Wendell Berry and Patrick Lane – How Darkness Comes Into the World – Part One

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

In an introduction to a poetry reading a few years ago Wendell Berry was described as a human treasure. This teacher, farmer and prolific writer of  more than forty books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction is all that and more. Truly, he is one of the world’s  “elders”, one of our “wise ones”. All the more reason to pay close attention to his calls for a dramatic change to our ruthless, and continuing, exploitation of this earth and its creatures. His generous vision for a healed world is no more evident than in his recent televised conversation (click here to see or read it) with the celebrated American interviewer Bill Moyers.

While Berry’s  essays on topics such as the economy, the environment and literature have garnered him a wide following, what I cherish most is his poems , short- stories and  novels. Some of the poems and all of the novels and short-stories are based on the fictional Kentucky town of Port William and its surrounding region.  He brings this community so vividly to life through the interlocking stories of his characters that they feel part of my extended family. And it makes much more real his anguish at the loss of such farming-based communities all over the world but especially in America.

My favorite of his books? The short-story collection Fidelity was the first of his books I read. It encouraged me to buy all his books but Fidelity remains a favorite because of its story A Jonquil for Mary Penn.  His poems console and inspire me, especially those on family and marriage. But the poem of his I value most after countless readings is his widely-known poem, The Peace of Wild Things. In this poem he reminds me, as I slightly change the words of American poet Mary Oliver: [to cherish our] one wild and precious [world]!

The Peace of Wild Things

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.
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
I rest in the grace of the world and I am free.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems 1957-1982, North Point Press, 1984

What a reminder: to rest in the grace of the world and be free. And this reminder was lived out so forcefully this Christmas in Jamaica when my daughter Tella flew in from South Africa.  In her first days while I was usually fretting about one thing or another, and couldn’t sit still, she was in the back gardens bird watching. In a place where I have been lucky to see maybe five or so different species over a period of weeks, she saw twenty nine in three days. I never rested as she did in the “now”, the present moment that any serious paying attention requires. It’s why I am a birder, she tells me. To be in the present moment.

Later, in Jamaica’s  Blue Mountains I tried to be like her as she searched for birds. I tried to  stay in  the present moment. After hearing a bird singing without stop and not seeing it I reluctantly picked up my binoculars and looked for it in the dense foliage of the Flame of the Forest tree. I couldn’t see it but kept focusing where I thought the song was coming from. Then, after a few minutes, I saw a burst of yellow and identified the Jamaican Oriole. That was a resting and freedom I seldom achieve! That was the kind of paying attention to the world around me that Berry and Canadian poet, Patrick Lane exemplify.

He is not as well known to a world-wide audience as Berry, but Canadian poet and novelist Patrick Lane, the author of more than twenty five books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, is another human treasure and elder. His profile has increased markedly in recent months through two widely publicized convocation addresses in British Columbia. His last one, in particular, was a poetic Cri de Coeur to a new generation, calling them to create a new example of how to be better stewards of the planet his generation is bequeathing them.

For me, what joins these two important literary figures of our time is not their activism but, literally — and more importantly I think –it is the ground which has nourished them, out of which their words have been informed and encouraged.

For readers of Berry and Lane it is evident that their creative “genius” flows from his visceral connections to the places which have most influenced them. For Berry it is the eastern Kentucky farming communities surrounding the town of Port Royal and the  Kentucky River. For Lane it is the hills and valleys of the interior of British Columbia around Kelowna and Merit.

Hear how their poems cherish this world: its sights, its sounds, its wild creatures. Hear how their poems warn us what makes a darkness come into the world. First, here is a poem by Lane that captures the event he highlights in his recent convocation address:


Cougar in a Tree

Cougar in a Tree


The cougar before she falls from her high limb
holds for one moment the Ponderosa pine, her back
arched, her tail so still the forest stops.
There are silences to learn,
each one an invocation: the one that follows
a father’s rage at a child, a woman’s rage at a man,
a child’s tears – you watch as if the sound
was a language you must learn. But a cougar’s falling?
Nothing is so quiet. Even the wind stops to listen.
Beetles, busy at death, lift up their jointed legs,
Whiskey-jacks slide quietly away, and ravens appear
as if they had been made from the air.
It is to watch a thing whose only gift is death
give to herself, feeling the explosion in her heart
a thing she has made and not the men below
and not the dogs as they watch her falling
through the limbs and then erupting into sound,
their hard mouths biting what is already dead.
It is the boy on the horse so old it will not run,
A boy who watches, not understanding the men
who, when she falls, shoot their rifles at the sun
as if with such exultance
they could bring a darkness into the world.

Patrick Lane from The Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

I am riveted with an inexpressible horror whenever I read or hear these lines: as if with such exultance/they could bring a darkness into the world. And imagine my surprise when I read Berry’s  words; words from the last lines of the poem included below; words that are hauntingly similar to Lane’s:

from A Poem on Hope

Be still and listen to the voices that belong
To the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
By which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people

Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

Wendell Berry from Leavings, Counterpoint Press, 2011

What a declaration: …When the people make/ Dark the light within them, the world darkens.
And it resonates and sings back to Lane’s lines: …a boy who watches, not understanding the men/ who, when she falls, shoot their rifles at the sun/ as if with such exultance/ they could bring a darkness into the world.

Lane and Berry are  treasures whose art is a great gift to us all. And the gift of their art reminds us what an irreplaceable treasure our great planet is. Their art has come out of the love and attention they have given the places where they live. It is a celebration, of both the light and the dark riches of the human and animal communities they have cherished and the landscapes that have formed them.

Even within their stories and poems of hardship and suffering Lane and Berry give me hope, hope, as Berry says, founded on the ground under your feet. This hope: that heaven is not another world away!

(Please read Part Two of this post to view the complete version of A Poem on Hope by Berry and Lane’s Convocation address he presented at the University of Victoria this past November.)