‘… and then there were the dead leaves and the brilliant mosses and the mushrooms…’
Well, with this post the collective enjoyment of Wendell Berry’s tale of the bachelor barber of Port William over at Michele’s place comes to an end. We’ve been at it since September and now must lay to rest our observations and let them lie fallow among the dead leaves and mosses!
I may not have agreed theologically with some of Jayber’s thinking along the way but I certainly understand his love of nature and of the woods!
One of the best things you can do in this world is take a nap in the woods. p.347
Amen and amen!
I don’t dare to nap where I now live. The prospect of grizzlies or people, cougars or elk interrupting leaves me without the peace of mind for it. But once upon a time, just a few years back I lived in what might have been a national park but without the visitors…a paradise of wilderness at my doorstep—high bluffs that looked out to sea, adorned with picturesque arbutus and backed by cedar and fir forests…
Here I would go on a free afternoon when homeschooling was done for the day and meander with my faithful shepherd-mix… And somedays there would be the perfect mossy nook for a bit of reading and a cat-nap while Louie chased squirrels and kept an eye on things… Delightful times.
Of Nest Eggs and Logging…
Part of the sadness of this week’s reading was the loss of the forested ‘Nest Egg’ where Jayber (and Mattie) delighted to spend time over a fifteen year span just being in nature. I so enjoyed his depiction of going there to wander. To this bit of Jayber I can relate!
The draw of cash for timber and the sprawl of development were no respecters of such sanctuary however. This too I have seen, more than once.
The lovely thing about trees is that they are, like hair up to a certain age… a renewable resource! And so, like barbering, logging is an essential livelihood in parts of the world where I have lived. The ‘laying waste’ it entails is always, in my experience, controversial and always hard to watch. I smuggled away some wee big leaf maple saplings once upon a time before the machines were through decimating one of my favorite worlds for walking. In a few short years they were thriving on our own acre, a piece of my former paradise.
But even across the highway where the forest had vanished in such short order, life continued. In fact I watched it thrive. The tangle of trailing blackberry that now found sun enough to run rampant, filled the air with the scent of home-baked berry pie on a warm summer’s day. Bears multiplied in this new habitat and dense new growth of brush and poplar were not long in following. Maples came too, and evergreens. And now it all stands so high that one can almost forget the world that was. And still it is one of the best places to walk with my favorite people when I visit…watching out for bears, of course!
But enough of reminiscing (Am I getting old, or what?!) Back to Jayber.
TROY–the test of love
In the end, as Jayber’s tale winds down, Mattie inherits her parents’ 500 acre farm exclusive of her husband, Troy, which only brings a sense of enmity between them. I do think her parents in wishing to protect her from Troy’s haste and bad judgment did not do Mattie a real favor in this. In the end their desire was not realized anyway. The farm would be lost. But also any hope of sweetness in a difficult marriage was further jeopardized by their decision. Troy’s debts rose unabated by even the harvesting of the ‘nest egg’ until at last he lost his very best ‘resource’–his faithful-to-the-end loving wife, Mattie.
Jayber managed to treat Troy with such politeness that he assumed Jayber liked him and began to confide in him about his business.
Maybe he thought that since he liked himself everybody liked him. p.336
But in fact Troy remained one of Jayber’s greatest trials. His very presence gave evidence of Jayber’s failure to love. “In his presence I was in the perfect absence, the night shadow, of the charity that I sought for and longed for.” (p.337) Having come to believe that love was what was needed to make the world go round, this evidence of his personal impotence to love this one man vexed Jayber. He felt he had mastered charity in other instances but just didn’t have it for Troy.
I did not love Troy Chatham. I was no longer capable of the effort of will it took to understand why Mattie did. Which would sooner or later remind me that I could not understand why God did. That was my sanity. p342
In contrast, Mattie persevered in her love for Troy despite the difficulty of it. She took seriously her marriage vows and she recognized his fragility and was willing to give her life energies to hold him together.
Though she may have shared Troy’s defeat financially, having made early the ‘one bad mistake’ (in Jayber’s opinion) of marrying him, hers was a great victory–‘she persevered with dignity and good humor, and with a kind of loveliness that was her own.’ (p.343) And in the end hers would be a redeeming love as Jayber would come to see this man he hated with eyes of compassion as she had.
For finally he was redeemed, in my eyes, by Mattie’s long-abiding love for him, as I myself had been by my love for here. p.361
Jayber came to realize he was not so very different from the man he hated. Both were mere mortals–‘and for the first time I saw him apart from my contempt for him. I saw him clear-eyed. I saw us both as if from a great distance off in time: two small, craving suffering creatures, soon to be gone.’
This realization eased him into forgiveness and a sort of friendship with Troy that seems to have brought him to his end with a quiet satisfaction that he had learned to love his enemy, and was therefore ready to die.
The time would come (and this was my deliverance, my Nunc Dimittis*) when I would be, in the small ways that were possible, his friend…
*Nunc Dimittis: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised.” (Lk.2:29)
A Man of Faith
I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, “Good-good-good-good-good!” like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith.
Jayber (Berry?) illustrates his understanding of faith by creating a hypothetical “Man in the Well”. A man out hunting alone falls into an abandoned well far from any human habitation.
His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb. He calls out…and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.p.357
How will his story end? Will he be rescued by some miracle? Will he be athletic enough to scramble out? Will he despair and drown? Will he pray the first true prayer of his life? Jayber explains that: “A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost…His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing.” This faith extends, we learn, to everyone, the unborn child, the Cecilias and Troys of this world, the ones who have ‘made their bed in Hell’, as well as to Lazarus and Jesus. Because of God’s mercy none will be lost.
Berry’s theology, though comforting on the surface, leaves a great deal unexplained. First of all, faith doesn’t have virtue in and of itself apart from its object. The question must follow, Faith in what?! This conviction of things unseen must be grounded in the objective truth of God’s revealed Words.
Secondly, how does a God who is not only perfect in love but also perfectly holy and perfectly just, simply ignore sin and its destructive effects on the ones He loves? His love is extended to mankind in the person of Christ Jesus. The Cross is the place for receiving His great love or rejecting it. Those who feel no need of a Saviour and refuse to come have rejected the Love that would redeem them. The man in the well cannot scramble out on his own. But he can cry out for mercy.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. Ps.40:1,2 ESV
I have the impression from Jayber’s own testimony that he sees himself as having attained to goodness by sheer effort, and the humility that comes of aging and facing one’s mortality, apart from need for dependence on God or conformity to His plan of redemption. Am I being too hard on him? What were your thoughts?
A Book about Heaven or Hell?
In the course of his depiction of the wonder of the woods and of occasionally enjoying a silent communion with Mattie there, Jayber recites a dream he has had of being himself Mattie Chatham reliving the loss of her little Liddie with the words: “Momma! Look how beautiful I am!” fresh off her lips.
Then up pops this statement to startle the reader:
This is a book about Heaven. I know it now. It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured…p.351
In another passage he says:
But the earth speaks to us of Heaven, or why would we want to go there? If we knew nothing of Hell, how would we delight in Heaven should we get there? p.354,5
He likens heaven to ‘a grain of mustard seed’ lying unseen, and a reflection of the tress on the water…(p.351) and goes on to a beautiful description of the glow on the horizon on a November evening, as though nature itself were a sort of heaven on earth. [What a fitting time of year to be finishing off this story ( : ]
My guess as to what Berry is trying to say here is that Heaven is a place where love rules. When we pray ‘Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven’ we are praying for the rule of love on earth. To the extent that this is the case we live in a sort of heaven. Hell is in contrast a place where:
“we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another…(and)the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its form, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.”p.354
These characteristics touch on some aspects of Hell, as does the description of the man in the well, whose independent unaccountability which felt like absolute freedom has become his greatest curse.
His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb.
But they miss the point of Hell as a total separation from God, and thus from all that is good and beautiful and light and life-giving. Perhaps this is why the beauty and peace of nature feels like a bit of heaven on earth. It reflects its Creator and is intended to point us toward Him, but not to be in and of itself idolized…
In recounting Mattie’s death Jayber seems suddenly older, and having lost the relish to live. ‘In the days after she died, the world seemed filled with a harsh, caustic, almost shadowless light that it hurt to see.’ (p.352)
I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought… I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready. p.352,3
However, Jayber has withheld one last detail with which to close his tale. On Mattie’s deathbed, he at last sneaks into town to visit her. They are both grieving the loss of the woods that Troy has taken liberty to cut now that Mattie is out of the way, and Jayber is of course grieving her imminent death but he can’t bring himself to tell her of his love for her, only to cry as she laments the loss of beauty in the world. Unable to express his love for her but wishing her to be comforted by this one remaining beauty, he says: “But what about this other thing?”
And she says, “Yes” holding out her hand and then:
She gave me the smile that I had never seen and will not see again in this world, and it covered me all over with light.
With this exchange Jabyer’s love, it seems, is requited at last and in this way the story ends.
I’ve been kind of hard on Jayber throughout. It will be evident that I am more of a non-fiction aficionada than a fiction reader! I could stand to lighten up a bit and applaud the redeeming qualities that blossom in this FICTION work– love’s transforming power, the joys of nature’s beauty, and the value of living in community, among them.
Thank-you for joining me in the process. What has been the greatest gain for you in sharing Jayber’s story?
An elegiac celebration of the redemptive power of love and community…A precise and moving evocation both of a vanishing lifestyle and of the liberating power of faith. -Kirkus Reviews