A Poem for Ash Wednesday

At the start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.
                            “A Purification” ~ Wendell Berry


Comments always are welcome.

102 thoughts on “A Poem for Ash Wednesday

  1. Dear Linda
    We clean the house, summer house, boat, and car, which will do. It’s the old tradition of spring cleaning. Afterwards, we feel much better.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. There’s nothing better than a true spring cleaning, especially when the windows can be opened again, and the fresh breezes blow through the house. Chores I hated as a child — like window washing — became pleasurable in spring.

      1. Dear Linda
        We absolutely agree. Siri and our dear Master hate washing windows, Selma and Dina love it and do it perfectly well.
        Stay healthy and happy
        The Fab Four of Cley

    1. Berry has a way of speaking to everyone, whatever their professed beliefs. He’s one of the best at doing what Emily Dickinson advised when she wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…”

    1. I’d say ‘yes.’ He certainly is a person whose beliefs and practices correspond closely, and he’s been honored for that correspondence. I do wonder from time to time if he’s made the move to a computer. When I first read him, and read about him, he still was hand-writing and using a typewriter: not as an affectation, but as a natural way of working.

    1. I began with his poetry, but later came to his essays and fiction, and have enjoyed it all. I agree with you on both points. He is a wonderful writer, and a little spring cleaning always is appropriate.

          1. We watch a lot of British, Scottish and Irish TV. New words are always being used. We sometimes have to pause the show and look them up before proceeding.

            1. There’s a reason people speak of British English and American English. I’m constantly turning to the dictionary or other sources when reading British bloggers. It’s really interesting to see the different names applied to perfectly common items.

    1. That photo suggested itself after I found a large section of recently burned land on the Brazoria refuge last weekend. It’s easily accessible, and I’ve been thinking of keeping the same sort of photographic record of its recovery as I did of the section where I found the snail.

      I do wonder from time to time why more people don’t wander in nature: or, if they do, why they miss so many of the wonders. Certainly all of us miss innumerable wonders every day, but a little attentiveness certainly could lead to a richer experience.

    1. It’s interesting that I read the poem as being focused on spring’s transformative power, rather than on winter’s refuse. Sometimes, context does matter. While you’re still experiencing wintery weather, spring is springing forth down here. We’re almost to the point where winter seems very much in the past — except for all the frozen vegetation that still needs to be dealt with!

      1. Yes, where you live does matter. Theoretically, in Maine, we are still in deep winter, which I love—the light, the muted colors, the sparse landscape. While I am always glad to see spring, I do not want to rush winter.

    1. One of my favorite Berry quotations comes from his book titled Farming: A Hand Book: “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.” Isn’t that just the truth? My quirky sense of humor suggests a parallel might be, “Don’t maintain so much mental clutter you’d welcome dementia.”

        1. From what I’ve read of the weather up your way, that sorting and tossing might need to be put off for a bit: at least, anything that involves outdoor activity. On the other hand, I have a friend with horses, and what she goes through to keep their stalls clean and their pasture acceptable to them regardless of weather is quite something. Every pleasure has its costs, but when it comes to stall-mucking, I’ll stay on the sidelines and murmur encouraging words.

    1. Easier said than done, perhaps. But Berry’s a good one for recognizing that many of our problems are matters of will, rather than of knowledge. Even when we know what needs to be done, we’re sometimes a little lacking in will.

    1. As a gardener, that surely is a lesson you’ve learned over and again. A good compost is riches, indeed, and from the first time I read this poem the idea of ‘mental compost’ jumped out at me. It’s fun to think about, and encouraging.

    1. I couldn’t find the publication date for the poem, but it was included in a 1987 collection of his works, so it’s at least decades old. Clearly, the man has been prescient; he’s seen the future we’re now experiencing for many, many years.

    1. Life’s accretions usually build up slowly, and unnoticed. It is worth taking time now and then for a clear-eyed look at how things are, before dealing with them, if necessary.

    1. I still remember the farmer who introduced me to Berry’s work, and I well remember the effect of the first Berry poem I read. I came to his essays later, and his fiction later still, but I’ve yet to read something of his that doesn’t enrich me in some way — and that often affirms values I hold dear.

        1. He’s a prolific writer, but he’s as down to earth as they come. And, since he’s a farmer and gardener, I can well imagine that you’d find something to like in his work.

  2. A nice poem. But I was curious so I looked up Ash Wednesday to see what they did in the Bible. And they didn’t do anything, because it wasn’t invented till the 11th century. Apparently it’s related to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before Easter, but it’s kind of like the Christmas tree — something invented later and not directly from the Bible. Learn something new every day.

    1. The number forty is a significant symbol throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, Noah built his ark during that really bad forty days and forty nights of rain. And Moses and his people wandered in the wilderness for forty years while searching for the Promised Land. Whether Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness certainly can’t be verified, but there’s no question it was a way to connect the Old and New Testaments.

      Ash Wednesday, of course, is the beginning of the forty days of Lent, which continueuntil Easter. And the day before Ash Wednesday traditionally has been known as Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras: a day to use up the butter, sugar, and eggs in the household before the Lenten fast. That’s the reason so many churches have pancake suppers on that day, which also is called Shrove Tuesday. When I was growing up, it was a tradition in my Methodist church that the youth groups prepared a pancake supper for the congregation.

      1. I think it’s a geographic thing. Up here, no Mardi Gras and/or Shrove Tuesday. Maybe in some private homes, but not like what it seems in the house. You might see a few who went to church for the ashing but very few. I wonder why they had to use up those ingredients — all of them last. Or at least the butter and sugar do, and eggs — well, I’ve kept some a couple of months with no ill effects. Seems like they wouldn’t have to use them up before a fast.

    1. I enjoy finding less-traditional expressions of faith traditions, and Wendell Berry certainly does a fine job of providing them. I’m glad you enjoyed the selection, Ann.

    1. Cecilia! How nice to have you stop by. Apparently I misinterpreted things; I thought you had stopped blogging. I see that isn’t true at all, but someone I’ve not been getting posts. I think I have that remedied now. I was so sorry to read about events in NZ, and the horrors of the flooding at Hawkes Bay. I’m glad your family is safe, and helping others with the recovery.

      1. No worries. I get literally 5 notifications now out of all the blogs I have followed over the years. I hate to lose you! So I have been going back through old post comments trying to find you all again.

        Though to be fair a LOT of blogs have gone down.

        1. It is interesting to go back through the comments from my first years of blogging. I always wonder what happened to some of the people. I know that some have died, and some got bored. Others found new interests — but there always are new people to read and enjoy. I’m glad to be reading you again!

  3. How did I miss this one?? I’m glad I found it nevertheless. What a good description of the purging we all ought to do as the Lenten season comes upon us once more. I like the idea of folding up the bad stuff and tucking it beneath ground, preferably so we can re-fill ourselves with the good stuff!

    1. More often than we realize, the old has to pass away before the new can enter our lives. You’re right that ‘space’ is one reason. When our lives are crammed full with the old — even old ‘goods’ — there’s no room for the new, and above all else Lent is about readying ourselves to receive the new.

  4. Purification. Perfect.

    For the last few years, I have been partially successful in listening to less “noise” and being more “attentive to wonders”.

    My “happiness quotient” has vastly improved.

    1. I’ve noticed an increasing number of articles published that declare, with obvious astonishment, that more time for nature and less time for media of every sort seems to improve people’s sense of happiness. Isn’t it nice to know that we’ve been on the cutting edge for years?

  5. My mind went astray. “Dig a trench” in the late winter or early spring always signaled the planting of asparagus back home. The emergence of the tender shoots were like a rebirth of sorts, and required patience at the season’s change.

    1. My Iowa family had a large asparagus patch, but I don’t remember a single detail about the planting. I do have a vague memory of emerging shoots, but of course I was a child, and my favorite part of the plant came at its end, when it had been allowed to seed out and go feathery. Now I’m wondering whether Berry planted asparagus, and was familiar with that sort of trench. I suspect so — at least, if his area of Kentucky was suitable for the plant.

        1. One of the things I appreciate about Wendell Berry is his always-encouraging tone. He doesn’t avoid the problems or complexities of life, and he’s often quite honest about his angers and frustrations, but he’s deeply rooted, and always growing.

  6. As it’s Ash Wednesday, or would have been were I to comment earlier, I do the same but all my unwanted paper goes into the wood stove creating ash which sometimes is fertilizer onto the garden or into the compost bin. While there are many good memories, it is often to rid ourselves of things past to make space in our lives for things to come.
    If we had an outhouse I might follow Wendell’s example.

    1. That’s true – without a little space, nothing new can be accomodated. Well, unless someone’s goal is to show up on that television program about hoarders! I still laugh when I remember my mother’s insistence on saving “good” boxes. I suppose that’s a leftover from her youth, but those danged boxes sure did take up space. It’s too bad she didn’t live long enough to see Amazon home delivery — or not. She might have been up to her hips in boxes.

  7. This is great and I ought to be ashamed I haven’t explored Berry’s body of work more considering how much I love The Peace of Wild Things. The burial and return to nature is a little like the burning bowl ceremony some do for new year’s…tossing in the failures, regrets, concerns etc on scraps of paper , then burning them in the effort to move forward with less baggage. I like symbolic gestures generally for the psychological effect of the action.

    1. The burning-or-burying theme is present in some form in nearly every culture. Even New Year’s resolutions are related, although in those action and thought usually are separated so much that the resolutions disappear in a short time.

      Berry really is wonderful. “The Peace of Wild Things” clearly is one of his most popular, but it’s also one of the sweetest and most approachable. He can make the same point in ways that are sharper and less comfortable — though just as compelling. A favorite collection of his poems is titled Farming: A Handbook. It’s really extraordinary, although it doesn’t contain my all-time favorite: “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

      1. I actually was unaware of Wendell Berry until I watched a documentary called OMG GMO (I think that’s the title) It opens with the poem being narrated with what I recall a gravely voice. I thought it beautiful, haunting and totally perfect. That was my intro.

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