Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir

Since it’s impossible to entirely ignore the war in the newspaper, on the television, on the net, or even in friends’ blogs, I’ve been working hard to make sure that I devote the rest of my life to more uplifting sources. It’s hard to imagine a writer more uplifting than Wendell Berry. I’ve agreed with almost everything I’ve read by him in the past, and I’ve particularly enjoyed his writings at Orion.http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/03-2om/Berry.html

I find little to disagree with in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbeth Poems 1979-1997, though I haven’t found the poems quite as stimulating as I thought they might be judging from poems I’ve previously read.

The book opened auspiciously with a poem that captures my own feelings about venturing into primeval forests:


I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.


Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.


Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.


After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

While I seldom “go among trees and sit still,” preferring a “walking meditation,” I certainly identified with the overall experience described in the poem. He accurately describes three different stages of experiencing wilderness. You begin by feeling a sense of inner “silence” that is difficult to attain in the city. Once you begin to fit in, the squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc. begin to return and accept you as part of the environment. Next, if you’re lucky enough and fade into the background, the higher predators, cougars or bears, will appear out of nowhere. Finally, if you spend enough time alone in the wilderness you begin to find yourself, the ultimate discovery.

“Slowly, slowly, they return…” is the title poem of the book. Although I’ve only experienced evergreens, not deciduous trees, the idea of “a timbered choir” resonates with me. I have a few favorite places that I’ve revisited over the last sixty years where giant firs have gradually begun to reclaim the logged-over areas:

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
0 light come down to earth, be praised!

Personally, I like the phrase “apostles of the living light” since trees reach closer to the sun than any other plant. The image is reinforced in the next stanza by the phrase “timbered choir,” the giant trees singing the praise of Nature. There is something miraculous in the transformation of “sun and giving shade.” Unlike the giant fir trees of the Pacific Northwest, the giant deciduous trees drop a magical carpet of “brightened leaves” in the fall, bringing the sun’s “radiance” down to man’s level.

I must admit that though I share a similar viewpoint of nature, I found Berry’s poems a little too didactic for my taste. I would have preferred poetry that relied more on imagery and less on mere description to convey his ideas. Of course, perhaps this is to be expected from a work with the subtitle: The Sabbath Poems.

9 thoughts on “Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir

  1. What a pleasant break, which should encourage me to provide the same.

    I’ve been fortunate to have lived in areas with so many different forms of wilderness; this poem actually takes a different interpretation based on the type of forest: from Arizona desert and cacti, to N California redwoods, Pacific Northwest rainforest, and Vermont and Missouri deciduous. However, he has captured the essence of the wild, tangled, overgrown deciduous forests in Missouri.

    The odd thing is, he sounds like he’s describing two differents types of forests.

    I understand about the levels of peace one finds when one walks/hikes in the forest, particularly alone.

    As a sidenote, you’ve not experienced deciduous trees? I’m assuming by this you mean in larger numbers, as in a forest?

  2. That’s right, as a forest.

    I have a huge three story hazelnut tree in the backyard, not to mention three or four other smaller deciduous trees.

    But I’m not used to walking in anything but forests of fir trees.

  3. I am a band condcutor preparing my students for the piece “Held still in quick of grace” by Jack Stamp. It is said that the title is taken from line of Wendell Berry’s poetry. I can not locate the complete poem or any information on it. Can you be of any help? I would like to share it with my students. Thanks in advance, JGipson

  4. Gerald,

    I’m sorry but I don’t know the answer to your question.

    Brother Tom at brtom knows Berry better than anyone I know, but I couldn’t find his email address on his site.

    You can do a search for brtom and find his site easily. Maybe you’d have better luck than I did finding his email address.

  5. GREAT blog! You popped up on a google search.

    I’m looking for some missing lines in a Wendell Berry poem and clues would be most gratefully appreciated.

    To farm, live like a tree
    That does not grow beyond
    The power of its place . . .

    . . . stands in its place
    and rises by the strength
    of local soil and light,
    aspiring to no height
    that it has not attained.

    More time, more light, more rain
    will make it grow again
    till it has realized all
    that it can become,
    and then it dies into more life,
    deserving more by not desiring more.

  6. Dear Loren,
    Wendell Berry was one in a panel of speakers at a forum in the 80’s. Did you ever find his email address? I am also looking for it.
    I enjoy your blog.

    granddaughter of Kuan Sing

  7. Berry’s OK…though such a purist that falling short of his whole-hearted engagement, a guy could feel like a slacker, a Christmas Christian. I don’t. I find there are rich sources that give me a more complete sense of the farming life, its many failures, for example. They complete the scene. Here’s a good one by Ted Kooser, for instance.

    Abandoned Farmhouse

    He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
    on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
    a tall man too, says the length of the bed
    in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
    says the Bible with a broken back
    on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
    but not a man for farming, say the fields
    cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

    A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
    papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
    covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
    says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
    Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
    and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
    And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
    It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

    Something went wrong, says the empty house
    in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
    say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
    in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
    And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
    like branches after a storm–a rubber cow,
    a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
    a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

What do you think?