Friday, August 12, 2016

The Complaint of Nature

There is a deep irony on reading the latest volume of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry on an airplane given the author's reservation to any technology that alienates us from place or consumes unnecessary resources (though this does not result in a complete ban for certainly the two occasions on which I have met Wendell have required him to utilize flight).

The poems, as their name suggests, are written on Sundays, days that for a working farmer (as Berry is) are one's of relative rest and potential contemplation. They cover ground familiar to his readers - what does it require of us to live contentedly and productively in our places, what does this mean if you are farmer, what is the relationship between the craft of farming and the care of nature, what is the relationship between small scale farming and living within a workable community and a living culture (and what sustains all three and what are the threats to all three). There are poems too of simple wonder at what has or is being seen and poems of gratitude for what life has given most notably Berry's wife, Tanya, relations, friends and mentors. You do not become a gifted celebrator of life and practitioner of care filled farming except within a cultivating, nurturing community (and in the arduous, demands that nature and community places on us to improve that celebration, that practice).

The poems are, as usual, succinct, crystalline and accessible explorations of these themes that resonate in the mind, giving it to think, reflect and feel anew.

It is, however, the long essay that accompanies the poems that most arrested my attention: ‘The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation’. It begins with Alain of Lille’s medieval text: ‘The Complaint of Nature’ and moves through significant moments in English poetry – Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope – where the personification of Nature has been used as a device to explore Nature as a category in which we live, in whose health we abide and are complicit and which provides the exacting standards through which, hopefully, we might continue to abide and flourish. He notes, compellingly in my view, that a shift takes place at the time of the Romantics, when nature is no longer a presence in which we dwell, but something ‘’out there’’ which we admire and to which we go to recover from a life ‘’here” (increasingly presumably a city). Thus is the ‘’environment”  (and wilderness) born from a split in consciousness and thought (and accompanying practice) with all the consequences that unfold now. He follows this thread through to noting that whereas poets have tended to abandon the theme, with honourable exception and Berry singles out Gary Snyder for mention, it has been taken up by a core number of scientists/ecologists such that, for example, Aldo Leopard has us considering, in his most famous essay, what it might be like to think as a mountain, to think out from an unfolding ecology, to be part of, to use Berry’s phrase a wider ‘membership’.

For membership implies for Berry a shared set of values and practices learnt over time and subjected to standards in this case those of Nature from which we cannot easily absent ourselves except temporarily. Our ecological abandonment, of course, might be measured in centuries but these in Nature’s eye are merely a provincial blink in scope. It is a membership we cannot, being born, opt out of only try strenuously to ignore or overlay. It is a membership whose real dues are becoming ever more demanding and like Mr Micawber faced with the bills, we struggle ever more inventively to ignore them. One hopes like Mr Micawber we rediscover our membership and begin to fulfil it sooner rather than too late.


From Sabbaths 2005 VII

"I know I am getting old and I say so,

but I don’t think of myself as an old man.

I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities.  Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.  And the clouds
— no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new — who has known it
before? — and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the river bank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man.  And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful."

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