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.