Wendell Berry, An American Healer

Wendell Berry
Photo: Wendell Berry

“Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Laugh. Sleep. Not by your will is the house carried through the night,” from “Healing.”

for John Reibetanz

By J.S. Porter

I first encountered Wendell Berry in his poem “Healing” many years ago in a literary journal or anthology.

I say “encountered” deliberately because when you meet someone for the first time who makes a strong impression on you, it’s more than a meeting, more than a reading. When you encounter someone at the level of the soul, you meet yourself in a more evolved state, as a more articulate being. “Healing” was a poem I wish I had written, one I wanted to write, if I were wiser and more seeing and more skilled with words than I am.

Farmer, poet, novelist, eco-warrior, essayist, thinker, Wendell Berry is a man of deep spirituality. He lives on a farm in Port Royal, Kentucky near his birthplace, and has maintained his farm for over 40 years. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers’ Hall of Fame. Thomas Merton, a friend of Berry’s, was inducted in 2014 and Barbara Kingsolver in 2017. In 2010, President Obama presented a National Humanities Medal to author and conservationist Wendell E. Berry and whispered in his ear that he admired his poetry.

At 85, he’s now a wise old man. Decades ago when I first read him, he was a wise young man. He saw early on that we’re broken. Our covenant with the land is broken, our relationship with nature is broken, and we need healing. As he wrote in The Unsettling of America, “It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.” Healing cries out in our dreams, in our nightmares.

And yet that healing probably can’t be achieved by our striving or our inventions, although wise decision-making about conservation and preservation would be a good start. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing, is to sit still, is to trust. “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Laugh. Sleep. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”

Berry in “Healing” and in all his poetry and essays that I’ve read –I haven’t read his novels—has faith that the house, the human house, and the house of nature, will be carried through the night, but not by our will. He gives me hope in these dark planet-threatened times.

For the past 30 plus years, Wendell Berry has gone for a Sunday walk when weather permits and come home and written a poem, a Sabbath poem. These poems are collected in a beautiful volume, This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems 1979-2013.

You have the impression that he’ll keep on these walks and meditations for as long as his legs hold up and his mind is clear. A recent volume along his familiar path is A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015. I’ll continue to read these Sabbath poems for as long as he keeps writing them, poems like this one written in 1984:

Over the river in loud flood,
in the wind deep and broad
under the unending sky, pair
by pair, the swallows again,
with tender exactitude,
play out their line
in arcs laid on the air,
as soon as made, not there.

If you know Berry through a poem, it’s probably through the much-anthologized “The Peace of Wild Things,” which reads to me like a personal manifesto, a personal affirmation of faith.

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 Peace of Wild Things” isn’t one of Berry’s Sabbath poems, but it could be. It has the same beauty and simplicity, the same strength, and resonance. The same concentrated thought, the same compressed language. Not a wasted word. Nothing that’s show-offish or vain. I go back to this poem frequently for quiet and rest. It rejuvenates me.

I also go back to lines from “Healing:”
“To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the creation, to keep the creation fully alive in oneself, to see the creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew.

The most creative works are all strategies of this health.”

I inhale the lines like a prayer, recognizing “the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance,  to a music/so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”


For more on Wendell Berry, you may enjoy this: https://thebaffler.com/salvos/back-to-the-land-scialabba

You May Also Like