Paul Kingsnorth introduces Wendell Berry

About 18 months ago, out of the blue, I was offered something of a dream assignment. Penguin, the publisher, was looking to put together the first British collection of essays by the now-venerable American writer Wendell Berry, and they thought I would be a good person to make the selection, and write an introduction. Would I be interested? Of course, they would understand if I was too busy.

Needless to say, I was not too busy. I have been reading Wendell Berry for over 20 years, on and off, and have found him a constant source of nourishment and inspiration. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what you like about a writer, but Berry combines an earthy wisdom, an unashamed traditionalism, a love of his fellow man and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth which is his subject. It’s a combination I like. Also, to adopt his idiom, he has a damn fine way with words. I’d say he’s a writer who should be read by anyone wanting to find their place, or even figure out how to think about it, in an ever-churning age.

Read the whole article by Paul Kingsnorth (and Mr. Berry's "Damage") at Resilience.


On Wendell Berry vs. the metrics of winning

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

Instead of either of these, then, Berry endeavors to practice the virtue of hope: “Hope is grounded in the present; it’s not about the future. It’s about the reality of possibilities, this sense of possibility that you can do better.” Thus Berry advocates for doing things that “are good now, according to [the] present understanding of present needs…  Only the present good is good. It is the presence of goods—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.”

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Upwrite Magazine.


On Wendell Berry, the Ideal, and the Real

In ‘The Loss of The Future’ (from The Long-Legged House, Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004 (1965), New York, p. 48) Wendell Berry writes:

One of the most damaging results of the loss of idealism is the loss of reality. Neither the  ideal or the real is perceivable alone. The ideal is apparent and meaningful only in relation to the real, the real only in relation to the ideal. Each is the measure and the corrective of the other. Where there is no accurate sense of the real world, idealism evaporates in the rhetoric of self-righteousness and self-justification. Where there is no disciplined idealism, the sense of the real is invaded by sentimentality or morbidity or cynicism and by fraudulent discriminations.

Berry seems to employ both meanings of ‘idealism’ here. It may be understood as ‘systems of thought in which the objects of knowledge are held to be in some way dependent on the activity of mind’ and, of course, ‘the practice of forming or pursuing ideals, especially unrealistically.’

Read the whole post by Samir Chopra HERE


On Wendell Berry's idealistic fiction

When I read Berry’s poems and essays, I sense he and I are kindred spirits. I, too, care about preserving the good, true, and beautiful in a hellbent civilization. On the other hand, when I read Berry’s fiction, I begin to suspect he would not much approve of me. I read as if I were an adolescent who is constantly objecting “Yeah, but…” to the author’s often narrow view of the good life and his criticisms of anyone who wanders off the path. I can be contrarian, too, Mr. Berry.

I read about the Coulters and the Proudfoots and the Branches and perhaps his most beloved protagonist, Jayber Crow, as if I know them personally, and often I find they don’t represent themselves altogether truthfully. Maybe I feel close to them because two generations back both sides of my family lived in Port William–type villages in the center of New York State. When Mr. Crow moves to his final home on a riverbank, I feel like he’s speaking my family dialect. I know exactly the “substantial sound” of an anchor line plunking into the bottom of a boat, and the language of a single fish slurping from the surface of a still pond. I know it because, by the grace of God and kindly grandparents, I’ve spent countless childhood days on a quiet waterfront. But also, I know it because it’s embedded in my genes from my grandfather’s generation, who lived in a small village dotted with pastures and bubbling brooks.

The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light.

Read the whole article by Tamara Hill Murphy (no relation) at Plough Quarterly.

Read Rod Dreher's reflections on "What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong" at The American Conservative.

Read Jeffrey Bilbro's response, "Does Wendell Berry Have Rose-Colored Glasses?" at Front Porch Republic.

Read Matthew Loftus' response, "What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong about Wendell Berry" at Mere Orthodoxy.

Read Jake Meador's response, "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" at Mere Orthodoxy.

Read Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

Read Tamara Hill Murphy response to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."


Post-Election Thoughts from Mary Berry and Other Environmental Leaders

A number of environmental leaders have spoken to Grist.org. Here is Mary Berry's reflection.

While I deplore the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, I wouldn’t say that I was particularly hopeful about either candidate making much difference in the place I love the most.

My home is farm country in north central Kentucky. It has been in decline through many presidents, both Democrat and Republican. Kentucky’s raw materials have been sold to the highest bidder for most of the last 200 years under, mostly, Democratic governors. So my hope doesn’t lie with politicians and it never has.

I have often needed to try to convince our friends and allies that what they think is happening in rural places is not happening. Symbols are important, but a vegetable garden on the White House lawn does not mean that anything is actually being done to level the playing field for small family farmers. The urban demand for well-raised food is going up as the rural culture is coming down.

Now a man who is a product of television and capitalism has won the presidency, and there is no pretense that he is anything else. Now we know, the cavalry is not coming.

So this my hope, that things will never get so bad that a well-intentioned person can’t do what is right in front of them to do. If they are working on what is right in front of them, then the work is local work.

My father [author and farmer Wendell Berry] says that hope is a virtue. That to have it, we must work at it. He has kept alive in my mind, as we have watched the place we love the most decline, that what we are after is possible, that we don’t win but we don’t lose either, we just keep on.

See all other responses at Grist.


On Poetry, Angry Rhetoric, and Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, author, poet, essayist, and activist. My high school English teacher and track coach, who is now retired, has said Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. I agree. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. I have benefited greatly from his essays, novels, and short stories. His poetry is a good introduction to his work. 

He wrote “To A Siberian Woodsman” in the late 1960s during the cold war when we were taught to hate the Russians. This poem carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. He is both a poet and a farmer, which offers credentials much more substantial than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels. These lackluster “prophets” are lost in a mixed-up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology. Berry isn’t like that. He is a prophet like Amos, the fig farmer.

Read the complete article by Derek Vreeland at Missio Alliance.


Wendell Berry and Pastoral Ministry

Wendell Berry has made his home in Henry County, Kentucky, for more than a half-century. From this place and his affection for it, he has written approximately 50 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Berry offers an alternative voice we can learn from, especially where his writings mirror biblical teachings better than religious books featuring baptized secular industrial models.

Pastors seeking to revitalize churches will do well to revitalize their minds along lines Berry suggests.

He asks us to choose nurturing over exploiting as a way of life. Exploiters look at people, land, and communities as raw materials to be mined for one’s own career and retirement portfolio. Exploiters inevitably look at churches the same way. Nurturers, by contrast, seek to conserve, preserve, enhance, and heal while living with people in community in particular places. The nurturer seeks wise practices that build for the long term. As Berry writes in The Unsettling of America (1977), perhaps his best-known volume:

The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. . . . The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community. . . . Once the revolution of exploitation is underway, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship.

Read the complete article by Paul House at The Gospel Coalition.


On Wendell Berry as "The Seer" from 'Nowhere'

Produced and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, and executive produced by Redford and Malick, The Seer is less a biographical study of Berry the man than an illustration of things that he values: the beauty and importance of his place and other places like it, and the people who live in it, care for it, and love it. In fact, the film’s footage is largely made up of video interviews with Berry’s friends and fellow natives of Port Royal, each of whom seems to view Berry as a kind of comrade in arms—a sympathizer—rather than a celebrity. And from early on in the film, it’s clear that Berry loves these people, that he values them. In a sense, the film feels like an elegy to people like them and the places they inhabit, a mournful recognition that we have forgotten them too easily. “The great cultural failure that we have made here in the United States,” he says midway through the film, “is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own character, their own needs and demands in use . . . for nowhere. And of course there’s a penalty for that and of course we’re paying the penalty.”

There’s an ecological cost, to be sure, and Berry specifically mentions soil erosion and polluted rivers and toxicity, each of which he has castigated for decades. But there is also a very real human cost: towns that are dying, farms that are failing, and communities that are fading. This is not a problem unique to Kentucky or to the South or to farming communities. It’s an American problem, and it’s a problem of our own making, Berry argues.

Read the whole article by David Kern at Christ & Pop Culture.


"Wendell Berry's Reading List"

Talk to any group of young farmers, farm interns, kids with liberal arts degrees who are choosing to grow kale over 401(k)s, and the common denominator is likely to be Berry. He offers more than sharp cultural criticism, compelling novels and beautiful poetry; Berry makes readers want to change their lives. For many this is done by eating differently, following Berry’s insight that “eating… is inescapably an agricultural act.” His writing inspired the local food movement as people began to understand that the health of the environment depends on our decisions at mealtime.

For some, Berry is a religious figure. I once met a woman in a coffee shop who told me that Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” was her religion, its closing lines offering a call to be present in our places:

…we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.

And then there are those who, like my 22-year-old self, are drawn to radical responses. Those who consider a return to the land to farm it and care for it with all the virtues Berry works out in his writing. But how to begin, was this the right choice, and most importantly for one who lives by books—what to read? I needed guidance, and so I wrote to the one man I felt could give it: Wendell Berry.

Read the entire article by Ragan Sutterfield at WorldArk Magazine.


"Eating as Discipleship"

Wendell Berry's famous statement that "eating is an agricultural act" has motivated many to reconsider the agricultural systems our eating habits promote. Yet Berry's writings also contend that eating is a spiritual act; when we eat, we enact our relationship with the rest of creation and with the Creator. Unfortunately, the social architecture of the developed world encourages us to imagine food as a fuel that we consume. We're trained to treat food as a commodity whose sole purpose is to satisfy our desires and give us energy. 

Lisa Graham McMinn's To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community joins a chorus of other books that call Christians to resist this consumerist view of food. McMinn's book begins with Leslie Leyland Fields's proclamation that "food is nothing less than Sacrament." In defending this view, McMinn—a sociologist and co-owner of a CSA—adds her voice to the growing number of books and blogs celebrating farmers' markets, gardening, and home cooking.

Read all of "Eating as Discipleship" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Comment.