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.
~ Wendell Berry
I stumbled across this poem perhaps a year ago, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t find it particularly artful or deep. It was a nice nature poem about finding peace in the woods, nothing more.
But the poem has been on my mind lately, and the more I’ve read it, the deeper and more beautiful it becomes to me. Berry is like George Herbert, with a knack for writing deceptively simple poetry (I love this kind of poetry.)
Most recently, what I’ve loved about this poem is Berry’s recognition of the grief he causes himself through fear.
Towards the beginning of the poem, he describes his fear: he is afraid ‘for what my life and my children’s lives may be” (3).
Berry’s fear is very human. It is in the nature of human beings to hope that their life will turn out for the best, despite the troubles they face, and it is in the nature of parents to be afraid for their children.
Yet I’m struck by the conditional verb and the vague word choices. Berry is not afraid of any particular thing. That Berry chooses the verb may be suggests that a difficult life for himself and his children is a possibility, not a certainty; it is equally likely that everything will turn out well in the end. Indeed, that Berry is worrying over “what may be” implies that the source of his trouble is not one particular looming difficulty, such as a lost job or an illness in the family. He is concerned in general that the lives of those he cares about will not turn out very well.
I don’t want to minimize Berry’s worry, only to point out that the kind of fear that Berry describes here is one very common to the human race. Sometimes we worry about things that are really happening, as when my identity was stolen several years ago, and I worried about the impact of the extra charges on my credit history. But how frequently do we find ourselves in a relatively stable condition, with a job and good health and friends, and yet (often inspired by all the bad news around the world!) fret that something will yet go wrong, to ruin our lives or the lives of the people we love.
Ironically, Berry suggests that this worrying causes us the trouble that we fear.
Alone in the wild, the speaker contrasts himself with the animals. Unlike him, they are not worried; they “do not tax their lives with forethought / Of grief” (7-8).
The word “tax” stands out to me here. Taxes are very necessary. They pay for public servants who (hopefully) do their jobs with integrity and efficiency; they pay for smooth roads and health care and public education; they pay for the courts to administer justice and the government to administer aid to those who need it.
But although logically we know that taxes are important, nobody really likes to pay them. Many taxes are not necessary; many are misspent. Surely taxes frustrated Berry, known for his belief that big urban areas drain the best parts of local communities. Given this context, the tax referred to his this poem is better seen in the negative, a drain on the resources of our lives.
The thing is, this is a drain that we ourselves cause, through our vague fears for the future. Put simply, such fears buy trouble before it happens. Berry does not deny that trouble may well happen, nor does he deny that we should consider, perhaps with some fear, how we may respond to such troubles.
But his poem insists that we be honest about the consequences of our fear. In choosing to worry about things that may not happen, in choosing to worry when when don’t even have anything certain to be worried about, we drain our life of the very joys that we fear will be taken from us through some future trouble.
This is not to say that trouble will not come. It will. Yet rather than anxiously awaiting such trouble, Berry implies that like the woodland creatures, we are best off rejoicing in what we have today, and letting tomorrow take care of itself.