Tomorrow (March 15) is the birthday of one of my favorite poets, Liberty Hyde Bailey.
Bailey was one of the most prominent American botanists and horticulturalists of the early twentieth century. He was also an agrarian writer and one of the fathers of the Country Life Movement, and yes, also a nature poet.
Here you can read some of his poems that have been posted on our site over the last 6 years:
Here is the introduction to the newest edition of Bailey’s main collection of poems WIND AND WEATHER, in which I argue why Bailey’s voice is an important one for our times…
“The Prophetic Power of Poetry”
An Introduction to
Wind and Weather.
by Liberty Hyde Bailey.
By C. Christopher Smith.
Wind and Weather.
Poems by Liberty Hyde Bailey.
Paperback. Doulos Christou Press. 2008.
Liberty Hyde Bailey, born in 1858, was raised on a farm in Michigan and it was farm life that would set the tone for the rest of his life. He studied first at the Michigan Agricultural college and then under renowned biologist Asa Gray at Harvard. From there, he maintained a long and successful academic career teaching botany and horticulture in Michigan and then later at Cornell in Ithaca, NY. He wrote a number of significant books for academic and popular audiences on plants, agriculture, rural life and conservation. His writings were foundational for today’s new agrarian writers, and he has been praised extensively by Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon and others. Bailey’s writings in botany are well-known and his essays rooted in rural philosophy are also widely recognized. However, much less is known about Liberty Hyde Bailey, the poet. This volume, originally published in 1916, was the only collection of Bailey’s poetry that received widespread distribution.
Most of what we know about the context out of which Bailey wrote his poetry has been provided in his essay on “Nature Poetry” in the book Outlook to Nature. Three key virtues of nature poetry that he describes in this essay are connectedness, keen observation and clarity. Bailey firmly believed that the nature poet must be intimately connected with his subject, and especially that his/her poems should be written outside in nature, and he strongly critiques the “bookishness” of nature poetry that originates indoors in the study. Secondly, the true nature poem in Bailey’s estimation, arises out of keen observation of nature, guided by the knowledge of at least a little science (to provide language to frame one’s observation and to give him “point of view” – i.e., to tell him “what to look for” (OTN 38). Lastly, Bailey argues for the clarity of the nature poem. He explicitly rejects most poetry, citing slavery to “traditional forms of verse and line” (OTN 32) and their tendency toward “ambitious disquisitions, long periods, heavy rhetoric, labored metaphors” (OTN 29). Instead, he hails the work of Whitman, who “has most completely freed himself from the bondage of literary form” (32).
These three virtues are, of course, embodied in the poems of Wind and Weather. One gets the sense that these poems were composed out in the midst of the fields and the forest, and indeed the poems reflect Bailey’s keen observational skills as a trained biologist. In form, there is a refreshing rawness to these poems, a syncopated rhythm here, a stretched rhyme scheme there, and yet the freshness and tenacity of Bailey’s poems seems ideally suited for a series of reflections upon nature. There is a youthful exuberance here, in both form and content, which is particularly surprising, since Wind and Weather was published (if not written) after Bailey’s retirement from academic life in 1913. This child-like joie-de-vivre is captured best in poems like “Miracle”:
Yesterday the twig was brown and bare;
To-day the glint of green is there
To-morrow will be leaflets spare;
I know no thing so wondrous fair
No miracle so strangely rare.
I wonder what will next be there!
Ah, the wonders I have seen
At dawn and sunset and between!
The ocean beach on wild midnights
Deep steaming swamps and northern bights
The cirrhus clouds in high moonlights
For our church communities today, however, perhaps the most striking part of Bailey’s understanding of poetry is his notion that “poetry is prophecy” (OTN 32). There are, of course, many ways in which the term “prophecy” is used. Bailey describes the function of prophecy as helping humanity in the effort of “acquiring a stronger hold on aspirations that are simple and elemental and universal” (OTN 32-33). Such a return to the simple, elemental and universal, parallels Bailey’s description of the prophetic, in his book The Holy Earth: there he notes that prophecy is rooted in a vision of the eschatological reconciliation of all things, especially the reconciliation of humankind with nature. Thus, Bailey’s poetry is prophetic, first and foremost, because it points to a vision of an inter-connected creation that is reminiscent of the scriptural eschatology of shalom, “the reconciliation of all things.” This vision of harmony in creation flows throughout the poems of Wind and Weather, but is most poignantly expressed in poems like “Here”:
Where I shall fall there let me lie,
From end to end the earth is mine
For kin with me are the land and sky
and ev’ry spot is home benign.
I am the bird in its nest of straw
And I abide by my time and law,
I am the tree standing night and day,
And I am the plant that fades away;
And men grow green and the men grow brown,
And life rises up and death drops down;
And men, and life, and the things that be
They flow on and on unceasingly.
I am the wind that blows to the sky,
And ageless cloud that goes floating by;
I am the rain and the river flow,
I am the seasons that come and go;
I am the dusk and the morning light,
The call of day and the voice of night;
And I pass out to the silent sea,
Flowing and flowing eternally.
Bailey’s poems herein stand as firm reminders that art (written, visual or otherwise) plays a key, prophetic role in the life of the Church, by helping us imagine and keep before our minds the end of creation, the reconciliation toward which all history is flowing. Bailey emphasizes this point in The Holy Earth: “[The biblical prophet] Isaiah proclaimed the redemption of the wilderness and the solitary place with the redemption of man, when they shall rejoice and blossom as the rose, and when the glowing sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water” (THE 11-12). Thus, for Bailey, the nature poet today functions in a similar way, reminding his listeners that their salvation is bound up with that of all nature.
With such an eschatological vision in mind, Walter Brueggemann observes in his classic work The Prophetic Imagination that “the task of the prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us” (3). I would contend that Bailey’s poetry serves prophetically in exactly this way. Although published almost a century ago, Bailey’s critiques of the dominant consumer culture in poems like “Enough” and “Goods” (“And all my kin may have their goods / For the deep old glooms [i.e., woods, ed.] are mine”), ring as true today as if they were written yesterday. Another key facet of his poetic critique of the dominant culture is his opposition to the city and all the technological achievements that it represents. Although there are a few explicit references to this opposition (e.g., in “Wreck”), it is primarily manifested by its notable absence in the landscape that Bailey paints over the course of Wind and Weather. Bailey emphasizes the intentionality of this omission in his essay on nature poems: “[T]he nature poem of wide reach must be the poem of the man who is free. Such poetry must spring from the open air; perhaps it must be set to words there – at least outside the city” (OTN 31). Similarly, in The Holy Earth, he faults the urbanization of human culture for the increasing lack of being “brought into touch with the earth in any real way” (18).
In contrast to the dominant culture, Bailey envisions a culture grounded in an alternative consciousness (to use Brueggemann’s term). Although there is no evidence that Bailey was sympathetic to the monastic tradition, it seems that his alternate vision resonates with the traditional Benedictine virtues of prayer and work (“Ora et Labora”). These virtues of reverent contemplation and diligent working of the Earth will be useful for us in describing the ethics that Bailey proposes to guide us toward the eschatological reconciliation.
Prayer in Bailey’s poetic vision is rooted in our humility. One should especially note this word’s root humus, meaning earth. Such an earthiness is a fundamental virtue of Bailey’s thought, and is manifested in the virtue of connectedness as described above. The posture of our prayerful humility, says Bailey, is silence: “We need now and then to take ourselves away from men and the crowd and conventionalities, and go into the silence, for the silence is the greatest of teachers” (OTN 36). This posture is also reflected in poems like “Discovery” (“…I went into my questioned heart, my heart of hopes and fears – I found the perfect silence there, the silence of the years.”) and “Majesty.” Bailey also addresses the energizing role of contemplative prayer in “Horizon”:
Lift me out of my laboring day
Lift me up to the blue and away
And let me discover my own horizon line,
Then drop me back to my work and play
And the far ends of the world in my day shall shine.
Indeed, for Bailey the rightful state of all creation is prayer; e.g., see “Prayer”:
How sweet the world at sunrise was
How fresh the breezes lay
How joyously the song-birds prayed
To herald in my day!
But perhaps the heart of Bailey’s ethical vision – the intertwining of prayer and work – is embodied in “Country Church”:
And out of it all
As the seasons fall
I build my great temple alway;
I point to the skies,
But my footstone lies
In commonplace work of the day;
For I preach the worth
Of the native earth, –
To love and to work is to pray.
I recently had the opportunity to share a few words at the funeral of my grandfather, a lifelong farmer. I read this poem to his rural church congregation there and encouraged them that Bailey’s vision as expressed here captures the essence of our gathered obedience to the way of Christ. A church community – rural, urban or otherwise – can, in my estimation, do no better than to set their sights on embodying such a prayerful, diligent and connected life, as is depicted in Bailey’s “Country Church.” Bailey also advocates the virtues of work through the image of the well-worn hands of the farmer in “Hands” or in “Farmer’s Challenge.”
Ultimately, the tone of Bailey’s prophetic vision is one of hope. We see this hope set forth best in “The Signs of Life”:
The gaps fill in; the earth is rife
With energy that mastereth –
The upwards signs of birth and life
Are greater than the signs of death.
Here we are reminded of the scriptural theme that though the resurrection of Jesus, death will be swallowed up in life. This theme echoes throughout the poems of Wind and Weather and indeed is another reason why we, the Church, should immerse ourselves in Bailey’s poetry.
The title of this collection, Wind and Weather, is more than simply a summary of its thematic contents. For Bailey, wind and weather are the essences of all nature, the “background” in which we must live (for an illustration of Bailey’s notion of “background” see the poem “The Vagrant Rivers”). Wind and weather, for Bailey, are the essences of our environment because they represent changes therein. The variety of these changes is to be celebrated with child-like glee: romping on a rainy day (“Rainy Day”), crunching through icy snow (“Winter”), reveling in the “kinship of the mud” (“Mother Mud”). In his essay “Ways of approach to nature,” Bailey stoutly proclaims: “Give us the rain and the hail and the snow, the mist, the crashing thunder, and the cold biting wind! Let us be men enough to face it, and poets enough to enjoy it” (47 OTN). Part of our humility and connectedness to all creation is our attitude toward weather. Bailey says, “No man is content and happy who is out of sympathy with the environment in which he is born to live” (OTN 42). And if we can be at peace with the weather, it is “but a step” (OTN 47) to being so with all the creatures therein. To cast Bailey’s sentiment here in theological terms, if we can be at peace with God who orchestrates the weather (“raining on the just and the unjust” we are told), then indeed we are well-prepared to live peaceably with all the creatures of God’s creation.
Indeed, as followers in the way of Christ, we have been made ambassadors of Christ’s coming reign of peace, which will cover all creation. Bailey’s poetry, as collected here in Wind and Weather, is prophetic in that it points us in this direction and energizes us for the work to which we have been called. In his essay on nature poetry, Bailey proclaims “I believe … in the power of poetry – in its power to put a man at his work with a song on his lips and to set the mind toward nature and naturalness” (35 OTN). May we open our hearts to the power of Bailey’s poetry, and more importantly, may we tune our hearts to the song of God, who created and is now reconciling all creation!
WNW – Wind and Weather. Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Books, 2008. Reprint edition.
THE – The Holy Earth. Indianapolis: Doulos Christou Books, 2008. Reprint edition.
OTN – Outlook to Nature. New York: Macmillan, 1905.
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of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s classic book THE HOLY EARTH
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com