Sep 28 2018

The Weighty Season

Autumn officially arrived last week so I thought this would be a good time to share one of my favorite Wendell Berry “Sabbath Poems.” This one can be found in his book, A Small Porch.

“Again the air is full of falling: the falling of leaves in the weighty season that brings all home again to the lowly miracle from which they came. Nature, the mother and maker, requires that life take form, enflesh itself in the shapes and habits of the world’s unnumbered kinds.  And then she requires each one at last to shed its guise, giving up its matter to the life to come.  Think of a world of no fall, no gravity calling downward, homeward, bringing all by the light uprisen down to rest in the resting land–a world, instead, where all that dies would fly upward and outward, nameless and alone.  How sterile then would be the earth, seasonless the year.  The year is the showing forth of the heavenly love that is the being of the present world.  The leaves, opening and at last falling, hold a while the beauty of God who made them by the work and care of Nature, His vicar and our mother.  His only is the light of which all things are made, the beauty that they are, the delight that is our prayer.”

 There are many things I like about this poem about the “weighty season” we call fall. I appreciate the way Berry alludes to the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life itself.  There is indeed a rhythm to life that comes from the hand of the Creator.  Like Berry, I cannot imagine life without this intrinsic cycle.

I especially appreciate the notion expressed that “the year is the showing forth of the heavenly love…” With each passing day we have the opportunity to experience anew the love of God.  That love may be experienced numerous ways but one of the best is through nature.  Even in the falling leaves of autumn we can know God’s love and discern God’s wisdom and ways.  The leave, along with the rest of Creation, “hold a while the beauty of God.”

Berry’s “Sabbath Poem” likewise reminds us that God, who is Light, is the Source of all that is. All of Creation, including us, owes its existence to God.  All of Creation, including us, shares in the Beauty of God.  It is no wonder, then, that all of Creation, including us, becomes “the delight that is our prayer.”


Dec 4 2013

The Sound of Music

MR 745You may have been hearing a lot about The Sound of Music lately.  Apparently a t.v. version of the famous film has been made, starring Carrie Underwood.  That’s not, however, the reason I’ve chosen this title for today’s blog. Instead I chose it because this is the time of year when I tend to pause and remember that nature itself has a song to be sung.  It is the Advent season and Christmas is quickly approaching.  One of the most popular hymns of Advent is “Joy to the World.”  In it you will find the refrain, “Let heaven and nature sing.”  The hymn writer felt the coming of Christ was cause for singing not just among humans but heaven and nature as well.

MR 778In a few minutes I’ll be going to choir practice.  I don’t usually sing with the choir but each year I like to join them for their Christmas cantata. This year’s cantata is called “Let Heaven and Nature Sing Gloria!”  One of the songs is about the Wise Men, or Magi’s, journey to Bethlehem.  A number of times throughout the song the Magi say “Mountain and tree, come join in our song, a glad alleluia as we go along!” 

MR 740When’s the last time you asked a mountain or tree to sing along with you?  I doubt that it happens very often.  How come?  Perhaps it’s because we cannot imagine the possibility that mountains or trees could sing in the first place.  Be that as it may, does the fact that we cannot imagine the possibility mean that it is not actually possible?  There are a number of places in the Bible where various aspects of nature are said to sing praises to God.  There is, in fact, a strong biblical basis in the song mentioned above for the Wise Men calling on the mountains and trees to offer God their praise.

MR 912In First Chronicles 16 King David offers a psalm of thanksgiving and exhorts all the earth to “sing to the Lord” and “proclaim his salvation.” (v. 23).  He gets a bit more specific a few verses later: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’  Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.  Then the trees will sing for joy before the Lord…” (vs. 31-33)  The prophet Isaiah speaks similar words.  He writes, “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath.  Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel.” (Isaiah 44:23)  In another place Isaiah says “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)

We may not think mountains and trees can sing praises to God but it’s pretty obvious that both David and Isaiah did.  In the book of Job God Himself indicated that nature sings when He said that as the foundations of the earth were being set “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.”  (Job 38:7)   Centuries later Jesus told those who sought to hush the crowds for singing praise to him that “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

MR 788In the light of this biblical witness, who are you or I to say the mountains and trees do not sing God’s praises?  Just because we cannot hear them with our own ears doesn’t mean they are silent.

I choose to believe that “the hills are alive with the sound of music” and that they offer praise to their Creator.  I would also affirm with Wendell Berry that there is, indeed, “a timbered choir” and that they too worship God in song.  So perhaps we, along with the Wise Men, should encourage “mountain and tree, come join in our song, a glad alleluia as we go along.”  If we fail to do so, don’t be surprised if it’s the mountains and trees that encourage us to sing with them.  It is, after all, that time of the year.


(I took all of the images above at Mount Rainier National Park.)

Jul 21 2013

This Hallowed Earth

HC barn 4270Wendell Berry has written eloquently about “the gift of good land” for decades.  Whether you are reading his essays, novels or poems the concept of land as a good gift is always present.  Berry has a strong sense of ethics when it comes to the environment and is keenly aware of our divine call to be good stewards of the earth.  But how did he come to have the views espoused in his writings?  A while back I saw a list of books Wendell Berry acknowledged as being formative of his views.  I perused that list and discovered a book I had not heard of before called The Holy Earth by L. H. Bailey.  Since you can order the book for free on a Kindle I did so.  Having now read through parts of it I can see why Berry found it influential.

Early on in this book Bailey makes a case for the earth being holy.  He writes, “Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it.  We are here, part of the creation.  We cannot escape.  We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all the creatures.  We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation.”   Later he adds, “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it.”

wheat 4946One can easily see that for Bailey recognizing that the earth is sacred or holy calls for a land ethic that reflects this view.  He writes: “The sacredness to us of the earth is intrinsic and inherent.  It lies in our necessary relationship and in the duty imposed upon us to have dominion, and to exercise ourselves even against our own interests.  We may not waste that which is not ours.  To live in sincere relations with the company of created things and with the conscious regard for the support of all men new and yet to come, must be of the essence of righteousness.”  For Bailey, the earth’s sacredness takes priority over humankind’s dominion.  He says, “If the earth is holy, then the things that grow out of the earth are also holy.  They do not belong to man to do with them as he will.  Dominion does not carry personal ownership.  There are many generations of folk yet to come after us, who will have equal right with us to the products of the globe.  It would seem that a divine obligation rests on every soul.”

wheat field 5161The Holy Earth was written in 1915.  That means the words you just read are almost a century old.  A lot of people seem to think that Creation Care is something new, a movement born within our own generation, but that is hardly the case.  For ages there have been people who have understood that the earth is holy and that its sacredness calls for us to live on and with the earth in a special relationship.  Interestingly, many came to this realization without the Scriptures but if anyone should recognize the sacredness of the earth it is Christians.  Both the Old and New Testament affirm the goodness of the earth and our need to care for it.  Thankfully, Wendell Berry was willing to listen to those who went before him.  I hope we will as well.


(I took the images above in Henderson County, Kentucky.)

Oct 21 2012

A Very Important Tool

On one of my flights back from a week of photographing in the Great Plains I read some poems by Wendell Berry on my iPad.  One of them, ironically, was called “Vacation” and tells the story of a man who went on a trip and spent the whole time recording it with his video camera.  Berry writes, “He showed his vacation to his camera, which pictured it, preserving it forever; the river, the trees, the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat behind which he stood with his camera preserving his vacation even as he was having it so that after he had had it he would still have it.”  Berry then adds these words, “It would be there. With a flick of a switch, there it would be.  But he would not be in it.  He would never be in it.”

I think the point behind this poem is that people can become so obsessed with recording their experiences of nature and life that they fail to actually be there or to truly experience what they see.  Since I had just spent several days with my eye basically glued to the back of a Nikon camera I had to pause to reflect on whether I had just been guilty of doing what the man in Berry’s poem had.  I cannot deny that I likely miss a lot of things when I photograph because the very process of photography forces one to focus on something.  You cannot focus on something and everything at the same time.  There always has to be some sacrifice, some things that will be missed.

Still, I believe that photography has actually helped me to see more, not less.  To reverse what I just said above, you can’t focus on everything and something at the same time.  If I try to take in everything there is so much I will miss.  Photography forces me to pay close attention to something.  For me it might be a particular bird, animal, tree, river or landscape.  It might just as well be a combination of colors, shapes or patterns.  While I focus on one of these I see and experience things I probably would not if I didn’t have a camera in front of me.  Photography forces me to see more, to pay better attention, and in the process to be more fully present.

Having said that, I confess at times I do like to set my camera aside and just take in my surroundings.  I try to focus not just on the visual but also be aware of what my other God-given senses are experiencing.  For me this is an important part of being fully present.  Had I not done this on my recent trip I would have missed the awesome sounds of sandhill cranes migrating far above me and elk bugling on the hillsides around me.  I would have missed the delightful scent of crushed sage, the cold and wet sensation of snowflakes on my cheeks, and the feel of the soft earth beneath my feet in the Badlands.

Berry certainly makes a valid point in his poem, “Vacation.”  Those of us who love our cameras need to be careful that they do not prohibit us from experiencing what we record or photograph.  At the same time, I would argue that used properly photography can enhance our experiences.  I always pray when I go out to photograph and ask God to help me to see what I need to see.  Inherent in this prayer is the desire to see Him.  In the end this is the goal of my photography—to be able to share with others something of the glory and majesty of God through the pictures I take.  That is why my camera has become a very important tool on my spiritual journey.


(I took the top image of the Little Missouri River at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  The scenic and bison image were taken at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.)

Jul 15 2012

The Peace of Wild Things

“Be still, and know that I am God.” –Psalm 46:10

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again; I don’t like this time of year.  I don’t think I’ve been a fan of summer since I was a teenager.   I cannot stand the heat and humidity.  That’s not good since the earth is undeniably experiencing a warming trend.  Things are hot and it’s getting hotter.

What I said above I could say again here concerning another subject—politics.  I don’t like this time of year and am already dreading the next four months.  I know we must have elections and that it is good that we live in a country where we have the freedom to vote for the candidate we choose, but I hate all the negativity that seems to come with political races, especially presidential ones.

The negativity is everywhere.  It’s in the candidates’ ads that run on television and the radio.  It’s on the annoying unsolicited automated phone calls that come on a regular basis.  It’s all over the social media.  When I go on Facebook these days it looks like a political war zone.  I just don’t understand why people feel they have to be so hateful and demeaning.   Almost everything I see and hear tells me why I shouldn’t vote for some particular candidate, not why I should vote for his or her alternative.  The focus is not on what it should be–what’s right about a particular candidate.  Things are hot and it’s getting hotter.

Last night I came across a Wendell Berry poem that seemed most appropriate to what I’m talking about.  Berry writes: “When despair for the world grows in me 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.  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.”

I am certainly grateful for “the peace of wild things.”  I am thankful that God created beautiful and wild places where we can still escape from all the madness, if only for a moment.  I think in some ways I need them more now than ever before.  If I’m going to survive the next few months I have a feeling I’m going to have to spend less time in front of the television and computer and more time outdoors.  I just wish it wasn’t so hot…


(I took the top image at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  I think I photographed the blue heron in Florida.  I photographed the ferns at Pine Mountain State Park in Kentucky.)

Apr 3 2011

A Poet’s Gift

I have to confess that I don’t know much about poetry.  Another confession; I haven’t found a lot of poetry I really like.  I realize that this says far more about me than it does about poets and their work.  Until recently the only poet I read with much regularity is Wendell Berry.  This past week things changed.

In a conversation with my friend and blogging partner, Rob Sheppard, he asked me if I was familiar with the poetry of Mary Oliver.  I had to confess I had never heard of her.  Rob told me he thought I would enjoy her writing so upon his recommendation I bought one of her books.  Having now read approximately half of that book I owe Rob a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to this Pulitzer Prize winning poet.

John Keats once said, “Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.“  Keats words ring true for me when I read Oliver’s poems.  She so eloquently writes about nature and spiritual matters that I feel at times her words have captured my “highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”  Let me give you some examples.

Writing about a thrush in her poem “North Country” she says “There is no way to be sufficiently grateful for the gifts we are given, no way to speak the Lord’s name often enough, though we do try, and especially now, as that dappled breast breathes in the pines and heaven’s windows in the north country, now spring has come, are opened wide.”  In a piece called “The Faces of Deer” Oliver says “Each hoof of each animal makes the sign of a heart as it touches then lifts away from the ground.  Unless you believe that heaven is very near, how will you find it?  Their eyes are pools in which one would be content, on any summer afternoon, to swim away through the door of the world. Then, love and its blessing.  Then: heaven.”

In a poem called “Patience” Oliver encourages all who would find God in Creation to slow down.  She writes, “I used to hurry everywhere, and leaped over the running creeks. There wasn’t time enough for all the wonderful things I could think of to do in a single day.  Patience comes to the bones before it takes roots in the heart as another good idea. I say this as I stand in the woods and study the patterns of the moon shadows, or stroll down into the waters that now, late summer, have also caught the fever, and hardly move from one eternity to another.” 

Finally, in a poem called “Circles” Mary Oliver writes a passage that I’d love to use as my epitaph some day.  She says “I am so happy to be alive in this world I would like to live forever, but I am content not to.  Seeing what I have seen has filled me; believing what I believe has filled me.” 

I share these words of Mary Oliver with you because I believe that here is a woman who can teach us all much about how to see and experience God in nature.  I know that her words will cause me to see things differently now.  What a gift!


(I took the image of the whitetail deer fawn above in Shenandoah National Park.)