Celebrate Earth Day with poet-farmer Wendell Berry

If I were looking for a patron saint for this blog, Wendell Berry would be a good candidate. He’s a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and essays and has lived as a small farmer in Kentucky for decades. His essays explore various topics, but all are informed by a Christian spirituality that embraces social justice and a deep-rooted love for the earth.

I am most familiar with his poetry, much of which celebrates the beauty and goodness of trees. Think Robert Frost meets Gerard Manley Hopkins. That is, the rural sensibility and topics of Frost combined with the spiritual emphasis and sacramental viewpoint of Hopkins. By “sacramental” I mean a point of view that celebrates the spiritual depth of earthly things, especially nature. (I’m not accusing Robert Frost of lacking spirituality! It’s just that his sensibility is a little more pragmatic than that of Hopkins, while Berry’s is somewhere between the two.)

Here is a sample verse:

“Planting trees early in spring
We make a place for birds to sing
There is no other guarantee
That singing will ever be.”

I know it by heart because it’s one of several “tree poems” set to music in Malcolm Dalglish‘s wonderful album “Hymnody of Earth,” one of my favorites to play around Christmas and the winter solstice. It’s also a good illustration of the way Berry’s work both celebrates and exemplifies the harmony that exists in nature: the interdependence of humans, plants, and animals. Harmony in more than one sense: harmony of music and sound (the birdsong), which is dependent on the harmony fostered by a carefully tended environment. There is a message, but it is inspirational rather than preachy. Ultimately, it is up to us, up to humankind, to provide the nurture that will guarantee the continued beauty of the earth.

If you can’t get outside to plant a tree this weekend, celebrate April 22’s Earth Day by picking up a book of Wendell Berry’s. In fact, read something of his regardless of how you spend the day. If you love the earth, you’ll find a kindred spirit in his words.

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