Berry Chooses Hope over Despair

Environmental March, April 29, 2017


You know that conservatives have strayed from their core ideals when they can’t embrace conservation. Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified by Trumpism’s attacks on clean water, clean skies, and our National Parks. Fortunately, millions of Americans care deeply about the environment and are pushing back.

Wendell Berry’s “The Vision” could serve as the guiding star for the environmental movement. In it, the poet dreams a “paradisal dream” where old growth forests return, rivers run clear, springs are liberated, and the world is canopied over with bird song. The word “if” does heavy lifting in the poem, however. Berry says that this vision can happen “if we will have the wisdom to survive” and “if we make our seasons welcome here,/asking not too much of earth and heaven.”

The poem can be paired with another Berry poem, “The Dream,” in the way that several of Blake’s Songs of Experience pair up with Songs of Innocence. Both poems start similarly in that “Dream” also dreams of a world in which the damage inflicted by human beings has been removed:

I dream an inescapable dream
in which I take away from the country
the bridges and roads, the fences, the strung wires,
ourselves, all we have built and dug and hollowed out,
our flocks and herds, our droves of machines.

“Dream” is a do-over fantasy, and Berry imagines getting it right this time, using his foreknowledge to guide him:

                             I must end, always, by replacing
our beginning there, ourselves and our blades,
the flowing in of history, putting back what I took away,
trying always with the same pain of foreknowledge
to build all that we have built, but destroy nothing.

He soon discovers, however, that there is something intrinsic within human beings that suggests history will repeat itself. Blindness seizes the mind as old habits of mind reassert themselves:

My hands weakening, I feel on all sides blindness
growing in the land on its peering bulbous stalks.
I see that my mind is not good enough.
I see that I am eager to own the earth and to own men.
I find in my mouth a bitter taste of money,
a gaping syllable I can neither swallow nor spit out.
I see all that we have ruined in order to have, all
that was owned for a lifetime to be destroyed forever.

The poem ends in despair:

Where are the sleeps that escape such dreams?

In one of those fortuitous teaching accidents, I taught “A Dream” right after Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which also contains a do-over fantasy. In Atwood’s novel, however, the man engineering the do-over is an eco-terrorist, the brilliant genetic scientist Crake, who releases a killer virus on the world. He is a Jahweh destroying Earth with a genetic flood.

Unlike Jahweh, however, he tinkers with the original creation. Crake replaces homo sapiens with a new race of humans genetically engineered so that they will not damage the planet: they are herbivores, they have non-lethal ways of fending off predators, and their mating is communal so that males don’t fight over females.

We aren’t told about the long-term results of Crake’s engineering although there are signs that, in spite of his efforts, the “Crakers” are beginning to develop art and religion. Since Crake saw these as human traits that contributed to human evil, the future is in doubt.

In other words, humans are probably going to mess up the planet regardless. We can’t (this is something Blake understood very well) remain within a perpetual state of innocence but must grapple with the fact that humans are fallen creatures and operate out of sin. Blake’s Songs of Experience come after Songs of Innocence. We can only make progress if we acknowledge this about ourselves.

With Berry, however, “Vision” (1977)  was written after “Dream” (1968), the hopeful poem after the despairing one. Before turning (at long last) to the poem, it’s useful to look at what Berry says elsewhere about improbable hope.

In “The Testament,” a poem where Berry tells his friends how to respond to his death, he warns them “not to say/Anything too final. Whatever/ Is unsure is possible.” He is talking about his individual death—how things might happen to us after we die that are beyond all comprehension–but his observations can extend to our survival as a species. He reminds us that “life is bigger than flesh” and instructs us,

       Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure

Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves.

So when, at the end of “Vision,” he says that the hardship of restoring the world “is its possibility,” he is asking us to step into our imaginations. If we have a life-affirming belief that something is possible, hardship will be no obstacle.

As Berry puts it in “Testament, “Why settle/For some know-it-all’s despair.” Those who marched Saturday are not settling.

A Vision

By Wendell Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened..
Families will be singing in their fields.
In the voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into a legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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