Happy summer solstice to you residents of the Northern Hemisphere. Thus commences your astronomical winter. And for you in austral Gaia—happy astronomical summer!
I’ve been slowly reading my way through Wendell Berry’s What I Stand On: Collected Essays 1969-2017, a two-volume set from the Library of America. Berry is the author of some 80 books of poems, essays and novels. A farmer for the past 40 years, he’s a leading voice for sustainable agriculture and environmental activism. Most of us can repeat his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” by heart, and for me his essays are like cider—crisp, convincing and deeply satisfying..
In his 1985 essay “Preserving Wilderness,” Berry examines the interdependence of culture and nature with this: “The human and the natural are indivisible, and yet are different.”
Therein lies the rub. “We live,” he writes, “partly because we are domestic creatures—that is, we participate in our human economy to the extent that we ‘make a living’: we are able, with variable success, to discipline our appetites and instincts in order to produce this artifact, this human living. And yet it is equally true that we breathe and our hearts beat and we survive as a species because we are wild.”
Ditto human cultivation, which “branches upward out of the soul. The topsoil, to the extent that it is fertile, is wild; it is a dark wilderness, ultimately unknowable, teeming with wildlife. A forest or a crop, no matter how intentionally husbanded by human foresters or farmers, will be found to be healthy precisely to the extent that it is wild—able to collaborate with earth, air, light, and water in the way common to plants before humans walked the earth.”
Attempts to fully domesticate this wildness—to govern and control and maximize yield according to factory procedure—replacing harmony of relation with manufacturing process—are doomed to fail; all we are doing is “increasing the violence and the magnitude of expectable reactions.” “To be divided against nature, against wildness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves. It confines our identity as creatures entirely within the bounds of our own understanding, which is invariably a mistake because it is invariably reductive. it reduces our largeness, our mystery, to a petty and sickly comprehensibility.”
Likewise, human culture is vital for a fertile relationship with nature; but culture is a product of domestication, and there are good and bad products.
To take a creature who is biologically a human and to make him or her fully human is a task that requires many years some of us sometimes fear that it requires more than a lifetime), and this long effort of human making is necessary, I think, because of our power. In the hierarchy of power among the earth’s creatures, we are at the top, and we have been growing stronger for a long time. We are now, to ourselves, incomprehensibly powerful, capable of doing more damage than floods, storms, volcanoes and earthquakes.
And so it is more important than ever that we should have cultures capable of making us into humans—creatures capable of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues. For our history reveals that, stripped of the restraints, disciplines, and ameliorations of culture, humans are not ‘natural,’ not ‘thinking animals,’ or ‘naked apes,’ but monsters, indiscriminate and insatiable killers and destroyers. We differ from other creatures, partly, in our susceptibility to monstrosity.
Without culture—the humane cultivation of wilderness—the Earth is in trouble. Without nature—without the soil and air of our wild environment—humanity is doomed. There must be common ground for both.
Berry sees that work quite possible. “In the recovery of culture and nature is the knowledge how to form well, how to preserve, harvest and replenish the forests, how make, build, and use, return and restore. In this double recovery is the hope that the domestic and the wild can exist together in lasting harmony.”
Central to this work is harmony, “the inescapable dialogue between culture and nature … (where) humans consciously and conscientiously ask of their work, is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning and answering … is minutely particular: It can occur only with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems and neighborhoods.”
Somehow I think poetry can enters into the dialogue here, for a poem is both question and answer of the particular, asking, is this good? Good enough? In the proper balance? Worthy of the further work of delving, exhumation, explicating, redress, burial, farewell and replanting?
Craft comes in with the work of cultivation, for
The good maker understands that a badly made artifact is both an insult to its user and a danger to its source. We could say, then, that good forestry begins with the respectful husbandry of the forest we call stewardship and ends with well-made tables and chairs and houses, just as good agriculture begins with stewardship of the fields and ends with good meals.
Well-wrought urns are sustaining, both with the pleasure of a good thing and reminding us what is what is worth striving for. A poem from Berry’s in The Country of Marriage (1973) reminds us the poet is cultured is by the poem one has harvested, the delight of nature found there and the essential bond between maker and made:
PRAYER AFTER EATING
I have taken in the light
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.
(from The Country of Marriage, 1973)
May our poems be worthy of the paper sacrificed for them, the carbons released into the atmosphere by what powers our electronic forum.
What is equally important is that our poetry has a receiving source, a venue for expression and a community of readers. In recent decades that source has almost completely shifted to the incessant roar of digital media which places little lasting value on anything. (Almost, I say: This reader still enjoys books of poems in the morning.)
Berry’s analogue is apt:
Conservation is going to prove increasingly futile and meaningless if its prescriptions are not answered positively by an economy that rewards and enforces good use. I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our towns and households, and I would think that the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.
What we do here at earthweal—try to, anyway—is celebrate what is local around the world. The complete human artifact is a choir of local voices. As made things go, we are learning about cultivation and harmony, the mix of strident concern and grief and celebration.
I like to think of poems as natural products, seeded by imagination and cultivated with care and craft. Songs of earth praise beauty, rhythm, seasons, death and resurrection: they are the wilderness of poetry, impenetrable and unknowable and of a trust we can only leap to gain, weave metaphors to explain.
But why am I trying to explain this? Here’s Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir, a collection of poems written on the Sabbath—a day of rest and one in which the poet wanders from field into wood to celebrate the simple glory of what is. In this 1982 poem, Berry writes to his son Den, trying to impart some of what he has learned of culture and nature.
We have walked so many times, my boy,
over these old fields given up
to thicket, have thought
and spoken of their possibilities,
theirs and ours, ours and theirs the same,
so many times, that now when I walk here
alone, the thought of you goes with me;
my mind reaches toward yours
across the distance and through time.
No mortal mind’s complete within itself,
but minds must speak and answer,
as ours must, on the subject of this place,
our history here, summoned
as we are to the correction
of old wrong in this soil, thinned
and broken, and in our minds.
You have seen on these gullied slopes
the piles of stones mossy with age,
dragged out of furrows long ago
by men now names on stones,
who cleared and broke these fields,
saw them go to ruin, learned nothing
from the trees they saw return
to hold the ground again.
But here is a clearing we have made
at no cost to the world
and to our gain — a re-clearing
after forty years: the thicket
cut level with the ground,
grasses and clovers sown
into the last year’s fallen leaves,
new pasture coming to the sun
as the woods plants, lovers of shade,
give way: change made
without violence to the ground.
At evening birdcall
flares at the woods’ edge:
flight arcs into the opening
Out of disordered history
a little coherence, a pattern
comes, like the steadying
of a rhythm a drum, melody
coming to it from time
to time, waking over it,
as from a bird at dawn
or nightfall, the long outline
emerging, through the momentary,
as the hill’s hard shoulder
shows through trees
when the leaves fall.
The field finds its source
in the old forest, in the thicket
that returned to cover it,
in the dark wilderness of its soil,
in the dispensation of the sky,
in our time, in our minds—
the righting of what was done wrong.
Wrong was easy: gravity helped it.
Right is difficult and long.
In choosing what is difficult
we are free, the mind too
making its little flight
out of the shadow into the clear
in time between work and sleep.
There are two healings: nature’s,
and ours and nature’s. Nature’s
will come in spite of us, after us,
over the graves of its wasters, as it comes
to the forsaken fields. The healing
that is ours and nature’s will come
if we are willing, if we are patient,
if we know the way, if we will do the work.
My father’s father, whose namesake
you are, told my father this, he told me,
and I am telling you: we make
this healing, the land’s and ours:
it is our possibility. We may keep
this place, and be kept by it.
There is a mind of such an artistry
that grass will follow it,
and heal and hold, feed beasts
who will feed us and feed the soil.
Though we invite, this healing comes
in answer to another voice than ours;
a strength not ours returns
out of death beginning in our work.
Though the spring is late and cold,
though uproar of greed
and malice shudders in the sky,
pond, stream, and treetop raise
their ancient songs;
the robin molds her mud nest
with her breast; the air
is bright with breath
and bloom, wise loveliness that asks
nothing of the season but to be.
For this challenge, write about the intersection of culture and nature. How does culture mediate both human and natural? How does it make us more natural and civilized? Where are we too civilized? How are we yet wild? How does nature need wise cultivation? How does cultivation slow the speed of civilization? How should we preserve what little of nature left? How to likewise preserve culture? How do you see yourself as a poet of culture and nature? If your life’s work were assembled in one silo, who would it feed? What is most nourishing? tasty? indigestible? How important is craft with culture? What is a well made thing? What is it to be cultured and wild? (I remember Robert Bly saying you should only put a dream in at the end of a poem since they hail from the darkest wilderness of our understanding.) These suggestions, but of course you can follow your own course into the theme. Local varieties count …
Creatures of culture and nature, let me hear you sing!