When I think of Wendell Berry, I think of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder, all extraordinary human beings whose lives I admire and ideas I cherish, particularly when it comes to our collective place in the larger ecosytem that is our world. “Hero” seems too ordinary a word, “saint,” perhaps too hyperbolic to describe who they are. To borrow from another culture, somehow, “bodhisattva” seems just right, because these individuals share an all-embracing compassion for the sentient life forms with which we share this little spinning ball we call home. That lesson is one which they wish to share with others to raise awareness of who and where we are, while making this a better place and enhancing the potential quality of all life .
Personally, I came to Wendell Berry not through his luminous environmental works, or his fiction (Remembering is one of the best, most moving short novels I’ve ever read), both of which I’ve enjoyed, nor his advocacy for sustainable agriculture, but through his poetry. His volume of poems Farming: a Handbook (which is contained in his Collected Poems) has always been a personal favorite of mine. In addition, certain individual poems by Berry I’ve run across over the years have spoken to me deeply. What is most unusual about this for me is that, generally, I’m not much for the narrative approach he takes in a great deal of his work. But somehow he manages to take all the elements most important to him, merge them into a style I’m decidedly indifferent to, and win me over in a big way.
Which brings us to “The Peace of Wild Things,” one of his more well-known poems.
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.
The first thing I’m struck by is the thought that Mary Oliver probably loves this poem and William Logan probably does not. The second thing that occurred to me after reading this poem is what an archetypal experience it describes.
What “happens” in the poem is something we all experience, a part of being human: the fear and doubt about our condition, who we are, and what we do. Many of us, rural and city dwellers alike, get up in the middle of the night and read or worry or drink tea or walk. Robert Frost, in an uncharacteristic city setting, addresses the very same existential situation in his poem “Acquainted With the Night.”
Acquainted With The Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain –and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Both poems find their narrators heading out into the night seeking something: solace, resolution, peace of mind. Though Frost’s poem seems darker and is decidedly more impersonal, both characters head into nature, the rural dweller to a secluded spot, the city dweller out beyond the city limits, beyond the furthest city lights. Note that the “luminary clock” that Frost’s narrator sees is at an unearthly height, suggesting in fact that he, too, is coming closer to nature as he gazes upon that natural luminary clock, the moon.
Berry’s protagonist does find that solace, that peace of mind that s/he seeks, amongst “wild things” in the natural setting from which we come and to which we will return. There is an essential grounding in nature for human beings and this is the core message of all of Wendell Berry’s work, be it lyric, prosaic, or in the actual tending of the land itself. The character in “The Peace of Wild Things” is out of balance and instinctually heads out into nature to right her/his compass. Berry is telling us that it is this balance that must be put to rights, the balance between nature and man, in all that we do and how we go about doing it.
As with Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, “Wild Geese,” there is no attempt to portray nature as benign or Disneyesque; it is not that kind of peace they are speaking of. It is understanding our position in this world in an almost pre-cognitive way, understanding that nature simply is: it is not good or bad, and it should never be taken for granted.
The peace of wild things is existence in the moment, a peace wherein fear and forethought and demonstrative grief are unknown. Berry points to the beauty of the water but balances that calming image with the great heron feeding, the natural way of things. Oliver’s wild geese, too, are not of the Thomas Kinkade variety. They call out
—————————————harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
With such agreement as this amongst Berry, Oliver, and Frost, three of the greatest American nature poets of the 20th century, the message should be seen as an important, essential one.
To live in the world we must be of the world, not set apart from the natural order, but an important part of that order, with all the moral rights and obligations that an extraordinary situation such as ours makes manifest.
PS If poetry isn’t your thing, there is an essay entitled “A Native Hill” by Berry in his collection The Long-Legged House that describes a scenario remarkably similar to “The Peace of Wild Things.”