Pacific Rim Review of Books

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“Yes, Hope is Our Duty”: On Wendell Berry’s Leavings

Gregory Dunne

Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press, 132 Pages, $23.00 US

He wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck. He wanted to be buried as soon as possible. He wanted no undertakers. No embalming, for God sake! No coffin. Just an old sleeping bag. “…Disregard all state laws concerning burial. I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.”

- Doug Peacock, on funeral arrangements for Edward Abbey

I am reading in a library in Miyazaki, Japan. Latitude 31 54’ 0” N and longitude 131 26’ 0” E. I am sitting at a comfortable table beside a window that runs floor to ceiling. It is autumn, leaves beginning to fall. Birds leap between the branches and pick at berries. This library sits on top a hill opposite a Shinto shrine enclosed by dense forest. A glinting creek tumbles over rocks below. A quiet place – perfect habitat for reading Wendell Berry’s new collection of poems.

The quotation above relates to the final wishes of the American writer Edward Abbey, with the way he wanted to be buried. In reading Berry’s poems, I am reminded of Abbey, no doubt because of my recent reading of his Desert Solitaire. The works of these two writers share similar qualities and sensibilities: direct, matter-of-fact tone, keenness of observation and descriptive detail, and an abiding willingness to engage in political issuesinvolving the environment.

Both Berry and Abbey celebrate place. For Berry it’s a farm in Kentucky. For Abbey it’s the Utah desert. “This is the most beautiful place on earth,” he proclaims in the opening sentence of his celebrated book. “There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” Berry too sees the relationship between a person and place as a fundamental and shaping one: an in-forming influence. In the opening stanza of the long elegiac poem “The Book of Camp Branch,” Berry comprehends his life in relation to the stream, Camp Branch, which runs through his property. The stream is used as a metaphor for his life. But one feels – and is meant to understand – that it is more than metaphor – it is something actual and real, a deeper correspondence, more material than theoretical or imaginary. This close association is doing the work of helping Berry understand his life more fully, to comprehend it. He recognizes the intimate relationship shared between his life and his place – the stream his “native descent,” his “native walk”, his “native thought:”

Camp Branch, my native stream
Forever unreturning flows
From the town down to Cane Run
Which flows to the river. It is
My native descent, my native
Walk, my native thought
That stays and goes, passing
Ever downward toward the sea…

In one of the first poems of the book, Berry addresses the American poet Hayden Carruth, his recently diseased friend, and speaks of his preference for the “superficial” as opposed the world of illusion and dream:

A Letter
(to Hayden Carruth)

Dear Hayden,
How good – how liberating! – to read
Of your hatred of Alice in Wonderland.
I used to hear my mother reading it
To my sisters, and I hated it too,
But have always been embarrassed
To say so, believing that everybody else
Loved it. But who the hell wants to go
Down a rabbit hole? I like my feet best
When they’re walking on top of the ground.
If I could burrow like a mole, I would
And I would like that. I would like
To fly like a bird, if I could. Otherwise,
My stratum of choice is the surface.
I prefer skin to anatomy, green grass
To buried rocks, terra firma to the view
From anywhere higher than a tree.
“Long live superficiality!” say I,
as one foot fares waywardly graveward.

Abbey, like Berry, speaks in a similar way in his appreciation of the desert: “To me the desert is stimulating, exciting, exacting: I feel no temptation to sleep or to relax into occult dreams but rather an opposite effect which sharpens and heightens vision, touch, hearing, taste and smell. Each stone, each plant, each grain of sand exists in and for itself with a clarity that is undimmed by any suggestion of a different realm. Claritas, integritas, veritas. Only the sunlight holds things together. Noon is the crucial hour: the desert reveals itself nakedly and cruelly, with no meaning but its own existence… I consider the tree, the lonely cloud, the sandstone bedrock of this part of the world and pray – in my fashion – for a vision of truth. I listen for signals from the sun – but that distant music is too high and pure for the human ear. I gaze at the tree and receive no response. I scrape my bare feet against the sand and rock under the table and am comforted by their solidity and resistance.” (Desert Solitaire 136-137.)

Berry and Abbey share a belief then that the earth below our feet and before our eyes is deserving of our fullest attention. In their vision and approach to the environment they draw influence from writers of the past , particularly H.D. Thoreau. Like Thoreau, they espouse an engaged awareness of humankind’s place in relation to the natural world. The writing, thinking, and example of Henry David Thoreau are sewn into the bindings of both books. It is hard, for example, not to read Berry’s “A Letter” and to not think of Thoreau’s aphorism “speak of heaven; you disgrace earth.” Both writers understand this world as, in a sense, heaven enough. When Berry writes of his own eventual demise and death in one of the most emotionally naked and searing poems in the collection, he speaks of his longing for an afterlife that might contain something of the world as he has known it: “I long / instead for the Heaven of creatures, of seasons, / of day and night. Heaven enough for me / would be this world as I know it, but redeemed / Of our abuse of it and of one another.” Abbey too speaks in terms of “praise” when referring to the earth, specifically because he views the earth, replete with bounteous forms of beauty and intricate mystery as a kind of paradise: “…the paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand.”

In this way, the work of both writers is informed by an abiding environmental ethos. In writing of the Utah desert, Abby speaks of prayer. His way of praying is individualized, something private, and yet prayer nonetheless: “I consider the tree, the lonely cloud, the sandstone bedrock of this part of the world and pray – in my fashion – for a vision of truth.” When Wendell Berry titles the second section of this new collection “Sabbaths 2005 -2008,” he echoes the title of his earlier collection Sabbaths (1995), making clear his continued interest in exploring the richly suggestive implications of this word. “Sabbath” in Berry’s poetics indicates, as the epigraph to this section in the book makes clear, an interest in interrogating one singular and endlessly-giving question: “How may a human being come to rest?”

The poems in this collection explore and press this question. Each poem may be understood as another try or test, a way of helping the writer explore the interior, exterior, and circumference of the question. The question, it is important to note, does not limit itself to some prosaic understanding of “rest.” Berry is questing after something more comprehensive, something which might be understood as an attempt to find “rest” in the design and fabric of existence, an existence dependent upon, and in relation to/with, the Creator and the created. Berry is a life-long Christian of the Baptist persuasion. His spiritual grounding is particularly significant because he uses it, or draws from it, to develop an environmental ethics that informs his poetry. When he asks, “How may a human being come to rest?” He understands the individual’s connection with the present as well as with the future. If we are to find rest in both the present and the future, our actions matter. They produce consequences. Returning to the discussion on the environment, Berry believes the manner in which we treat the earth, and each other, will markedly contribute to whatever quality of rest we enjoy in the present and the future. Thoreau intended something similar when he questioned whether one could “kill time… without injuring eternity.” Scott Cairns too, the contemporary American poet, makes this connection between action and time when he refers to sin as being “…not so bad / as it is a waste of time.” Berry indicates how tightly bound he sees the present with the future in poem “XIII” from the “Sabbaths” section:


Eternity is not infinity
It is not a long time.
It does not begin at the end of time.
It does not run parallel to time.
In its entirety it always was.
In its entirety it will always be.
It is entirely present always.

“Eternity… is entirely present always.” Berry’s understanding of time – an understanding that springs from his Christian faith – informs his environmental ethics which in turn affect his art. Berry is a farmer. He has worked his family’s farm for more than forty years. His writing is famously informed by that experience. We see this reflected in his novels, essays, and poems. The fiction includes a trilogy of stories that take place in a fictionalized farming community. The essays deal with a variety of environmental concerns. In poetry too, we see the connection between his Christian faith and his environmental ethics. Simply put, the way we treat the land, the environment, is an ethical matter. To treat it in such a way as to diminish its vitality for future generations is ethically wrong, short-sighted, and self centered.

Berry’s ethics have proven challenging to some Christians who see in them a too great attachment to the earth and a failure on Berry’s part to acknowledge the world as “fallen.” In the poem below, Berry responds with wit to such accusations. The poem is worth quoting in full as it illustrates the generosity of spirit in his “theology ”—how it is grounded in “honester dirt” that critically allows for humility to flourish in a manner in keeping with Christian values and virtues:


Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
With the possession of a “theology” by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
Forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
Enough the weights of sins? Have I found
Too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
The other way around? Have I found too much
Pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
Our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
Any smidgen of such distinctions I may
Have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
All behind a long time ago. If I’m a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
When the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
Dropping their loads of whitewash at random
On the faces of those who look toward Heaven
Look down, look down, and save your soul
By honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
Indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
Night and Easter morning are this soil’s only laws…

Berry understand that much of the ongoing destruction of the planet springs in no small part from humanity’s ignorance in knowing its place in the world, its place in the design of creation, of not acknowledging limitations. Over and again, poems in this collection ask us to acknowledge limitations and to embrace them as a way of coming to know a truer home on earth: “Look down, look down, and save your soul / By honester dirt, that receives with a lordly / Indifference this off-fall of the air.”

The bulk of these new poems appear to have been written post 9/11 while the “War on Terror” was being prosecuted. One gets a sense of the elder poet’s brooding concern, disappointment, and sorrow over the Unites States’ military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The small, yet ominous poem, “TU FU,” which appears early in the collection, initiates the book’s engagement with the topic of war. Berry’s engagement is ongoing throughout the book, albeit intermittent. His engagement casts its long shadow throughout the book, and sometimes it is a central, ominous concern:

Tu Fu

As I sit here
In my little boat
Tied to the shore
Of the passing river
In a time of ruin
I think of you,
Old ancestor,
And wish you well.

Tu Fu was a refugee, a man who lost his home and was forced to escape with his family on foot through treacherous mountains during a time of war. If Berry may be said to be about anything, he is about being rooted in place – in a home and community. The thought of being cast upon the road, of being a refugee, must rank with him as being among the worst of fates. Could it be he is feeling like a refugee? Could it be that recent political events, wars, have made this most rooted of men feel alien and disoriented in his own country? Berry suggests that this is the case. The nation has become unmoored – directionless and lost. And he, like Tu Fu, a refugee in his own land, disoriented. Two poems:

The nation is a boat
as some have said, ourselves
its passengers. How troubling
now to ride it drifting
down the flow from the old
high vision of dignity, freedom,
holy writ of habeas corpus
and the land’s abundance – down
to waste, want, fear, tyranny,
torture, caricature
of vision in a characterless time,
while the abyss whirls below.
(“Sabbaths”, 2007, poem II)

Before we kill another child
For righteousness’ sake, to serve
Some blissful killer’s sacred cause,
Some bloody patriot’s anthem
And his flag, let us leave forever
Our ancestral lands, our holy books,
Our god thoughtified to the mean
Of our smallest selves. Let us go
To the graveyard and lie down
Forever among the speechless stones.
(“Sabbaths”, 2006, poem VII)

In its unequivocal concern with environmental issues, with its concern with how mankind might best live at rest within the natural order, and with its concerned engagement with issues of war and injustice, the poetry of Leavings stands as a further extension and elaboration upon thematic qualities that have long distinguished Berry’s poetry. The tone here is noticeably different in so far as we are getting an older Berry: a grandfather now, a man genuinely aware of his aging and mortality – a wiser, older man who remains stubbornly hopeful.

In addition to the topics mentioned above, the book contains a variety of poems that touch upon topics related to grace, humility, family, old age, loss, and love. In his ability to engage such a variety of topics, Berry succeeds in broadening what the poet Edwin Muir once referred to as “the estate of poetry.” What can’t Berry talk about in his poetry? What aspects of life are not dealt with in the poetry? In reading the poems, we feel we are in the company of a genuine man; there is an inclusive quality about them. In the first poem of the book, Berry seems to suggest his ambition to write a poetry this comprehensive:

Suppose we did our work
Like the snow, quietly, quietly,
Leaving nothing out…
(“Like Snow”)

Although the poetry, as mentioned, engages a variety of subjects, the overwhelming tone of the book is elegiac, as the reader may grasp from the title of the collection: “Leavings.” The elegiac quality may be struck with a soft and glancing brush as it is in the first poem below, or it may be stuck in a more forcefully way as it is in the second poem, a poem that concerns the death of the poet’s dog, Nell:

My young grandson rides with me
As I mow the day’s first swath
Of the hillside pasture,
And then he rambles the woods beyond
The field’s edge, emerging
From the trees to wave, and I wave back,

Remembering that I too once
Played at a field’s edge and waved
To an old workman who went mowing by,
Waving back to me as he passed...

How simple to be dead! – the only
Simplification there is, in fact. Thoreau
To the contrary notwithstanding.
Nell lay in her grave utterly still
Under the falling earth, the world
All astir above, a million leaves
Alive in the wind, and what do we know?

One might expect that the poet’s intimate and lifelong observation and contact with nature, of its cycles and rhythms, would bring some measure of solace in the face of old age and death, and it does to some degree, but the an all pervading and satisfying measure of solace and understanding in the face of mortality is not something that Berry enjoys. He knows death is part of the natural cycle and yet admits to his human limitation in knowing much beyond that. The attitude, disposition, or response that Berry adopts to mortality comes to him through his Christian faith. In a word, it is hope. Hope is of fundamental importance here. And it rings consonant with his belief that humankind should accept its limitations and in so doing come to truer accord with the environment: “Look down, look down, and save your soul.”

Berry’s emphasis on hope locates him in a place where he doesn’t need to know everything. In this sense – in the sense that it locates him in a place where he is free from having to know – one might say, it releases him into a location of rest. Still, it is a humbling place for it acknowledges limitations and dependency – humankind can not ultimately explain life or death. We can, of course, say “There’s no sense to it. No meaning.” But this does not explain it. We are dependent on something beyond our own reasoning to explain life in this sense. To live with an attitude of hope suggest the need for humility in the face of the unknowable, but it also, and this is important, suggests an attitude towards life that is clarifying. It is clarifying because it allows us to see the world in correct relation/proportion to our place within it. It provides something like the corrected lenses by which we can better understand our intricate and interdependent relationship with the planet:

Only low in the land does
The water flow. It goes
To seek the level that is lowest,
The silence that gathers
Many songs, the darkness
Made of many lights,
And then by the sun is raised
Again into the air…
(from “The Book of Camp Branch”)

This attitude of hope also provides a place out of which real spiritual practice for Berry can issue. As he states at the beginning of poem III in the “Sabbath 2007” section, “Yes… Hope is our duty.” Despite his concerns about the degradation of the environment, warfare, social injustice, and the “unreturning,” hope gives him a tangible active method by which he can circumvent paralysis and despair and responsibly respond. He can act – it’s his “duty.” In Berry’s poetry, hope takes on great vigor for these reasons. It is a quiet, lowly word; exactly the word that a poet like Berry would understand to be multi-valent, resonant: a word capable of welcoming the future:

In time a man disappears
From his lifelong fields…
Thinking of this, he seems to
Miss himself in those places
As if always he has been there,
Watching for himself to return.
But first he must disappear,
And this he foresees with hope,
With thanks. Let others come.

Wendell Berry eulogized Edward Abbey at a memorial ceremony held some months after Edward Abbey’s body was taken out into the desert by his close friends and buried in accord with Abbey’s wishes. I hadn’t known this until I went online and looked up information on Abbey. It was surprising to discover that although these men shared a strong friendship they never actually met. Their friendship had grown out of mutual admiration and respect, out of the exchange of letters, and the sharing of books.

Reading Berry, all afternoon I am reminded of Abbey. Here is the poem Berry recited in his eulogy for Ed Abbey at the memorial service:

The old oak wears new leaves.
It stands for many lives.
Within its veil of green
A singer sings unseen.
Again the living come
To light, and are at home.
And Edward Abbey’s gone…

I think of that dead friend
Here where he never came
Except by thought and name:
I praise the joyous rage
That justified his page
He would have like this place
Where spring returns with solace
Of bloom in a dark time,
Larkspur and columbine.
The flute song of the thrush
Sounds in the underbrush.

I am struck by the poignancy of the poem, by how it brings Abbey to Berry’s place in Kentucky, his family farm. I am struck with how the poem, in its own way, honors the wishes of Edward Abbey. Abbey’s final wishes are notable for their sense of fun and humility; he speaks in terms of being transported in the bed of a pickup truck and buried in an old sleeping bag. There is evidence here also, I think, of a man at peace with the world, even at the time of death; or to use Berry’s word, at rest with the world: he wants his body “to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.” Berry obliges Abbey’s wishes when he writes a poem that houses his memory of Abbey metaphorically in a transforming vision of nature, in this case a grove of trees.

I don’t know why I continued to think of Abbey as I read these poems today. Perhaps it’s a kindred spirit between the qualities I find in his prose and in Berry’s poetry. I am glad, however, that I didn’t dismiss my daydreaming. I’m glad I went on to consider Abbey and his relationship with Berry. This journey clarified for me just what kind of amplitude abides inside this collection of poetry: “It stands for many lives.” And turning once more to watch the leaves falling from the trees—here in my place, Miyazaki Japan—I feel strangely comforted by the idea of the “unreturning” of Berry’s and the flowing creek below that carries the red maple leaves away.

A doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, Gregory Dunne is a regular contributor to PRRB. He writes from Japan.