The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
Last week I taped this short Wendell Berry poem to my desk. I remembered the poem in time to send it to a friend for her birthday – words are our best gifts to each other nearly ten years into a friendship marked mainly by raising children and growing up ourselves. We talk daily, cutting the distance between her California exile and my mountain home with text messages and harried phone conversations. We have some standing rules: hanging-up in mid-sentence without explanation is acceptable, often necessary; whining about husbands is allowable, but both men are saints for putting up with us and should be defended; our children are beautiful, nearly perfect, and will grow up just fine despite our neuroses and constant need to analyze their lives. We have a well-honed pattern for hashing out ideas – we talk it over and over and over; throw words at the problem – circle round it and rehash; think it to death.
I’ve read that Wendel Berry and Pulitzer prizing winning poet Gary Snyder traded more than 240 letters over 40 years. Chad Wriglesworth compiled decades of this correspondence in his book Distant Neighbors The poets write about the big issues they are famous for tackling in their work: environment and place, community, religion and economics. But they also write about family and home. They share details about their marriages and their children. They hash it out. Arguments about ethics and faith thread through the narrative. They even edit each other’s poetry. Berry says their friendship and their letters are an attempt to make “as much sense of the world as possible.” He talks about carrying Snyder around in his head as he writes and farms in Kentucky; Snyder became his “binocular vision.” Snyder says the letters were a kind of conversation about learning “how to live in a place” and defining an “ethical life.” It seems clear that the California Buddhist and the Kentucky “forest” Christian hashed it all out in their letters.
Our phone calls between Wyoming and California will never be literary fodder, but they could serve as a sort of scrapbook of parenting and thinking in a modern era. We share the mundane: school lunches and soccer mom commutes, but we also chew on politics and faith. I would love to have my dear friend closer – I have made shameless pitches for a Wyoming move, but I do wonder how our friendship would change if we were no longer forced to talk our way through each other’s lives. She has become my binocular vision, my secondary perspective in so many ways. I notice this most in the quiet spaces between our phone calls. I find myself thinking about how I might explain something so that she can see it. Our physical distance creates a sort of distinct thinking space.
I ordered two leather bracelets on my friend’s 40th birthday. Berry’s words are hammered into a small metal loop on the leather: a reminder of our attachment to reason, our attempts to find all the right words, and of how often we fall short. It will remind me to appreciate the space in our longtime friendship, to appreciate the quiet “wild peace” between the conversations. We are not Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder – I will never be a poetic genius– but their enduring friendship is inspiring and seems to make our phone calls a little more legit.
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.