On Life, Silence, and Wendell Berry

I read this poem of quiet—of communicating without screens, of living without air conditioning and technology, in order to “make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came”—to my husband in our bed at home and we nod and say, “hmmm, yes,” together.

Berry often writes of loss and the quirkiness of community, but his writing spins visions of a world long past: one that is idyllic, beautiful, and ultimately fulfilling. In those moments of reading his poetry, I find Berry’s words affirming of the life we’ve chosen and pushing us to even more difficult choices.

But after nearly a decade of attempting to eschew some of the attractions and amenities of urban life, I’ve also begun to wonder if Berry’s pure ideals are feasible, if this idyllic long ago that he writes about ever really existed at all.

We moved to our farming community on the wings of a Wendell Berry novel eight years ago, hoping for a simpler life, and even taking a brief detour to visit his home in Kentucky as we drove from Washington, D.C. to the rural Midwest. For eight years, we gave all we were able to give to the ideals of sharing our lives with our neighbors, worshipping together, eating together, and growing good food.

Eventually, we decided to leave, not because we didn’t believe in the ideals of hospitality, simplicity, and love of neighbor anymore, but because the community began to crumble under the weight of flailing leadership, clashes of vision, financial strain, and broken relationships.

Read the whole article by Christiana Peterson at Image.


Bees, Wendell Berry and Christian Life

As many of you know, I like quoting Wendell Berry and I think he is very pro-bee.

“The word agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes in The Unsettling of America. “After all, does not mean ‘agriscience,’ much less ‘agribusiness’. It means ‘cultivation of the land.’ And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult.   The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’.   To live, to survive on the Earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.”

Bees network with flowers and with the hive. This network creates better plants, better harvests.   The better plants wither and die, turning into better soil. The soil then houses better plants. The cycle continues.   The bees network seeks to co-operate with the local good and make it better; if the bees were ever to rob, exploit, cut-off, or steal then the honey would be threatened.

“If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture,” Wendell Berry adds. “For in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”

            A network of bees-when doing what is good- will bring good to the neighbourhood, the land.

A friend of mine once borrowed her teenage sons’ car and it smelled like a sick boy’s locker room.   When the boy came home, she insisted on why he never cleaned it. He insisted he did but there was another reason for the smell.   A quiet fellow, he simply apologized and went to his room.

The next day, she saw her son driving out of his school and she unintentionally followed him home (you do this, at times, as a parent of a teenager).   She watched him make several stops, all to people who were digging in trash cans along the way.   Her son would go in the back of his car and offer bags of recycled bottles (Or “empties” as we call them in Alberta) to these folks. He would talk to them, listen, and in one case, he prayed with them.

When they both got at home, she confronted him and he confessed that he was collecting all of the recycles from his church, school, and work for the purpose of getting to know the homeless population of his neighbourhood. “They’re invisible,” he said. “And I think it’s best for everyone if they weren’t.”

Her son was acting like a bee.

Read the whole article by Eric Kregel at ericjkregel.


He reads Wendell Berry and changes his life.

Making the decision to walk away from a sixteen year career at a major class one railroad was not easy. The “fragment of a speech” that is posted below was one of the turning points that greatly fueled my decision to leave a place that in some ways, was a place that I very much enjoyed working.

When I first heard this “fragment,” I was brainstorming for a conference that the organization Railroad Workers United was hosting in Richmond, California. As the national organizer, my task was to welcome many organizations, many that do not normally work together, to an environmental conference to find common ground on very complex issues of public safety, working conditions and labor.

The inspiration that I found from this “fragment” was a question that I had to ask myself over and over for about two years. How complicit do I want to be?

Read the whole piece by John Paul Wright.


Wendell Berry's poetry in ordinary time

I took a job last summer because my bosses loved poetry. They were looking for a nanny for their three-year-old son. When I came to their house for an interview, expecting questions about past childcare experience and summer availability, they sat me down and asked if I’d ever read Wendell Berry.

The 82-year-old Kentucky native is a poet, farmer and environmental activist. My bosses were so inspired by his words, they explained, that they’d named their son after him.

I was sold. A summer of fruit bars, long mornings in the park, lunchtime tantrums and toy cars commenced. Coming out of a disorienting spring semester, in which I had mostly eaten quesadillas and cried every Sunday, I found it reassuring to be in the presence of a tiny human who felt so many things: wonder at every passing garbage truck, betrayal when I flushed the toilet without asking him, unadulterated despair when woken up from a good nap.

Read the rest of Abigail McFee's brief piece at The Tufts Daily.


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.