Words of WonderThe Sycamore - Wendell Berry

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in that has not harmed it.
There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

by Wendell Berry


Now in midlife I notice that I’m looking for role models and images of the maturity that I can feel myself moving towards. If as younger people we have the sensation of climbing a hill anticipating the ascent, perhaps here in midlife, we’ve reached the top and a new scene comes into view. This poem speaks to me of this new scene and it provides me with what I see to be a truthful, real and deep-hearted perception of the fields of the second half of life.

A mix of tender, reverent and bittersweet feelings emerge in my heart on reading this poem. When we look at what is beautiful and singular about the sycamore, we soon find the tragedy. And when we see the tragedy, we find more beauty shining out from right there. The beautiful and tragic merge into something ineffable and mystical. Wendell Berry (who is an American farmer and poet) celebrates the tree in its maturity, sees it has powers of self-healing and survival, gathering ‘all accidents into its purpose’. He also knows this tree-being of grandeur is wounded and dying but in that dying it is generous and noble, giving itself back to the earth.

What is the principle that Wendell Berry recognises in it, that he too would be ruled by? I’m sensing it could be a mature isness, a perfect imperfection in just being what and how it is. ‘It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.’ I happily absorb the wisdom of Wendell Berry’s sycamore and want to let it teach me how to be.

Fay Adams

Ps. If you would like to receive more life wisdom through poetry you might life to come along to our next Mystical Poetry meets Mindfulness course which begins online in September.

Photo by Gilly Stewart on Unsplash