“[Berry’s poems] shine with a gentle wisdom of a craftsman who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and wonder of life.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“Wendell Berry is one of those rare individuals who speaks to us always of responsibility, of the individual cultivation of an active and aware participation in the arts of life, be they those of composing a poem, preparing a hill for planting, raising a family, working for the good of oneself and one’s neighbors, loving.”
The Bloomsbury Review
More than thirty-five years ago, Wendell Berry began spending his sabbaths outdoors, when the weather allowed, walking and wandering around familiar territory, seeking a deep intimacy only time could provide. These walks sometimes yielded poems. Each year since, he has completed a series of these poems dated by the year of its composition.
This new sequence provides a virtual syllabus for all of Berry's cultural and agricultural work in concentrated form. Many of these poems, including a sequence at mid-year of 2014, were written on a small porch in the woods, a place of stillness and reflection, a vantage point "of the one / life of the forest composed / of uncountable lives in countless / years, each life coherent itself within / the coherence, the great composure, of all."
Recently Berry has been reflecting on more than a half century of reading, to discover and to delight in the poetical, spiritual, and cultural roots of his work. In The Presence of Nature in the Natural World, Berry's survey begins with Alan of Lille's twelfth-century work, The Plaint of Nature. From the Bible through Chaucer, from Milton to Pope, from Wordsworth to the moderns, Berry's close reading is exhilarating. Moving from the canon of poetry to the sayings and texts found in agricultutre and science, closely presented, we gain new appreciation for the complexity of the issues faced in the twenty-first century by the struggling community of humans on earth.
With this long essay appended to these new Sabbath Poems, the result is an unusual book of depth and engagement. A new collection of Wendall Berry poems is always an occasion for celebration, and this eccentric gatheirng is especially so.
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About the Author
Wendell Berry has written more than fifty books. He lives and farms with his wife, Tanya Berry, in Henry County, Kentucky. In addition to the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and being named to deliver The Jefferson Lecture in 2012, the nation’s highest honor for intellectual achievement, the Center for Food Safety has just given Mr. Berry its first annual American Food & Farming Award.
Read an Excerpt
The long cold drives life inward into shelter, into the body, into limits of strength and time.
Out of darkness day comes.
The earth now white, the trees bear bright new foliage of snow,
beautiful, yes. "Beautiful, but hell!"
Junior Wright said, wading in knee-deep snow to feed
the snowbound cattle. We were young then and really didn't mind.
This morning, half a century
later, under the beautiful trees,
beautiful truly, repaying much,
I dig out the paths again,
renewing again the pattern of home
life grown old in this place and many times renewed. Continuing my difficult study, I remind myself again: "Take no thought for the morrow."
TO THE NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY
I am away in a quiet valley,
am busy at my quiet work in this comely small cup of country exactly fitted to my mind,
my mind to it exactly fitted.
It is enclosed by slopes and trees,
filled full of light and air and wind,
fulfilled by time and wear and weather.
My work is gathered of air and earth,
the history of the local light.
I am not going to tell you whether or when I'm coming back. Don't wait.
Don't try to call. I have no phone.
There's not much left I want to shoot,
but I would like to shoot a drone.
You don't know the day until You've seen the last of it Reddening the hill And rising into night
Having carried them within her five months, and labored hard to set them free, the fierce old mother finds her lambs, wet from her womb,
breathing the cold air, struggling on the soiled bedding on the world's floor to live, and she calls to them in loud muttering gutturals of praise,
her absolute eloquence of joy, for they who once were not, were nothing,
now are something, themselves, her own,
and her joy is at one with all joy this world has known, and for the one reason: The life that was not now is.
The silence of the barn at evening,
when the shepherd draws shut the door and starts home for the night, is heavenly,
for it says almost aloud that every lamb is found, every ewe has found her lamb and is feeding, and is content.
There is another of the barn's silences that is heavenly also, for it says that the ewes and their young ones now are gone from it to new pasture,
the now-green, the first-grown grass of the spring, and they are delighted,
the shepherd delighted with their delight.
The mockingbird sings his praises of his mate or of himself. In his joy he knows no difference.
At first I called him silly and egotistical, like all lovers in the spring,
unable to say enough of his ambiguous delight,
and so he repeats himself.
And then I said, "He's right!
Love teaches him to fail,
at this best of times,
to know whose song it is,
hers or his."
The old man from up the creek and the hillside woods got sick.
In the loneliness of his misery he discovered he did not care whether he lived or died. What a relief! Much encouraged,
he lives, wandering long times lost to all who wonder where he is.
A SMALL PORCH IN THE WOODS
Why do you force the knowledge of me to leave your memory and go abroad, you in whom my gifts proclaim me who have blessed you with the right bounteous gifts of so many favours; who, acting by an established covenant as the deputy of God, the creator,
have from your earliest years established the appointed course of your life ... I am Nature who, by the gift of my condescension, have made you a sharer in my presence here and have deigned to bless you with my conversation.
Alan of Lille (ca. 1116–1202 or 1203), The Plaint of Nature, translated by James J. Sheridan, Toronto, 1980, pp. 117, 126.
Right-mindedness: a mind in place,
in right relation to Nature and its neighbors. Thoughts, instructions,
stories, songs enter from outside, and some of these are needed, can be made welcome,
but nothing replaces the living geography, topography, ecology, history,
the mind's waking at home in its creaturely household, which is its work, its burden,
its privilege, its intimate reference, its way to find at need, against the time's perilous leanings, the unshifting star.
In early April a heavy rain such as never before in my time scoured the Cane Run watershed,
gathering up everything loose that the deepening runoff could carry
— mud (the soil!), logs, limbs, old leaves and weeds, metal containers, bottles, shards of plastic — the mixed mess left in drifts on the bottomland pasture.
The land dried, made new and useless to us by the cumber of the drift.
We picked it up, fourteen loads of just the pieces big enough to obstruct the mower, hauled it to the creek,
and threw it in — "If I've learned anything from physics, it's how to throw things" —
My grandson, Marshall Berry, who had finished his first year of college.
to be borne away on the ever-continuing flow. This was the farm-making,
the lowdown work of the low lands,
never completed as Nature continues serenely her world-making, in spite of us if we oppose her, indifferently using us if we would be her friends. And so we are brought to her first law that she, obeying, asks us to obey:
Keep the ground covered, taking great pains
... to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion. Perennial vegetation kept
Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 4.
with care on the uplands and slopes protects the soil, conserves the rain,
holds in place fertility and provision,
a kindness kept, a kindness given,
granting downstream an unstopping flow.
Good soil is a miracle, at once holding and letting go. To keep so kindly the land, the culture aspiring to be high must cultivate the low arts of land- and water-keeping.
Nature does not prefer humans to the fish, the eagles, or the moles.
She never did betray the heart that loved her because she never did
William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." give her preference to any heart,
loving or not. The truth is harder:
If we love ourselves, we have got to love her. We must study endlessly her long unending work,
thus learning to do our own, also unending,
making Nature our ally so far as we can ask and she comply.
"It's good to have Nature working for you,"
said Henry Besuden, who knew.
"She works for a minimum wage."
See my essay, "A Talent for Necessity," in The Gift of Good Land, North Point Press, 1981, p. 231.
Old forest, tall household of the birds, no more Will nimble deer browse as they did before Deep in your peaceful shade, and your green mane No more will gentle summer's sun and rain.
* * *
All will be mute, Echo be still for good.
There will be a field where your great trees stood,
Their airy shadows shifting in the light. Now You will feel the coulter and the plow.
Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585), "Lament for the Cutting of the Forest of Gastine," my translation, A Part, p. 61. Like Chaucer's and Spenser's, Ronsard's understanding of Nature was reverent, practical, and ecological, as is evident here. This understanding survived in English tradition as far as Pope ("Let Nature never be forgot"). The Romantics forgot the practical connection and the ecological measure.
* * *
From Virginia, they came to wilderness old past knowing, to them new. A quiet resided here, into which came these new ones, minds full of purpose, loud,
small, reductive, prone to disappointment.
They surveyed their places in it, established possession: Beginning on the bank of the Kentucky River at the mouth of Cane Run at a hackberry ... Within that figment
From an early "metes and bounds" deed in the history of the locality of these poems.
geography of random landmarks,
the trees were felled. The plows scribed their lasting passages, exposing the ground to the sky. The hot sun and hard rain then came down upon it, undeflected by a shadow or a leaf. What was here that they so much wanted to change?
They wanted a farm, not a forest. From then to now, no caring thought was given to these slopes ever tending lower.
Thus Nature's gift, her wealth and ours, is borne downstream, cluttering the bottomlands in passing, and finally is lost at sea.
* * *
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Shakespeare, Sonnet 65.
It is anno Domini 2014,
the year 239 of the newcomers into Kentucky, the eightieth year of the present witness, and now along the wooded horizons we see bare ruined tops of the ashes,
beautiful useful trees gone the way of the landmark elms. This is the work of the emerald ash borer, another in the long succession of such articles of trade — diseases, weeds, noxious insects, birds, animals, fish —
in the centuries-old global economy:
the side effects, unforeseen therefore unintended therefore unknown to those best positioned to profit by global trade therefore debited inevitably to Nature, to the land,
to the land communities, unknown as the future to those who take from them every life and substance transmutable to money, which fears no plague. And so in our discounted woods our neighbors the ash trees suddenly shine as they die and the woodpeckers remove the gray outer bark, and we are poorer on our paltered globe.
What was here that you wanted to change?
You changed at first your absence by your presence,
having arrived by a hard way over the mountains or along the rivers. Once here,
your presence still was a sort of absence,
for you learned slowly and late where you were. In ignorance, you destroyed much that was here that you undervalued,
much of value that you never knew was here.
In ignorance, you have returned again to absence from this place, this neighborhood of the living and the dead where for a while you almost were at home, its names and ways that for a while were almost your mind.
What that was here have you given up for your departure and your absence?
Or if you have stayed, going away to work, what have you lost, forgetting where you lay you down to sleep?
Or if you have stayed, driving over the fields the great machines that have replaced your neighbors and their work, their laughter that gave to the work an ancient lightening,
a timeless grace, what have you lost?
Lost in old boundaries now merely owned or rented at too great a price,
or lost in the dry maps of distances away, set free of the once-new land so much desired, so little known,
or tolled away by the old wish to be as gods, or exiled by decree of a powerful few against a weak "too many,"
Soon after World War II the official forces of academic agriculture and corporate industry determined and declared that there were "too many farmers." This became government intent, allowing the "free market" to discount and virtually destroy the small farmers and rural communities. Too many country people concurred in their own disvaluation.
the people drift in scatters, homeless as their garbage, on the currents of a violent economy, their care and work from their dismemoried country, beyond every dreamed beginning, lost.
A lookout upon a place to work,
live, move, and be in thought of Nature's ancient precedence and rule,
a small porch from which to see the local geography as a guide for thinking:
the valley like a cupped hand,
the compassing woods, below the woods a two-track gravel road, below the road a low-lying pasture bounded by a row of trees along a creek,
the creek unseen in its deep slot until,
risen, it spreads upon the ground the brought-down colors of the sky.
The road is an old way, made by the wear of coming and going,
rutted by the outwash of storms breaking across, kept by much remaking, its life that of humans:
temporal and mortal. Even so,
how beautiful to see the bending of its two tracks against the falls and turnings of the slopes. The road divides woodland and pasture, two ways of making visible the shifts and passings of the wind, two ways of giving voice to the air, two realms of birds.
The invisible finds motion and voice locally provided. Watch for its signs.
The watcher comes, knowing the small knowledge of his life in this body in this place in this world. He comes to a place of rest where he cannot mistake himself as larger than he is,
the place of the gray flycatcher,
the yellow butterfly, the green dragonfly,
the white violet, the columbine,
where he cannot mistake himself as more graced or graceful than he is.
At the woods' edge, the wild rose is in bloom, beauty and consolation always in excess of thought.
The pattern for keeping this place we must take from the woods, if the land is to thrive in our using.
An Agricultural Testament, pp. 1–4.
If we were not here, Nature would give this land to trees,
perennial, diverse, conserving of land and water. The woods is a great life of many lives living upon its many deaths.
It flourishes in the dark crypts of its decay. Seen from anywhere inside, it is everywhere an unholding enclosure of many columns,
roofed by the sky, containing inexhaustibly itself. To the teachable it is a teaching, not a syllabus of processes and nomenclature reduced to human understanding, but the presence of the world being made, a fabric of interdepending wonders,
moment by moment completed in beauty,
leaf shadows on light leaves moving.
To care for what we know requires care for what we don't, the world's lives dark in the soil, dark in the dark.
Forbearance is the first care we give to what we do not know. We live by lives we don't intend, lives that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages from ice to warmth, dark to light.
Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work within the limits of our competence to do no permanent wrong to anything of permanent worth to the earth's life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world in its mystery, the known unknown world,
will live and thrive while we live.
And our competence to do no permanent wrong to the land is limited by the land's competence to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and — provided the scale is right — to recover, to be made whole.
The conversion of trees to wood to money,
which is all "the economy" asks,
is limitlessly the mistake of arrogance,
for it is the forest, not the tree,
that is the source of economic good:
the forest as the whole community of itself, its lives living as the gifts of lives lived. And so we come to Troy Firth's precaution: Good forestry is not predetermined by instruction or methodology handed down by those who presumably know to those who presumably don't. It is, above all,
"observational." Loving the forest,
"A Forest Conversation," in my essay collection Our Only World, Counterpoint, 2015, p. 48.
you enter it to walk and watch.
As you observe its manifold and comely life,
it enters familiarly into imagination,
and so into sympathy. By sympathy the mind in the forest is made at home.
From knowledge of the forest comes at last knowledge of forestry:
what, without permanent damage,
can be spared and carefully removed,
leaving the forest whole. This learning
"takes decades. That's all there is to it."
"A Forest Conversation," p.48.
To sit or walk many days and years, looking from the woods into the woods, will lead beyond methodology, beyond even sight,
into the sense, the presence, of the one life of the forest composed of uncountable lives in countless years, each life coherent itself within the coherence, the great composure,
of all. This no observer could make or can explain. Within it, every thought puts the earth at stake.
* * *
This great Grandmother of all creatures bred Great Nature, euer young yet full of eld,
Still moouing, yet vnmoued from her sted;
Vnseene of any, yet of all beheld ...
* * *
To thee O greatest goddesse, onely great,
An humble suppliant loe, I lowely fly Seeking for Right, which I of thee entreat;
Who Right to all dost deale indifferently ...
* * *
Sith of them all thou art the equall mother,
And knittest each to each, as brother vnto brother.
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book VII, Canto VII, stanza xiii, lines 1–4, and xiv, 1–4, 8–9.
There is nothing random or by-chance (except when "chance" signifies our ignorance)
in the forming of the woods. The effects of hard weather, disease, human carelessness,
even these are caught up like dropped stitches,
gathered into the whole fabric, carried from what was to what is to what will be. This is the forest native to this place, its form ever complete, never finished, grace beyond all human comprehending. This is the form of causes leading to effects that in turn become causes, "the boundary of causation always exceeding the boundary of consideration,"
as Wes Jackson puts it. The form is shown Often, in conversation.
first by the shapes of leaves repeating,
like the chorus of a song. Trunk and branches from the dark rise, divide, taper out and out,
each tree recalling a form never perfectly embodied that yet is recognizable by kind among the mix of kinds and their crisscrossings, each shaped according to kind and company, place and time, each by its story made among the stories of the others. Each form is made by reaching among shadows for light. It is shaped by circumstances that its shaping changes.
Excerpted from "A Small Porch"
Copyright © 2016 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Sabbaths 2014
I The long cold drives life inward 5
II To the National Security Agency 6
III You don't know the day until 7
IV Having carried them within her 8
V The silence of the barn at evening 9
VI The mockingbird sings 10
VII The old man from up the creek 11
VTII A Small Porch in the Woods 12
IX The expert on resistance to torture 42
Part II Sabbaths 2015
I In the stiffened air the country hardens 53
II You can divide a bird from its life 54
III Nightmares of the age invade 55
IV We sleep and wake, wake 56
V They believe they've understood 58
VI Now comes the overflow 59
VII What a wonder I was 60
VIII Love is a universe beyond 61
IX And now this holding 62
X Patriotism blasts and crackles 63
XI He sees by the light of the sun 64
XII The old man is in the last days 66
XIII The best of human work defers 68
XIV The creek in flood at night 69
XV Again the air is fill 72
XVI The year falls also from 74
Part III The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation 77