Life of our life, the garden lives and sings

Another great American environmentalist has been since early last year among my favourite poets. Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, essayist and poet who has had much to say about conservation, climate and creation. Like Ansel Adams, he calls beauty as witness to our responsibility. Here's his “Speech to the Garden Club of America” - a speech in verse. 

Thank you. I’m glad to know we’re friends, of course;
There are so many outcomes that are worse.
But I must add I’m sorry for getting here
By a sustained explosion through the air,
Burning the world in fact to rise much higher
Than we should go. The world may end in fire
As prophesied—our world! We speak of it
As “fuel” while we burn it in our fit
Of temporary progress, digging up
An antique dark-held luster to corrupt
The present light with smokes and smudges, poison
To outlast time and shatter comprehension.
Burning the world to live in it is wrong,
As wrong as to make war to get along
And be at peace, to falsify the land
By sciences of greed, or by demand
For food that’s fast or cheap to falsify
The body’s health and pleasure—don’t ask why.
But why not play it cool? Why not survive
By Nature’s laws that still keep us alive?
Let us enlighten, then, our earthly burdens
By going back to school, this time in gardens
That burn no hotter than the summer day.
By birth and growth, ripeness, death and decay,
By goods that bind us to all living things,
Life of our life, the garden lives and sings.
The Wheel of Life, delight, the fact of wonder,
Contemporary light, work, sweat, and hunger
Bring food to table, food to cellar shelves.
A creature of the surface, like ourselves,
The garden lives by the immortal Wheel
That turns in place, year after year, to heal
It whole. Unlike our economic pyre
That draws from ancient rock a fossil fire,
An anti-life of radiance and fume
That burns as power and remains as doom,
The garden delves no deeper than its roots
And lifts no higher than its leaves and fruits.

Happy old year

Being conscious of time, last days and first days matter to me. What I seek most is significance, which in these days, first and last, is innate. On its last day, a year is gone forever. All its doings sink into the past and we put on a fresh one. Yet it's a significance that's hard to realise, since the sun will come up tomorrow just as it did today; at one minute past midnight we will be exactly the same as we were a minute before. Perhaps that's what surprises (disappoints?) us year by year. But these peregrinations of clock and calendar are our invention, the “little circles of the humanly known and believed.” Better, as this poem suggests, to break them open, and leave off counting. This is Wendell Berry, “2007.IV” from the collection “Sabbaths.”

In our consciousness of time
we are doomed to the past.
The future we may dream of
but can know it only after
it has come and gone.
The present too we know
only as the past. When
we say, “This now is
present, the heat, the breeze,
the rippling water,” it is past.
Before we knew it, before
we said “now,” it was gone.

If the only time we live
is the present, and if the present
is immeasurably short (or
long), then by the measure
of the measurers we don’t
exist at all, which seems
improbable, or we are
immortals, living always
in eternity, as from time to time
we hear, but rarely know.

You see the rainbow and the new-leafed
woods bright beneath, you see
the otters playing in the river
or the swallows flying, you see
a beloved face, mortal
and alive, causing the heart
to sway in the rift between beats
where we live without counting,
where we have forgotten time
and have forgotten ourselves,
where eternity has seized us
as its own. This breaks
open the little circles
of the humanly known and believed,
of the world no longer existing,
letting us live where we are,
as in the deepest sleep also
we are entirely present,
entirely trusting, eternal.

Is it concentration of the mind,
our unresting counting
that leaves us standing
blind in our dust?
In time we are present only
by forgetting time.

Is everything sacred?

Wendell Berry has a line that there are no places that are not sacred; there are only sacred places and desecrated places. I like this thought. It accords with a view that sees the earth as irrevocably blessed, and a view of landscape as enchanted.

I've been listening to Geraldine Brooks' lyrical lecture on “Home,” the first in her Boyer series (here). She muses that our word “home” comes from a root meaning “haunt,” and I like that too. The places we call home are haunted, not only by us, but by memory, history, association, and affection. Earth as home is haunted, enchanted, blessed. Sacred in a way we can't efface, though we can desecrate it.

The disenchantment of the world, said Weber, characterised the fate of our times. Our fate seems now to be indelibly linked to a warming climate and a planet in decline. The darkest vision of the climate catastrophisers has humans as ghosts. I wonder if the reversal of climate damage will come in part through re-enchantment, through a reconsideration of the sacredness of our home.

I dream of you walking

Today is our anniversary. My small act of commemoration comes from a poem by Kentucky farmer/writer Wendell Berry, “In the Country of Marriage.” These are the first three stanzas.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth's empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.