Matisse’s Dominique of Vence* on a postcard from a friend stands in my window, a presence in the light, below a bend
of the Kentucky River. His face is featureless, yet he stands in character, a book displaying a cross
held against his heart by a hand in bare outline, remade entirely by art. The falling folds of his gown
are several vertical strokes signifying to the eye in black lines quick as looks. The saint is standing by
in silence while the light performs its holy work in colors on the white wall. After the dark
it is morning in Vence. Many years ago I went there, and ever since have recalled the light, now
replaced by later light, how it filled the room, crowding the darkness out, allowing vision its time.
Behind the pictured saint, meanwhile, my washed window is a grid in black paint rationally ruled, although
admitting sensational light. Beyond are trees, the river, a dark line of hills, familiar as hand to mind, but the prospect fills
no term of human truth, no form of human thought. A heron hunched at stream mouth fishes quietly as he ought.
* A figure in outline of St. Dominique, one of Matisse’s “decorations” for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, a hill town in southern France. The Chapel was consecrated on June 25, 1951. I went there in 1962.
Off in the woods in the quiet morning a redbird is singing and his song goes out around him greater than its purpose, a welcoming room of song in which the trees stand, through which the creek flows.
New come, we took fields from the forest, clearing, breaking the steep slopes. And this was a fall from a kind of grace: from the forest in its long Sabbath, dependent only upon the Genius of this place, to the field dependent upon us, our work, and our failure first and last to keep peace between the naked soil and the rain. From the laws of the First Former we fell to the place deformed. The hard rains fell then into our history, from grace to fate upon our gullied land.
We numbered the years, not many, until the forest took back the failed fields with their scars unhealed and long in healing, our toil forfeit to the trees of a new generation: locust, cedar, box elder, elm, and thorn. In spring the redbud and wild plum, white and pink on the abandoned slopes, granted such beauty as we might have thought forgiving.
By leaving it alone, we are in a manner forgiven. And yet we must wait long, long— how much longer than we will live?—for the return of what is gone, not of the past forever lost, but of health, the promise of life in and remade finally whole.
Left alone, the “pioneer generation” of trees gives way to the oaks, hickories, maples, beeches, poplars of the lasting forest.
By keeping intact its gift of self-renewal, not as our belonging, but asking how we might belong to it, what we might use of it for ourselves, leaving it whole, we may come to live in its time, in which our lives will pass as pass the lives of birds within the lives of trees.
Will-lessly the leaves fall, are blown, coming at last to the ground and to their rest. Among them in their coming down purposely the birds pass, of all the unnumbered ways choosing one, until they like the leaves will will-lessly fall. Thus freed by gravity, every one enters the soil, conformed to the craft and wisdom, the behest of God’s appointed vicar, our mother and judge, who binds us each to each, the largest to the least, in the family of all the creatures: great Nature by whom all are changed, none are wasted, none are lost. Supreme artist of this our present world, her works live and move, love their places and their lives in them. And this is praise to the highest knowledge by the most low.
Wendell Berry lives and works with his wife, Tanya Berry, on their farm in Port Royal, Kentucky. He is the author of more than 30 books, including the recently released, A Place in Time. These poems will appear in the forthcoming collection, This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems 1979-2012 (Counterpoint).