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.


Wendell Berry on the late Gene Logsdon

From the garden, we went down to the rockbar by the river, sat down, and talked a long time. Our conversation revealed further differences, for we had grown up in different places and different cultures. But we had grown up farming, and with close to the same old ways of feeling and thinking about farming, ways that had come to Gene, I believe, mostly from his mother, and to me mostly from my father. And so our talk that day was full of the excitement at discovering how well we understood each other and how much we agreed. That was the start of a conversation that lasted 46 years and was for me a major life-support. It involved much talking face-to-face, much letter-writing, and phone-calling. It dealt with farming, gardening, our families and histories, other subjects of importance, but also unimportant subjects, and it was accompanied always by a lot of laughter. I have needed his writing, and have been especially delighted by his late-coming fiction, but I have needed even more his talk and his company. Gene was a great companion.

Read the complete piece at Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.


On Wendell Berry's "Way of Ignorance"

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Read it all at Maria Popova's BrainPickings.


On Wendell Berry and Institutions

Institutionalization is neither fundamentally conservative nor liberatory; it depends entirely on the nature of the original concept and how it is established and maintained. To preserve the ethos driving ecological agrarianism, we must insist over and again that the complexities of “nature’s standard” not be simplified and that experience in and service to actual places not be supplanted by placebos. Failing these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the sort of affection necessary for the paradigm shift an ecological worldview entails.

In this light, I ask: What would it mean for ecological agrarianism to become the established custom? Institutionalizing ecological agrarian thought will mean making a fundamental shift in our minds and, thereby, our cultures. Compassion, collaboration, and respect must guide our actions. In other words, we will be guided by affection. We will be asked to see ourselves as absolutely placed in particular, rather than abstract, locations because a “mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good.” In this vein, Berry writes in “The Whole Horse”:

[T]he agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material. It is not at all impressed by the industrial legendry of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned by gigantic corporations. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.

Read the whole article by Leah Bayens at The Whole Horse Project.

This is Part 2 of an essay by Leah Bayens. See Part 1 ("A Way of Thought Based on Land") HERE.


Nick Offerman Honors Wendell Berry at NBCC Awards

On Thursday, March 17, Wendell Berry was presented with The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. The presentation speech was made by actor and woodworker Nick Offerman, whose remarks included:

Ladies and gentlemen, to my way of thinking, this exceptional lifetime achievement as farmer, poet, husband, citizen, novelist, neighbor, essayist, father, son, grandfather, pacifist, brother, and fisherman, with the disposition of a philosopher king, would not have so occurred had it not been for two imperative life choices. The first and most consequential of these was of course his marriage to his wife Tanya in 1957. I misspoke when I said that he alone had made his bed, because he and Tanya have tucked in the bedclothes together now for nigh on 60 years. They’ve each been responsible for 50 percent of the bed-making and if there has in fact been any deviation from that ratio, well, that’s their business. They’re still together so they clearly must have hit upon an accord of some stripe. However, as Mr. Berry is to be rightly and fulsomely lauded for the achievements he has compiled, I vowed that his marriage must be cited in the same breath, for in many ways marriage and fidelity are the central themes at the root of Mr. Berry’s life’s work. Literal marriage between two people yes, but also our undeniable betrothal to the natural world and our responsibilities to that bed as well. As he tells us in his essay “The Body and the Earth”: “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, we can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”

To read the complete speech, please visit Vulture.com.

 


Wendell Berry and Urbanism

Wendell Berry, the agrarian poet-activist, has long understood the human and natural interrelationships of the world. Berry’s rendering of human settlements in his essay, “Solving for Pattern,” takes a holistic view of the natural, technological and human interdependencies of our world. In it, Berry sharply criticizes the industrial view of agriculture that has harmed as much as helped. Berry’s essay moves us away from the instrumental vocabulary of efficiency and profit and pushes us to use a moral one.

For Berry, the blind rationalism of industrial agriculture that applies “solutions” often creates a chain of unforeseen set of future problems:

If, for example, beef cattle are fed in large feed lots, within the boundaries of the feeding operation itself a certain factory-like order and efficiency can be achieved. But even within those boundaries that mechanical order immediately produces a biological disorder, for we know that health problems and dependence on drugs will be greater among cattle so confined than among cattle on pasture. And beyond those boundaries, the problems multiply. Pen feeding of cattle in large numbers involves, first, a manure-removal problem, which becomes at some point a health problem for the animals themselves, for the local watershed, and for adjoining ecosystems and human communities.

Read the full article by Dallas Herndon at Broken Sidewalk