This poem is too short to quote from and make any sense. So, I will quote the whole thing. “The Want of Peace” from Openings (1968) by Wendell Berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
The first and second stanzas stand in contrast to each other. The first represents the desire to live in peace with the world around us (and consequently each other), while the second reveals the truth about ourselves and the world we have created. This poem touches on some of the same themes discussed in the poem “The Dream” previously, the world as it should be contrasted with the world as it is, including ourselves.
I would like to focus on the other theme of this poem, peace. You may have heard that peace is not just the absence of conflict. This is still not a definition, but continues to allow the concept to be defined in the negative. “Not the absence of conflict”, I count three negatives in that short phrase. If it’s not the absence of something negative then it must involve the presence of something positive. I think Berry hints here, even in the negative, that presence itself is part of what is missing.
We have precious little practice or time in our culture for presence. There are too many advertisements, meetings, jobs, things to do and things to buy for us to be wholly present at any of them. Indeed, North American culture’s favorite past time substitutes the absence of activity, choosing instead to passively watch various screens, for any sort of real presence. (Insert thought here about transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the “real presence” of the Eucharist.) “Going to the movies” or “watching TV” sound like activities, but in reality they are extended periods of inactivity and absence.
In contrast, real peace can be found in things that seem like inactivity, but are pregnant with presence and mindfulness, like the “fisherman’s silence” or “the gardener’s musing on rows”. John Zerzan talks about the way that language often (or always according to him) mediates our experience and keeps from an authentic encounter with the world. The presence in silence and musing is an unmediated experience in which we can find profound peace. So, peace can be found in silence. I could do a whole post on this topic, meditation and the Christian practice of centering prayer. Silence is where we are forced to encounter ourselves as we are, without the image mediated to us by advertising, popular culture and the media.
The poem concludes with the thought that we are led into this lack of peace by “burning men”. Indeed our leaders seem unanimous in their quest to build and sell violence in many forms, weapons and wars on everything from crime to drugs, not to mention nations and finally the never ending nebulous war on terrorism. The weapons of war have brought us everything from ammonium nitrate and agrochemicals to nuclear power. Yet, we expect something other than violence from these technologies.
When we finally acknowledge the absence of peace, the gaping hole left in the wake of these weapons, both physical and mental, we find ourselves in darkness. Yet, perhaps Berry is pointing us in this direction, the darkness is precisely where we find the “dumb life of roots”. The life cultivating the hidden mysteries of the soil is looked down on in a society that creates this absence of peace in order to fuel its unquenchable desire for growth. This is our refuge, or at least I know it is mine. With all my “education”, it is the life spent cultivating life above and below ground that allows presence into my life.