The Peace of Wild Things
The Peace of Wild Things
"The Peace of Wild Things" is a poem by American poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and environmentalist Wendell Berry. It was first published in Openings: Poems (1968), one of Berry's early collections of poetry, and was reprinted in 1985 in Berry's Collected Poems, 1957-1982. Written in the first-person, "The Peace of Wild Things" describes how the speaker finds a solution to the anxieties he feels during a sleepless night by going outside to a quiet, peaceful place in nature, near a body of water. In the presence of wildlife, water, and stars, he feels restored to equanimity, his troubles dissolving in the great peace he experiences in nature. "The Peace of Wild Things" is typical of Berry's work as a whole in that it attempts to find a balance between humans and nature; it shows how the natural world can play a vital role in healing the troubled human spirit. The poem belongs in the great tradition of nature writing in American literature, as embodied in the work of such classic authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir, and modern writers such as Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Edward Abbey, Loren Eiseley, and many others.
Wendell Berry was born on August 5, 1934, in Henry County, Kentucky, the eldest son of John and Virginia Berry. His father was a tobacco
farmer, and both sides of the family had lived and farmed in Henry County for over a hundred years.
Berry attended the University of Kentucky at Lexington, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1956 and a master of arts in English in 1957. He married Tanya Amyx that same year. Berry then studied at Stanford University's creative writing program on a Wallace Stegner fellowship, and in 1960 published his first novel, Nathan Coulter: A Novel. It was set, like almost all of his later fiction, in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William.
A Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship enabled Berry to travel to Italy and France in 1961, and in 1962 he taught English at New York University's University College in the Bronx. In 1964, he began teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky.
It was during the 1960s that Berry first made his mark as a poet, with his collections The Broken Ground (1964) and Openings: Poems (1968). The latter contained the poem "The Peace of Wild Things." He also wrote his first book of essays, The Long-Legged House, in 1969.
In 1964, Berry and his wife purchased a farm in Henry County, Kentucky, and a year later became farmers of tobacco, corn, and small grains. Berry remained a member of the faculty at the University of Kentucky until 1977, when he resigned so that he could spend more time on his farm.
He continued to publish poetry at a steady rate, his books including Farming: A Handbook (1970), The Country of Marriage (1973), Clearing (1977),A Part (1980), and The Wheel (1982). Many of these poems deal with the natural world and the place of humans in it, often touching on spiritual matters. Berry's Collected Poems, 1957-1982 was published in 1985. His essay collections from this period include A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1972) and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977).
In 1987, Berry returned to teaching at the University of Kentucky, continuing until 1993, when once more he retired to his farm.
His later publications include Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition (2000), That Distant Land: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry (2002), The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2002), The Way of Ignorance (2005), the novels Hannah Coulter (2004) and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006), and two collections of poetry, Given: New Poems (2005) and Window Poems (2007).
As of 2008, Berry has written twenty-nine books or chapbooks of poems, twenty-seven nonfiction works, mostly essay collections, and fourteen works of fiction, including novels and short stories. He has received numerous awards, especially for his poetry. These include Poetry magazine's Vachel Lindsay Prize in 1962 and its Bess Hokin Prize in 1967, the Aiken-Taylor Award for Poetry from the Sewanee Review in 1994, and the T. S. Eliot Award from the Ingersoll Foundation in 1994.
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. 5
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 10
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
"The Peace of Wild Things" begins with the poet, writing in first person, describing what he likes to do when his mind becomes agitated and he needs to calm down. He presents himself as a man who is concerned about the state of the world. He appears to have no hope that the condition of the world will improve, although he offers no details about his worries. Perhaps he has in mind war, poverty, and injustice, all the things that plague humanity and seem to continue despite the best efforts of well-intentioned people to end them. In line 2, the poet makes it clear how deep this worry in his mind is, since he will wake up at night if there is even the slightest of sounds and the worry will start again. In line 3 it becomes apparent that he fears for the future, not only for himself but also for his children. Perhaps he harbors the fear that there may be some cataclysm or other devastating event that would radically change human society for the worse. He feels a father's care for the future welfare of his children. But he does not merely lie in bed awake, worrying. He has a solution, not for the world's problems, but for his own peace of mind. As he explains in line 4, he gets out of bed in the dead of night and goes outside and heads for a tranquil place in nature, no doubt nearby and a place he has visited many times before. It must be a lake or a pond, and he is familiar with the bird life he finds there, such as the wood drake (a male wood duck) and the great heron, a wading bird. The poet lies down near the water and seems to identify with the wild life he is now close to; he is deeply conscious of the beauty of nature.
- Some of Berry's poems were set to music by David Ashley White and published as The Peace of Wild Things: For Voice and Piano by ECS Publishing in 2004.
- Contemporary composer Andy Vores set "The Peace of Wild Things" to music for voice and piano in his song cycle titled The Rainy Summer. First performed in 1990 by Richard Morrison and Patricia Thom and self-published in Brookline, Massachusetts, it is available from Andy Vores, 202 Fuller Street #6, Brookline, MA 02446, [email protected]
In these lines the poet explains about how getting out into the natural world cures him of the agitation and worry that he had been experiencing as he lay awake at home. He feels at peace now, and this is because he is able to sense and share in the way animals and birds live. There is peacefulness in nature because the animal and bird kingdoms do not, unlike humans, have the capacity to worry about the future. An animal or bird is incapable of feeling the agitation that the poet felt in the opening lines of the poem, because it has no concept of the future; it cannot worry that the future might bring something bad, unlike humans, for whom such thoughts come all too easily. Animals and birds therefore do not experience life as a burden. In line 8, the poet comments on the tranquility of the scene; the water in the lake or pond is still. It is as if he has suddenly stepped into another world that is altogether more peaceful than the human world.
In the final three lines, the poet widens the scene. In the previous lines, he has appreciated the presence of the birds and of the water. Now he becomes aware of the stars shining above him. He does not say that he looks up at them; rather, he feels their presence too. He thinks of the fact that the stars are not visible during the day; they show themselves to humans only at night, so it is as if throughout the day they are waiting to show their light. He concludes with an observation about how he now feels. Although he knows the feeling is only temporary, he feels at peace and at rest, and this gives him a sense of freedom.
The Human World versus the Natural World
The poem contrasts the turbulence of the human world, and the workings of the human mind, with the peace of the natural world. Human life is chaotic and dangerous. People are unable to live at peace with one another, and the news always seems to be bad. The poem was published in 1968 when the Vietnam conflict was at its height, and in the United States, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. It is perhaps not surprising that someone writing during those turbulent times should sink into despair regarding the human condition. The poet cannot separate himself from the larger fate of the world, which he fears may eventually touch him and his children personally. It is notable that he seems most worried about something that has not yet happened but may happen in the future, and this is why he cannot sleep at night, or is frequently awakened and immediately starts to worry. In this capacity to envision and worry about the future, something that does not in fact exist, human beings separate themselves from the natural world of which they remain a part, since no other living creature has the capacity to imagine the future, let alone worry about it.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Go to a local park or other place where you can be alone in nature. Take note of how you feel. Do you feel different from when you are at home or with others? In what sense? What sort of a change have you undergone by being in nature? Why do you think this happens? Write a short essay in which you describe the natural scene and then reflect on how it affects your thoughts and feelings.
- Read the poems "Come Into Animal Presence" by Denise Levertov and "Sleeping in the Forest" by Mary Oliver. Write an essay in which you compare and contrast these poems with "The Peace of Wild Things."
- Write a purely descriptive paper in which you describe an animal you are observing in nature. It could be a bird, a squirrel, a deer, or other animal. What does it look like? How does it move? What is its purpose, as you watch it?
- For many years Berry has written about environmental issues, protesting against the misuse of nature. Select an environmental issue in your own locality that has relevance for how humans are using, or abusing, nature. Give a class presentation in which you describe both sides of the issue and make some suggestions about how it might be resolved.
The poet is deeply aware of this dichotomy between the human and the natural world, and when he is besieged by his own human capacity for worry, foreboding, and despair, he knows what the solution is, albeit a temporary one. He must allow nature to work on him, to fill him with its own kind of peace as an antidote to the restlessness that has come to dominate his mind. In other words, although humans can separate themselves from nature due to the ceaseless activity of their minds, they also have the capacity to
be one with it; they can allow nature, which is always present in the moment, to pour out a balm on the troubles that they invent for themselves concerning an imagined future (or, although this is not a feature of this poem, a regretted past that, like the future, does not exist). The movement of the poem is therefore from fear and agitation—characteristics of the human world—to the peace that exists in the natural world. The presence of the water, the birds, and the stars, to name only the three things explicitly mentioned in the poem, is enough to restore the poet to himself, to his right mind, at peace with the world in which he lives, free from the thoughts that otherwise trouble him.
The Paradox of Human Complexity
At the heart of the poem lies a paradox: the human mind, for all its intelligence and sophistication, and human civilization, for all its ingenuity and vast achievements, have not led human beings to self-mastery; they have not enabled humans to acquire the peace and contentment that would allow them to live without fear. The pursuit of happiness may lie behind a great deal of human endeavors, but the desired happiness is rarely attained for long, if at all. For example, in "The Peace of Wild Things" the poet's mind is so much on tenterhooks that the slightest thing awakens him from sleep and leaves him awash in a sea of worry. In contrast to this, the wild things in the poem—wild in the sense of growing and living uncultivated, in their natural state, outside the reach of human civilization—live in peace, driven only by instinct, which can never lead them to feel at odds with their environment or with the innate conditions of their being. The paradox is that humans, who have so much more capacity to control their world and that of other living creatures than do the animal, bird, or plant kingdoms, often end up feeling more powerless, more at the mercy of circumstances than those other, simpler creatures who have no power to argue with the laws that govern their existence. The poem uses this paradox to present its theme of the complex (human) world finding what it needs in the simple world (uncultivated nature).
An allusion in a work of literature is a reference to another literary work. It can be a reference to a person, an event, or simply a phrase that occurs in another work. When the poet writes in line 8 about his awareness of the body of water that is nearby, he uses words that echo a well-known phrase in the Bible, from Psalm 23: "He leads me beside still waters." The pronoun "he" refers to God. The psalm presents God as a shepherd who "makes me lie down in green pastures," which is echoed in "The Peace of Wild Things," as the poet also lies down in nature. Allusions may simply give a wider frame of reference to the work in which they occur, or they may serve a more complex, ironic function, serving to contrast or otherwise distinguish between the way the common words or phrases are used in the two works. In "The Peace of Wild Things," although the Biblical allusion in the poem is clear, there is also a marked contrast. In the poem there is no benevolent God leading the poet on and giving him comfort and peace. The poet himself takes the initiative to go into the presence of nature, and it is nature itself, not an external God, that provides the feeling of peace.
The poem is written in free verse, an open form of poetry that does not rely on traditional elements of rhyme and meter. Line lengths and patterns of stress are irregular. In this poem, the line breaks are largely determined by the syntax, the arrangement of the words in a sentence. The poem consists of five sentences of varying length. The first sentence takes up the first five lines and after that the sentences become progressively shorter and simpler, in keeping with the thematic movement from a complex to a more simple state of mind on the part of the poet. The varying positions of the periods that end each sentence create some variety in the spoken rhythm. The poem makes no use of rhyme except for the fact that the end of the first line rhymes with the end of the last line, which creates a sense of completion, rather like a piece of music that returns to the home key at the end.
Social Upheaval and War in the 1960s
It is not difficult to understand why someone writing in the late 1960s might express despair about the state of the world. For Americans, this period was fraught with social upheaval and the horror of war. In April 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had been campaigning on behalf of striking sanitation workers. In June of the same year, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong, the forces of the communist North Vietnamese, launched the Tet Offensive in February 1968, attacking the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, and other South Vietnamese cities. Although the Viet Cong suffered heavy casualties, the Tet Offensive showed that the United States, despite having nearly half a million troops in Vietnam, was not even close to winning the war. It was in the same year, 1968, that the My Lai massacre occurred, in which U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. The massacre was not reported until November 1969. In February 1968, Berry gave a speech to the Kentucky Conference on the War and the Draft at the University of Kentucky in which he stated his opposition to the Vietnam War, "I see it as a symptom of a deadly illness of mankind—the illness of selfishness and pride and greed which, empowered by modern weapons and technology, now threatens to destroy the world" ("A Statement Against the War in Vietnam," in The Long-Legged House).
Elsewhere during these turbulent years, the Six-Day War was fought in 1967 in the Middle East, in which Israel defeated a coalition of Arab nations, and the Soviet Union, along with several Eastern European countries, invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring, an attempt by the Czech government to liberalize its communist society.
The Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s
"The Peace of Wild Things" suggests the importance of living in harmony with nature. As a farmer and poet, Berry felt a deep connection to the land, and he also shared the concerns that were beginning to emerge during the 1960s about the degradation of the environment. The modern environmental movement is often traced to the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, a best-selling book by Rachel Carson. Carson alerted readers to the dangers associated with the widespread use of pesticides. On his farm in Kentucky, Berry decided to practice organic farming, shunning the use of pesticides. In 1972, the U.S. government banned the use of the toxic chemical DDT, which had been widely used as an agricultural pesticide.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: American nature writing flourishes. Edward Abbey (1927-89) writes Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968) about the landscapes of southern Utah. Poet Mary Oliver publishes her first book of poetry, No Voyage, and Other Poems (1963). Denise Levertov (1932-97) publishes several volumes of poetry, includingO Taste and See: New Poems (1964) and The Sorrow Dance (1967).
Today: Prominent nature writers include essayist and novelist Barry Lopez, who publishes a collection of short stories, Resistance, in 2004; Native American poet and fiction writer Linda Hogan, who publishes The Sweet Breathing of Plants: Women and the Green World (2000) and Rounding the Human Corners: Poems (2008); and Rick Bass, who publishes his short story collection, The Lives of Rocks in 2007.
- 1960s: In the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, come close to starting a nuclear war.
Today: Although the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union is over, the threat of nuclear proliferation remains. There is international concern over the possible development of nuclear weapons by nations such as Iran, a development widely seen as a threat to world peace.
- 1960s: The modern environmental movement begins, and the federal government passes significant environmental legislation. The Wilderness Act of 1964 aims to protect nine million acres of federal land from development. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 aims to establish policies that enable humans and nature to live in harmony. The Act requires the federal government to produce an environmental impact study before taking any major action that affects the environment.
Today: The focus of much environmental activism is global warming. In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in 1997, comes into effect. In adopting this measure, countries commit to reducing the emissions—especially carbon dioxide—that contribute to global warming. As of 2008, 178 nations have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, not including the United States or China.
Elsewhere in Berry's home state, as well as in West Virginia, the seeds of new environmental problems were beginning to occur. In the late 1960s the coal mining industry began a practice known as mountaintop removal. The tops of mountains were blasted by explosives in order to gain access to the coal that was near the surface. This was cheaper than tunneling into the mountain to reach the coal, but it had negative environmental consequences. The dirt and rock removed was pushed down the mountain, filling streams and valleys, adversely affecting the habitats of a number of species. Berry was alert to all the damaging effects of this form of strip mining, and he published a fierce essay "The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky," in The Long-Legged House, in which he condemned the practice, commenting,
The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was…. Such destruction … makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings.
Berry called for the banning of strip mining by state and federal governments. It was not until 1977 that Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) regulating the environmental effects of such coal mining, although environmentalists claimed that the law was ineffective.
The first national Earth Day was held in 1970, bringing environmental concerns to the attention of millions of people. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded in the same year, and in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to protect species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
When Berry's 1968 collection of poems, Openings, in which "The Peace of Wild Things" appeared, was reprinted in paperback in 1981, Tom Simmons reviewed the book for the Christian Science Monitor. He comments, "While Berry's poems are neither intellectually scintillating nor complexly allusive, they shine with the gentle wisdom of a craftsman who has thought deeply about the paradoxical strangeness and wonder of his life." Although he does not mention "The Peace of Wild Things" by name, the following comment by Simmons might well apply to that poem: "The book includes meditations on the natural world which are essentially devotional in their ardent simplicity—yet which harbor no religious posing or affectation."
The publication of Berry's Collected Poems, 1957-1982 in 1985, in which "The Peace of Wild Things" reappeared, produced more comment from reviewers. In Library Journal, Thom Tammaro states, "The interplay of the natural world and the human spirit is the informing principle in Berry's work," and Tammaro describes Berry as "a poet of rare compassion and grace, clarity and precision, reverence and lyricism." Writing for the New York Times Book Review, David Ray comments,
[Berry's] straightforward search for a life connected to the soil, for marriage as sacrament and family life, affirms a style that is resonant with the authentic. The lyricism is not forced, but clearly grows out of a deep bond with the earth and its generosity, with all of nature. He … can be said to have returned American poetry to a Wordsworthian clarity of purpose.
Among later scholars, Henry Taylor in Southern Cultures, although appreciative of Berry's overall achievement, states that there are
… occasional lines and sentences in Berry's poems that seem too ponderously overt with their messages, as if the poet had fallen into the momentary belief that assertively artistic use of language is, in some contexts, an irresponsible frivolity.
With this comment Taylor has "The Peace of Wild Things" in mind, and he identifies this poem as one of the less successful of Berry's poems. Taylor writes that "the plainness of the style has been taken so far in the direction of prose that the decision where to end lines is based on almost purely syntactical factors."
Such scholarly reservations aside, "The Peace of Wild Things" has proved to be one of Berry's most popular and widely read poems, appearing in anthologies and on numerous Web sites, posted there by ordinary readers who have enjoyed the poem and wish to share it.
Aubrey has a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he examines how "The Peace of Wild Things" embodies what poet Robert Bly has called "twofold consciousness."
In 1980, Robert Bly, a leading American poet, compiled an unusual poetry anthology titled News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. It is a substantial book comprising over one hundred and fifty poems, ranging from the eighteenth century to the present day and over a number of different cultural traditions. One of the poems Bly selected was Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things." The premise of the anthology is that there had been a development in poetry over the previous two hundred years that reflected a profound change in how people viewed nature and their relationship to it. In what Bly calls the "Old Position," which was well established in European culture in the eighteenth century, human reason was held to be the highest quality, and humans believed that because they possessed reason and nature did not, they were therefore superior to everything else in nature. They were of the view that "nature is defective because it lacks reason." Bly points out that when seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope described nature they did it in general terms that were often vague and inaccurate and suggested that they had hardly bothered to look at the object they were describing.
According to Bly, the Old Position created a split between self and world, subject and object; consciousness was held to reside only in humans, and the relationship between man and nature was one of domination and subjugation. This rigid separation began to break down in German, French, and English literature of the romantic period, from about the 1790s to the early 1830s. In German poets such as Novalis and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bly writes, "The ancient union of the day intelligence of the human being and the night intelligence of nature become audible, palpable again."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In addition to being a major poet, Berry is a prolific essayist. Standing on Earth: Selected Essays (1991), with an introduction by Brian Keble, is a representative collection of thirteen of Berry's essays from four of his earlier collections. The essays cover many topics, from poetry to farming and ecology.
- Poet Gary Snyder is often linked to Berry because of their common subject matter. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations (2000) is a compilation, by Snyder himself, of his work, covering a period of forty-six years. The book includes not only Snyder's poetry but also his prose on topics such as the environment and Buddhism.
- Mary Oliver is a major contemporary poet whose work is characterized by close observation of the natural world and reflection on the relationship between humans and nature. Her New and Selected Poems, Volume One (2005) contains a representative sample of her work.
- In his meditative writings about nature, Berry is sometimes regarded as a modern Henry David Thoreau, the great American naturalist and transcendentalist writer. Thoreau's Walden, or Life in the Woods, first published in 1854, is his record of the years from 1845 to 1847, when he lived in a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. A modern edition was published by Beacon Press in 2004.
- The Sacred Place: Witnessing the Holy in the Physical World (1996), edited by W. Scott Olsen and Scott Cairns, is an anthology of poetry, fiction, and essays in which new and well-established writers present their encounters with the natural world and their reflections on the sense of the sacred in nature.
When Bly examines poetry written since the end of World War II, he sees more instances of poems of "twofold consciousness"—poems that acknowledge nature as an equal of man, and see nature as possessing a consciousness that interacts with human consciousness as a kind of partner, creating a mysterious sense of wholeness and union that transcends human reason and even makes reason seem irrelevant. However, Bly still regards these kinds of poems as outside the poetic mainstream of the time, exceptions rather than the rule. He contrasts poems of "twofold consciousness" with the work of the so-called confessional poets of the 1960s and 1970s such as John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and others who were concerned with intimate self-revelation—their subjects were themselves and the frequently agonized workings of their minds and emotions; they had little interest in the human interaction with nature.
One of Bly's poems of "twofold consciousness" is "The Peace of Wild Things," and in the anthology it is grouped with other work by poets such as Gary Snyder, William Everson, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, and Galway Kinnell. This grouping gives an interesting perspective on where Berry belongs in contemporary poetry. He is sometimes linked to a long list of other poets, including, in the opinion of Andrew Angyal in his book Wendell Berry, the Agrarians, also known as the Southern Fugitives, of the 1930s, such as John Crowe Ransom, Allan Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. Angyal also finds in Berry's work stylistic echoes of Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and William Butler Yeats, as well as Snyder. Bly's grouping extends the list of Berry's kindred spirits, poetically speaking.
Angyal also observes that thematically, "Berry's poems are noted for their quiet attentiveness to the surroundings, almost as though the speaker tried to make himself part of his habitat," a description that is close to what Bly means by "twofold consciousness." In "The Peace of Wild Things," the poet is closely attuned to what Bly refers to as the "night intelligence" in nature, which has its own validity, its own consciousness that reaches out, embraces, and soothes the poet who is tormented, not enlightened, by his human reason (the quality that supposedly, in the "Old Position," lifts humans above nature). It is the poet's restless mind that during the night gives him all kinds of things to worry about, as it projects into the future and envisions possible disasters.
Bly's choice of "The Peace of Wild Things" as the sole poem by Berry to be included in News of the Universe was a good one. This poem is typical of Berry's poetic enterprise, so much of which is concerned with finding the right relationship between man and nature, with rooting himself in the great rhythms of the natural world, with seeking out and being receptive to that indefinable spiritual connection between humans and nature that alone can make a person feel whole.
Other poems in Openings, the 1968 collection in which "The Peace of Wild Things" first appeared, reflect a similar perspective. In "The Want of Peace," significantly placed immediately before "The Peace of Wild Things," the poet reflects on his own turbulent mind and longs to be part of nature's life, the life of the earth, which is unself-conscious in its simplicity—a desire that is amply fulfilled in the poem that follows. "The Peace of Wild Things" is also an answering poem to "To My Children, Fearing for Them," in which the poet explains how he thinks with fear of the troubles to come on earth because of the way humans have abused it. In "Grace," the poet creates a picture of the perfection, the flawlessness of the woods on one particular morning when he observes them. The woods have arrived at this moment in their being at a perfectly measured pace, neither too hurried nor too slow, and in that lies a message for humans, if they are able to hear it. In "The Sycamore," the poet again finds a kind of perfection in nature, in this case in the form of an old sycamore tree, and he meditates on the fact that he and the sycamore come from the same earth. He sees the great tree guided by the same orderly life force that he, the poet, wishes to recognize and submit to.
Berry's essay "A Native Hill," written during the same period as "The Peace of Wild Things" and published in his collection of essays The Long-Legged House in 1969, also reveals a remarkably similar perspective on man and nature as that which informs the poem. The hill Berry is referring to is a ridge near his home in Henry County, Kentucky, and the essay records his thoughts and feelings as he walks in the vicinity. As in the poem, he describes in "A Native Hill" how, when troubled by his thoughts about the long disaster of human history, and "this human present that is such a bitterness and a trial," he goes to the woods, and this transforms him:
I enter an order that does not exist outside, in the human spaces. I feel my life take its place among the lives—the trees, the annual plants, the animals and birds, the living of all these and the dead—that go and have gone to make the life of the earth.
He continues, in almost a paraphrase of what happens to the speaker in "The Peace of Wild Things," "My mind loses its urgings, senses its nature, and is free." He takes note of the "peacefulness in a flock of wood ducks perched above the water in the branches of a fallen beech"; he intuits the joy of a great blue heron as it does "a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop." The scene is almost like a prose commentary on the poem, and in a passage that suggests in a nutshell what Bly tries to convey about the necessity of acquiring a twofold consciousness, Berry writes, "One has come into the presence of mystery. After all the trouble one has taken to be a modern man, one has come back under the spell of a primitive awe, wordless and humble."
It can therefore be seen that "The Peace of Wild Things," together with the whole body of Berry's work in poetry as well as in essays such as "A Native Hill," is a vision of right relations restored between humans and nature. Man's arrogance, his belief that he is separate from and superior to nature, has come to an end as he learns to absorb the spirit that lives within nature, which gives to his life a grace, a depth, and a serenity that it otherwise lacks.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The Peace of Wild Things," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Holly M. Brockman
In the following interview with Brockman, Berry shares his thoughts on the importance of sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship, values which influence such poems as "The Peace of Wild Things."
If you profess to embrace family values and you shop at Wal-Mart, think again. The global economy, powered by big corporations such as Wal-Mart, destroys families with low prices made possible by low wages.
Such are the teachings of Wendell Berry, 71, a lifelong advocate of family values, sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. Berry's writings promote local economies as a healthier, more eco-friendly way of life. He has authored more than 40 books and is among 35 Kentucky writers whose work is featured in a new anthology on the devastation that mountaintop removal mining has wrought in Southern Appalachia.
Berry lives, writes and farms at Lane's Landing near Port Royal, Ky.
Holly M. Brockman: I've heard you use the term "useful" in some of your talks, and it certainly permeates all your essays and other writing. What does usefulness mean? Who is somebody who is useful and why?
Wendell Berry: There's a kind of language that obscures its subject. Such language makes it harder to see and to think. By the word usefulness I mean language or work that enables seeing, makes clarity. Wes Jackson's work and language have been wonderfully useful to me in that way. Harry Caudill too, by his books and his conversation, helped me to see and think and make the radical criticism. Gary Snyder and I agree on a lot of things, but his point of view is different from mine and it has been immensely useful to me. Some differences make for binocular vision.
HB: And what does it mean in the context of human daily living and beyond? Let's say into the corporate world?
WB: Usefulness stands in opposition to the frivolous. John Synge wrote about the Aran Islands where the people were poor and yet all the useful things in their life were beautiful. The issue of usefulness has a kind of cleansing force. If you ask, "Is it useful?" probably you're going to have fewer things you don't need. You are useful to your family if you're bringing home the things they need. Beyond that, maybe you are useful to other people by your work. The corporate world is much inclined to obscure this usefulness by making and selling a lot of things that people don't need. For instance, a lively and important question is how much light we use at night and what we use it for and need it for. I'm old enough to remember when the whole countryside was dark at night except for the lights inside the houses, and now the countryside at night is just strewn with these so-called security lights. How much of this do we need? How much of it is useful? We have a marketplace that is full of useless or unnecessary commodities. I don't want to be too much of a crank, but there are many things that people own to no real benefit, such as computer games and sometimes even computers.
HB: How does your notion of usefulness differ from the old Protestant work ethic?
WB: The Protestant work ethic has never been very discriminating about kinds or qualities of work or even the usefulness of work. To raise the issue of usefulness is to call for some means or standard of discrimination. The Protestant work ethic doesn't worry about the possibility of doing harmful work or useless work.
HB: In order to be better stewards of our own lives and therefore those resources around us—land, soil, each other—how do we work toward a more sustainable, community-oriented life?
WB: I think you have to begin with an honest assessment of the value or the possibility of personal independence. What is the limit of individualism or personal autonomy? Once you confess to yourself that you need other people, then you're in a position to look around your neighborhood and see how neighborly it is, starting with how neighborly you are yourself. The question of stewardship naturally follows. How careful is your neighborhood of the natural gifts such as the topsoil on which it depends.
HB: Large chunks of what used to be taken care of by family members—caring for children, the elderly and education—has been outsourced to corporations in the form of daycare, preschool and corporate sponsorship of education initiatives. You've written extensively about this and that these are signs of familial breakdown. Why is it a breakdown and what impact does it have on a family?
WB: The issue here is the extent to which a family is like a community in its need to live at the center of its own attention. A family necessarily begins to come apart if it gives its children entirely to the care of the school or the police, and its old people entirely to the care of the health industry. Nobody can deny the value of good care even away from home to people who have become helplessly ill or crippled, or, in our present circumstances, the value of good daytime care for the children of single parents who have to work. Nevertheless, it is the purpose of the family to stay together. And like a community, a family doesn't stay together just out of sentiment. It is certainly more pat to stay together if the various members need one another or are in some practical way dependent on one another. It's probably worth the risk to say that families need to have useful work for their children and old people, little jobs that the other members are glad to have done.
HB: What are some things we can do—small things, perhaps—until we actually make a commitment on a broader scale, to initiate husbandry (whose trajectory will be felt globally) to ourselves, our families and our communities?
WB: I think this starts with an attempt at criticism of one's own economy, which may be the same thing as good accounting. What are the things that one buys? How necessary or useful are they? What is their quality? Are they well grown or well made? What is their real cost to their producers and to the ecosystems in which they were produced? Almost inevitably when one asks these questions, one discovers that they are extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to answer. That frequently is because the things we buy have been produced so far away as to make impossible any stewardly interest on the part of the consumer. And this recognition leads to an even better question: How can these mysterious products brought here from so far away be replaced by products that have been produced near home? And that question, of course, leads to all manner of thoughts and questions about the possibility of a better, more self-sufficient local economy. What can we neighbors do for one another and for our place? What can our place do for us without damage to us or to it?
HB: Is it possible to reshape our thinking in baby steps or must we make sweeping changes?
WB: Oh, let's be against sweeping changes and in favor of doing things in small steps. Let's not discourage ourselves by trying for too much or subject ourselves to the tyranny of somebody else's big idea.
HB: If everything is left to the individual and the community, how can each avoid being so overburdened that no one has much time for activism and intellectual pursuit?
WB: In other words, how can you have a livable life and do everything? Everything ought not to be left to individuals and communities. Government exists to do for people what they can't do for themselves. Farmers individually or in their communities, for instance, can't enact effective programs for price supports with production control so a government can do that, and at one time our federal government did do that. Maybe I'd better say at this point that I am an unabashed admirer of the tobacco programs of The New Deal.
HB: Many progressives live transitive lives (you included having spent time in New York, California and abroad) having fled small towns for the more intellectually stimulating environment of a college town. How do we close that gap and encourage progressives and intellectuals to find safety and comfort outside an academic setting?
WB: The geographer Carl Sauer said, "If I should move to the center of the mass I should feel that the germinal potential was out there on the periphery." I think there should always be some kind of conversation between the center and the periphery. So you need people in the periphery who can talk back to the people in the center.
HB: What encouraged you to settle back in your hometown of Port Royal, Ky., after finding rewarding intellectual and academic success?
WB: It was clear I'd be thinking about this place (Port Royal) the rest of my life, and so you could argue that I might as well have come back so as to know it. But that's only a supposition. The reason I came back was because I wanted to. Tanya and I wanted to. We hadn't been homesick but when we started down the New Jersey turnpike with the New York skyline behind us, it was exhilarating.
HB: How do we encourage progressives to settle down and where should they stay? Would you see possibility in them forming communities among themselves or would you see them successful in joining already established rural communities where they might not feel initially welcomed?
WB: Well, people do form intentional communities. I have visited a few that seemed pleasant enough. But I've never lived in one, and so I don't really know about them. I'm not willing to say, as general advice, that urban people should move to the country. I've never advised anybody to give up a well-paying city job and try to farm for a living.
HB: Rural, community-based living has the thinking, stereotyped perhaps, that there is an innate distrust of outsiders. Do you see truth in this thinking? What can be done to re-shape this thinking?
WB: There's truth in it, but it's also true that distrust is a major disease of our time, wherever you live. I don't have any idea what can be done about that. The only way to stop somebody from distrusting you is to be trustworthy and to prove it over a longish period of time.
HB: Do you believe community-based living has historically bred conservative rather than progressive ideas?
WB: That depends entirely on the community you're in. Communities of coal miners have supported the union movement. Small farmers have in this part of the country supported the tobacco program. On the other hand, I suppose that if you live in a community that is thriving, providing good work for its members and unthreatened by internal violence, you would probably try to conserve it. I suppose that Amish communities have tried to be conservative that way. If you live in an enclave of wealth and privilege, probably you tend to be conservative in a more familiar way. And, in my opinion, that is the wrong kind of conservatism.
HB: Many people grow up in small towns and find great comfort in their natural and familial surroundings, but their thinking and ambitions aren't rewarded there either by lack of jobs or lack of embracement of ideas—certainly, a misuse of the community's resources. How can youngsters and young adults be encouraged to stay home and still be fulfilled?
WB: This question depends on what you mean by intellectual stimulation and whether or not you can get it from the available resources. It's perfectly possible to live happily in a rural community with people who aren't intellectual at all (as we use the term). It is possible to subscribe to newspapers and magazines that are intellectually challenging, to read books, to correspond with like-minded people in other places, to visit and be visited by people you admire for their intellectual and artistic attainments. It's possible to be married to a spouse whose thoughts interest you. It's possible to have intellectually stimulating conversations with your children. But I've had in my own life a lot of friends who were not literary or intellectual at all who were nevertheless intelligent, mentally alive and alert, full of wonderful stories, and whose company and conversation have been indispensable to me. I've spent many days in tobacco barns where I did not yearn for the conversation of the college faculty.
HB: Farmers markets and coops where people buy a share of a farmer's harvest and pick it up weekly or bi-weekly have gained in popularity. So have weekly, predictable roadside stands. Why is this so important to a community?
WB: Well, the obvious reason is that a good local economy feeds the local community. But markets of the right kind and scale also fulfill an important social function. They are places where neighbors, producers and consumers meet and talk. People come to the farmer's market to shop and might stand around and talk half a day. Country stores have fulfilled the same functions. People feel free to sit up at the Hawkins Farm Center in Port Royal. It's a great generosity on the part of the Hawkins family, and a great blessing to the community.
HB: Why is providing food to a local community so important in sustaining it?
WB: Because the most secure, freshest and the best-tasting food supply is local food produced by local farmers who like their work, like their products and like having them appreciated by people they know. A local food system, moreover, is [not] subject to … the dangers and vulnerabilities of a large, high-centralized, highly chemicalized, industrialized food system held together by long distance transportation. A locally adapted local food economy is the most secure against forms of political violence, epidemics and other threats.
Source: Holly M. Brockman, "How Can a Family ‘Live at the Center of Its Own Attention?’: Wendell Berry's Thoughts on the Good Life," in New Southerner, January-February 2006.
In the following excerpt, Taylor addresses the simplicity of Berry's diction in his poems, including "The Peace of Wild Things."
The name of Wendell Berry first came to my attention about forty years ago. I was then a student at the University of Virginia and a part-time employee of Noonday Book Shop, where a book called November Twenty-Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty-Three enjoyed a brisk sale for several weeks. The text was a single poem by Wendell Berry; it had appeared in The Nation shortly after the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy. The artist Ben Shahn had seen it, and obtained permission to present it in his highly characteristic calligraphy, along with several original images invoked by the poem.
By implication, this is not a poem that Berry cares to have reread, since he omitted it from his Collected Poems 1977-1982 (1985). I therefore feel somewhat apologetic about bringing it briefly into the light again, but I do not do so in order to comment on the wisdom of Berry's decision. It is certainly not an embarrassingly bad poem—far from it—though it is not hard to sympathize with the view that it lacks the monumental durability the occasion would seem to require. What that collaborative book did, however, was to place before a significant readership several of the qualities that have marked much of Berry's poetry ever since.
A close look at the poem reveals what some of these qualities are. The poem opens,
We know the winter earth upon the body of the young
President, and the early dark falling;
We know the veins grown quiet in his temples and
wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
The diction is somewhat formal, yet unpretentious and precise; the verse form is reminiscent of Walt Whitman, but this indebtedness does not adulterate Berry's particular voice. The initial repetition of "we know," which holds for the remaining nine long lines, reminds us that Berry is notably a poet of community. Because he is speaking for his people as well as for himself, the poet occasionally adopts a phrase that we would be surprised to hear in ordinary conversation. When a southerner takes up the language in one hand and holds it against his chest as if it were a harp, we know that when the other hand touches the strings, we will hear something other than informal chat. Among these effects are an elevated tone, arising sometimes from phrasings that might be almost Biblical; swift flashes of precision that hover between consolation and heartbreak; and slightly self-conscious enjoyment of the way an unusual word can find a place that makes it sound exactly right, as, for example, "nightlong" below. The poem touches movingly, because it does so without melodrama, on the passage of individual persons from the earth as the human race persists:
we know the nightlong coming of faces into the candle
light before his coffin, and their passing;
Very lightly, the poem grazes the subject of human damage to the earth, the theme that readers most readily associate with Berry's work. Here is the ending:
we know ourselves, the bearers of the light of the earth
he is given to, and of the light of all his lost days;
we know the long approach of summers toward the
healed ground where he will be waiting, no longer the
keeper of what he was.
Finally, in certain other lines, we can hear the insistence on the message that sometimes asserts itself in Berry's poems:
we know the children who begin the youth of loss
greater than they can dream now.
A few years ago, in connection with the choice of Wendell Berry as the winner of the 1994 Aiken Taylor Poetry Prize administered by the Sewanee Review, I had the exhilarating and deeply inspiring experience of rereading most of his poetry, mostly in chronological order of publication. There are many fine poems in Collected Poems, which gathers the poems Berry wished to preserve from his first eight collections. More recently, Sabbaths (1987) and its fuller incarnation, A Timbered Choir (1998), and Entries (1994) bear out my suspicion that sometime after he published his fourth collection, Berry entered vigorously into a process of regularly readjusting the balance in his poetry between thematic content and more mysterious and more needful materials, those aspects of diction, sound, and form that move the poem away from mostly saying toward the realm of mostly doing. He has been a splendid poet for a long time, but his most recent work is his best.
Berry's technical resources have since the appearance of his first book been impressive in their depth and variety. Nevertheless, he comes from a landscape, a region, and maybe a family tradition that would engender small patience with a literary work that is patently much more about itself than anything else. About forty miles northeast of Louisville, several streams, or "runs," make their way between modest hills to the Kentucky River, which meanders northward to the Ohio. The land they drain is mostly good; it responds deeply to knowledgeable care. In such a place it doesn't take too much decoration to seem too fancy, and it doesn't take much frivolity to make a pursuit seem worthless. In his later work, Berry evokes his father's voice and words as reminders that deep simplicity can also be deeply rewarding mystery, which can lead to enlightenment. Poems differ widely in the openness with which they admit to being about themselves or about the art of poetry. When the poem's topic is immediately obvious, and the speaker's stance toward it is clear and urgent, it takes craft on the order of greatness to maintain the poem as poem, rather than as editorial or sermon. This is not at all to require the self-conscious surface effects that characterize many poems by such extravagant stylists as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, or Dylan Thomas, for example; nor is it to require that a poem avoid addressing large themes directly and assertively.
Let me take a small instance from the previous century, before returning to the work of Wendell Berry. Robert Frost, I have heard, used to enjoy reciting this poem by Coventry Patmore and asking his hearers to guess who wrote it. The last four lines, at the very least, have the grand authoritative sound of some more familiar Victorian British poet. The title is "Magna Est Veritas," meaning "Truth Is Great"—a clause with more than a whiff of the didactic. The poem follows,
Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
How the reader takes the poem's central proposition may be a matter of temperament; certainly it is not an activist call to the barricades to say, "For want of me the world's course will not fail." Nor is it an insistence on any particular truth to suggest that general truth is whatever shall prevail, "When none cares whether it prevail or not." "The truth is great," however, is a statement in Basic English, and expresses deep faith. But that is only one of the things here that convince me that this is a splendid poem, not just an immediately recognizable statement of a central article of faith.
Among the important matters of craft here is the delicate but definite shift between the first six lines and the last four, a turn much like that in a Petrarchan sonnet. It occurs not only because the focus shifts from the immediate surroundings to the general proposition, but also because the meter becomes much more nearly predictable in the last four lines. More delicately, there is a series of small tensions in the first six lines, in such adjective-noun combinations as "purposeless, glad ocean," "great repose," "little Bay," and "huge town," and in the phrase "under high cliffs." This yoking of opposites and near-opposites causes rapid shifts of perspective that culminate in the short line "I sit me down," which says both "I am small, here in the shortest line of the poem," and "I am here, and have brought me along to take up this entire line as well as the main clause at the end of this sentence." The only adjective in the last four lines is great.
Berry, too, has effectively used frequent juxtaposition of opposites in lines and sentences that are in other ways apparently very straightforward. The unobtrusive use of this device greatly enlivens "Window Poems," for example, a sequence of twenty-seven brief free-verse poems first collected in Openings (1968).
The fact remains that Modernism and its aftermaths seem to have made it harder to come right out and say, in a poem, something like "The truth is great" or, to return to Berry's poems, "I know that freedom can only be given, / and is the gift to the giver / from the one who receives," from "My Great-Grandfather's Slaves."
There may be many approaches to doing this in the face of critical resistance. Ordinary Philistinism, manifest in dismissals of certain kinds of poetry and criticism as bloodless intellectual trivializing of things that matter to ordinary people, is not the approach Berry takes. Another approach, which might be Berry's, arises from a typical poetic strategy that is simply to try hard to do well what one has been told cannot be done. It is either fun or deeply depressing to think what might happen in a usual graduate poetry workshop to "The Want of Peace," first collected in Openings:
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardener's musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
A piece of conventional wisdom about poetry is that it should not invite disagreement. This notion appears to have gained its deepest foothold during the Romantic movement, but in any case it is a matter of taste. One of the pleasures this poem affords is that of responding to it, saying something like this to the first stanza: "All goes back to the earth; nevertheless, I find it hard to quell my desire for pride of excess or power. I have not yet learned truly to desire the contentments made by men who have had little, though now that you mention that fisherman and that gardener, I recall enjoying a few fleeting instances of what you're talking about." Engaged thus in conversation with the poem, I come to the second stanza and am suddenly plunged into respectful silence, feeling permanently in possession of the idea that our way is lighted by burning men, to which I came through a memorable alternation of the words peace, place, peace, and grace in three lines rather than four.
Even in celebration, however, I admit finding occasional lines and sentences in Berry's poems that seem too ponderously overt with their messages, as if the poet had fallen into the momentary belief that assertively artistic use of language is, in some contexts, an irresponsible frivolity. After all, the subject is the fate of the human race and of the earth's ability to sustain life. This matters more than the techniques of verbal repetition or internal rhyme, or the delicate tension between understated opposites. "The Peace of Wild Things," which immediately follows "The Want of Peace" in Collected Poems, begins with a five-line sentence similar in tone to the beginning of the previous poem, but does not arouse in me the same interest in conversing with it:
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.
Here, the plainness of the style has been taken so far in the direction of prose that the decision where to end lines is based on almost purely syntactical factors. Even in such prosaic contexts, though, a way of putting something will be often fresh and new, and a sentence will inspire the feeling I get when a pheasant comes out of a familiar roadside and crosses in front of me to vanish on the other side.
There are many such moments in Farming: A Handbook (1970), maybe because the urgency with which Berry feels the land's peril is so much nearer the surface in that collection. "Air and Fire" begins with a slightly periphrastic account of getting on a plane and traveling, being attracted to flight attendants and a new life:
Having risen up from my native land,
I find myself smiled at by beautiful women ….
Exactly in the middle of the poem, there is this sentence of almost flat directness, yet admirable precision and aptness:
And all over the country I find myself
falling in love with houses, woods, and farms
that I will never set foot in.
It is nearly impossible to say how this differs in effectiveness from the beginning of "The Peace of Wild Things"; the two sentences are unequal in length, but in their use of syntax and familiar language they are very similar. In this poem, however, the notion has been prepared for, whereas "The Peace of Wild Things" launches immediately into a situation we must take on faith and is a touch humorless in its portrayal of a man lying down among birds. "Air and Fire" shows a sly awareness of its own extravagance:
My eyes go wandering through America,
two wayfaring brothers, resting in silence
against the forbidden gates. O what if
an angel came to me, and said,
"Go free of what you have done. Take
what you want." The atoms of blood
and brain and bone strain apart
at the thought.
Farming: A Handbook is also the collection in which "The Mad Farmer" makes his first appearance. He subsists upon the same kind of ambiguous tonalities, as his ruminations and outbursts range from subtle self-deprecation to loud and sometimes hilarious polemic. He is a complex and reliable emissary from one outing county in the poet's state of being, and he is among us still, having made his most recent appearance in Entries (1994). His usefulness to us is that he makes a place for some of Berry's more rapscallious ways to wisdom; it may be that Berry finds him useful in the same way. Some of us need characters to say what we have a hard time saying in our own voices. It is not that what the poems say runs counter to our central beliefs or our temperament, but that certain sides of a question may get a more detailed hearing from a purified version of one of our usual states of mind. A friend of mine said to me recently, "Sometimes I wake up on the redneck side of the bed."
Through his first four collections, Berry worked primarily in a traditionalist kind of free verse: honest sentences with line breaks where grammar or satisfying enjambment might reasonably call for them. Once in a while, there is something more nearly metrical, or a poem in rhyme, but these are scarce in his earlier poetry. With The Country of Marriage (1973), Berry began to use traditional form much more often than he had. This turns out to have a usefulness similar to that of fictional speakers. A man talking to himself, alone in his car, for example, will feel much more intelligent and engaging than he feels when he says the same things among other people. It is good to be alone where the words might tumble out freely, but it is also good to be where they will bounce against the possibility of skepticism or outright disbelief.
Wendell Berry has never been anything but a very careful worker; you will scan his oeuvre in vain for unchecked outpourings. But as the years go by and the books pile up, a familiar way of working can become treacherous by way of its very familiarity. Terrible things have happened to men who let themselves forget, just for a moment, that their workhorses are living beings with individual characteristics. Berry has had teams of Belgians, and he continues hale among us. He must have begun to sense the rewards of writing against some sort of obstacle, putting his words where they had to get past some hard place. In traditional verse, the words must get so far past it that the backward glance cannot make it out ….
Source: Henry Taylor, "‘All Goes Back to the Earth’: The Poetry of Wendell Berry," in Southern Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 2001, p. 31.
Angyal, Andrew, Wendell Berry, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 654, Twayne Publishers, 1995, p. 118.
Berry, Wendell, The Long-Legged House, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969, pp. 20, 66, 203, 205, 211, 212.
———, "The Peace of Wild Things," in Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, 1985, p. 69.
Bly, Robert, News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, edited by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1980, pp. 3-4.
Burns, Shirley Stewart, Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970-2004, West Virginia University Press, 2007.
Driskell, Leon V., "Wendell Berry," in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, American Poets Since World War II, First Series, edited by Donald J. Greiner, Gale Research, 1980, pp. 62-66.
Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Bantam Books, 1987.
"Psalm 23," in The Holy Bible, revised standard edition, Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 585.
Ray, David, "Heroic, Mock-Heroic," in the New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1985, p. 28.
Tammaro, Thom, Review of Collected Poems, 1957-1982, in Library Journal, Vol. 110, April 15, 1985, p. 76.
Taylor, Henry, "‘All Goes Back to the Earth’: The Poetry of Wendell Berry," in Southern Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 2001, p. 31.
Bush, Harold K., Jr., "Hunting for Reasons to Hope: A Conversation with Wendell Berry," in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 56, No. 2, Winter 2007, pp. 214-34.
In a wide-ranging discussion that took place on his farm in 2006, Berry talks about his poetry, the influences on his writing, and many other aspects of his life and work.
Goodrich, Janet, The Unforeseen Self in the Works of Wendell Berry, University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Goodrich examines Berry's work in terms of his imaginative ability to turn autobiography into literature. She discusses this in terms of five different modes of being: autobiographer, poet, farmer, prophet, and neighbor.
Johnson, William C., "Tangible Mystery in the Poetry of Wendell Berry," in Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Merchant, Confluence Press, 1991, pp. 184-90.
Johnson discusses Berry's poetry in terms of the presence of the sacred within the earth and the mysterious bond that unites humans with nature.
Kline, Benjamin, First Along the River: A Brief History of the U.S. Environmental Movement, 3rd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
This is a concise history of the environmental movement in the United States from the colonial era to the present. This edition has been updated to include sections on the environmental challenges for the twenty-first century, including climate change.
Knott, John R., "Into the Woods with Wendell Berry," Essays in Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 124-40.
This is an examination of the wilderness theme in Berry's work, which is a source of peace and joy that enables a person to understand and sustain his or her life.
Peters, Jason, editor, Wendell Berry: Life and Work, University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
This collection of essays, reminiscences, and tributes to Berry covers the entire range of Berry'swork, including his poetry and his essays on sustainable agriculture and other environmental issues.