Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wendell Berry: "Stop somewhere! Because you can't recover what's lost"

Wendell Berry

"... one's real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that's appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don't do those things, then you build up a debt against the future, which is what we're doing now."

In a difficult year -- and all years are beset with their own challenges -- the winter season offers a chance to gather our wits if we are lucky, although expectations are likely to outstrip the realities of our over-indulgence and laziness. In America it seems as though laziness is about the only form of rest we allow ourselves. Wendell Berry, that Kentucky philosopher/poet whose quiet poems are a strong antidote to American restlessness these days, made his statement about the future and our obligations back in 1993, or what is increasingly looking like the good old days.

Ever hopeful, Mr. Berry carries on with his slow and steady turning in 2010. Here is an extract of his long poem, "Sabbaths 2007," which echoes the eternal solace of nature against the darker aspects of our more recent human needs and wants. It seems appropriate to quote it now as a pause in the seasonal spin.

Shall we do without hope? Some days
there will be none. But now
to the dry, dead woods floor
they come again, the first
flowers of the year, the assembly
of the faithful, the beautiful,
wholly given up to being.
And in this long season
of machines and mechanical will
there have been small human acts
of compassion, acts of care, work
flowerlike in selfless loveliness.
Leaving hope to the dark
and to a better day,
receive these beauties freely
given, and give thanks.

The poem continues the work of his collection, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. It's good to hear that in the woods and hills of Kentucky near the Ohio River, at least, there is still hope in the expectation of the first crocus in the yard. It may seem antithetical to the very being of American hurly-burly, but the agrarian Mr. Berry suggests one's sense of place can be a powerful curative to our collective ills: it can be a comfort to know where we are, to be secure in our pasts, even as we try to secure the uncertain paths ahead. Again, from his 1993 interview with Jordan Fisher-Smith:

"Well, I think that I would give the same advice as Gary Snyder. Stop somewhere! Because you can't recover what's lost. There's no going back to get it. You just have to start again, and I think what people have to experience--have to let themselves experience--is the knowledge and understanding and even happiness that come with long association with people and places and kinds of work."

Mr. Berry -- who turns 78 this year -- continues to "let hope shrink us to our proper size." The watcher on the shore invites us to stop with him awhile. In this cold season of hope and expectation, it would do us good to watch and wait for those first spring flowers. Wait and watch, the poet says, there's no hurry, find your place: for all we plan, nature will find its own place, too.

I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.

No comments: