Beautiful insights from our favorite woodsman and wordsmith, Wendell Berry, on the change of his language and the words he reconsidered later on in his life. The excerpt below comes from the introduction to his collection of Sabbath poems, This Day:
In the earlier poems, I used the words “spirit” and “wild” conventionally and complacently. Later I became unhappy with both. I resolved, first, to avoid “spirit.” This was not because I think the word itself is without meaning, but because I could no longer tolerate the dualism, often construed in sermons and such as a contest, of spirit and matter. I saw that once this division was made, spirit invariably triumphed to the detriment, to the actual and often irreparable damage, of matter and the material world. Dispensing with the word “spirit” clears the way to imagine a live continuity in fact and value, between what we call “spiritual” and what we call “material.”
As for “wild,” I now think the word is misused. The longer I have lived and worked here among the noncommercial creatures of the woods and fields, the less I have been able to conceive of them as “wild.” They plainly are going about their own domestic lives, raising their young, always well-adapted to their places. They are far better at domesticity than we industrial humans are. It became clear to me also that they think of us as wild, and that they are right. We are the ones who are undomesticated, barbarous, unrestrained, disorderly, extravagant, and out of control. They are our natural teachers, and we have learned too little from them. The woods itself, conventionally thought of as “wild,” in fact is thought of and used as home by the creatures who are domesticated within it.”
We’d all do well to heed Berry’s insights on words and their meaning. Too often I throw words around not thinking twice about how I’m using them or how they’re heard. His call to consider the words that roll (or spew) off our tongues is both timely and challenging. Especially considering the battle for the first and last word is a hill more and more people are willing to die on.
Berry goes on to say how it wasn’t until 2009, after a decade of wrestling to define “wild,” that he was able to write about our home in this world as a “living place of many / lives, complexly domestic.” Through Berry, I am also reminded of the permanence of creation and the promised renewal of all things, both wild and domestic. His insights call to mind a future place where even the words we use will be redeemed and made whole. Where home will cease to be a destination we travel to, stray from, or long for, but a place of rest; where heaven comes down to earth.