Letting the Turmoil Be: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”

The world will be what it will be for human beings—never static, always a hot churning mixture of hope and despair, beauty and carnage, good works and evil deeds. Some eras, though, seem perched on a particularly thin knife’s edge, the odds of falling into a hellish pit rather than a featherbed being higher than normal. Signs seem pretty strong we are in such an era today.

Given the deep and angry divisions currently confronting not only our country but the larger world,, we’d be fools not to worry for its future. We’d also, of course, be fools to worry all the time, to let that worry diminish us, see us give in to disconsolation and despair.

But that is its own fine point at a knife’s edge, isn’t it? Finding room in ourselves to be both sober and carefree, attentive and dreamy, worried and hopeful. Burying our head into neither the warm sands of boundless optimism nor the cold dungeons of eternal gloom.

Plentiful evidence exists for both poles in that age-old tussle to claim the high ground, as it were. Things really are that bad sometimes….and that good.

Meanwhile, there’s a life to be lived. How are we to go about it? How do we walk along that edge?



Eighty-nine-year-old Wendell Berry, whose two poems on living a life of humility I discussed here five years ago, is a renowned writer (poetry, essays, fiction, short stories), farmer, and environmental activist with a deep sense of sobriety and care for the world. Much of his work traverses boundary lands between freedom and responsibility, personal and social, rural and urban, faith and doubt.

At its best, his poetry is like a finely crafted wooden utensil or chair, whittled to the edge of its life, its easy curves and balanced weight so deceptive in their surface simplicity that the hours of toil, love and attention they require remain hidden to casual view.

In “The Peace of Wild Things,” from his 1968 volume, “Openings,” Berry gives us an 11-line manifesto for what to do on those occasions when the walls where we conceive and paint a future feel like they’re closing in. The language is spare and the mood unhurried as he invites us to leave behind our shelter and all it signifies and accompany him down “where the wood drake/rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

The effect is immediate, Berry wasting neither words nor time as he lets on in the next line exactly what awaits us with that heron: “I come into the peace of wild things…” 

Let’s read it now before reflecting a bit more on this 103-word gem.


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.
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 marriage of “peace” and “wild” as the poem turns toward the home stretch is a nice bit of derring-do, given their surface contradiction. We don’t usually associate those two.

But it’s not rhinos and wildebeests trampling the earth that Berry puts forth as wild while also filling him with peace. Instead, we get a duck and heron, the first moving with surpassing ease, all effort rendered invisible by its underwater propulsion. The second is high-stepping through lake and stream on spindly legs in search of freshwater delicacies until it decides to lift itself in magnificent flight, no runway of any length required.

So yes, these too are “wild” creatures, alien to us, us even more alien to them. We hug them as furry stuffed animals, watch them avidly in cartoons and picture books, filling our toddler brains with imaginings of everlasting love and companionship. Maybe even taking them to bed with us throughout our childhood and going apoplectic if they somehow get lost in the comings and goings of the day.

They, in turn, could not care less about us, other than as threat, eyeing us all the while when we’re close, making haste at the first indications we’re moving toward them. The fact that one-year-old humans can form this kind of attachment to representations of a wild creature while the favor is never returned says much about the difference between homo sapiens and most all other species in the animal kingdom. (Dogs one exception, cats, God love ’em, not…)

In time, we grow out of these childish affections. Or do we?

Not completely, if Berry is at all accurate in his portrayal of the profound peace that settles upon us when we immerse in the natural world. He could have, of course, expanded to Whitmanesque lengths his list of wild creatures, far beyond a duck and heron. But his intent seems to have been to strip away everything that might distract from the crystalline sense of quietude he was trying to convey.

And the necessity, if our souls are to bear the burdens of finite life, to sometimes withdraw from everything that is not wild and calming and free.

Withdrawal not as denial of the intrusions and demands of the world—and our responsibilities to it. Not escape, but immersion in the other dimension that calls to us through time.

“For a time…” he emphasizes. Not for all time. (Every word counts in poetry!)

The implication: You’d be shirking your duties to the world if you stayed there next to the water and its wild things, reveling your life away in its grace. (Compelling as the prospect might feel sometimes.)

But as touchstone, recharger, reminder that all things pass, including razor’s edge dramas and our very own selves down there by the water contemplating the infinite, few images ring as close to our bones as these creatures, beheld under “the day-blind stars/waiting with their light.”



This bonus poem from a poetry monument in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is for Jeanette! (See comments below.)


Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!

My thanks to fellow poetry lover and frequent muse Mary for getting this poem in front of me earlier this week—just when I needed it.

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.   https://www.facebook.com/andrew.hidas/

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Knife edge by Judy Dean, Cotswold, UK https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterscherub/

Heron by António Pena Linda-a-Velha, Portugal Linda-a-Velha, Portugal https://www.flickr.com/photos/anpena/

Duck by Peter Baer, California https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterjbaer/

Additional Berry poem photo by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

10 comments to Letting the Turmoil Be: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”

  • Jeanette  says:

    I love Wendell Berry, and this poem. Once when I was visiting a dear friend in Durham (!) we went out of town to a kind of mini-Stonehenge, where among other poems, a Wendell Berry poem was carved into a large, tall stone. Since then his poetry has always called to me. Thanks, Andrew, for shining a light on this poem at a time when I really need its message.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I figured this might ring a few bells, Jeanette, mostly because I needed it, too. And just for you, I added a foto above of the place & poem you describe—Stone Knoll, the poem entitled “I Go Among Trees.” Three other poems by Maya Angelou, Carl Sandburg and Rumi complete the setting as a kind of poetic sanctuary. It’s a lovely, enchanting, and profoundly peaceful spot in Chapel Hill, actually, but kind of halfway between there & Durham. Your reminding me of it has me thinking it would make a worthy blog post on its own. Someday!

  • Miryam (Margo) Wolfson  says:

    Thanks for this gem, Andrew!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Pleasure was mine, Miryam (Margo)! (Does the parentheses mean Margo is what you go by, or that’s a birth name that still hangs around even though you’ve long been a Miryam?) (Inquiring minds, etc…) Very glad this poem spoke to you, thanks for letting me know.

  • mary graves  says:

    Very thought provoking as usual. Thank you.

    Last month we went to see Seinfeld at LBC, and he talked for 90 minutes about how bad the Republicans are, the Democrats, Taco Bell, marriage, etc. and we laughed our heads off. Then he said, “I know I complain about all these things, but I am happy,” and he got the best applause yet. I think that is his response to your razor’s edge question of how to be concerned about our world but not get lost in fear: Face it, Feel it all , but allow yourself to be happy along the way!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hear, hear, Mary. Lord knows there’s plentiful reason to be UNhappy in this world, which we will never make right no matter how hard we try. If we posit God as some sort of supreme force of perfect love and care presiding over the world, what do we think that force would want for us——to be miserable? I don’t think it’s necessary to believe in God per se to benefit from that thought experiment. The cavalier, uncaring, unempathetic “happiness” borne of selfishness? Nope. We have to care as much as we can for the entire creation, and somehow forge our happiness within its tragedies and limitations. Anything less would be to cheat the creation and its gift of life.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Life is a constant balancing act, regardless of its nature. In can be something as entertaining as a football game. Chicago Bear fans withstood the biting wind and cold to witness the beauty of Gale Sayers gliding through the opposition with such ease, yet they felt cheated if Dick Butkus didn’t smash a far too vulnerable wide receiver into the frozen ground. It can be a once in a lifetime experience. In the dawn of a Kenyan safari, tourists shudder at the sight of a lioness dragging a wildebeest to the ground and at dusk sit on a veranda marveling at the silhouette of a lone Baobab tree on a golden savannah. It can encompass the everyday. My wife has recently substituted so much of MSNBC with PBS Passport because the news is so depressing. In the same vein, she can watch “Sense and Sensibility” over-and-over again but “Chinatown” just once. An individual’s creativity also embraces balance. Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip” shows a group of children happily playing a game during a school’s recess. He then painted the “Gulf Stream” which depicts the terrifying ordeal of a single man trying to steer his dilapidated rowboat through a storm as sharks circle around him. Stephen Spielberg directed “Jaws” and a few years later “E.T” hit the theaters. I’ll close my comment with the role sacrifice plays in this balancing of the good with the bad. At about the same time Wendell Berry lay down on the banks of a lake to watch the wood drake and great heron feed, he was well aware of the fact that a Union Oil platform had spilled thousands of barrels of oil into the Pacific Ocean just off the Santa Barbara coastline. Those quiet moments Berry shared with the drake and heron sustained him during his life-long fight to save the planet from those bent on destroying it for the sake of money.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, you are very likely the only person in my orbit who could bring Dick Butkus, Kenyan safaris, Jane Austen, MSNBC, Steven Spielberg and a Union Oil platform off Santa Barbara into one comment on a blog post about Wendell Berry. Kudos, my man!

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew, also sensing that despair for the world is growing in many of us, our minister read this very poem to the congregation this Sunday. I think one reason folks turn to Berry is because he sugarcoats nothing but still finds and offers solace. And I agree, those words “For a time” are a crucial piece of the picture he paints here. Unlike the heron and mandrake, we are taxed with forethought of grief and therefore tasked with doing what we can to mitigate it – in big and little ways, every day, even when the odds are formidable. Thanks for this.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      David, you would appear to be in very good stead with a minister who reads Wendell Berry from the pulpit, and I feel in pretty good stead sharing this space with the two of you, thanks!

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