I feel like an apostate for saying this, but I do not care for this hymn.
Now let me be clear: I like the tune (an initially tricky Swiss folk tune called Solothurn). And I like Wendell Berry’s poetry. And I don’t even mind the two together – they seem to fit well, with some musical phrasing that matches the poetic meter beautifully.
I think my problem is this – and it’s something I’ve encountered before in this practice but didn’t quite have words for until this moment (which is nearly an hour coming…this has been a hard write today): I want hymns to move the plot, not describe the scene. And I know that’s unreasonable, since every good musical has at least one descriptive song, usually in the beginning (“Fugue for Tin Horns” from Guys and Dolls, “Another Openin’, Another Show” from Kiss Me Kate, “Six Months” from Damn Yankees); of course, even those set up the situation or the setting (New York gamblers, theater people, baseball fanatics). This hymn doesn’t even do that. It just describes a particular part of the interdependent web.
It does describe that part beautifully, of course:
O slowly, slowly, they return
to some small woodland let alone:
great trees outspreading and upright,
apostles of the living light.
As patient stars they build in air
tier after tier a timbered choir,
stout beams upholding weightless grace
of song, a blessing on this place.
They stand in waiting all around,
uprisings of their native ground,
downcomings of the distant light;
they are the advent they await.
Receiving sun and giving shade,
their life’s a benefaction made,
and is a benediction said o’er
all the living and the dead.
In fall their brightened leaves, released,
fly down the wind, and we are pleased
to walk in radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised.
I just don’t know why it’s a hymn. And I don’t know why it’s in the Insight and Wisdom section, and not the World of Nature section. And again, I don’t know that a congregation singing this will get the grace of Berry’s poetry unless they spend time with it. And I don’t know where or when I’d use it as a hymn. As a reading, absolutely. But this doesn’t do the work of a hymn, in my opinion.
Perhaps it’s a failing of imagination on my part. But I am not feeling it.