A few years ago, I came across “The Wild Rose,” a poem Wendell Berry wrote for his wife.
Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,
suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose looming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,
and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.
I had never heard of Wendell Berry, but in these ten lines, I found something that resonated deeply with me. Being a married man, I knew exactly what he was saying. There are moments in the apparent monotony of married life when the beauty of your spouse strikes you unexpectedly like never before. This poem captured that idea in a powerful—and lovely—way. It’s one of my favorites to this day.
I started seeing Berry’s name in other books I was reading. Eventually, I came across another poem of his called “How to Be a Poet,” which contained three more lines that struck me:
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
This was a powerful expression of a truth that I held deeply—that God has created this world and has charged it with meaning. All of it.
Soon I went to the library and got everything I could find by Berry, including collections of his essays and poetry.
I certainly don’t agree with all of Berry’s opinions. (Who does?) But in his body of work, I found a humane and sacred vision of the world. In his poetry, essays, and novels, Berry eloquently shows that all aspects of this world—our work, our play, our land, our local communities, our fellow human beings—are sacred gifts to be loved and cared for.
One reason Berry’s vision was so compelling to me was the eloquence of his writing. Berry is a craftsman. He writes with his whole being. He takes the time to write his thoughts out by hand, read them out loud, and polish them for every poem, novel, and essay he publishes. Writing is his art, and words are his artistic medium.
He explains this in one of his essays:
At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as, say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands. Reading aloud what we have written—as we must do, if we are writing carefully—our language passes in at the eyes, out at the mouth, in at the ears; the words are immersed and steeped in the senses of the body before they make sense in the mind. They cannot make sense in the mind until they have made sense in the body. Does shaping one’s words with one’s own hand impart character and quality to them, as does speaking them with one’s own tongue to the satisfaction of one’s own ear? There is no way to prove that it does. On the other hand, there is no way to prove that it does not, and I believe that it does.
Berry doesn’t write just for the mind. He writes for the whole being with his whole being—his hands, his ear, his mouth. And the result is always beautiful.
There is so much to learn from Berry’s method. You don’t have to share an important message to write or create art. When you watch movies, read novels, and look at art, it’s easy to judge these based on their moral “lessons”—as if these things were simply vehicles for moral teaching.
But as Berry shows us, beauty is an end in itself. Hearts are never won by moral teaching alone. They are won far more often by beauty. Berry’s quiet eloquence is the opposite of a Facebook rant or an angry blog post.
Wendell Berry offers us a vision of a sacred world in human beings have an affection for each other, for their local communities, for their world, for beauty, and for goodness. When you create this way, and when you pursue this way of life with joy, others will too.
Nathan Huffstutler teaches college literature and writing in southern Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. He has published essays, book reviews, and poetry, and he loves bookstores, nature, and wonder.