Wendell Berry’s thoughts and works consistently transcend politics, spirituality, and environment. His provocative poem “To a Siberian Woodsman” imagines the life of a man on the other side of the planet. The poem illustrates how artificial borders, nationalistic propaganda, and the threat of military force blinds us to the common humanity of raising daughters and sons, playing music, walking beside streams, and breathing hope for the future.
To A Siberian Woodsman
(after looking at some pictures in a magazine)
By Wendell Berry
You lean at ease in your warm house at night after supper,
listening to your daughter play the accordion.
You smile with the pleasure of a man confident in his hands,
resting after a day of long labor in the forest,
the cry of the saw in your head,
and the vision of coming home to rest.
Your daughter’s face is clear in the joy of hearing her own music.
Her fingers live on the keys
like people familiar with the land they were born in.
You sit at the dinner table late into the night with your son,
tying the bright flies that will lead you along the forest streams.
Over you, as your hands work, is the dream of the still pools.
Over you is the dream of your silence while the east brightens,
birds waking close by you in the trees.
I have thought of you stepping out of your doorway at dawn,
your son in your tracks.
You go in under the overarching green branches of the forest whose ways,
strange to me,
are well known to you as the sound of your own voice
or the silence that lies around you now that you have ceased to speak,
and soon the voice of the stream rises ahead of you,
and you take the path beside it.
I have thought of the sun breaking pale through the mists over you
as you come to the pool where you will fish,
and of the mist drifting over the water,
and of the cast fly resting light on the face of the pool.
And I am here in Kentucky in the place I have made myself in the world.
I sit on my porch above the river that flows muddy
and slow along the feet of the trees.
I hear the voices of the wren
and the yellow-throated warbler whose songs pass near the windows
and over the roof.
In my house my daughter learns the womanhood of her mother.
My son is at play,
pretending to be the man he believes I am.
I am the outbreathing of this ground.
My words are its words as the wren’s song is its song.
Who has invented our enmity?
Who has prescribed us hatred of each other?
Who has armed us against each other with the death of the world?
Who has appointed me such anger that I should desire the burning of your house
or the destruction of your children?
Who has appointed such anger to you?
Who has set loose the thought
that we should oppose each other with the ruin of the forests and rivers,
and the silence of birds?
Who has said to us that the voices of my land shall be strange to you,
and the voices of your land strange to me?
Who has imagined that I would destroy myself in order to destroy you,
or that I could improve myself by destroying you?
Who has imagined that your death could be negligible to me
now that I have seen these pictures of your face?
Who has imagined that I would not speak familiarly with you,
or laugh with you,
or visit in your house and go to work with you in the forest?
And now one of the ideas of my place will be
that you would gladly talk and visit and work with me.
I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native,
and I hold to this place as carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the sycamore,
or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the walnut,
nor has the elm bowed before monuments
or sworn the oath of allegiance.
They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.