UC Interview with Wendell Berry

Too many of us spend too much time indoors, in front of screens, away from nature. Yet, there’s a consistent sense of wonder about nature in your writing. Can you suggest ways to nurture a stronger sense of Creation care?

A I am sure that the children of my generation benefited from their free roaming — without adult supervision — in the woods and fields. I am sure that we learned a great deal about the natural and practical life of work by playing, and then later working, in the company of other adults at work. 

Now, I seldom see children or young people outdoors. This seems attributable largely to screen addiction. But also, work itself has changed since the time of my childhood. It has become too mechanical, too toxic and too hurried to be congenial. 

You write, “Find your hope . . . on the ground under your feet,” reflecting the idea of acting locally. However, in the face of vast environmental threats, can there be enough local action to bring about the dramatic changes we need?

A I’m not sure. I am only sure that great problems cannot be solved by great solutions. No government, no church, no religious denomination is capable of performing an authentic act of stewardship equivalent in scale to the Normandy invasion or the bombing of Hiroshima. The utterly intractable truth of the matter is that the world is made up of a mosaic of small places, each one unique and, in significant ways, unlike any other. To be capably stewarded or husbanded, each of these places must be known and loved, and therefore possibly known by some particular human with the intelligence, knowledge and skill to use it responsibly. The responsibility pertains to the place itself, and to the humans and other creatures who live on and from it now and forever afterward.

See the interview by Murray MacAdam at UC Observer.


And Yet More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy is the latest to add his thoughts to an ongoing critique of Wendell Berry's thought as embodied in his fiction. This round of writing began with Tamara Hill Murphy, was seconded by Rod Dreher, countered by Jeffrey Bilbro, and reasserted and extended by Matthew Loftus. Meador begins his own response to Murphy with this: 

Plough has recently published one of the better versions of a critique of Wendell Berry that is fairly common and fairly tiresome. The author, Tamara Hill Murphy, has a great many kind things to say about Berry but then says that Berry’s work is characterized by a naive idealization of the agrarian past and a romanticism about it that obscures the dark corners of that world.

Murphy makes the critique helpfully concrete (and stark) when she writes,

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. …

Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

To be sure, if this critique were an accurate portrayal of Berry’s fiction, it would be rather devastating. But it fails on two fronts. First, it simply doesn’t account for the body of Berry’s work. Second, it fails to recognize the underlying philosophical critique Berry is making which is basically the same critique made explicitly by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and implicitly by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

See, again, all of "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.

UPDATE (1.9.17) See, also, Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

UPDATE (1.14.17) Tamara Hill Murphy responds to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."


More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Tamara Hill Murphy’s Plough essay, The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel, is well worth reading even if I disagree with much of it. She gives two principal concerns: The first accusation is of papering over the flaws of rural life and the second regards the weaknesses of Berry’s total moral and economic vision. The first accusation is very contestable, the second goes in the wrong direction. Rod Dreher, in his post on the subject, suggests that maybe Wendell Berry is wrong about Wendell Berry– and I agree with him!

In regards to the first issue, I think it is hard to look at Berry’s fiction and not see significant wrestlings with human frailty and wickedness. Jeff Bilbro explores these at some length, but I’ll chime in with my favorite story, “Watch With Me”. This story describes how the members of Port William try to prevent a mentally ill man from killing himself and while it has a happy ending it does not hold back from the realities of life. There is plenty that may be glossed over, but the stories with a romantic glow are matched by the ones full of tragedy.

See the complete article by Matthew Loftus at Mere Orthodoxy.


New Studies of Wendell Berry for 2017

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2017 will bring us a trio of new books that promise some fresh considerations and applications of Mr. Berry’s work.

Wendell Berry and The Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield is due to arrive in March from Franciscan Media.

Berry presents us with the sort of coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life that we need now. His work helps us remember our givenness and embrace our life as creatures. His insights flow from a life and practices, and so it is a vision that can be practiced and lived—it is a vision that is grounded in the art of being a creature.

Jeffrey Bilbro and Jack Baker have co-written Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place that is forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in June.

Drawing on Berry’s essays, fiction, and poetry, Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro illuminate the influential thinker’s vision for higher education in this pathbreaking study. Each chapter begins with an examination of one of Berry’s fictional narratives and then goes on to consider how the passage inspires new ways of thinking about the university’s mission. Throughout, Baker and Bilbro argue that instead of training students to live in their careers, universities should educate students to inhabit and serve their places.

The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity by Joseph R. Wiebe is scheduled for February from Baylor University Press.

Wendell Berry teaches us to love our places—to pay careful attention to where we are, to look beyond and within, and to live in ways that are not captive to the mastery of cultural, social, or economic assumptions about our life in these places. Creation has its own integrity and demands that we confront it. In The Place of Imagination, Joseph R. Wiebe argues that this confrontation is precisely what shapes our moral capacity to respond to people and to places.


A Response to Some Criticism of Wendell Berry

Given the unpopular and uncompromising stands that Wendell Berry takes, it’s only natural that many readers fiercely disagree with him. Some of these disagreements are simply matters of preference. As one of his stories has it, “It is perhaps impossible for a person living unhappily with a flush toilet to imagine a person living happily without one.” Other disagreements are more substantive and not easily resolved. But any disagreement with Berry should begin with a fair reading of his work—otherwise one is simply battling a straw man. In this respect, I am afraid that even though Tamara Hill Murphy agrees with much of Berry’s vision, her recent essay in Plough Quarterly misrepresents his fiction, claiming that his stories view rural life too nostalgically, glossing over its violence and racism and brokenness.

When Murphy published an earlier version of this same argument, I suggested via Twitter (which is of course the perfect medium for discussing Wendell Berry) that she was overlooking many counterexamples where Port William does indeed suffer from its members’ anger, alcoholism, infidelities, and abuse. But the fact that she’s still making the same argument — and that Rod Dreher, another appreciative and thoughtful reader of Berry, largely agrees with her case — suggests that it may be worthwhile to point out the seamier side of Port William’s history. Because my colleague Jack Baker and I are currently editing a collection of essays on Berry’s fiction, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in his stories, and these portray a much more multifaceted view of rural life than Murphy’s essay would lead one to believe.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


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."


Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation

The 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures featured Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson in a conversation moderated by Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter and the founding Executive Director of The Berry Center. The conversation took place on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA.

See also at Resilience.


Wendell Berry collection to be published in UK

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The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry will be published by Penguin (Allen Lane imprint) in England near the end of January, 2017.

'Wendell Berry is the most important writer and thinker that you have (probably) never heard of. He is an American sage' -James Rebanks, author of The Shepherd's Life

Wendell Berry is 'something of an anachronism'. He began his life as the old times and the last of the old-time people were dying out, and continues to this day in the old ways: a team of work horses and a pencil are his preferred working tools. The writings gathered in The World-Ending Fire are the unique product of a life spent farming the fields of rural Kentucky with mules and horses, and of the rich, intimate knowledge of the land cultivated by this work. These are essays written in defiance of the false call to progress, and in defence of the local landscapes that provide our cultural heritage, our history, our home.

In a time when our relationship to the natural world is ruled by the violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, Wendell Berry speaks out to defend the land we live on. With grace and conviction, he shows that we simply cannot afford to succumb to the mass-produced madness that drives our global economy. The natural world will not withstand it.

Yet he also shares with us a vision of consolation and of hope. We may be locked in an uneven struggle, but we can and must begin to treat our land, our neighbours, and ourselves with respect and care. We must, as Berry urges, abandon arrogance and stand in awe.

Via Penguin Books, Ltd.

See at Amazon.co.uk


On Wendell Berry's recent conversation

Wendell Berry’s response to the recent election? “I’m still on the losing side and that’s where I’ve taken up my residence … If Hillary Clinton had won, I would still be on the losing side. And I would just have to go to work.”

When the celebrated writer, farmer, and elder statesman of the local food movement sat down in front of a sold-out audience at Johns Hopkins University last week, the crowd seemed even more eager than usual to soak in Berry’s wisdom in this particularly fraught national moment.

The event was a public conversation between Berry and Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. And many in the audience—made up of people who care about the work the Center does to study the intersections between food systems, the environment, and human health—were likely feeling a great deal worried about the fate of the issues about which they care deeply.

Read the whole article by Brian Massey at Civil Eats.