Since the late 1970’s, Wendell Berry has spent his Sunday mornings on solitary walks on his Kentucky farm, observing the world and writing poetry. His Sunday reveries have nurtured a remarkable series of meditative nature poems, first published as SABBATHS (1987) and now expanded as A TIMBERED CHOIR: THE SABBATH POEMS 1979-1997. Berry writes in his preface that his poems were “written in silence, in solitude, mainly out of doors,” and he hopes they will be read as they were written, “slowly, and with more patience than effort.” Untitled and arranged by year, Berry’s poems should be read as a series, not a sequence.
Often reminiscent of the Psalms, Berry’s meditations express a rich personal spirituality and affinity with the natural world. His pastoral lyrics, set within the cycle of the seasons, reflect a poet practicing how to be at home in the world. Musing upon gain and loss in love, marriage, friendship, family, and community, Berry’s poems record moments when heart and mind are open and aware of the numinous, ineffable but palpable spirit diffused throughout nature. His poems are in a sense prayers, expressions of atonement, moments of attentiveness.
The poems in A TIMBERED CHOIR are suffused with a sense of primal loss of old forests and great trees in the American landscape, and environmental devastation so great that it cannot be emended, except by careful farming and soil conservation to rebuild the fertility of his land. Berry’s environmental ethic stands at odds in these poems to the heedless and wasteful consumerism that encroaches upon his land. The environmental subtext gives A TIMBERED CHOIR an elegiac quality. Berry articulates an implicit sense of the immanence of the sacred in nature, not pantheistic but reminiscent of the nineteenth century American landscape painters, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and contemporary writers Edward Abbey and Barry Lopez.