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.


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.


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.


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

Austin-based Cinematographer Lee Daniel – perhaps best known for his collaborations with director Richard Linklater on films like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Boyhood – just won a Special Jury Recognition for Cinematography at the 2016 SXSW Festival for his work on The Seer, and it is well deserved. A movie about the destruction of America’s fading heartland and traditional farming practices, The Seer owes much of its raw power to Daniel’s stunning shots of Kentucky’s rural landscapes and portraits of its worn-out denizens. Co-directors Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell (director and producer on The Unforeseen, which Daniel also shot) do a fine job assembling footage for this elegiac cri de cœur, but the movie really belongs to Daniel’s images.

Read it all at Hammer to Nail.


An Italian Reader Responds to Wendell Berry's "Jayber Crow"

Jayber Crow non è uno di quei libri che solitamente mi piacciono e mi conquistano. Eppure, in un certo senso, lo ha fatto. Bello lungo, con una trama apparentemente banale, con pagine apparentemente noiose e altre, invece, intensissime. È un libro che nonostante la pacatezza del narratore e protagonista, racconta con chiarezza cosa succede quando il progresso si scontra col passato; la natura, che coi suoi tempi, regna sovrana; la fede e il rapporto con Dio e di come cambia nel corso di una vita; le dinamiche dei rapporti umani, nel bene e nel male. È un libro che mi ha fatto anche un po’ incazzare (spiego dopo perché), ma allo stesso tempo mi ha fatto venire voglia di andare in un bosco, sdraiarmi lì e non fare niente tranne che stare ferma e immobile per qualche tempo a cercare di trovare quel legame con la terra che non ho mai avuto. Sensazioni contraddittorie, lo so, ma d’altronde 500 pagine non possono essere statiche.

Read more HERE.

And a sometimes charming, raggedy translation via Google:

Jayber Crow is not one of those books that I like and usually win me. Yet, in a sense, it did. Nice along with a seemingly banal plot, with seemingly boring pages and others, however, very intense. It is a book that despite the calmness of the narrator and protagonist, tells clearly what happens when progress collides with the past; nature, which, with its times, reigns supreme;faith and relationship with God and how it changes during the course of a lifetime; the dynamics of human relationships, for better or for worse. It is a book that made me a little 'pissed off (I explain later why), but at the same time has made me want to go to a forest, lie there and do nothing except stand still and motionless for some time trying to find that bond with the land that I never had. contradictory feelings, I know, but then 500 pages can not be static.