Wendell Berry's Whitefoot
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It was a mouse. A Peromyscus leucopus to be precise - a white-footed mouse with big black eyes - staring back at me. Neither one of us moved for a few moments, but as soon as I gingerly raised my iPhone to take a picture of the adorable, frightened creature, it disappeared in a flash into the shelter of the jasmine's branches.
Later that same day, while perusing the bookshelves of a local independent bookstore, another mouse caught my eye. This one on the cover of a small, gray book set back deep on a shelf in the warren of the new fiction section.
On the cover was a detailed pencil drawing of a mouse, one that looked just like the one I'd encountered in the jasmine hedge. Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World was the book's name, and though it was shelved in the adult section, it appeared to be a children's book. Until I noticed the name of the author: Wendell Berry.
I snatched the last copy of Whitefoot, took it to the register and paid for it without even cracking open the cover, certain that Berry, the great American writer and defender of agrarian values, would have something extraordinary to say.
Whitefoot is a beautiful, subtle little book. Perfect for these lean times. It would be easy to dismiss it as a simple children's book, but that would be a mistake. Berry's first foray into "children's literature" is in fact a spiritual fable with lessons every adult should take to heart in these nervous times.
At 60 pages in a compact 7-by-6-inch cover, Berry tells Whitefoot's story with the aid of more than 20 stunningly detailed pencil drawings by Davis Te Selle. The entire story of Whitefoot the mouse takes place an inch off the ground (from a real mouse's perspective.) The year-old mouse, who lives alone having not yet had a litter, is swept into an epic adventure when the jar where she's made her nest is swept into the river during a heavy rain, transporting her to strange, and fraught, new worlds.
"She lived at the center of the world," Berry writes. "This is one of the things every mouse knows. Wherever she was, she was at the center of the world. That one lives at the center of the world is the world's profoundest thought. So firmly was this thought set in Whitefoot's mind that she did not need to think it.
"Like humans, she lived in the little world of what she knew, for there was no other world for her to live in. But she lived at the center of the world always, and of this she had no doubt."
Whitefoot lived simply, by her instincts, values that the prolific Berry has heralded in his fiction, nonfiction, essays, and poems for half a century. Accordingly, Berry doesn't anthropomorphize his mouse. She doesn't think human thoughts or act in human ways. She's compelled by an internal voice that tells her "Look out!" or "Hurry," "Nest!" "Up!" or "Seeds! Seeds!" Whitefoot lives, while busily, without much care.
"She worked and lived without extravagance and without waste. Her nest was a neat small cup the size of herself asleep," Berry writes. "When she went into it for her daytime sleep, she slept drawn into a ball, her eyes shut, her tail curved around so that its outer end lay under her nose. Her sleep was an act of faith and a giving of thanks."
Whitefoot lives peacefully, but nearby, unbeknownst to her, there is a river on the verge of flooding, threatening to destroy all she knows and cut her already short life even shorter. When it does, she kicks into survival mode, doing what needs to be done - as Berry puts it, "her unfinished task of staying alive."
One critic compared Whitefoot to the biblical story of Noah's Ark: surviving a flood, doing what needed to be done to survive - in faith - and not knowing what the outcome would be when the catastrophe was over (if it ever would be.)
As I read and re-read Whitefoot, I was reminded of Berry's famous poem, "The Peace of Wild Things." In this moment when the foundations of our world economy are trembling (along with our souls), it bears repeating:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.