A Benediction on the World: Wendell Berry on Creaturely Joy
By Maria Popova
In her beautiful 1939 meditation on the elusive nature of joy, Anaïs Nin wrote of the type of joy that can “come like a miracle, touching everything with light.” But in a world this miraculous, it would surely be a special kind of solipsism to assume that such joy is only accessible to human consciousness. After all, the more we are learning about the wonders of nonhuman consciousness and the wide range of emotional and mental states that nonhuman animals can experience, the more it seems like this crowning curio of positive experience, joy, should belong to the whole of the animal kingdom.
That’s what the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry — a Thoreau for our time, writing in the enchanting tradition of Henry Beston — explores in a passage from his altogether magnificent collection The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (public library).
With an eye to the quiet glory of the natural world, Berry writes:
There is not only peacefulness, there is joy. And the joy, less deniable in its evidence than the peacefulness, is the confirmation of it. I sat one summer evening and watched a great blue heron make his descent from the top of the hill into the valley. He came down at a measured deliberate pace, stately as always, like a dignitary going down a stair. And then, at a point I judged to be midway over the river, without at all varying his wingbeat he did a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop. It could only have been a gesture of pure exuberance, of joy — a speaking of his sense of the evening, the day’s fulfillment, his descent homeward. He made just that one slow turn, and then flew on out of sight in the direction of the slew farther down in the bottom. The movement was incredibly beautiful, at once exultant and stately, a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me. It seemed so perfectly to confirm the presence of a free nonhuman joy in the world.
The great blue heron seems to be a creature anointed with a special power of diving into the soul of its observer and emerging with profound existential insight — it was this graceful giant that once inspired Adrienne Rich to consider the confluence of art, science, and politics in human life.
For more of Berry’s contemplative genius, complement The Art of the Commonplace with his timelessly insightful reflections on how to be a poet and a complete human being, the grandeur of smallness, the two great enemies of creative work, and what poetry teaches us about the secret of lasting love.
Published August 2, 2016