‘To Care for What We Know…’ (a poem by Wendell Berry)

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don’t, the world’s lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.

Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don’t intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.

Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth’s life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world
will live and thrive while we live.

. . .

And our competence to do no
permanent wrong to the land
is limited by the land’s competence
to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and – provided the scale
is right – to recover, to be made whole.

(Wendell Berry: A Small Porch, Part I, VIII, 9, p.24)

I know that this is the sustainability creed that Wendell Berry lives by. I feel in my bones that it is the wisest way to live. I don’t live by it myself, but I know I need to work hard at coming closer to it.

The problem is, this way of life is not compatible with the modern economy of Canada, especially of Alberta. Whether the governments are right-wing or left-wing or centrist, they all seem to take for granted that doing violence to the earth is an inevitable part of modern life, and they all close their eyes and ears to the consequences.

It seems to me that if we think in the long term, our refusal to live by the philosophy Wendell Berry outlines in this poem leaves us with a limited number of choices:

Choice #1: As the planet becomes unliveable due to overpopulation and environmental destruction, the human species becomes extinct.

Choice #2: We hope like hell that before we arrive at Choice #1, we’ve found the means to leave the planet so we can go find another one to rape and destroy.

Some Christians would add Choice #3: Before we reach Choice #1, Jesus will come again and rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But since he has taken a lot longer to come again than most people thought he would, and, moreover, since he has had lots of opportunities to rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity before now, but hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one.

 

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Maria Dunn: ‘When I Was Young’

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: Maria Dunn is a Canadian national treasure. She’s one of those rare songwriters who don’t spend most of their time describing the state of their own emotions, but take a profound interest in the world around them and in the lives of others. Maria has spent her career researching the stories of others – and especially those ‘others’ who are less fortunate than we are – and putting them into her beautiful and memorable songs.

Here’s a fine example – a song written from the perspective of Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, the first woman to be elected chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, and her sadness about the pollution of the Athabasca River as it flows through her home community, only sixty miles downstream from the Fort McMurray oilseeds projects. As Wendell Berry says, treat those who are downstream from you as you would like to be treated by those you are downstream from.

On this song Maria is accompanied by Shannon Johnson on violin and Jeremiah McDade on whistle. They are members of The McDades, another excellent Alberta musical ensemble. This song has been recorded on Maria’s recent CD ‘Gathering‘.

Find out more about Maria at her website here. And if you haven’t already done so, buy some of her CDs. you won’t regret it.

‘We come at last to the dark…’

The fifth in a series of poems by the great Wendell Berry, from his collection ‘This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems’.

We come at last to the dark
and enter in. We are given bodies
newly made out of their absence
from one another in the light
of the ordinary day. We come
to the space between ourselves,
to the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2002 (III)

‘The question before me, now…’

This – another little gem by Wendell Berry – seems like a good poem for my 58th new year’s day.

The question before me, now that I
am old, is not how to be dead,
which I know from enough practice,
but how to be alive, as these worn
hills still tell, and some paintings
by Paul Cézanne, and this mere
singing wren, who thinks he’s alive
forever, this instant, and may be.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems2001 (VI)

‘Surely it will be for this…’

The third in a series of poems by the great Wendell Berry, from his collection ‘This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems’.

Surely it will be for this: the redbud
pink, the wild plum white, yellow
trout lilies in the morning light,
the trees, the pastures turning green.
On the river, quiet at daybreak,
the reflections of the trees, as in
another world, lie across
from shore to shore. Yes, here
is where they will come, the dead,
when they rise from the grave.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2001 (II)

‘We follow the dead to their graves…’

This is the second in a series of posts of poems by one of my favourite authors, Wendell Berry.

1.
We follow the dead to their graves,
and our long love follows on
beyond, crying to them, not
“Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
In waking thoughts, in dreams
we follow after, calling, “Wait!
Listen! I am older now. I know
now how it was with you
when you were old and I
was only young. I am ready
now to accompany you
in your lonely fear.” And they
go on, one by one, as one
by one we go as they have gone.

2.
And yet we all are gathered
in this leftover love,
this longing becomes the measure
of a joy all mourners know.
An old man’s mind is a graveyard
where the dead arise.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2000 (X)