Baker and Bilbro are not naive about the herculean nature of their task. For instance, in his 2004 novel, Hannah Coulter, a story about an older farming widow who reflects on the changes in her community since the 1930s (the authors use Berry’s novels throughout to frame their critique of and proposals for higher education), Hannah laments the affects of universities on her children. “After each one of our children went away to the university,” she recalls, “there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away. It was like sitting snug in the house, and a door is opened somewhere, and suddenly you feel a draft” (2). In other words, universities and colleges thrive on Americans’ ambition for getting ahead and for social mobility. These institutions do not educate students in a manner that encourages them to appreciate families and home or that rewards them for returning to the communities that shaped them. Rather, American higher education becomes a vehicle for escaping the constraints of local life and for acquiring skills that will reward students with a “better” way of life—one with greater wealth and convenience, and that is less limited by the demands of work that is necessary (production of food, maintenance of land and structures, elimination of waste). The tension between agrarianism and the ideals of contemporary higher education are downright enormous. At one point, Baker and Bilbro concede that the modern university may be beyond “hope of recovery” (17).
Agrarianism is the theme he returns to with great regularity and is also the subject of his best-known book, the 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, a compressed version of which is included in this collection. A good part of Berry’s career has involved excoriating mechanized, chemicalized mega-farming as a brutal, life-threatening assault that kills the soil and sends it down the river, guts farming communities, renders moot our relationship to animals and sky and other people, and widens a dualism between us and the earth that is ruining our health, our minds, our ability to live satisfying lives, and the American (and global) culture.
These works are mostly about small-town America, and mostly set on Berry’s farm at Lane’s Landing, once a riverboat stop on the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. But not one word stoops to smug nostalgia. He is instead trying to prove that science and economics happen in a place: he draws endlessly and non-repetitively on the deep well of the lived truth of farm life, which delivers up sweet, clear lines of poetry and local lore and a kind of immediate authenticity.
That authority is the reason we read Wendell Berry. When he tells us precisely what ails us as a nation, that a “Faustian economics” of “corporate fundamentalism” fuels a “world-ending fire” of limitless consumerism that is our ruin, we believe him. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But he goes a step further. He doesn’t leave the question begged, but answers it:
Small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land.
Read all of "How to Fight the Fire" by Dean Kuipers at Los Angeles Review of Books.
I want to consider the psychology of Wendell Berry—not analyze Berry the author but rather probe the way that he sees the world. Berry has made his living as a thinker and writer but also as a farmer, and his unique connection to land and rootedness has much to offer those of us who feel unmoored.
Berry writes about the history of his Kentucky home in “A Native Hill.” He traces his family’s roots there to his maternal great-great-grandfather and his paternal great-grandfather, although the fog of time makes the details hazy. Berry grew to know the place intimately during his childhood, a connection forged more intensely due to the absence of mechanical means with which to farm the earth. When Berry left a comfortable teaching position at New York University to return, it was the first time that he chose the place, and his return made all the difference. Berry knows when his family began to live on the same acres which he occupies, but he is not naive about the fact that others lived there long before. According to Berry, “I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the realization that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by the evidence of their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it.”
Read all of "The Past is Our Definition" by Jonathan Foiles at Psychology Today.
Jayber Crow broke my heart in exactly the way I needed it to be broken, allowing my changing-times sadness and confusion to flow.
Jayber’s growth of soul as he narrates his life from 1914 to 1986 (being Port William’s barber for 32 of those years) grew on me.
If you’ve been grieving the losses that have come with a modernized, technologically driven age, Wendell Berry can’t get the gifts of the past back for you, but he can help you honor them with an unsentimental grief.
He can help your soul to grow through facing those losses with an honest remembering and gratitude. He can help you consider what changes you might make in order live at least a little closer to what you believe.
Berry can even help you see your need to forgive yourself along with everyone else who, in greater or lesser degrees, allowed the lessening of localism and the desecration of the land to happen.
Read all of "Becoming Rememberers: How Wendell Berry Helps Us Grieve Our Time’s Tragic Tradeoffs" by Peggy Haslar at Sparrowfare.
Matt Stewart responds to a range of responses to his original essay "Stop Talking about Wendell Berry on Twitter":
It is true that the glass is decidedly half-empty in this analysis and that I risk hyperbole. But if the readers of Wendell Berry do not speak forcefully and often about the costs of our digital world, who else will? Who else can be counted on to simply reject, at times, these new “necessities?” Who else will remind us that we have options beyond either a grim realism that just accepts the tools that we have at hand and a shallow techno-utopianism that awaits not a new tool but a talisman? Poor old Twitter ($7.41 billion in total assets as of 2017) and Facebook ($84.5 billion in total assets as of 2017) can defend themselves, and I do not think it irresponsible to indulge in some hostile interrogation of the influence of their products.
I urge my fellow localists to think of their Tweets and Facebooks as analogous to cigarettes or plastic grocery bags. One or two are not so bad and they can even be enjoyable and useful. But they are not designed for moderate use and in the quantities with which we pump them out, a severe reckoning is at hand. I think it is likely that future generations will not look on us kindly as they labor to clean up the digital equivalent of secondhand smoke and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Read all of "A Digital Relation to the Universe" by Matt Stewart at Front Porch Republic.
Writer Wendell Berry would argue that violence is the norm, so to suggest that there are other options on the table stretches beyond Western Civilization’s imagination.
In his writing, he wouldn’t limit violence to just the military or crimes committed by individuals, but ecological violence (such as coal mining that destroys mountains, forests, rivers, and animal life).
In his essay “The Commerce of Violence”, Berry paints a picture of the tit for tat of violence, “It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, it is our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.”
According to Berry, violence can soak into how we farm, how we trade, how we see the Earth, and how we see problems/solutions.
Read all of "He Never Would: Doctor Who Reads Wendell Berry" by Eric J. Kregel at his blog.
Berry believes that those who know the land best (i.e. those who farm it) will be most equipped to overcome its unique challenges. He believes the land should be “seen and known with an attentiveness that is schooled and skilled,” ultimately calling for “local knowledge and local love in individual people—people able to see, know, think, feel, and act coherently and well without the modern instinct of deference to the ‘outside expert’” (p. 117).
It’s a fantastic essay for many reasons—not the least of which is its quality of composition. But my interest in Berry’s essay isn’t agricultural as much as it is theological. Truth be told, I know next to nothing about farming, so I’d be foolish to weigh in one way or another. But “An Argument for Diversity” strikes me as being remarkably relevant to something I hope to be a bit more informed about: the mission of the church. What Berry has to say about local knowledge and local solutions needs to be heeded by God’s people.
Read all of "Listen Up!" by D. T. Humphrey at his blog.
Wendell Berry’s works are, perhaps, the literary equivalent of one of the farm tables from his own stories, laden with robust dishes of every stripe, from savory to sweet to salty, all to be washed down with spring water, lemonade and buttermilk, or perhaps a little firewater if our luck holds. And the analogy doesn’t end there, either, because that multi-plattered feast is surrounded by smells, by raucous laughter and talk, roosters and roof-drumming raindrops, or at other times by silence, solemn and gravid.
The gift of Mr. Berry’s yarn-spinning is in how his work delves deeper and deeper, proceeding to tell you about the origins of the table itself, complete with the details of its earnest maker, as well as which joints are sound, and which might eventually give out due not to any fault of the craftsperson but to an unseen pitch pocket hiding inside one of the large stretcher tenons, weakening the joint with a natural, hollow cavity. And he’s still not done because he will then proceed to delineate the history of the oak tree from which the table’s boards were hewn, decades ago, and what was going on in that particular corner of the woodlot the day that tree was felled.
The table linens get the same treatment, as does the salt cellar, and . . . well, I imagine I’ve made my point. Attempting to apprehend the scope of his vision leaves me literally slack-jawed, tuckered out, and dumb.
Read all of Mr. Offerman's thoughts at Library of America.
Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky nearly a hundred years after the publication of Emerson’s Nature in 1836. He has lived, farmed and written there for more than half a century. Berry’s poems, novels, and essays examine this same question of place, of what it means to live deep-rootedly, a question that returns, time and again, in The Peace of Wild Things, a new selection of his poetry published by Penguin earlier this year.
The book runs roughly chronologically, beginning with poems from Berry’s first collection, The Broken Ground, published in 1964, through to poems from the early 2000s. There’s also a generous selection of “Sabbath Poems”, tied to Berry’s ritualistic Sunday morning walks, which he began to write in 1979, and the most recent of which in this selection is taken from A Small Porch, published by Counterpoint in 2016. The Peace of Wild Things opens with “The Apple Tree”, a poem that establishes a number of Berry’s poetic and conceptual traits, which have remained fairly consistent across his career. As he puts it in “Damage”, an essay from 1974, “If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am ‘at’ my work even when I am not working. […] When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about.”
Read the article by Rowland Bagnall at The Oxonian Review.
It would be as reductive to call Wendell Berry a conservationist as it would be to call him an essayist. In the 31 pieces collected in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, the National Humanities Medal-winning poet, novelist, essayist, conservationist and farmer expounds on topics that range from farming, technology, economics, man’s proper relationship to nature, government, and social movements, to industrial disasters, marriage, the human acquisition of knowledge, drowning, labor, animal husbandry, eating, education, the Bible, Huckleberry Finn, and pleasure. Written between 1968 and 2011, all of the essays are ultimately about the same thing: how to live a rightly-ordered life.
Berry is not the type of chipper environmentalist who believes that capitalism can persist unabated as long as we install more solar panels. Nor is he the type of cerebral climate catastrophist who considers all action futile, opting instead to mutter into his wine glass about the anthropocene. In his view, the rightly-ordered life respects nature’s ability to give us sustenance and to destroy us, as it brings both the yearly flowering of bluebells and the deadly currents of the flooded Kentucky River. Topsoil is “Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence.” Nature is, in the words of the poet Edmund Spenser, “the greatest goddesse… the ‘equall mother’ of all,” who “knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.’” She operates as God’s deputy to mete out earthly justice. And she has a warrant out for us.
Read "What Wendell Berry Wants" by Colette Shade at The New Republic.
The World-Ending Fire will be published on May 8, 2018 by Counterpoint.