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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry More than Nature Poet

During a slight lull in tax preparation, I managed to finish Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir. Strangely, about the time I started feeling that Wendell Berry was an overly optimistic poet, I suddenly encountered this poem from 1991:

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty become
What we have feared to be.

The poem evoked some eerie feelings for me. The lines “Hour after hour, by death/ Abroad appeasing wrath,/ Folly, and greed at home” could aptly summarize our current attacks on Iraq, couldn’t they? The war is little more than an attempt to appease America’s wrath over the 9/11 attack despite little evidence that there is really any direct link. If Berry thought “Desert Storm” was “folly,” what must he be thinking about “Operation Iraqi Freedom?” Surely, America’s attempts to secure the oil fields before anything else would support his contention that greed is a major factor in these wars.

I wonder how accurate Berry is in ascribing the causes of this war to the same greed that threatens to destroy our environment. Does our love of “highways” and “shopping malls” drive not only the destruction of our environment but also our attempts to dominate the world?

In our attempts to “make the world safe for democracy” will we merely become a “capitalistic empire,” little different from the British Empire that we seceded from in order to ensure our ability to control our own fate?

Thankfully, “The year begins with war” is but a temporary interruption in Berry’s celebration of man’s relationship to nature and to each other. The following poem, one of my favorites in the second half of A Timbered Choir, is typical of what follows:

A bird the size
of a leaf fills
the whole lucid
evening with
his note and flies.

I strive to believe that the human soul, as small as it seems, can, like the small bird, illuminate our world and fill it with music.