Wendell Berry Peace Disintegrator Pistol

I am writing this in the summer of 2021, of cascading climate change feedback loops, of the intensified death and displacement caused by climate change. In this summer, 326 pages in, I nearly pulled the plug on Ghost Fishing, a 2018 eco-justice poetry anthology. I nearly pulled the plug after arriving at Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.” [1] Berry’s poem is a wildly popular avatar of main stream ecopoetics. It proliferates across a sprawl of wellness, Christian, and official poetry channels. Berry performs TPoWT on the On Being podcast, whose founder received a National Humanities medal from President Obama. A serious neo-liberal credential.

The Ghost Fishing anthologist writes that they are interested in “thematic intersections of social justice, environment, and culture.” At best, the inclusion of Berry’s prosaic landscape poem and poems that share its representational strategies risks a somewhat obtuse definition of environmental justice. At worst, the poem risks an actively counter-productive definition of environmental justice at a moment where we can’t afford such confusion. The poem’s inclusion forces us to consider whether we might need a more drastic and clear-sighted reevaluation of the environmental canon to avoid holding on to a poetics of the past that cannot adhere to the present.[2] Let’s start with the poem, then work out way to the problem with the poem.

It begins in flight from the social world:      

            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

These lines describe movement that is compelling in its fluidity. How nice to roll out of bed, momentarily disturbed, and sleepily wander out into the grass and a compliant matrix of biological signifiers. This night walk is routine, the response to the condition “when.” This routineness amplifies its fluidity. The sound of the first three lines of the poem augments the speaker’s glide into nature. ‘for,’ ‘world,’ and ‘grows’ are oared along by long vowels, they are all wind and throat. The poem begins low on plosives or fricatives until ‘fear’ and ‘lives’ hum a little and ‘down,’ ‘wood,’ and ‘drake’ form a kind of sonic mass.

The liquid sound and syntax of this sentence deepen its implicit subject: the enjoyment of place as private property. A private property relation between the speaker and this land could allow the speaker to wake in one line, think about his family in the next, then “go and lie down where the wood drake / rests.” This place has been ordered to allow this moment to happen, from the work of making a path, mowing the grass, perhaps even excavating a pond, arranging the drainage of the property to feed it, securing the property itself through its purchase, the production of a network of laws to bar the land from other people’s use, the production of the land as absolute property itself, the law, the surveyor, the settler-colonial violence against Indigenous nations—spiraling out we go. There are meaningful absences: locked doors, chained gates, inconvenient, scratchy plants, the danger of trespass, the thought that anyone would or may be there. The path has been beaten so much that it is gone. These things could variegate the speaker’s delicious escape from the social into a nature made non-social. I get why they don’t. Among the fratboy yawps of the college-adjacent blocks where I live, I often want to enjoy—scrape, save, buy—a remote and restful square of ecological weave as Berry famously did, retreating from New York City to 75 acres of land in Kentucky.

The poem glides to the pondside and the poet looks around:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

At this point in the poem, it would seem like both sound and image build anticipation for an encounter with the non-human: “Down where the wood drake / rests” hints at a beat, an animating rhythm just as the speaker turns his attention to the non-human world. But this beat quickly diffuses just as the great heron ‘feeds’ and is alive for a moment in the verb ‘feed’. What does the great heron feed upon? How is this ecosystem laced? On what does the great heron depend? There an ecology, a network of energetic relations, is, for a moment, pointed to. But this quickly disintegrates into affect (“peace”) in the next line: “I come into the peace of wild things.”

The subsequent line further abstracts the poem’s ecological assembly. The wild things “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” Berry indexes great heron and wood drake by what human characteristics they lack. In this context, ‘tax’ denotes strain. For Berry’s speaker and many of his readers, it connotes the strain of the redistributive function of the state: taxes. Another stretch in my reading? Why not. In essays like “Think Little” and “The Total Economy,” Berry is quite explicit in his anti-government (and anti-communist) position. The state wastes, the individual saves. For Berry, redistribution by the state is not compatible with green, paternalistic individualism. In this essay, ‘tax’ could be ‘weigh’ or ‘strain’ or ‘burden.’ But it’s ‘tax.’

Berry finishes tranquilizing rural space with “I come into the presence of still water.” Water, that most dynamic substance, that thing that enmeshes so many forms of life, enacts geological processes, a vital thread in any ecosystem is “still.” In her essay “Confluence: Water as an Analytic of Indigenous Feminism,” Joanna Barker presents water as a mode of analysis that “brings our attention to the connection and interactions between water, land, and air, between humans and other-than-humans. It emphasizes, not romanticizes, these connections and interaction.” Barker’s water is also a lens that look out onto imperial violence. [3]

Berry’s gaze at water initiates an opposite movement in the poem, a movement away from water toward escape from any human or non-human other. Still water births the speaker’s feelings about himself, which are the terminus of the poem and a great wave of nature poems: “And 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.” The speaker’s sympathetic imagination arcs outward from still waters and finds no other until it reaches “the day blind stars waiting / with their light.” Like Pindar’s poems growing wings, or royalist puppy Abraham Cowley shuttling into galactic space, or Wordsworth considering the course of the earth, or Emerson’s winged eye, Berry’s poem takes the familiar flight upward from pondside to the stars. Drake and heron become the peace of wild things become the grace of the world. Bios to deus, ‘stars’ complete the poem’s disintegration of a particular ecology into the universal; God-flecked transcendence (‘grace’) dissolves place.

These final lines complete a poem-spanning syntactical pattern. Berry’s speaker is the active subject of each sentence, nature the object. The verbs include: “I wake,” “I lie,” “I come, “I come,” “I feel,” “I rest.” The prepositions: “in” and “into.” Together: “wake in the night,” “come into the peace,” “move into the presence,” “I rest in the grace.” Object relentlessly enfolds subject. Berry’s nature is an ever-growing cosmic womb whose work is erased in its persistent grammatical positions and whose purpose is to nurture his freedom. [4]

Freedom is a convincing landing spot for the poem. Part of owning absolute property—rather than holding a use, common, or usufructory right—is total freedom to dispose of that property as one wishes. Berry could take a nap or drain the pond; he could fire a gun at the stars or smash every window in his house with a shovel. He is free. In the sound of him talking to himself about his own freedom on his land, Berry is free as the reader may wish to be free—to lie down among what one has the power to dispose of mystified as the peace of wild things, a sovereign of things in the churning libidinal wilderness of one’s life.

In making that which is wild birth the self in an empty, rural place, the poem naturalizes the historical depopulation of rural American space. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing draws on the work of historians like E.P. Thompson whose 1975 Whigs and Hunters chronicles the creation by elites of an increasingly punitive legal regime in eighteenth-century England that worked to disentangle commoners from their forests, to disentangle nature, culture, and their non-teleological co-evolution. This belies the idea that the state protected wilderness; rather, the state produced wilderness by hanging people for hunting or destroying infrastructure that kept them from exercising use rights. For wilderness to become state property (and to then devolve to the elite), the state had to clear ecologies of people and invent crimes against them that were punishable by death. Tsing writes that it was only through these violent clearances that “European forests became empty and wild.” [5]

Colonial actors cleared people from land in the Americas with more ferocity. Recent historians demonstrate how colonial European powers intently propagated genocidal projects against indigenous nations in the Americas much earlier than the eighteenth century, violently producing and violently maintaining absences that would become American ‘wilderness.’ [6]

Tsing notes that this violent material production of wilderness was concomitant with an outpouring of European then American representations of nature are global and transcendent rather than social, historical, and biographical. These representations—including in poetry—of global, transcendent nature were in a mutually reinforcing relationship with the capitalist production of wilderness for the designs of the elite.

When the trans-Atlantic elite mind viewed actual non-social natures or representations in which nature is made non-social, they became sites of economic, libidinal, and theological speculation and projection. From the screen of synthetic wilderness, extraction, conservation, freedom, rest, revelation. Lords and large merchants found it easier to dream of parks and invest in plantations within a cultural imaginary where peasants and Indigenous peoples were erased from the landscape.

In America, the types of absences that these spaces’ silence might signify are also not universal. Along with the still in-process history of Indigenous nations across the Americas, non-social rural space is often the site of fugitive social histories. J.T. Roane’s scholarship highlights the fact many purportedly empty mid-Atlantic landscapes are former rural Black commons in which “enslaved and post emancipation Black communities created and perpetuated underground social life” and a “sense of place outside mastery expressed through human to human connection within the delicate ecologies of the wider biosphere.” [7] The very nature of these spaces is to escape surveillance and control and leave only the faintest material trace.

Barker, Tsing, and Roane invite us to find in ecologies the social, whether it formal and fugitive. They invite us to find in ecologies the acknowledgement of non-human relationality as well as the social histories of that place. These are acts of imagination. Berry’s poem only imagines the freedom of its speaker from relation. From a critical distance, this poem’s non-relations are a settler-colonial relation. [8] Berry’s other writings explicitly promote small land holding, a prayerful version of a nation of Jeffersonian yeoman farmers. [9] It is difficult to see how it is useful to hold onto a poem whose end-point is the sense of freedom derived from a white farm owner enjoying freedom of movement and imagination on his spread.

Berry’s poem is not exceptional. It is one avatar, oxygenated by attention, of a nature poetry’s impulse to depopulate nature, or to naturalize non-social and ahistorical ecologies. Yet somehow poetry, even in this moment of climate catastrophe, continues to mistake transcendent visions of empty rural space as something other than a conservative rehashing of one version of a settler-colonial organization of nature and society. [10] Even if an ecological knot is to console us, how might that consolation be conditioned by an awareness of that ecology’s place within social history and regimes of property? There is much interesting, urgent, imaginative work to be done here.


[1] Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things,” in Ghost Fishing: An Eco-justice Poetry Anthology, ed. Melissa Tuckey (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2018), 326.

[2] Nick Admussen suggests this sort of definitive break with the tradition of environmental writing. See “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change” in The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture 42 (2016), http://criticalflame.org/six-proposals-for-the-reform-of-literature-in-the-age-of-climate-change/.

[3] Joanne Barker, “Confluence: Water as an Analytic of Indigenous Feminisms,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal43, no. 3 (2019): 6. https://doi.org/10.17953/aicrj.43.3.barker

[4] Even some Romantics—even some proto-Romantics—had the vision to see the world outside themselves as having an over-awing agency. Their sublime struck them silly. Andrew Marvell, surviving in war-wracked psychopathic seventeenth-century imperial England, could write the power of the vegetative, his speaker could be “ensnared with flow’rs”; he could hint at the dialectical relationship between nature and culture: “The pink grew then as double as his mind.” He also understand how elite fantasies built and liquidated material ecologies. In “The Mower Against the Gardens,” the mower describes the garden as “all enforced” and dramatizes the moment of turning land into private property: “He first enclosed within the gardens square / A dead and standing pool of air.” Recall Berry’s lacquered pond, characterized by stillness and quiet. 

[5] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 201. Tsing has certainly said some dumb shit lately in conversation with Donna Haraway and the plantationocene, which later scholars of race, capital, and the environment have theorized far more convincingly.

[6] See Lisa Tanya Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Gerald Horne, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020).

[7] J. T. Roane, “Plotting the Black Commons,” Souls 20, no. 3 (2018): 1–28. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2018.1532757.

[8] English poetry has long legitimized settler-colonial property relations. A stark expression of this occurs in the preface to Arthur Blackamore’s 1729 Expedito Ultramontana, A Latin Poem Celebrating a Surveying Expedition Designed to Expand Virginia’s Colonial Boundaries: “The College at Williamsburgh is obliged to pay Two Copies of Latin Verses, to the Governour, every Fifth of November as Quit-Rent for Land.” Poems for the state, the state’s gift of violently expropriated land.

[9] This insight comes from Anthony Galluzzo, “On Paul Kingsnorth and the Unruly Nature: The Romantic Challenge to the Left,” Monthly Review Essays, May 7, 2021, https://mronline.org/2021/05/07/on-paul-kingsnorth-and-unruly-nature/.

[10] The alternative is not fully automated luxury communism (whose energetic demands would necessitate an imperial relationship with the Global South. See The Red Nation, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth (Philadelphia, PA: Common Notions, 2021), 12. Along with The Red Deal, Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal (2021) present left alternatives.

Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag, terrain.org, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.