As faculty, staff, and students grapple with the goings on at SPU, we discover gems. My colleague, Doug Koskela, read this bit of Wendell Berry’s poem to his students this morning. He sent it to us with a few words of explanation, which I include as preface to the poem.
In comments from students, colleagues, and alumni over the last few days, I’ve noticed the theme of particularity of place coming up a lot. Especially from alumni commenting on social media outlets, I’m seeing many references to how the actual grounds and buildings are part of who they are. And now places like the Loop, First Church, Upper Gwinn (at least for me) give expression to the spirit of the community with even greater poignance.
Well, this connection of place and community has had me reading Wendell Berry. I know some of you were at the AAR [American Academy of Religion] session last fall where he was interviewed by Norman Wirzba. It was a remarkable session, and there were not many dry eyes (including his own) when Berry read a poem about heaven. That poem is in a collection called Leavings.
In that same volume, there is another poem that I have always appreciated–one that strikes me as classic Berry. As I stumbled across it again this weekend, I was taken aback by how much it seemed to speak to what many of us are experiencing. It’s a long poem, but here is the portion that I read to my students this morning:
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
Wendell Berry, Leavings, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010, pages 91-93 (quoted portion from pp. 92-93).