live in the past or in the future, with regret or fear, rather than in the moment.  We consequently tax our lives with “forethought of grief.”  And wow, it is a tax burden, isn’t it!  We’re making payments from our emotional bank accounts all the time because of that tendency.  Grief is the result – a constant feeling of loss (loss of hope, loss of reputation, loss of significance, loss of meaning or fulfillment, loss of purpose, loss of love, and the list of grief from losses goes on and on).

Berry noticed that the wood drake ducks and the great herons seemed to exist differently.  He watched them sit quietly in the still waters, and patiently pick food out of the waters, and stand in the shallow water simply being in that place and in that moment.  It was a scene of peace to him.  So he intentionally placed himself there from time to time – and discovered that during those times, he was able to mirror that peace.  His mind and heart became still like the pond water.  He entered as fully as possible into those moments, letting go of his worry, fear, grief, and losses.

Looking up into the sky, he knew the stars were there behind the lighted firmament even though he couldn’t see them at that time of day.  They were “waiting with their light,” knowing that the time would soon come when after setting sun their light would be seen again.  Berry felt a sense of hope for his own life return.  Nature has its cycles, its seasons – times of fruitfulness and times of fallowness.  Nature seems to know this and it empowers its peace and persistence.  Day-blind stars will shine in the evening.  The barrenness of winter gives way to spring’s new life.

I’m thankful for this reminder today.  Just reading this poem takes me to a place of more hope and peace inside.  Visualizing the wood drake floating quietly in the still waters, seeing the great heron now standing, now feeding, a bite here, a bite there – neither one obsessing or worrying or “taxing their lives with forethought of grief” – simply being and doing what they always do.  Can I allow myself to be in that place, too?  If even for a moment?

Berry ends his poem with, for me anyway, a helpful reminder:  “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”  For a time.  We can’t always live in this kind of secluded peace.  Life happens, the good and the ugly, with its joy alongside despair and grief, and we often can’t predict it.  But I need more times to “rest in the grace of the world.”  I need to carve out moments of grace, where simply being is enough, where I am all I need to be right then, and I am loved and embraced there, period.  Maybe that’s what the Hebrew poet had in mind when he wrote about the Creator God, “Be still, and know that I am God.”  In life’s stillness and quietness, I feel the divine, the Sacred, and I embrace my enough in the mirror of the true Enough.  Resting in the grace of the world.  Does it sound as inviting to you as it does to me?

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One thought on “Reflections on a Wendell Berry Poem

  1. Thanks for speaking to my soul, Dr. G.! I recognize fully that I need more Wood Drake & Heron moments in my life!

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