Wendell Berry was born in 1934 in the neighborhood where he has lived most of his life. He is a farmer and a writer, and has off and on been a teacher. His poetry collections include New Collected Poems (Counterpoint), The Mad Farmer Poems (Counterpoint), and Traveling at Home (Counterpoint). He is the recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the T. S. Eliot Award, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.
If there are a "chosen few"
then I am not one of them,
if an "elect," well then
I have not been elected. I am one who is knocking
at the door. I am one whose foot
is on the bottom rung.
But I know that Heaven's
bottom rung is Heaven
though the ladder is standing
on the earth where I work
by day and at night sleep
with my head on a stone.
(Old Man Jayber Crow)
Many I loved as man and boy
Are gone beyond all that I know,
Fallen leaves under falling rain,
Except Christ raise them up again.
I know my blessings by their cost,
Thus is the pride of man made low.
To ease the sorrow of my thought
Though I'm too weary now and slow,
I'd need to dance all night for joy.
The Book of Camp Branch
Here is Camp Branch, my native
stream, or one of them, flowing down
from Port Royal to Cane Run
which flows to the river. It is
my native descent, my native
walk, my native thought
that stays and goes, passing
ever downward toward the sea.
Its sound is a song that flings up
light to the undersides of leaves.
Its song and light are a way
of walking, a way of thought
moved by sound and sight.
It flows as deep in its hollow
as it can go, far down as it has
worn its way. Passing down
over its plunder of rocks, it makes
an irregular music. Here
is what I want to know.
Here is what I am trying to say.
O brave Ross Feld, here is
no "fortification against time."
Here the fort has fallen
and the water passes its benediction over the shards, singing!
How much delight I've known
in navigating down the flow
by stepping stones, by sounding
stones, by words too that are
stepping and sounding stones:
a short step, a hop, a straddle,
a stretch, a short jump, a long step,
a misstep, a stone deceptively balanced.
Going down stone by stone,
the song of the water changes,
changing the way I walk
which changes my thought
as I go. Stone to stone
the stream flows. Stone to stone
the walker goes. The words
stand stone still until
the flow moves them, changing
the sound--a new world--
a new place to step or stand.
In the notch of Camp Branch
the footing changes, year
to year, sometimes
day to day, as the surges
of the stream move the rocks.
Every walk, as Archie Ammons
said, "is a new walk." And so
go slow. Let the mind
step with the feet
as the stream steps
downward over the rocks,
but where it is.
In the crease of its making
the steep stream gathers
the seeps that come silently
down to it from the wooded slants.
Only there at the rockbed
of the branch do the waters
break into light, singing
of water flowing over the rocks
which, in its motion, the water
moves. And so, singing, the song
changes, as if moved by music
harsh and crude: splashes,
slubbers, chuckles and warbles,
a sustained pour, the small
fall steady as a column,
the hollow tones of a bell.
Sometimes, gentled--if you
stand while it flows--it seems
to meditate upon itself
and the hill's long changing
under sun and rain.
A changing song,
a changing walk,
a changing thought.
A sounding stone,
a stepping stone,
that is a sounding and a stepping
A language that is a stream flowing
and is a man's thoughts as he
walks and thinks beside the stream.
His thoughts will hold
if the words will hold, if each
is a stone that will bear weight,
placed by the flow
in the flow. The language too
descends through time, subserving
the false economy, heedless power,
blown with the gas of salesmanship,
rattled with the sale of needless war,
worn by the mere unhearing
babble of thoughtlessness
and must return to its own
downward flow by the flowing
water, the muttered syllables,
the measureless music, the stream
flowing and singing, the man
walking and thinking, balanced
on unsure footholds
in the flowing stream.
"Make sense," I told myself,
the song of the tumbling waters
in my ears. The sense you make
may make its way along the stream,
but it will not be the stream's sense
you make, nor yet your own
quite, for the flux of language
will make its own claim
upon your walk, upon the stream.
The words fall at last
onto the page, the turning leaf
in the Book of Camp Branch
in time's stream. As the eye,
as the mind, moves from
moving water to turning page,
what is lost? What, worse,
is lost if the words falsify
the stream in your walk beside it?
To be carried or to resist
you must be a stone
in the way. You must be
a stone rolled away.
The song changes by singing
into a different song.
It sings by falling. The water
descending in its old groove
wears it new. the words descending
to the page render the possible
into the actual, by wear,
for better or worse, renew
the wearied mind. This is only
the lowly stream of Camp Branch,
but every stream is lowly.
Only low in the land does
the water flow. It goes
to seek the level that is lowest,
the silence that gathers
many songs, the darkness
made of many lights,
and then by the sun is raised
again into the air.
The times are disgusting enough,
surely, for those who long for peace
and truth. But self0disgust
also is an injury: the coming of bodily uncertainty with age
and wear, forgetfulness of things
that ought to be remembered,
remembrance of things best forgot.
Forgive this fragmentary life.
There are times when I know that Heaven's stair
rises even from the rocks along Camp Branch
or from the wooded bluffs below Jimmy's Ridge,
and there are times when I don't know
a damned thing, not even the little
that all the scientists know.
Little stream, Camp Branch,
coming from the town down
through the ever-renewing
woods on the steep slopes,
by what name did the Shawnee
call you? We live here
briefly in long time, time
longer than w will live to know.
When we are gone who knew you
by name, what will they call you?
When our nation has fallen as all
things fall, when the Constitution
is only another paper god, prayed to
and lied to by only another
autocrat, what will they call you
then? When our kind has gone
as all things go, and you remain,
your tumbles catching and returning
light to the air as beautifully
as before, will only the angles
name you and praise you then?
O saints, if I am even eligible for this prayer,
though less than worthy of this dear desire,
and if your prayers have influence in Heaven,
let my place there be lower than your own.
I know how you longed, here where you lived
as exiles, for the presence of the essential
Being and Maker and Knower of all things.
But because of my unruliness, or some erring
virtue in me never rightly schooled,
some error clear and dear, my life
has not taught me your desire for flight:
dismattered, pure, and free. I long
instead for the Heaven of creatures, of seasons,
of day and night. Heaven enough for me
would be this world as I know it, but redeemed
of our abuse of it and one another. It would be
the Heaven of knowing again. There is no marrying
in Heaven, and I submit; even so, I would like
to know my wife again, both of us young again,
and I remembering always how I loved her
when she was old. I would like to know
my children again, all my family, all my dear ones,
to see, to hear, to hold, more carefully
than before, to study them lingeringly as one
studies old verses, committing them to heart
forever. I would like again to know my friends,
my old companions, men and women, horses
and dogs, in all the ages of our lives, here
in this place that I have watched over all my life
in all its moods and seasons, never enough.
I will be leaving how many beauties overlooked?
A painful Heaven this would be, for I would know
by it how far I have fallen short. I have not
paid enough attention, I have not been grateful
enough. And yet this pain would be the measure
of my love. In eternity's once and now, pain would
place me surely in the Heaven of my earthly love.
The faith of the gliding swallows:
they throw their weight against
mere air, and it lifts them.
Before we kill another child
for righteousness' sake, to serve
some blissful killer's sacred cause,
some bloody patriot's anthem
and his flag, let us leave forever
our ancestral lands, our holy books,
our god thoughtified to the mean
of our smallest selves. Let us go
to the graveyard and lie down
forever among the speechless stones.
How can we be so superior to our forebears?
The truth will never by complete
in any mind or time. It will never
be reduced to an explanation.
What you have is only a sack of fragments
never to be filled: old bones, fossils,
pieces of writing, sprawls of junk.
You know yourself only poorly and in part,
the best and the worst maybe forgotten.
However you arrange the bits, authentic
and random, a fiction is what you'll have.
But go ahead. Gather your findings into
a plausible arrangement. Make a story
Show how love and joy, beauty and goodness
shine out amongst the rubble.
"That's been an oak tree a long time,"
said Arthur Rowanberry. How long a time
we did not know. The oak meant,
as Art meant, that we were lost
in time, in which the oak and we had come
and would go. Nobody knows what
to make of this. It was as if,
there in the Sabbath morning light,
we both were buried or unborn while
the oak lived, or it would fall
while we stood. But Art, who had
the benefit of not too much education,
not too many days pressed between pages
or framed in a schoolhouse window,
is long fallen now, though he stands
in my memory still as he stood
in time, or stands in Heaven,
and a few of his memories remain
a while as memories of mine. To be
on horseback with him and free,
lost in time, found in place, early
Sunday morning , was plain delight.
We had ridden over all his farm,
along field edges, through the woods,
in search of ripe wild fruit, and found
none, for all our pains, and yet
"We didn't find what we were looking for,"
said Arthur Rowanberry, pleased,
"but haven't we seen some fine country!"