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.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry and the Renewal of Christianity

For Berry, the American farm is a metaphor for life. In Postmodernity, there is a movement to reduce our neighborhoods into mere real estate, the human mind into a consumer, people into numbers, ideas into information, and vocation into employment. Yes, exploitation happens on the farm in northern Canada, but it also occurs in the suburbs of California, if we follow the farm metaphor to our present “post-everything” age.

In The Unsettling of America Berry explains exploitation as something more of a belief, of an attitude than just an ecological practice:

“The first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are- both against each other and within ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is under way, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship (The craft of persuading people to buy what they do not need, and do not want, for more than it is worth.) Its stock in trade in politics is to sell despotism and avarice as freedom and democracy. In business it sells sham and frustration as luxury and satisfaction.”

Read the entire article by Eric J. Kregel HERE.


Wendell Berry cited on Soil

The urge to “get the dirt on someone” fuels tabloids and websites, while focusing on actual soil seems less titillating. But it shouldn’t.

Wendell Berry calls soil “the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. … Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Our soil absorbs everything we do, everything we are, everything we’ll ever create or buy or throw out or dream up or be.

The awful reality that fact entails is a lot to swallow – and swallow it, we do, since everything we eat depends on soil, too. But there are steps we can take to return our land to better health. And for Erie County residents, the Millfair Compost and Recycling Center, located on Millfair Road at the border of Millcreek and Fairview townships, is a good place to start.

Read the whole article by Katie Chriest at Erie Reader.


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.


Whose thought? Wendell Berry's or Ralph Ellison's?

A brief Twitter exchange just now reminds me of an ongoing literary injustice that has bothered me for quite some time. Up until now I’ve just pushed it aside, but it may be time to make some noise about it and perhaps right a bit of wrong.

Here is the exchange:

WB-WS tmtm-twt

The most likely explanation is that Mr. Berry used the line “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are” in the presence of Mr. Stegner, who then repeated it as a Berry original. In fact, Mr. Berry was probably quoting from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a very memorable and important moment near the end of that great novel).

If you happen to stumble upon this present post here at MWBoK—and you can shed more light on the origins of this problem, please do so.

Here is Mr. Stegner's "Sense of Place" which opens with the sentence in question.


On Wendell Berry vs. the metrics of winning

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

Instead of either of these, then, Berry endeavors to practice the virtue of hope: “Hope is grounded in the present; it’s not about the future. It’s about the reality of possibilities, this sense of possibility that you can do better.” Thus Berry advocates for doing things that “are good now, according to [the] present understanding of present needs…  Only the present good is good. It is the presence of goods—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.”

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Upwrite Magazine.


A British Appreciation of Wendell Berry

His best work is contained in his frequent salvos of essays, which I have been collecting during trips to America for much of my adult life. I first came across his work in a bookshop in Devon, where I was struck by a slim volume with the brutal title What Are People For?. It’s impossible not to wonder about the answer, so I read on and slowly accumulated a small library of books with names such as Standing by WordsThe Long-Legged House and Another Turn of the Crank (Berry is drily aware of his reputation).

He writes at least as well as George Orwell and has an urgent message for modern industrial capitalism, which he considers to be a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. It is an apocalyptic message but conveyed with a gentle humour and defiant belief in the possibility of social reform that keep you turning the pages. Yet he can be a difficult sod, fiercely independent and, as the Americans would say, ornery. Back in the 1990s, I wrote to Berry asking him to allow me to edit a selection of his writing to be published for a British audience, preferably by Penguin. He said no. For one thing, he did not want to be published by any of the big houses – he had a strong loyalty to the small, independent San Francisco publisher North Point Press. And there was no question of him coming here to do interviews or publicity or anything like that: he won’t travel by aircraft.

The project died. And now, with Berry in his vigorous eighties, the writer and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth has finally teamed up with a Penguin imprint to produce an excellent selection of his essays, The World-Ending Fire.

Read the entire article by Andrew Marr at The New Statesman.


On Poetry, Angry Rhetoric, and Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, author, poet, essayist, and activist. My high school English teacher and track coach, who is now retired, has said Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. I agree. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. I have benefited greatly from his essays, novels, and short stories. His poetry is a good introduction to his work. 

He wrote “To A Siberian Woodsman” in the late 1960s during the cold war when we were taught to hate the Russians. This poem carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. He is both a poet and a farmer, which offers credentials much more substantial than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels. These lackluster “prophets” are lost in a mixed-up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology. Berry isn’t like that. He is a prophet like Amos, the fig farmer.

Read the complete article by Derek Vreeland at Missio Alliance.


Wendell Berry on August 6, 1945

A RESULT

Late Monday morning, August sixth, the president announces that on the day before an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Mat, who was at work in the garden, happened to come to the house with a bucket of tomatoes just as the news came on the radio. And so with Margaret and Hannah and Nettie he hears most of the story, the correct voice of the newsman reciting what there is to tell, standing the event nakedly among them in the room, leaving it there without explanation or comment. Or at least, in the silence after the radio is snapped off, such explanation as was given seems overwhelmed by the event itself.

After he finishes his work in the garden, he hitches his team to the mowing machine and goes until sundown in the unending rounds, cutting the weeds and tree-sprouts that rise against him year after year in the opened fields.

Better than any other work he loves the mowing. He goes through the long afternoon, watching with a kind of ardor the tall growth in its flowing backward fall over the chattering teeth of the cutter bar, the slow uncovering of the shape of the long ridge. It is, as always, one of the heights of his intimacy with the place, and he does not flag in his attentiveness. When the sun has reddened and cooled and come down, throwing deeps shadows into the hollows, he turns the team toward the edge of the field, and speaks, stopping them. He throws the machine out of gear and, getting stiffly down, raises the cutter bar and bolts it upright. He takes up the reins again, lifts himself back onto the seat, speaks to the team, and the iron wheels begin to turn in the direction of the barn, soundlessly for the first time in hours, over the cushion of mowed grass.

And through all that time he has been followed by the unfinished knowledge of the bomb and the destroyed city. He has felt his mind borne, like a man in a little boat, on the crest of history, in a violence of pure effect, as though the event of the war, having long ago outdistanced its cause, now escapes comprehension, and speeds on. It has seemed to him that the years of violence have at last arrived at what, without his knowing it, they had been headed for, not by any human reason but by the logic of violence itself. And all the events of the war are at once altered by their result—though he cannot yet tell how or how much.

Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth (1983)

If you have not yet read A Place on Earth, please do yourself the great favor. If you have read it, maybe it's time for another look at this tremendous novel. 

This brief section strikes me as one of the most honest presentations of how the terrible news of the bombing of Hiroshima might have been received. The subtle contrast of Mat Feltner's pleasant and peaceful care of his place with his new knowledge, abstract and incomplete, of the utter destruction of another place captures the struggle to conceive of the inconceivable.  

 


On Wendell Berry as "The Seer" from 'Nowhere'

Produced and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, and executive produced by Redford and Malick, The Seer is less a biographical study of Berry the man than an illustration of things that he values: the beauty and importance of his place and other places like it, and the people who live in it, care for it, and love it. In fact, the film’s footage is largely made up of video interviews with Berry’s friends and fellow natives of Port Royal, each of whom seems to view Berry as a kind of comrade in arms—a sympathizer—rather than a celebrity. And from early on in the film, it’s clear that Berry loves these people, that he values them. In a sense, the film feels like an elegy to people like them and the places they inhabit, a mournful recognition that we have forgotten them too easily. “The great cultural failure that we have made here in the United States,” he says midway through the film, “is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own character, their own needs and demands in use . . . for nowhere. And of course there’s a penalty for that and of course we’re paying the penalty.”

There’s an ecological cost, to be sure, and Berry specifically mentions soil erosion and polluted rivers and toxicity, each of which he has castigated for decades. But there is also a very real human cost: towns that are dying, farms that are failing, and communities that are fading. This is not a problem unique to Kentucky or to the South or to farming communities. It’s an American problem, and it’s a problem of our own making, Berry argues.

Read the whole article by David Kern at Christ & Pop Culture.