Michael Tomko, University of Notre Dame

“Discrete Metaphors: Wendell Berry and the Demands of Local Ecology”

            “Poetry makes nothing happen” — This unassuming line with no particular eloquence, linguistic intricacy, or metrical flash from W.H. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats has proved particularly enduring.  It is sometimes quoted as a blithe leap from responsibility or a sighing confession of  impotent irrelevance by poets and critics alike.  Such resignation, however, has been anathema to current critics concerned about crafting a relationship between art and human responsibilities towards the environment.  In his 2001 book, Writing for an Endangered World, American literary critic Lawrence Buell asserts that “acts of environmental imagination, whatever anyone thinks to the contrary, potentially register and energize...engagement with the world” (2).  However, the anxiety in Buell’s language — a defiant protestation dismissing all contrary opinions followed by the strange qualification of “potentially” — reflects a broader anxiety in literary studies about the efficacy of ecologically committed writing and literary criticism that has come to be known as eco-criticism.  In this paper, I do not pretend to offer solutions to some of the difficulties of eco-criticism but only to offer alternative resources and viewpoints from a tradition of nature writing in English religious poetry and from the writing and poetry of the agrarian Kentucky poet Wendell Berry.  In his essay Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Berry argues against overarching metaphors about Nature, tendentiously attacking even such seemingly innocuous terms as “environment,” “ecosystem,” and “organism” for participating in the subjugation, commodification, and instrumentalization of Nature (8).  As an alternative, I will argue, Berry outlines what I will call a local “way of seeing” that shapes a highly particularized, anti-metaphorical and urgent ecology.  This local ecology, which has ties to a sacramental perspective on the earth, addresses not only global ecological concerns but also the revitalization of our dwelling here on Earth.

            While in an insightful and methodologically sophisticated approach, Buell’s cry for critics and readers alike to recognize the political implications of nature writing ultimately attempts to step beyond theoretical obstacles encountered by eco-criticism.  These difficulties, however, present serious issues in the field today that have engaged conscientious, intelligent thinkers. The following discussion, therefore, is meant not as a caricature but as a useful summary.  For histrionic purposes, I will group these issues into three categories: referential, methodological, and anthropological.  First, the referential.  Reaching far beyond its origin in Romantic literary studies, Jonathan Bate’s foundational eco-critical text, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, attacked the form of “ideological” criticism of nature writing associated with marxist and new historicist criticism for reducing nature to a sociological construction.  While, as James McKusick points out, Alan Liu’s new historicist argument that “Nature” exists only within definitions proscribed by political, social, and cultural institutions seems intuitively wrong-headed, nevertheless political campaigns for government protected wilderness areas need the seemingly monstrous coupling of the words “regulated” and “wilderness” (104). [1]   New historicist criticism is not the only body of criticism that makes “real” Nature inaccessible to eco-critics.  Post-structuralists have persistently and successfully argued against referential and mimetic meaning in literary texts.  For eco-critics to abandon the text’s self-referential play of language for a concern about the natural world outside the text is to become vulnerable to accusations of theoretical philistinism. [2]   Second, the methodological.  This referential problem relates to my second category of methodology problems in eco-criticism: what tools can the modern academy offer to the consideration of nature and art?  Heideggerean phenomenology offers a reputable philosophical underpinning to many eco-critics but the language of phenomenology, with its tendency to abstraction, renders just as many uncomfortable. [3]   Third and finally, the anthropological.  The very words “nature” and “art” — and their inherent potential for conflict — present a very old literary problem.  How can art represent nature without being artificial?  How can art ever be said to be natural.  With an emphasis on ecocentrism, eco-criticism faces this problem in new terms.  If eco-centrism looks to displace anthropocentric human culture, how can this be done through human culture without contradiction?  How can eco-criticism (itself a cultural movement) read literary texts (again cultural products) in order to efface human culture?  Eco-criticism can sometimes seem a hopeless act of cutting away the tree house in which one is standing.

            Wendell Berry’s background in farming and the religious perspective offered by the poets I will discuss addresses the anxiety over culture’s relation to the earth.  Since his landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, Berry has argued in his essays, verse, and fiction that ecology, agriculture, and culture are inseparable terms.  We will not improve either the environment or our lives by shamefully denying our place as human beings.  Such a stance would be as disingenuous as it is irresponsible.  We are powerful and cultural creatures who must rather dwell caringly within an earthly culture, a relationship implied within the etymological roots agri— (from the Latin for fields) and —culture (from the latin colere meaning either cultivate, dwell, care, or refine).  In Life is a Miracle, Berry writes that “a part of the sense of ‘homecoming’ must be homemaking, for we now must begin sometimes with remnants, sometimes with ruins” (136).  Any return to the earth, must be through a “making,” a cultural activity that necessarily involves the human and the humanist.  The Greek for making is poesis, the etymological root of poem.  Berry goes on to assert that this making encompasses families, farms, communities, paintings, and symphonies.  We are faced with the choice to make them poorly or to make them well.  “Unmaking” culture and avoiding responsibility is not an option.  In a passage from his frank but gentle upbraid to the West called “Anglo-Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men,” Berry gives a call to responsibility that, if not anthropocentric, is at least, anthropo-aware:

...For here we are

at last with our real selves

in the real world.  Therefore,

let us quiet our hearts, my brothers,

and settle down for a change

to picking up after ourselves

and a few centuries of honest work. (158)

The multi-generational scope of the “few centuries” breaks any notion that the form of stewardship Berry here calls for is part of an economy of immanence and exploitation.  The realization of our cultural, traditional “real selves” is part of the work of culture just as is the “picking up after ourselves,” i.e. ecological and agricultural renovation.  To proceed with an eco-criticism, or a political agenda, that is not in bad faith, the eco-centric critic or activist must see his or her action as “honest work” in which culture is at least a co-laborer. 

            The Pauline resonance of co-laborer is not coincidental as Berry finds a place and a sympathy with religious poetic thought about the earth and ethical considerations of its connection to the human or superhuman.  As his title implies, Berry sees his project involved with the claim that “we can live fully only by making ourselves as answerable to the claims of eternity as to those of time” (8).  In a sense, the farmer and the priest (or religious poet) find themselves in similar positions — responsibly and gently interacting with the earth to make a dwelling and a life ultimately answerable beyond their own sphere of time and need.  The agriculturalist and the religious cultivate a relationship with the earth rather than denying their own place there or, as in polemic caricatures, brazenly extracting resources.  Berry asserts that there is not one Bible verse that “implies a permission to ‘use up’ the ‘natural environment’” and the Scripture consistently proclaims the “variety,” “individuality,” and “holiness” of creatures (101-102).  The traditional Christian topos of creation as the “vale of tears” implies not a disregard for the earthly but a deep involvement and urgent care — informed by a supernatural understanding and ethic — that is not too deep for weeping.

            By providing a localized “way of seeing,”  Berry’s work also presents an opportunity for the “honest work” of culture that is in sympathy with the most promising strands of eco-criticism.  In his most recent work Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate draws on the ways in which nineteenth-century poets and writers saw their world and the way their poetry dwelt in it.  Bate writes:

This is a book about why poetry continues to matter as we enter a new millenium that will be ruled by technology.  It is a book about modern Western man’s alienation from nature.  It is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home. (vii)

The confluence with Berry’s project is striking.  Bate’s book  also features a critical approach that often gains a way of seeing the local.  In his discussion of the working-class rural poet John Clare, Bate is at his most effective when he offers the reader an invitation: “Let us walk with him.”  He is least effective when disseminating Heideggerian metaphysic (“Das Dasein ist rund”) that yokes Clare somewhat unnaturally to Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological exegesis: “Through the rounding of the poem, the landscape is rounded and completed; because of the roundness, everything seems to be in repose even as it is in motion...Birds are essential to the roundness of Clare’s world” (156-7).  In this passage, Heidegger’s overbearing metaphor of abstract “roundness” distracts from the journey with Clare along the “rut-gulled wagon road.”

However, Bate’s call to walk with the poet, to overhear a new poetic homemaking, and to experience a new “way of seeing” finds a parallel, but unmixed, expression in Berry’s poetry.  Berry is a master of the elegiac mode, consistently embodying connections between the earth, the dead, and the living.  In his “Elegy” for his friend and fellow farmer, Owen Flood, Berry follows Flood in his last days to a prospect overlooking his dispossessed farm:

Finally, he brought me to a hill

overlooking the fields that once

belonged to him, that he once

belonged to. “Look,” he said again.

I knew he wanted me to see

the years of care that place wore,

for his story lay upon it, a bloom,

a blessing. (133)

This “Look” — this command from a stolidly vatic guide to look with eyes that finally see— holds the key to understanding Berry’s contribution not only to ecology and poetry but also to some of the current difficulties of eco-criticism.  The command “Look” — twice repeated like Christ’s command to the man born blind — allows the reader’s eyes to perceive the emergence of what is really there but what is not always reckoned.  In this “way of seeing” the interwoven, but heretofore unobserved depths, of local, cooperative interconnection surface in the agricultural (“the years of care”), the natural (“the bloom”), and the supernatural (“the blessing”).  In the midst of these layers of meaning, the cultural and the human meet and blend harmoniously as the “story” that is Flood’s life and tale merge and sit sweetly on the soil.

            This elegiac poem does offer the possibility of making something happen.  In its re-focusing of our attention, Berry’s poetry allows the reader to follow a “way of seeing” that revitalizes the particular, the individual, and the local.  In Life is a Miracle,  Berry writes:

Only imagination, for example, can give our home landscape and community a presence in our minds that is a sort of vision at once geographical and historical, practical and protective, affectionate and hopeful. But if that vision is not repeatedly corrected by a fairly accurate sense of reality, if the vision becomes fantastical or merely wishful, then both we and the landscape fall into danger; we may destroy the landscape, or the landscape (especially if damaged by us in our illusion) may destroy us. (85)

This passage offers a summary of what I am calling a local “way of seeing.”  On the one hand, Berry stresses the need for the imagination to be involved in our daily lives, informing our vision of the world around us, historically and culturally.  This is the “Look” command of Flood that creates and reveals a world in which human culture and nature intertwine in front of us.  It is a vision of the immediate and  the local in all its quiddity [MT1]  .  We also find the injunction to “Look” and the activity of the home-making imagination in Berry’s poem “Remembering my Father”:

We were standing on the hill

To watch the cattle grazing

As the gray evening fell


“Look.  See that this is good,

And then you won’t forget.”

I saw it as he said,

And I have not forgot. (169-170)

This moment ties together generations — Berry and his father.  It ties together the community and the land.  It ties all of these to the reader for whom this vision and this visionary power are now accessible.  In addition, it also ties together the land, humanity, and the divine.  “See that this is good” unmistakably recalls the Genesis creation narrative, imparting to this Appalachian foothill the remembrance of holy, originary grandeur.  This father and this son bear the full weight of the concentrated glory of those primordial six days in a moment whose irradiation is suggestive of the sacramental.  We see how the hillside is permeated by grace.  The result is not a detached contemplation of the beauty of nature, but a “way of seeing” (“I saw it”) that endures and maintains the localized relationship between heaven, earth, and humanity.

This “way of seeing” is a necessary preparation for a praxis of ecological preservation.  Berry writes, “Modern humans are typically using places whose nature they have never known and whose history they have forgotten; thus ignorant, they almost necessarily abuse what they use” (91).  Unimaginative ignorance of the local is the precursor to ecological disaster.  What we cannot see, we will not notice destroying.  If the home-making imagination fails to do its task, the result will be the depersonalization and inevitable instrumentalization and commodification of the local landscape.  In his poem, “In a Parking Lot, thinking of Dr. Williams,” Berry writes:

For want of songs and stories

they have dug away the soil,

paved over what is left


set up their perfunctory walls

in tribute to no god,

for the love of no man or woman, (155)

The failure of the imagination — the lack of “songs and stories”— was the first step in the rise of an ugly and anonymous parking lot.  The lack of poetry has made something happen.

Yet the imaginative power, even when functioning in a committed way, is not without danger.  Berry recognizes that the imagination can only be — to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth — a “co-creator.”  If it attempts to sever that connection and fly on its own wings, it has the power to evacuate, often unintentionally, the landscape of meaning.  This caution is meant especially for ecological thinkers who might unintentionally displace local ecology and local meaning with sweeping metaphors.  Words and metaphors, even those seemingly benign, cannot float above the landscape detached from locality.  Hence his distaste for terms like “ecosystems,” “environment,” and “organisms” that are a product of this severance of language from the local.  Their abstraction from the local is an act of unaware imaginative unmaking, much like Bate’s roundness, that yields a disembodied discourse and vision of nature that is ultimately “headless and footless, loveless, a language of nowhere” (137).  And hence, Berry’s discomfort with the C.P. Snow’s “two culture” model that has no language for the “one place” where we dwell.  We have a responsibility to know that place through a language answerable to a home-making imagination, and science separated from the humanities threatens to dominate our conceptions of nature with a language that is placeless, personless, and inevitably for profit.  There is no language that is neutral — only nurturing or destructive.

Instead, Berry advocates a turn to a language that is answerable to the local and cooperates in establishing a sense of place.  Berry writes that artists and poets “can stick things together so that they stay stuck” (Miracle 150).  In my discussion earlier, I suggested that in Berry’s poetry we witness, along with the poet, a local “way of seeing” that sticks together communities, nature, and the eternal.  This practice is not reserved for poets alone.  Berry stresses the importance of the everyday, unremembered acts of imaginative home-making, claiming that even the banal naming of the “back field” and “front field” are “vital signs of a culture” (Miracle 138).  The artist, the reader, and the farmer all can cooperate through this “way of seeing.”   Berry writes, “Our dwelling here is the proper work of culture” (122).  Giving local names and solidifying local communities by artists and by each of us is where the ecological and the cultural can meet.

Such a fusion in Berry’s poetry that performs this honest work of culture, I have ventured to call both sacramental and incarnational.  It is incarnational in its radical sense of the “here.”  The particular, that which is before us here and now, has an incredible significance in Berry’s poetry.  In Life is a Miracle, he approvingly quotes his opponent Edmund O. Wilson’s claim that one could spend a lifetime exploring the trunk of one tree:

A single tree?  Well, life is a miracle and therefore infinitely of interest everywhere.  We have perhaps sufficient testimony, from artists and scientists both, that if we watch, refine our intelligence and our attention, curb our greed and our pride, work with care, have faith, a single tree might be enough. (142)

One place, one time where culture, knowledge, nature, and faith meet in a revelation that is in some way mysterious, miraculous, and yet always tangible, immanent — it is in this sense that his thought is incarnational.  We only need to “watch,” to look.  Definite articles in Berry’s poetry mean something, mean everything.  In a poem titled “The Sycamore,” which is dedicated to Harry Caudill, Berry  meditates on the quasi-divine significance of this single tree in grammar so captivatingly repetitive that it may be worthy of an Ignation Spiritual exercise:

It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.

It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.

It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.

In all the country there is no other like it.

I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling

the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.

I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it,

and is fed upon, and is native, and maker. (27)

There is a Christ-like quality to this tree, as an alpha and omega that has gathered all accidents to its mission and as a man of sorrows awaiting and aware of its dark fate.  Perhaps most significantly, in all its mystery and transcendence, it is preeminently an individual.  C.S. Lewis described the incarnation as “myth made fact,” and the mythical wonder with the sycamore emerges in Berry’s poem as steadfastly a fact, not a metaphor or an abstraction, but a thing and an individual.  This individual has an internal light or connection that links it to One greater — perhaps to the Father — whom Berry would follow.  Such a hint of the Christ-like vision of this one sycamore is carried out in the Trinitarian recitation with which the poem closes.  The sycamore is linked to the earth and a greater power (the Father), is a native presence in and of itself (the Son), and is a maker that inspires and creates (the Holy Spirit).  These three are linked through a loving sense of mutual nourishment.

Yet Berry ultimately does not make an idol of this tree and, like a practical farmer, does not engage in earth worship in any real sense.  This is why I am ultimately more inclined to see Berry’s work as sacramental, as an interaction between grace and nature.  It is “once for all,” as Paul said of Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrews, but re-presented in different places, among different individuals, and for different individuals.  It is accomplished through a “way of seeing” and through the “honest work” of culture cooperating with the natural and supernatural that is passed down and taught from one generation to the next.  It is sacramental in the same way that William Langland’s description of the incarnation, in very similar natural terms, is sacramental.  In Piers Plowman, Langland writes that in Christ the full glory rested on earth “lighter than a leaf on a linden-tree”(Passus I, 154). Berry’s sacramental vision of individual aspects of local nature, I would argue, finds numerous analogues in English religious poetry.  A full discussion of this tradition is beyond the scope of this paper, but I will mention a few briefly.  In addition to Langland, the Middle English poem “Patience” localizes the Biblical story to provide a description of an individual, English woodbine that God raises up to teach an erstwhile Jonah the value of creation.  In later poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins verbally links the crucifixion with the destruction of a series of beloved local, Oxfordshire trees in “Binsey Poplars.”  Speculating that a “homeless” concrete age may view our own as a “tree-delighted Eden,” C.S. Lewis laments the loss of individuated knowledge of types of trees such as elm and chestnut that will inevitably lead to their actual loss in “The Future of Forestry.”  This list is far from exhaustive, but it does suggest that there is a continuum between the localized, sacramental home-making imagination of the agrarian Berry and the poetic and ecological insights of other religious poets.

Berry’s voice provides an important contribution to ecological thought that comes, rather defiantly, from outside the academy.  His outline of a local “way of seeing” in his poetry recalls the need for a human, sacramental reconnection with nature through culture and community.  His outline of a local ecology in Life is a Miracle calls for a revision of the disconnection between ethics and religion from scientific and ecological thought.  In favor of attending to discrete, particularized local places and local nature, Berry sounds a cautionary note about applying overarching metaphors to nature.  The potential for abstraction, instrumentalization, commodification, and subsequently eradication haunts efforts, by eco-critics and others, to defend nature, when not informed by poetic, religious and communal imaginative “home-making.”  Ultimately, Berry’s perspective does not negate the concerns of this conference in addressing the question of whether nature can best be figured as a “web” or “balance” but rather provides a cautionary and complementary view that compels us not only to think globally but also to see locally.


Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge, 1991.

—,—. The Song of the Earth.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Berry, Wendell.  Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000.

—,—. The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.  Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998.

Buell, Lawrence.  Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley.  Selected Poetry. Oxford: OUP, 1996.

Kerridge, Richard and Sammels, Neil.  Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature.  London: Zed Books, 1998.

Lewis, C.S. Poems.  Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.

Liu, Alan. Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

McKusick, James. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

[1] There is a countervailing materialist tradition of eco-criticism that begins with Raymond Williams.  See the 1999 special issue on ecology of A Journal of Cultural Materialism.

[2] For a discussion of theoretical challenges more broadly, see the 1999 special issue of New Literary History on eco-criticism.

[3] For opposing opinions on the influence of Heidegger see Bate and Garrard’s articles in Writing the Environment (1998).

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