Two Recent Reviews of the Wendell Berry Film

We have lately seen two new reviews of The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn.

John Murdock at First Things writes in part,

Dunn’s film is not your run-of-the-mill biopic, and how could it be? Berry, though very much alive, agreed to participate in the project, but with the complicating condition that he would not appear on camera. The viewer sees recent interviews of his wife Tanya and daughter Mary, but the man himself is present only as a voice and in images from the past. With their differing views of progress, both fans and critics of this farmer/writer, who has done his varied work with draught horses and a 1956 Royal typewriter, will likely see his elusiveness as fitting.

The Seer centers on Berry’s debates in the 1970s with Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Butz had rural roots that rivaled Berry’s, but he came to see a decline from 45% of the population working the land at his birth to some 4% at the time of their encounters—what Berry labeled The Unsettling of America—as a positive development. “Butz’s law,” which he formulated, was “adapt or die,” and its measure of success was “P-R-O-F-I-T.”

Berry is seen by many as a prophet of a different sort.

Joe Leydon at Variety enjoyed much of the film, but had some reservations,

“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” contains some interesting testimonials from Kentucky farmers, most notably Steve Smith, who admits he was ready to abandon his lifework until he switched to organic farming. And Lee Daniel’s exquisite cinematography cries out to be savored on a big screen; an opening montage of urban chaos, accompanied by Berry’s reading of his visionary poem “A Timbered Choir,” is as powerful as any similar sequence in Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyannisqatsi.” More often, however, the documentary is too tepid to generate anything like excitement or outrage, and elicits admiration more for its intentions than for its execution.


A New Book by Wendell Berry

Counterpoint has recently released Wendell Berry's A Small Porch. This new volume is wildly but accurately subtitled "Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015 together with The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation."

Originally listed for publication with 80 pages back in April, the process was presumably held up (correct me if I'm wrong) to allow for the inclusion of the long essay, which doubles the book's length. In his closing Acknowledgements, Mr. Berry notes, "The making of this book has extraordinarily burdened the patience of Jack Shoemaker of Counterpoint, my friend, editor, and collaborator for forty years."

There are nine sabbath poems from 2014 and sixteen from 2015. I am a little surprised that the sabbath poems for 2013 (so far published only in the limited Larkspur edition of last year) are not included here. This Day: Sabbath Poems Collected and New 1979-2013 contains only the first two of twenty written in that year. I will settle for the possibility that a future revision of This Day will contain all of those poems.

In the meantime, we have the yet-to-be-explored riches of the actual book before us. 

AspWB30


Despite college closing, the Berry Farming Program will continue

We are very sorry to learn of the decision on July 1 to close Saint Catharine College, a school near Springfield, Kentucky that has been sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Peace since 1931.      

The announcement also means the St. Catharine College Berry Farming Program, launched in 2013 to offer two bachelor's degree programs in sustainable agriculture and rural leadership modeled on the teachings of author Wendell Berry, is searching for a new host university or college in Kentucky.

"The program will continue," said Berry's daughter, Mary Berry, on Wednesday. Berry's writing on farming has made him a moral authority among those concerned about climate change, the dwindling number of family farms, and healthy food and soil.

The degree program was founded by The Berry Center, a nonprofit institute located in Newcastle,  "to meet the urgent need for bolstering rural communities, small farm production and local markets."

In May, the first six graduates gained bachelor degrees from St. Catharine College in disciplines devoted to sustainable land use, plant and soil stewardship, rural community leadership and environmental arts and humanities, said Leah Bayens, chair of the Earth Studies department.

That leaves 19 undergraduates in the Berry Farming Program curriculum now facing abrupt transfer to other institutions, Bayens said.

Read more at Courier-Journal.

Concerning this closure and The Berry Farming Program, The Berry Center stated on Facebook,

We are deeply saddened by today’s announcement of the pending closure of St. Catharine College, a school located in the heart of the state and at the heart of the Washington County, Kentucky community. Though St. Catharine College is closing the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program will continue based upon the ideals that were established in its foundational years. John Turner, St. Catharine College Board of Trustees chairman, said that the closure comes as a result of decline in enrollment caused by the federal Department of Education’s admitted wrongful withholding of student aid on several key academic programs. He said further that the decline in enrollment has proven to be too difficult to manage with the debt obligation that has been assumed by the college in recent years. 

Mary Berry, Founder and Executive Director of The Berry Center, was moved to establish the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College when asked by faculty members and trustees how The Berry Center’s work fit with the four pillars of Dominican life. She thought that it was the right question and wanted to tie The Berry Center’s educational imperative to something established and sacred.

The first cohort of students enrolled in the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program graduated on May 14, 2016. These students provided an example of what The Berry Center hoped for – a mix of rural and urban students deeply rooted in their places devoted to life on the land. 

We would like to thank St. Catharine College and the Dominican Sisters of Peace for giving a home to our program and for their encouragement throughout its development. The Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program will continue based on the solid footing that we have achieved at St. Catharine College.


Review Finds Fault with Wendell Berry Film

The film [The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, directed by Laura Dunn] ignores the tremendous benefits of new farming techniques, not to mention technology all around. Yes, it’s cute that Berry types his manuscripts on an old manual typewriter with a worn-out ribbon, but I bet his publishers and typesetters think differently. Further, the aesthetic beauty of the film itself results from new technologies that allow digital shooting, sound recording, graphics and editing. Anyone who recalls the old method of film-splicing with razorblades and tape certainly can relate to the benefits of advancing technologies in contemporary editing booths. Shame this irony was lost on Dunn and her fellow filmmakers.

But our curmudgeon persists on romanticizing the old ways: “We haven’t valued farmers or farming so we’re losing them,” he intones. Forgive me for saying this, but that’s as much malarkey as bemoaning the scarcity of blacksmiths in this day and age, or this: “You can’t love traditional values and love contemporary agriculture at the same time,” Berry says. Seriously?

Read it all at Acton Commentary.


Freed-Market Anarchist Considers Wendell Berry

For many years, I have encountered repeated references to Wendell Berry, the venerable farmer-sage of Kentucky: novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher and environmental activist. And I lazily assumed his writings to be in the category of things that are Good For You, but probably dull, like stodgy health food. But then I came across The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of Berry’s essays on what he calls “agrarianism”, and I found his writing electrifying. Berry has a well-thought-out, far-reaching, passionately articulated analysis of what is wrong with the prevailing political/economic/social system in America, which extends with minimal adjustments to much of the rest of the world. It’s different from the sort of political analysis typically seen at C4SS.org – not incompatible with it, but, I would say, complementary to it. I think it’s therefore fruitful to examine Berry’s political/economic/social philosophy from a freed-market anarchist (FMA) perspective, noting the substantial points of agreement, but also the areas where Berry’s agrarianism perhaps contributes something missing from FMA discourse, and vice-versa.

The Art of the Commonplace consists of essays dating from 1969 to 2002, on a range of topics including racial justice, sexual politics, the arts, religion, as well as Berry’s more central concerns: farming, land use, environmentalism, and economics. But despite the fact that many of the writings date from thirty-some years ago, all of them remain surprisingly timely. Running through them all is a single unifying premise: no society can remain healthy if it fails to care for the soil and water from which its food comes. And Berry presents compelling arguments that many superficially unrelated social ills can be traced to this central sin (yes, that’s Berry’s term for it). The problem lies in a constellation of attitudes, practices and technologies that Berry labels “industrialism”.

Read the complete article by Robert Kirchner at Center for a Stateless Society.


Wendell Berry Supports Senate Candidate

Wendell and Tanya Berry, along with Mary Berry and Steve Smith have written a letter to the Louisville Courier-Journal in which they express their support of Democratic U. S. Senate candidate Sellus Wilder. He is running against incumbent Republican Rand Paul. The Berrys and Smith write, in part,

We approve of his platform, which we know that he is offering as a promise to his constituents to try in good faith to do what he has told them he will try to do. We are particularly grateful for his commitment to clean soil, clean water and clean air, though he understands the long-term difficulty of that commitment.

See the complete letter HERE.


More on "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

The film isn’t preachy, it’s showing you that there are people willing to do what is manageable, and what is best for the land and their families.  They describe the desire for farming coming from the passion of successive generations.  There are a lot of threats to this way of life, some unavoidable without a change in our culture.  But if anyone can persuade us, Wendell Berry might be the one.   THE SEER is a thoughtful documentary, told with the same directness as Berry’s writing, with enough hope that you want to see and know and be more.

Read it all at The Matinee.


NPR on "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Wendell Berry's condemnation of modern farming has brought him back into the public eye in recent years. He despises how big farming has become, and how technology-driven.

Dunn's film goes deeply into the business of farming. She speaks with migrant farm workers and big-time farmers, deeply in debt. "Ten years ago I would have never dreamed it would cost what it does to put a crop out now," says one farmer, with a haunted look in his eyes. "It's just crazy what it costs. And sometimes is gets a little hard to sleep at night. Toward the end of the year, all the crops are in the ground, all the money's spent, and we just need a good crop to pay the banks back."

Dunn replays video of a speech that Wendell Berry gave in 1974. Already at that point, he was arguing that when big farms grow and small ones disappear, communities are destroyed, along with the values that sustain those communities — values like loyalty, neighborliness, kindness.

"I don't think that you can love those old values, and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time," he told his audience.

Read it (and hear it) all at NPR.