When despair 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 for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The trauma of Aug. 11-12 was shared by the entire Charlottesville community. Uninvited and unwelcome, Hatred and Violence inflicted themselves upon our normally peaceful, friendly, and tolerant city. It felt as if we—and perhaps the whole nation—lost our innocence that day. Visiting the site of the car attack on 4th St. SE—now an improvised, heartfelt memorial to victim Heather Heyer—I was overcome by feelings of horror, grief, anger, and even despair. If you, like me, are still reeling with shock over recent events, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry (1934- ) offers one approach to healing.
The poet opens by describing a level of despair similar to what witnesses of the horrific Aug. 12 events must feel—the kind that disturbs his sleep and arouses worry for the future health and safety of his community and his children. This despair is not static, but growing. Beginning with line four, however, he takes action and is able to find comfort through communion with nature. He leaves his man-made dwelling to go outside, seeking peace and healing amid the beauty of a lake or river and waterfowl who live in harmony with the planet, never worrying about their needs for the future. He twice repeats “I come into,” as if he is entering a different realm from the troubled human world he left behind. By lying down, the poet joins in the lives of the wild things and is able to let go of his human anxiety and find inner peace beside the “still water.” This is a subtle allusion to the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. (Psalm 23:1-6).
In the final third of the poem, the poet achieves a kind of ecstasy through mystical union with the earth and with nature. Although we are blind to the stars during the day, he feels their abiding presence, establishing a connection to the universe and its (temporarily hidden) light—a symbol of awareness and consciousness. The stars are calm, patiently “waiting for their light,” their time to shine and fulfill their cosmic destiny. These lines shift our perspective from earth to the heavens, with the stars now looking down on us and reminding us of a spirit larger than ourselves that makes our concerns seem far less important. Berry implies that this light is a beacon of natural goodness and hope for the future. Blessed with the grace and peace of an abiding natural order that will continue long after our petty struggles are forgotten, the poet is finally able to rest, free of anxiety—“for a time.” This inherent paradox—that the “wild things” of nature are more orderly and lasting than man’s attempts to tame them through “civilization”—is characteristic of the romantic worldview.
This free verse lyric is written in a straightforward and accessible style (with words like “things” and “tax”), but is dense with meaning and suggestion. Berry’s word choice supports his tone of reassurance with the repeated soft, soothing sounds of d, s, and t. He also uses assonance and consonance to advantage in “wood drake,” “great heron feeds,” and “day-blind stars.” The poem is in the first person, consistent with the “confessional” style prevalent in modern poetry, and the voice is humble, with no hint of omniscience or preachiness. Not showy with stylistic flourishes, the poem is as quiet and unassuming as the peace the poet seeks.
Wendell Berry is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer who lives in Kentucky. He has written many novels, including A Place on Earth (1967) and A World Lost (1996), as well as short stories, poems, and essays. “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival,” he has stated. Berry has earned a host of awards, including the National Humanities Medal, the Cleanth Brooks Lifetime Achievement Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and election to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in Lexington, along with Barbara Kingsolver and Hunter S. Thompson.
In “The Peace of Wild Things,” Berry does not presume to advise us what to do, but offers his solution to despair as an example that we might choose to follow or not. There are many possible sources of comfort for emotional pain—family and friends, charity and volunteerism, religion, meditation, therapy—even poetry itself. This simple and quiet poem suggests the recourse that works for Berry, reminding us that our conflicts will not outlast the eternal spirit that surrounds us through nature. I, too, find solace in nature; a distant mountain view, the thrum of a bull frog by the pond, or the sweet, cascading call of a screech owl in my back woods soothes my cares and restores my perspective. This is one of the (many) reasons I enjoy living in beautiful Crozet. We can only hope that this divisiveness, too, shall pass.