Life on the threshold
Reading the father of the rural life movement in the heart of the modern city
About a year ago, my friend Ragan Sutterfield recommended that I read Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Holy Earth. At some earlier point in my life, I had briefly encountered Bailey’s work as praised in Wendell Berry’s essay “A Practical Harmony,” but this essay had long since fallen into the dark chasms of my memory. With Ragan’s recommendation in mind, I began to do a little research on who Bailey was: a noted botanist and farmer, born in 1858, who would become one of the fathers of the American rural life movement in the early 20th century. Eventually, I stumbled again on Berry’s essay and refreshing my memory, I eagerly set myself to reading The Holy Earth.
Inspired by this book’s eloquent plea for ecological living, I soon began to search for other works by Bailey. One of the first books I would encounter was a delightful volume of his nature poetry called Wind and Weather, originally published in 1916. What I found as I dug into this volume, was a rich treasure trove of simple poems, full of child-like wonder and a deep sense of the poet’s connectedness to nature. I was sucked into this work, in a way that I had been with only a very few other books in the past. I read it from beginning to end and was compelled to do so again and again, probably five or six times in all, before I was able to put it down. And as I traversed these earthy poems over and over, I began to hear the rhythm of a song, a song that opened my eyes to the glory of Creation around me and a song whose beat set my feet to dancing – however clumsily – a new dance of hope.
You see, I live in the city, specifically the Englewood neighborhood on the near-east side of Indianapolis, a location that could easily be described as an abandoned place of empire. Our neighborhood suffers from the typical symptoms of urban blight: crime, abusive landlords, poor schools, food deserts, etc. Our ZIP code has a reputation for having the highest rate of abandoned housing in the state of Indiana. As part of an urban church community in this neighborhood, my brothers and sisters and I have come to know a deep sense – to borrow the theological language from The Meaning of the City by Jacques Ellul – of the city as a power of death.
Ellul notes that the city stands and thrives as a tribute to man’s rebellion against God and nature. In urban places such as ours, it is easy to succumb to the power of death and the hopelessness of rebellion, especially when one stands alone. The city has a tendency to crush our imaginations and form us into the rebellious practices of self-preservation, greed, rage, etc. To resist these powers of death, we need church communities that are being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit and who are being formed into locally-rooted contrast cultures.
As the words of Bailey’s poetry washed over me, I could feel the scales falling from my eyes and I began to see a new world emerging in our neighborhood, a new culture rooted in the community of people that God has gathered together here. Indeed, these poems pushed toward the liberation of my imagination, reminding me anew that the true order of creation is that of life and health and growth. I was particularly moved by Bailey’s poem “Poet:”
Tell me, O Poet, where thou dost live
Show me the place whereon thou dost stand
Lead me to the crests that give
Those wondrous scenes thou dost command
And let my waiting soul enwreathe
The rarer airs that thou dost breathe
Upon thy diamond shore.
He took me by the hand
And led me to my own hearthstone
We paused upon the wonted floor
And silent stood alone-
Till all the space was over-pent
With a magic wonderment;
And I found the Poet’s store
On the threshold of my door.
Bailey’s words here reminded me of the immanence of God’s reconciling work in every corner of creation, even at the heart of the rebellious city. As I reflected on this poem, I came to realize that a key part of submitting ourselves to God’s work of transforming our imagination is to learn to watch and listen for the “magic wonderment” of creation in that place to which we have been called. Even in the city, wonders of nature lurk around every corner. Even humankind’s rebellious fondness for pavement and concrete cannot suppress the vibrant life of God’s creation: the luscious yellow flowers and tasty leaves of the dandelion poke upwards through cracks in the pavement; doves, long a symbol of God’s shalom, are sighted mocking the divisiveness of humanity by perching themselves atop barbed wire fences. Bailey’s poem “Wreck” vividly depicts this tenacity of nature that outlasts the works of humankind:
In the field I saw as the train went by
The wreck of a carriage tattered and dry;
The winds had found it, and the lush weeds ran
Under and over the ruins of man.
With labor ’twas made by a hundred hands
With stuff assembled from a hundred lands
And ’twas sent with hope down a hundred sands;
But the mishap came and its work was done
And ’twas given back to the earth and sun
And stout nature took it as nature does
When man gives up, and whatever it was
Will never again foregathered be
Into fabric or fold or filigree,
But sometime somewhere each atom appear
As blush of a bloom or a gossamere
Or ion of signs in brain of a seer.
To destroy, to rebuild: the rounds maintain
In the wear and tear and the sun and rain
And hap or mishap it accounteth not
For all cometh back to the common lot
And ev’ry wreck since the morning of time
Hath taken its place in the plan sublime.
Nothing is lost; so the builder weeds ran
Over and under the fond works of man.
Oh, that we would have eyes to see the “magic wonderment” of the inbreaking of God’s redemption. Bailey’s poetry provides some tools that serve to prepare our imaginations for the divine transformation.
In an essay on the writing of nature poetry in the book Outlook to Nature, Bailey describes three virtues of nature poetry, all of which are embodied in the poems of Wind and Weather: connectedness, keen observation and clarity. As I dove deeper in these poems, I found that these three virtues woven together serve to point us in the direction of a transformed urban imagination.
First, our connectedness with all of creation is often obscured by urban life. How quickly we lose sight of the fact that our excessive use of the gas-powered vehicles wreaks all sorts of havoc upon the flora and fauna of the city. Our tendency in the city to be disconnected from the sources of our food, makes us oblivious to the use of land around us. As we slowly reconnect with creation, we begin to see the potential for growing food in what once were lawns and marginal spaces. Similarly, we being to see the great good of trees in providing shade, clean air and sometimes fruits and nuts and to appreciate the vast abundance of life that thrives within the ecosystem of a tree.
Crucial to our connectedness with nature is simply the practice of being outside; the urban lifestyle with its energy-heavy reliance on heating and cooling, curses the weather and imprisons the person to the confines of human structures. Bailey strongly believed that nature poetry should be written outside in the midst of nature and the elements. He says: “Give us the rain and the hail and the snow, the mist, the crashing thunder, and the cold biting wind! Let us be men enough to face it, and poets enough to enjoy it.” Indeed, his poems resonate with a joyous connection to all of creation: to plants and trees, to birds and other animals, to the seasons and all sorts of weather, to the labors of agriculture by which we are fed. Redemptive living in the city demands that we cultivate practices of connectedness. For me, Bailey’s poetry inspired me to be more intentional about being outside and exploring the nature of our neighborhood and to intensify my participation in our church’s agricultural efforts.
Bailey’s second virtue of nature poetry is keen observation. As Wendell Berry and others have noted, we tend to move so fast that we lose the capability of seeing and appreciating things that are constantly unfolding right in front of our eyes. This swift pace of life is typically intensified in the city. If we are to nurture practices of keen observation, we need to learn to slow down, and often to sit still. These sabbath practices will help us hone our observational skills. Bailey, the botanist, also emphasized the importance of knowing a little science to give some language and structure to our observation. For me, it is helpful to learn to identify plants, trees, birds and animals. Keen observation is especially important in the city because nature often is marginalized by the advance of human infrastructure; our observational efforts, thus, will have to be much more intentional – going out to the vacant lot, the marginal spaces or even climbing a tree.
Finally, Bailey notes that nature poetry should be marked by its clarity. Bailey himself rejected the “ambitious disquisitions, long periods, heavy rhetoric, labored metaphors” of traditional poetry forms. Such simplicity of speech is crucial in an urban setting, which – returning again to the work of Jacques Ellul – is marked by its penchant for technology, the extraordinary complexity and specialization of human experience. Clarity also requires our meditation or reflection upon what we see. One who hastily describes an experience is prone to ramble on, but one who has reflected upon the experience can describe it in clear, simple terms. Clarity helps us to share with others the truth and beauty of our encounters with nature. Clear speech is accessible speech, not just to privileged and specialized literary or scientific communities, but to everyone.
Bailey’s three virtues tend to build on each other: we feel more connected as we practice keen observation; the sort of reflection that leads us to clarity also helps our observation to become keener; and our connectedness provides a framework for reflection and clarity. In recent months, I have been using the term “urban naturalism” to describe my own experiences with Bailey’s virtues of nature poetry in the city. His poems have led me to be outside more, often with my kids, exploring the nature of the city. We have watched the birds decimate the shriveled fruits of a crabapple tree over the course of a particularly snowy January. We have discovered many bird’s nests, including one made largely of the threads of a fraying tarp that we found hanging over 100 feet away. We have climbed trees and even discovered a relatively vast stretch of untended land along the railroad tracks that I like to call “The Wilds.” As I immersed myself in the poems of Wind and Weather, God began to transform my imagination, helping me to begin to see a radiant hope that shines brighter than the brightest neon lights of the city. Indeed, as Bailey wrote in his poem “The Signs of Life”:
The gaps fill in; the earth is rife
With energy that mastereth;—
The upward signs of birth and life
Are greater than the signs of death.
It is significant, I believe, that the scriptural story describes human history as ending in a city, the New Jerusalem, which is not just any city, but a city that overflows with life and nature. God has redeemed all of creation, even the city, the grand work of human striving. Liberty Hyde Bailey’s poetry, in stirring up a sort of urban naturalism in me, reorients me in the direction of this scriptural vision. I pray that – whether through Bailey’s poetry or otherwise – God would continue to transform our imaginations, igniting them with the hope of redemption.
Image: The end of my block, c.2008.