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.
from The Peace of Wild Things And Other Poems (Penguin, 2018)
Despair for the world. Fear. Do these ever “wake you in the night”? Do you feel them during the day?
Our emotional states are fed by news reports, if we choose to listen or watch. (What was it like before we had access to international reports of threat, war, climate change?) Some people choose not to follow the news; others are glued to updates, while some check in occasionally. And of course, radically different points of view are available, different realities presented. Wars have been around for much of human history, on various scales. Warnings of climate change have been around for some decades, but are more common and more intense now, as we hear about violent storms, fires, droughts, glaciers melting, oceans changing…. No wonder some of us feel “despair for the world grows in me.”
I love the way Wendell Berry describes this: wild things are not hampered by the capacity to look ahead, to imagine what is to come, to think about growing challenges or potential remedies. But they may intuitively feel the approach of threat… and they are helpless.
For us humans, looking ahead to the future of the planet – if we can allow ourselves to do that – is likely to evoke fear and despair, which “tax” our lives. What the poem highlights is… grief.
We have probably experienced anticipating our future with excitement and joy… but that is not what keeps us awake at night. Off course, we are all familiar with life events and concerns that evoke fear and grief. But this poem opens with a wider lens, beyond the personal: despair for the world.
How much of this looking-ahead can we bear? The answer probably varies with immediate circumstances – what else is happening in our own lives? What inner and outer resources do we have, what support is available? Personality traits may play a role. But when the threats come close, there’s no escape. War begins, climate change events present themselves, and we can no longer pretend or hide.
Where do we look for comfort or reassurance? What helps us to navigate these waves of despair and fear? We may find solace at home, in a poem, a spiritual text, an intimate conversation, music… Here, the poet feels impelled to leave his immediate surroundings – “I go and lie down…” Like many of us, he finds peace in nature – away from the stresses and agendas of human life. Here he can distance himself from the human tendency to “tax” our lives with “forethought of grief.”
In nature it seems easier to simply be present, with the beauty of quiet water, birds, even anticipating the vast peacefulness of a starry sky. He realizes that this is a temporary reprieve: “for a time” he can “rest in the grace of the world, and be “free.” But what nature offers feels like grace, like a gift.
The unspoken message here, perhaps, is that we need these gifts of time “coming into the peace of wild things,” in order to return to our daily lives and face the threatening realities of the world. For many of us, nature is this source of peace and comfort, a refuge from the stresses of human life. /when we can face the (unescapable) reality of the conditions that threaten life on the planet, the refuge may feel temporary – but still, moments of freedom and beauty are precious. They restore energy, they gift us with the love and appreciation that keep us going.
Wendell Berry wrote this poem in 1968. Climate change was not much in public awareness thenHis portrait of nature’s peace doesn’t include violent storms, forest fires, floods – which have always been part of the picture,. But now they are increasing in frequency and intensity. I would venture to say he offers a classic Romantic portrait of nature – peaceful, beautiful, nurturing.
Of course, many of us can still find both comfort and inspiration in the natural world, thankfully. And we may need that in order to keep facing the global challenges. But as we cherish the gifts, can we also take seriously the necessity of radical change in our life styles – to preserve the environment, and the life that it makes possible?
If you haven’t watched any of David Attenborough’s films about life on our planet, I encourage you to take the time. The third is now available, “Our Planet II.” Facing the loss, the disaster, is likely to bring tears. There is so much to cherish in our human lives, our families, even in our economies, our international relations. Yes, we are surrounded by the living grace, wonder, and beauty of the natural world – which faces destruction. This looming reality affects everything in our lives, directly or indirectly.
Facing Climate Change
Recognition of the realities of climate change is likely to bring fear, grief, despair – as in Wendell Berry’s poem. But now we can no longer stop with those responses. We also need to find the courage and will to remain informed, to take action, to make radical changes in our lives, and to offer support to those around us. As I participate in a course on working with climate change for therapists and helping professionals, I am more aware of this than ever. This is not a passing problem or a temporary challenge. This is life-changing, for all life.
Caring for the planet, and making space for our feelings about climate change – these explorations need to have a place in both counseling and spiritual guidance.
The grace of the world – physical, practical, beautiful, peaceful, powerful, vast, mysterious – is at stake.