Of governments, shutdowns, and the moon at dawn


(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

My mistake was to check the news.

As I drank my coffee and waited for light enough to ride by, I got online and looked at the headlines. Governmental dysfunction was thrown into my face as I read about the looming political crisis in Washington.

As it happens, my first career after college was in politics, as a speech writer and media guy. I know a decent bit about how the political process works, in theory and in practice, and about what legislators pay attention to and what they ignore.

On this particular morning, though, I felt defeatism. Even if I were to devote energy to solving this situation, I thought, how could I make a difference? Where would I start?

Looking past my laptop, I could see dawn making visible the features of my backyard. I got my mountain bike out of the shed and headed out for my usual loop on Breakfield Road.

After the worry I felt inside my house, being outside and moving was reassuring and calming. The contrast made me think of Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:               

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.

When I taught literature to young people, I was constantly gratified at this poem’s knack for resonating with them. Country boys who preferred turkey stands to classrooms got the poem; so did high-fashion girls from Shanghai. Not only did the idea that nature could bring solace ring true to them; in addition, the idea itself – just the words in the poem, without being out in nature at all – seemed to offer a soothing counterpoint to their hectic teenage lives.

I thought of this as I rode. Berry’s more pastoral vision, of resting in the natural world, certainly worked for me, but so did the idea of a more active time spent in nature. You don’t have to lie down and be still to feel what Wendell Berry speaks of; it can be accessed on the trail, in a climbing harness, and on a bike as well. There’s an essential rightness to doing things (or not) out where the wild things are. There you can find the grace of the world; there you can be free.

I reached the end of Breakfield Road, unclipped from a pedal, and stopped to sip from my water bottle. A weak weather front filled the woods with the rushing sounds of the breeze. I looked up at the crescent moon, bright and clear, framed perfectly by the treetops.

These things, I thought, are what endure, not government crises or even wars. Trees, clouds, moons, stars, grass, ponds. That’s why we invent so many ways, so many pretexts to get outside with them. We know that these are our touchstones, our things to turn to in our sadness, fear, and confusion.

I clipped in and headed back toward town with a smile.