WorldArk Review of "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

When a New York Times reporter asked Wendell Berry whom he would like to write his life story, he shuddered. “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.” So you can imagine the challenge documentary filmmaker Laura Dunn faced when she set out to create a film about Berry—a man famous for not owning a computer or a television, and harboring a general distrust of all things mediated by screens.

Dunn’s previous film, The Unforeseen, features a poem by Wendell Berry. She said she was surprised by how many people asked her about the poem’s author. While Berry was a transformational writer for Dunn, many people in her audiences had never heard of him. She decided her next film would focus on the writer and farmer, a man Michael Pollan credited as the instigator of the “national conversation around food and farming.”
Berry refused to appear on camera for the film, so Dunn had to reimagine her approach. The result is a powerful documentary that seeks to not so much look at Berry as with him. The Seer tries to capture through Berry’s eyes a vision of American agriculture as farming became more industrialized and many agricultural communities faded away.

Read the complete review by Ragan Sutterfield at the WorldArk blog.

A Review of Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter

A poignant novel told from the point of view of a widowed young wife who lived during the Depression and World War II, lost both her parents at a young age, endured the great loneliness of loss, enjoyed a brief marriage until she lost her husband in the war, Hannah Coulter portrays the goodness and beauty of a traditional way of life that has become foreign in modernity. Recovering slowly and eventually remarrying, Hannah begins a new life with her husband Nathan, raises a family on a modest farm that demanded great labor from both husband and wife, and learns that love is stronger than death no matter the tragic nature of the human condition. Hannah Coulter spans the life of the main character from the time of her childhood to old age lived in Port William, Kentucky—a close-knit farming community where love of neighbor, charity, and kindness create a human culture centered in the bonds of lasting, endearing human relationships. The novel is not a mere chronology of events but a testimony to a way of life committed to the love of place, of the land, of family, and of the enduring human values that make life rich and abundant, not in material wealth or resources, but in the fullness of joy and love that overflows from the goodness of human hearts.

Read "On Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter" by Mitchell Kalpakgian at Crisis Magazine.

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.

"Reading Wendell Berry in the National Parks"

This summer the National Park Service turns one hundred years old, and many Americans—including the presidential family—are taking summer vacations to enjoy what Wallace Stegner called America’s “best idea.” In order to better appreciate what makes our National Parks so valuable, these vacationers might want to bring along the latest book by one of Stegner’s students, Wendell Berry.

A Small Porch is an unusual book; the first half contains poems, while the second half consists of a long essay on how poets and farmers have imagined the persona of Nature over the past one thousand years. These two sections complement each other, offering a nuanced vision of “Dame Nature” as a spiritual, cultural, and economic guide. While the National Parks can unfortunately reinforce a sentimental view of wilderness, permitting visitors to simply consume its scenery as tourists, Berry’s poetry and essay remind us that as members of the natural world we have a more complex responsibility, one that requires humans to be Nature’s “student[s] and collaborator[s].”

Read all of the essay by Jeffrey Bilbro at National Parks Traveler.

WPFL reviews "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Partway through the documentary “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” Mary Berry, daughter of the esteemed Kentucky writer and activist, says that places like Henry County, Kentucky are often flippantly called “nowhere.”

“Or the sticks,” she says. “And there are other names for places like this and names for the people who live in them.”

She says that’s why it was key that when making the film, director Laura Dunn understood how important the culture of rural Kentucky is and detailed how it is falling apart. This mirrors what Wendell Berry has written for decades — honing specifically in on the topics of farming, faith and fellowship, and in this narrative how the three are intrinsically tied.

Read (or listen to) it all at WPFL.

Review of Wendell Berry's "Andy Catlett: Early Travels"

A particularly notable theme in this book is that of race, discussed more explicitly here than anywhere else in Berry's fiction. It is discussed in Andy's interactions with the black families that live and work on both his Grandparents' farms, and his musings upon the nature of those relationships. The narrator speaks of living in the context of difficult race relations, yet "living as ourselves in it" (57). It is an important distinction--though their time is inescapable, it is possible to be selves that do not condescend to that time. 

The commentary Berry offers on race through the narration of the elder Andy is particularly interesting, discussing racism as a "malevolent convention": "I have learned to understand the old structure of racism as a malevolent convention, the malevolence of which is hard to locate in the conscious intentions of most people. It was a circumstance that was mostly taken for granted. It was inexcusable, and yet we had the formidable excuse of being used to it" (75). The narrator, in grief, speaks more to that "being used to it" on the following page: "What is hardest to get used to maybe, once you are aware, is the range of things humans are able to get used to. I was more used to this once than I am now" (76).

Red more of this review by Joel Pinckney at Goodreads.

A Brief Review of Wendell Berry's "Hannah Coulter'

On the surface it’s a slow memoir-like novel until Hannah’s conversational cadence and the manner in which she describes people, places and events captures you. Surprising and beautiful, the topics and her thankfulness mature with her chronological memories.

She offers sophisticated, insightful reflections about topics including married love; community, specifically a concept called “The Membership” and employment vs. self-employment supported with community assistance; farming – changes, the role of machines, the role of land, modern day techniques with unintended consequences; child rearing and the role of education when pursuing the good life; World War II and civilian costs; as well as, technology and its impact.

Read the complete review at Fuel and Flavor.

Insightful Review of Wendell Berry Film

Though I’m sure many will miss seeing Wendell Berry filmed by Dunn, there is something of a congruity created by only hearing his voice over scenes both pastoral and horrific. As I see it, his absence accentuates the message his distinctive and identifiable speaking conveys. Berry’s absence is parallel to the vanishing traditional farmer’s voice who we only now hear somewhere in the back of our minds.

That echo is lamentable, for as Berry said in the film, “I think when the traditional people disappear, the traditional values disappear. How could they survive? I don’t think that you can love those values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.” At risk of grossly oversimplifying Berry’s body of work, in that series of statements we have Berry’s lament.

It is poignant then, as Berry is making that statement as one of the last great American apologists against industrial agriculture that a combine is shown harvesting corn leaving a remnant of a row standing as if in defiance and only to have the combine circles around to come back again and cut it off.

Read all of Dan Grubbs' review at Sustainable Traditions.

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.

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.