Welcome to The Art of Creation, a Thursday post of The Ecological Disciple. In these Thursday posts, we will look at both the artistry inherent in creation (think of the dragonfly!) and the added richness we can gain by looking at creation through the view of a particular artist.
Heron under New Moon Goose and Moon, by Ohara Koson
A favorite poem by a favorite poet is a great place to begin this conversation. Wendell Berry is a contemporary poet, essayist, farmer, and novelist who lives in Port Royal, Kentucky. His is one of the most significant voices today in conversations about American culture and the environment. His stories, essays and poetry each offer different entries into his world even as they remain consistent to the whole of his work, his life, and the place he has chosen to inhabit.
If you're not familiar with this poem, savor it. If you're familiar with it, take your time as you read it again, perhaps reading it out loud, listening in the same way you would listen to the quiet rippling of (almost) still water.
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 am free.
This poem, written in 1968, came to be in the midst of vocal and painful disagreements about the Vietnam war, significant racial unrest (Martin Luther King was assassinated later that year), and political division that was probably as wide as what we are experiencing today. So much of what was happening in 1968 is happening in 2021, and can seem out of our control. Even before 2020, many of us were aware of a growing struggle against despair and the too-regular presence of anxiety, driven by worry of long term problems such as climate change, rapid cultural shifts, and structural inequities in our nation and communities. In the past year, with a raging pandemic, racial divisions at the forefront, political division and upheaval, this has intensified. The result? Stress and anxiety that keep us awake at night, a low gray cloud hanging over our consciousness.
Sometimes we desperately need to soak ourselves in something besides our own thoughts and anxieties to find our way out of them. Letting another creature, like a heron, pull our attention away from ourselves for a while can be life-giving. Listening to a bird, a breeze, a river, giving our full attention to clouds moving above us, a spider weaving a web, a dog running in circles, touching moss, smelling a flower, tasting the wild huckleberry—allowing another part of creation to seep into us through the cracks of our senses can guide us past the barriers of anxiety that our mind sometimes traps us behind. At the very least, we can be reminded of what pleasure looks and feels and tastes like.
Is this just an escape? Or does finding our way inside that peace enable us to live in a different way? What do we learn by coming into the presence of still water or by considering a creature that lives without the consciousness that something terrible could happen at any moment. Both Wendell Berry and Scripture suggest there are things to be learned.
He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters. Psalm 23:2
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Matthew 6:26
If we let go of the idea that intellectual knowledge is the only kind of real knowledge there is; if we open ourselves to the idea that the non-human world might know something we can learn, and if we try to listen, we might hear something that can change us.
When was the last time you lay outside at night and looked up at the stars? What is something significant you have learned from the non-human world?
To listen to Wendell Berry read this poem, click below.
For more information about Wendell Berry's writing, visit here.
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