Jayber Crow, Green Spaces, and a Remnant

The oak leaves outside my window are fading from deep green to silver-green, fragile and papery. And I’ve discovered that my $8.99 sunglasses are magic: when I wear them, I can see tints of russet in the trees or purple in the long grass that almost disappear when I take them off.

I’m still working through Isaiah in fits and starts. My own quick study before I rush out the door in the morning isn’t as deep as a group Bible study, but even so, I’m discovering patterns of justice and grace I never saw before. The theme I wrote about a few weeks ago, the mountain of the LORD, is only one of the leitmotifs of this book. Isaiah weaves prophecy and oracle, poetry and prose with the imagery of fire, the branch of the LORD, the vineyard of the LORD, and the sign of Immanuel to call God’s people to repentance.

I’m also finding green spaces, little paradises of lichen-covered trees and fields of long grass hidden among the highways and neighborhoods. Last week, I found a patch of conservation woods with vine-tangled trees, chattering streams, green moss, Queen Anne’s lace, and a pond with a dark-tinted reflection of the sky. 

Yesterday, I found a forest trail that led to a huge meadow of long grass, bright goldenrod, and purple and white flowers. It was quiet apart from the wind rustling the aspen trees and the murmur of crickets. The afternoon sunlight had that radiance that calls up the rich, full, living beauty of every green thing.

I had just finished Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. I read it because I’ve heard Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter especially recommended among his fiction. 

(Spoiler warning) 

Hannah Coulter was a powerful meditation of one woman’s experience of living in an agrarian community that dwindled over the course of the twentieth century. The young people moved away and the old farmers died out, and the good, peaceful way of life slipped away – but that book ends with hope. Jayber Crow follows the same trajectory, but one grief leads only to another, and another, and another, until the death blow at the end. I finished the book with frustration, and grief, and the feeling that all familiar, good things – tradition, family, community, quiet, the beauty of the earth – were dying, and being replaced by the ugliness of modernity.

But yesterday, I walked in a green space of thriving oak trees and still vernal pools in the shadows. And I spent Labor Day weekend swimming in a blue lake and hiking a mountain with my family – grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles who worked hard for the good life (in the Lord) and young people who are trying to build our lives wisely. 

Thirty-five years after the story of Jayber Crow ended, war, technology, consumerism, and loss of faith have darkened this world. And yet…nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

Isaiah wrote through the reign of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. I’ve spent several mornings flipping back and forth from Isaiah to 2 Chronicles 26-32 and found that:

  • Uzziah was a good king until he tried to burn incense unlawfully and became a leper.
  • Jotham was a good king, but in his time the people followed corrupt practices.
  • Ahaz was an evil king, an idolater, defeated by Assyria and Israel.
  • Hezekiah was a good king whom God delivered.

Evil leads to ruin; repentance leads to redemption. Isaiah’s hope was never in any of these four human kings. He prophesied the coming of Immanuel, the child born who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. And in his time, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them.” 

I wish Wendell Berry had captured the hope of eternity in Jayber Crow as well as he did in Hannah Coulter. In Jayber Crow, the remnant of old farmers is dying, with no heirs for their farms; in Isaiah, the remnant of Israel will survive until they return to conquer their enemies. There is always a remnant.

In the meantime, we have our green spaces, cozy Thanksgivings and Christmases with family, good stories that nurture our joy – and the Spirit of God, the Comforter.