A Favorite Description of a Soul by Wendell Berry

  • A Favorite Description of a Soul by Wendell Berry

    Posted by Mark Delepine on January 1, 2023 at 10:06 am

    This one comes from the novel Jayber Crow he wrote which I greatly enjoyed reading just last April. His description of a soul is a single sentence but could not be appreciated without the excerpt leading up to it, I don’t think. If others have favorite descriptions of a soul they’d like to share, I would love to read them.

    And so I came along in time to know the end of the age of steamboating. I would learn later that there had been other ages of the river that I had arrived too late to know but that I could read about and learn to imagine. There was at first the age when no people were here, and I have sometimes felt at night that absence grow present in my mind, that long silence in which no human name was spoken or given, and the nameless river made no sound of any human tongue. And then there was the Indian age when names were called that have never been spoken in the present language of Port William. Then came the short ages of us white people, the ages of the dugout, the flatboat, the keelboat, the log raft, the steamboat. And I have lived on now into the age of the diesel towboat and recreational boating and water skiing. And yet it is hard to look at the river in its calm, just after daylight or just before dark, and believe that history has happened to it. The river, the river itself, leaves marks but bears none. It is only the water flowing in the path that other water has worn.

    Or is that other water really “other”, or is it the same water always running, flowing always toward the gathering of all waters, and always rising and returning again, and again flowing? I knew this river first when I was a little boy, and I know it now when I am an old man once again living beside it … and almost seventy years! … and always when i have watched it I have been entranced and mystified. What is it? Is it the worn trough of itself that is a feature of the land and is marked on maps, or is it the water flowing? Or is it the land itself that over time is shaped by the flowing water, and it caught by no map?

    The surface of the quieted river as I thought in those old days at Squire’s Landing, as I think now, is like a window looking into another world that is like this one except that it is quiet. Its quietness makes it seem perfect. The ripples are like the slats of a blind or a shutter through which we we see imperfectly what is perfect. Though that other world can be seen only momentarily, it looks everlasting. As the ripples become more agitated, the window darkens and the other world is hidden. As I did not know then but know now, the surface of the water is like a living soul, which is easy to disturb, is often disturbed, but, growing calm, shows what it was, is, and will be.”

    Mark Harragin replied 1 year, 6 months ago 3 Members · 8 Replies
  • 8 Replies
  • John Ehrenfeld

    January 1, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks for posting this. Berry is a remarkable writer. I have taught several courses at my lifelong learning institution on his works. His essays illustrate the power of the connectedness created by the right hemisphere in action. The passage you cited could have been written by Heraclitus.

    • Mark Delepine

      January 2, 2023 at 3:39 pm

      You’re very welcome John. The part about the ripples being slats through which what we can see seems perfect, other worldly takes me back to being 4 or 5 years old when imagining was so easy and merged interestingly with perception. We needed no unknowing then.

      I wonder if you have other titles by WB you can recommend. I’ve read a couple of poems but don’t recall the titles now. I have other quotes from Jayber Crow I found moving but this one will always be my favorite. I’ll look through the few I described to find another to share here.

      Mark H, I felt sure you would like it too

  • Mark Harragin

    January 2, 2023 at 11:44 am

    I’ve never read anything by Wendell Berry. This is lovely. I really liked the way I felt the ripples of my mind gently subsiding as I read, the punch line coming just as I was about to drift off. The rhetorical form illustrating, embodying the point.

  • John Ehrenfeld

    January 2, 2023 at 4:09 pm


    I have focused on Berry’s essays, which are largely about the mess we are making on the Earth through development. He is so prolific that I hesitate to pick out anything, but The Art of the Commonplace ( a collection of some of his essays) is a good place to start. Here is one of his poems that resonates.

    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.


    I am also attaching a couple of other pieces I have used to raise consciousness of our connections to the spiritual world. The piece by Aldo Leopold is a classic. He was a professional forester who became an academic. This piece is a chapter from his Sand County Almanac. Also an inspiring read. Finally another essay about spirituality that also builds on our connectedness to nature/world. Enjoy. The website will only allow me to upload one file at a time (silly), so I will post the other essay in a second reply.

    ps. I have been involved in “sustainability” for several decades, but am very critical about how we think about it and act to deal with the mess we have created on Earth.


    • Mark Delepine

      January 2, 2023 at 5:23 pm

      Thank you for the essays too. That is the poem I remember best. Wonderful. B

  • John Ehrenfeld

    January 2, 2023 at 4:10 pm
    • Mark Delepine

      January 2, 2023 at 6:45 pm

      Regarding the other essay it seems obvious we will never master thinking like a mountain, or a wolf or a deer. So the wiser choice is to leave sufficient wildness intact. We are not in either hemisphere wise enough to speak for the planet so the best approach is to refrain from cutting the safety net of the wider biosphere out from under ourselves. A disposition to trust more to the right hemisphere can at least foster a disposition to recognize our own limitations and respect that which we depend on.

  • Mark Harragin

    January 3, 2023 at 8:43 am

    Two excellent essays John. Thanks so much for posting. Something to take forward into the new year.

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