On the Letters and Friendship of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Say the names Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder in some circles and you will elicit everything from abject worship to ennui. I belatedly came to awareness of both of them in the late Seventies and early Eighties—Berry for his finely wrought essays and stories (I did not have the maturity to appreciate his poetry then) and Snyder for his poems that were so authentically rooted, many of them, in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. And though I appreciated both writers, and regarded both as exemplars of environmentally conscious writing, it never once occurred to me that they might be friends.

I pictured Berry plowing with mules on his Kentucky farm, and I pictured Snyder in the Sierra, running the ridges like a wolf. I thought of Berry as a student of the Scriptures, working out a biblically based land ethic, and I thought of Snyder as a Beat practitioner of Zen. But in spite of these differences they have been friends for almost half a century, first brought together in correspondence by their mutual publisher, Jack Shoemaker, and kept together all these years through mutual admiration—and sometimes by mutual consternation.

In Distant Neighbors, Chad Wriglesworth has done us the service of collecting and selecting forty years of their correspondence, from 1973 to 2013. In the fall of 2015, I was asked to introduce and interview Gary Snyder at a reading, and I told him before we went on stage that I was halfway through this book. “Wendell and I argued about two things for forty years,” Snyder declared: “Buddhism vs. Christianity, and wilderness vs. agriculture.”

That pretty much sums it up.

Read the whole article by Paul Willis at Education & Culture.


A Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

If I could, I would thrust a copy of Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield into the hands of everyone I know. Here’s why:

Sutterfield’s book is a terrific introduction to an esteemed man of letters. Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, conservation activist, and pioneering agrarian who advocates for sustainable agriculture. Thus Berry is a man whose legacy is equally remarkable for his literary writings as well as for his pioneering work and continuing leadership in the field of responsible agrarianism. If you patronize local farmer’s markets, or if your default setting inside grocery stores is to choose local organic produce, then you have Wendell Berry to thank.

Sutterfield maintains that Berry’s work is important because it speaks to our moral integrity at the same time as it addresses our mortal future. You might say that Berry is Rachel Carson 2.0. Berry brings science, generations of farming history, startling literary brilliance, and a deeply Christian point of view all to bear on discussions of the conservation crisis. On one level, it is crucial for more people to hear Berry’s clarion call to rewind our culture, to back away from industrialism, purely in the interests of survival. On another level, Berry speaks to our moral culpability in the ruination of families, communities, and the planet as a result of our failure to obey the most basic of God’s directives to love thy neighbor.

Sutterfield argues that Berry is a sage, a lamenting prophet who connects the dots between how we live and the state of our souls. Was this what God intended when he handed over his creation to us? Is this the role we were meant to play as caretakers? Sutterfield distills a diverse body of work published over the course of nearly sixty years; in so doing, he performs the invaluable service of making the ideas of a great Christian thinker more accessible to a wider audience.

Read the whole review by Maura Zagrans at The Catholic Book Blogger.


Review of "Wendell Berry and Higher Education"

Two literary critics take the writings and speeches of Wendell Berry as a touchstone for a critique of higher education. Each chapter follows a tight structure: an analysis of Berry’s fiction; discussion of how the themes of his fiction apply to higher-education reform; practical suggestions for students, instructors, and administrators; and an excerpt from Berry’s poetry that brings each chapter to a close. The book’s first three chapters, which together encompass the book’s first part, titled “Rooting Universities,” possess both charm and utility. They describe a new vision for higher education, one in which imagination and context trump specialization and fragmentation, attention is given to logical language that eschews jargon and is inclusive of all types of people and ideas, and the benefits of physical work contribute to intellectual development.

Read the complete review at Publishers Weekly.


A Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

Here then, are my thoughts on Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield. 

This attractive and unintimidatingly light volume lives up to the description I was given. It is, indeed, a book interested in drawing out the spiritual themes and ideas strewn throughout the work of a long and productive lifetime. Sutterfield has done his research, and excerpts from Berry’s writings liberally pepper the pages of this book, which is itself divided up into thematic chapters addressing different aspects of Berry’s thought: Givenness, Humility, Love, Work, Membership, and so on. There are so many wonderfully expressive and thought-provoking Berry quotes in each chapter that my reading was drastically slowed by the repeated compulsion to set Sutterfield’s writing about Berry down to hunt down the cited essays and works and read the quotes passages in their original contexts.

Read the whole review by Kate Cousino at Peace and Pekoe.


Wendell Berry and others on BBC Radio 4

On Start the Week Andrew Marr talks to the American writer, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In his latest collection of essays, The World-Ending Fire, Berry speaks out against the degradation of the earth andthe violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, while evoking the awe he feels as he walks the land in his native Kentucky.

His challenge to the false call of progress and the American Dream is echoed in the writing of Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist eschews the grand narrative of a global green movement to focus on what matters - the small plot of land beneath his feet.

Kate Raworth calls herself a renegade economist and, like Berry and Kingsnorth, challenges orthodox thinking, as she points to new ways to understand the global economy which take into consideration human prosperity and ecological sustainability.

Listen to the very good conversation at BBC Radio 4.


Wendell Berry answers some questions

Ragan Sutterfield asked Wendell Berry six questions. Here are two of them.

The idea that our lives are “given” comes up often in your writing. What does it mean to be given? How does it change how we live in the world?

I use the word “given” in reference to this world and our life in it. Two things are implied: first, that we ourselves did not make these things, although by birth we are made responsible for them; and, second, that the world and our lives in it do not come to us by chance.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “The way is humility, the goal is truth.” Your own work reflects a similar understanding. How does humility help us recover the truth about the world and ourselves?

If you think, as I do, that the truth is large and our intelligence small, then a certain humility is implied and is even inescapable. As for my own humility, I am not very certain about the extent of it. I know that I had my upbringing from people who would have been ashamed of me if they heard me bragging on myself like a presidential candidate, and I am still in agreement with them. However, I seem to have a good deal of confidence in the rightness of my advocacy for good care of the land and the people. Without that confidence, I don’t think I could have kept it up for as long as I have.

Read the other four questions at American Catholic Blog. The complete interview can also be found in Ragan's very good book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life.


Review of Sutterfield's book on Wendell Berry

Like Berry’s own writings, Sutterfield’s book follows a symphonic structure: Throughout its 12 brief chapters, themes emerge, develop in new contexts, and find creative resolution. It is perhaps helpful to understand Sutterfield’s exploration of a given, creaturely life as having four main movements. The first considers Berry’s understanding of coherent, loving communities. Berry always works as an amateur—in its etymological sense of lover—whether he is tending his small Kentucky farm or writing poems, essays, and fiction. In all its varied forms, his work models the humility and love that characterize neighborly economies.

As finite creatures, we are always acting from a place of inescapable ignorance. Too often, Americans arrogantly seek to overcome this ignorance, but Berry proposes instead that we limit the scale of our actions and endeavors to fit our work into the fundamental patterns of creation. Such proper humility enables authentic love. Because love cannot be abstract, we can never love globally but must, like the Good Samaritan, tend our wounded neighbor.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Christianity Today.


Nick Offerman discusses his interest in Wendell Berry

Popular perception of actor Nick Offerman will forever be colored by his turn as Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” where his adoration of breakfast food tempered his virulent libertarianism into a lovable if gruff patriarch for Leslie Knope and the rest of the Pawnee Parks Department. 

The homespun wisdom offered by Swanson may have an unexpected inspiration: the writings of Wendell Berry, the Kentucky writer and farmer who’s spent decades warning of the danger that technology posed to culture, particularly in rural America. In this extended podcast interview, Offerman talks about his decades-long obsession with Berry, his own career as both an actor and woodworker, and the enduring value of craftsmanship.

Listen to the discussion at To The Best of Our Knowledge.


On Reading Wendell Berry's "A Meeting"

But the poem I like to recite the most is Berry’s “A Meeting”:

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”
It’s a poem that everybody can recognize and interpret on several levels. It’s about death obviously, but it’s also about memory and belonging, about how we grow older and estranged to what we once were. It also confronts how death may take away a lot of things, but it will not take away your stories. It’s about permanence, then, and joy, even in the face of death. It does all this in such a simple, powerful, direct manner that it always takes my breath away. The poem reminds me of two rivers meeting each other: These two friends have gone long and far, and yet somehow they have come back together in a landscape of imagination.

Read the entire piece by Colum McCann at The Atlantic.