Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya gave the New Pioneers Trailblazer Award to their daughter, Mary Berry, all of New Castle, Ky. Mary Berry directs The Berry Center, which was created to continue the Berry family's work in culture and agriculture, going back nearly a century. The center's Berry Farm Program is based at St. Catharine College, near Springfield, where the awards ceremony was held.
Rivendell Fellow Norman Wirzba and author Wendell Berry will headline a symposium on the theme of “Imaginative Education: Learning to Know a Place, Care for a Place” at the University of the South in Sewanee on August 20-21.
“The connections between literature and place, and place and land, are central to the Rivendell ethos. We are delighted to share in this very special symposium, and to host the guests during their time here,” said Carmen Thompson, Director of Rivendell.
Inspired by the example of distinguished author, farmer, and cultural critic Wendell Berry, the symposium will encourage reflection on the deeper dimensions of knowing, caring for, and becoming present to place that Berry represents in his work. Key features of the symposium event include the participation of Mary Berry, Executive Director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, and Leah Bayens, director of the Berry Farming Program at St. Catherine College, as well as a public conversation with Mr. Berry conducted by Wirzba, who is Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke University.
One of our sanest writers is Wendell Berry. His contribution as a Christian essayist to the environmental movement has been unique and profound. His poetry, especially his Sabbaths collection, is evocative and wise. But it’s his fiction that has shaped my imagination, especially when it comes to Christian expressions of community and worship.
Berry prefers the word membership over community. Our word membership arises directly from the biblical text. “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). This member/body language is key to Paul’s understanding of Christian community in his major letters of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians.
Berry imports this metaphor into his stories about his fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. The town itself is a membership. Each person participating in the larger life of the community — even if they don’t want to.
In a weekday adult education offering at St. Alban’s Church we’ve been reading a new book by theologian Ellen Davis (Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship and Ministry). Chapter 4 begins with a quote from author, poet and conservationist Wendell Berry: There seems to be a law that when creatures have reached the level of consciousness, as men have, they must become conscious of creation; they must learn how they fit into it and what its needs are and what it requires of them, or else they pay a terrible penalty: the spirit of creation will go out of them, and they will become destructive; the very earth will depart from them and go where they cannot follow (“A Native Hill,” in The Long-Legged House).
In the steamy summer of 1948, E. B. White, on guest assignment for the New Yorker, spent a few days strolling his former hometown. The essay was released in 2000 as the slim volume, Here is New York, which The New York Times calls one of the ten best books ever written about the city.
One of White’s most perceptive observations, in my opinion, is this:
New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along…without influencing the inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul… I sometimes think that the only event that hits every New Yorker on the head is the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is fairly penetrating — the Irish are a hard race to tune out, there are 500,000 of them in residence, and they have the police force right in the family.
I wonder if an unintended progress, of sorts, resulting from an event like the terrorist attacks on 9/11 — an event which penetrated every New Yorker so completely they’re still looking at the skies for wayward aircraft and checking skyscrapers for fire exits — is neighbors noticing each for a literal fear of dying.
It may be that the only good to come from each wave of tragedy we experience is the way neighbors share a conversation. Boston, West, Newtown — neighbors experiencing the same story. Neighbors making certain someone’s going to notice if the ground opens up beneath their feet.
I often think that literature is the original internet, each footnote and citation and allusion a hyperlink to another text. I was reminded of this recently, while devouring Anne Lamott’s superb book on imperfection, grace, and belonging, where she quotes an instantly enchanting passage by poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry. Compelled to find its origin, I was led to a beautiful 1982 essay titled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” found in Berry’s altogether magnificent collection Standing by Words: Essays ... Berry explores the unexpected but profound parallels between poetry and marriage — or, more broadly, union — through the lens of form as both a hedge against and an embracing of the unknown. It is at once a celebration of the idea that life is not a straight line but a zig-zag and an insightful look at how form and structure — often expressed today through our fascination with daily routines and our constant quest to perfect our own — ground us into more liberated lives.
Sports spectating arguably provides the most tangible, culturally familiar form of participation in our culture and offers us association with a particular people in a particular place.
Our culture has largely lost its sense of “particularity.” Too often, we claim participation in a community of strangers spread over social media or other non-physical spaces. While there’s nothing wrong with identifying with sports teams across geographic boundaries—as a Kansas City native, I will always be a Royals and Chiefs fan, even here in Kentucky—and we have a great opportunity to maintain friendships across geographic barriers. But is this really community?
Sports offer something for this sense of particularity: real people in a real place. The great poet and essayist Wendell Berry has written that there should be no concept of community apart from a particular people and a particular place.
Remarks Presented by Mary Berry The Louisville Harmony and Health Initiative Convening of Global Leaders In Honor of His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales Louisville, Ky. March 20, 2015
The Berry Center is putting my father’s writing to work by advocating for farmers, land- conserving communities and healthy economies. Food is a cultural product and we must work on a culture that supports good farming, one that allows farmers to afford to farm well. We must institutionalize agrarianism. That involves some practical, slow, tedious work. It also involves the most necessary life affirming work I can think of except for the work of good farming itself.
The Berry Center is working to create an economic sector in which small and medium size farms can compete, make a decent living, and build thriving rural communities. We have many projects and partners including The Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine College where we address the desperate need for more farmers. Two of our projects seem to me to fit the purposes of this meeting very well.
To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:
Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.
When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.