Reading Wendell Berry's "Roots to the Earth"

I just read Roots to the Earth, a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose on American rural life. It is a meditation on living well.

The book first appeared a quarter century ago in a portfolio illustrated with Wesley Bates’ woodcuts. Three years ago, Larkspur Press released a limited edition of one hundred copies. Last year, Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press made the book available to the general public.

Even at one remove from a letterpress printing, this affordable volume is lavish. Bates’ illustrations recall the work of Rockwell Kent, Lynn Ward, and other midcentury traditionalists. However, while Kent and Ward foregrounded their figures against midnight-dark skies, Bates opens his to the light. That echoes the generosity of Berry’s poems and recalls as well some of the cheer found in children’s books, which may explain why Skylight Books displayed the copy I bought in the store’s kiddie section. I think that’s a mistake. True, there’s no reason that older children can’t read Roots to the Earth. Yet it’s adults who are likely most receptive to Berry’s themes of faith, frugality, steadfastness, dignity and humility. Adult experience often teaches something about the cost of abandoning traditional values.

Read the whole article at Left, Write & Centaur


Review of Wendell Berry study

Wiebe argues convincingly that imagination functions as a hermeneutical key for Berry. Wiebe recognizes that Berry does not attempt to develop a consistent program or systematic ethic. Wiebe recognizes that through his fiction, Berry, like other great writers, functions on the “subflooring” of an ethic, what we might call a pre-ethic. As Wiebe points out, great literature does not engage the human will first, rather the imagination (25). Therefore, Wiebe interprets what Berry attempts to do in his fiction as parables. His storytelling does not attempt to provide models for moral instruction, but parables about experiences of people with neighbors, enemies, misfits, and strangers. Experiential communities are not idealized, have no romanticized heroes and are unsystematic—they are never “complete.” Wiebe makes his case by leading the reader through an analysis of how Berry uses his fictional characters as parables of life in its fullest and frailest measures—with chapters focusing on Old Jack Beechum, Jayber Crow, and Hannah Coulter. Wiebe could have added weight to his argument by consulting David Buttrick’s works on the function of biblical parables. Buttrick argues that biblical parables do not intend to provide morsels of morality to live by. Rather, they construct a “world” that combines both ordinary yet unexpected features, and then ask readers how they would make decisions in that constructed world. Parables draw readers into a world and challenge the shallowness and exploitations in our present culture.

Read the complete article by D. Dixon Sutherland at Reading Religion.


Disapproving of the Wendell Berry film

In its brief, 80-minute running time, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” encompasses two different films, and neither one of them is, in fact, a portrait of the poet/novelist/farmer/activist Wendell Berry. Neither one of them, despite sincere intentions, is very good.  

One film is a tribute to Berry, with archival footage, interviews with his family, and poems read aloud over screensaver-pretty pictures of rural images, accompanied by a plinky piano or solo violin. There are many sun flares, we assume, in part attributable to co-producer and sun flare-lover Terrence Malick. We know where this is going from the sight and sound of an analog typewriter, keys smacking a fading ribbon to press letters imperfectly into paper. The film argues that technology, big corporations, and pretty much modernity itself are what’s wrong with the world.

The other film, intermingled with the first, is a documentary on these issues, interviewing farmers about their love for farming (one says, “I’d rather make one dollar farming than ten dollars fencing”), the challenges they face (one says he cannot bring himself to admit how much he owes), and, in one case, a farmer talks about deciding to go organic.    

Read the full review by Nell Minow at RogerEbert.com.


Review: Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

A documentary can be the trickiest of visual things to pull-off. It can be especially tricky if your subject is niche, something that perhaps not everyone is familiar with.

Going into Look & See I had never heard of Wendell Berry. I was tempted to look him up but decided against it. Arguing that, as a documentary titled ‘a portrait of’, surely it will tell me all I need.

I mention this as the title of director Laura Dunn’s (Green, The Unforseen) film is a little misleading. After finishing the documentary, I’m not convinced I’m much the wiser about Wendell Berry, but that’s not the whole story.

What Dunn has created is a beautiful ode to the land we live on, the land we live off, the land we abuse and take for granted, the land we’re losing.

Read the complete review at Operation Condor.


Brief NYT review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Wendell Berry is difficult to classify. “Some people would think he’s a novelist and some think he’s an essayist and some think he’s a poet — and it kind of drifts off into nothing in particular,” his wife, Tanya Berry, says with a laugh toward the end of “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.” Laura Dunn’s documentary is not simply a biography but an attempt to show how Mr. Berry sees the world.

Judging from his sonorous voice, he may have missed his calling in radio. Throughout “Look & See,” Mr. Berry is an almost spectral presence, heard in narration and seen in archival footage. Mr. Berry has been compared to Henry David Thoreau. A longtime resident of Port Royal, Ky., he writes about the environment and the lifestyle of farmers with a naturalist’s curiosity and a poet’s gift for description.

Read the whole review by Ben Kenigsberg at The New York Times.


Another critical response to "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

“The limits of a camera is that it’s always looking through a frame,” the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry says in Look & See, a documentary about the man in which the man imposes his own limits on the camera, refusing to let himself be photographed. He continues, his voice a rumpled American marvel: “There’s certain things that you can’t show that living eyes can see. To determine where to set that lens, where it’s going to look from, requires imagination.” Laura Dunn, the film’s director, accepts this as a challenge. Look & See will, like Berry’s vigorous agrarian verse, look and see, through the rousing Kentucky farm and landscape studies of director of photography Lee Daniel, and through James Baker Hall’s still photographs of the writer and his family in years past.

Read the full article by Alan Scherstuhl at The Village Voice.


A critical review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry has a bit of a misleading title. While the documentary frames its discussion through the author’s philosophical lens, the focus is actually on the struggles of small farmers to stay afloat in an age of industrial agricultural. Even this description might lead one to think Look & See works as a straightforward piece of long-form journalism, an investigation that turns up answers, but that would be a mistake. This is a film about feelings and philosophy, about a moral and spiritual shift Mr. Berry has seen in American culture over the last fifty years. Rather than encourage discussion or provide a nuanced picture for viewers to puzzle over after the credits roll, this approach quickly settles into subdued pontificating, eschewing enlightenment for preaching.

Read the whole article by Jacquelin Hipes at Red Carpet Crash.

 


A brief review of Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

LOOK & SEE: A PORTRAIT OF WENDELL BERRY is a tough nut to sell. Far from being a bad film , it's pacing and low key way of doing things is going to cause some people to nod off. On the other hand the films magnificent marriage of words and image will delight many others, especially those who see this on the big screen.

Berry was a well known writer who in 1965 took family away from the big city to live in rural Kentucky. He found success in writing about the land and life he loved turning ot novels, stories, gardening books, poems, essays and pieces championing environmentalism. The film is full of friends and relatives speaking about the man and his work, as well as the man himself reading his words.

Read the whole review by Steve Kopian at Unseen Films.

 


On "Look & See" and Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry has been born again! (Cinematically speaking.) Not that he appears to us in the revamped documentary Look and See. We see the people and place that made Berry into America’s preeminent scribe of rural life, but we never see him, except in archival footage. Berry is famously anti-screen, and he made staying off-screen a condition of this big-screen adaptation of his work. Fortunately, though, we hear his words, spoken by the man himself. And Berry’s words are worth seeing.

Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell’s film first debuted as The Seer, and around this time last year I offered a positive review of that beautifully shot look through Berry’s eyes. An infusion of funding then allowed the filmmakers to tinker with their work and respond to the subject’s request for a title change. Berry has never been comfortable with his reputation as a prophet, and so The Seer became Look and See.

Read the complete article by John Murdock at First Things.


Review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Much of the documentary depicts Henry County, where Berry was born in 1934 and returned to in 1965, buying a farm in the land of his birth. Indeed, this Kentucky farmland becomes a recurring character in Look & See, just as on the urban flipside, say, New York is in Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan. Henry County provides the documentary with a sense of place, where Wendell’s philosophy is deeply rooted — and where, over the years, the seasonal rhythms of family farming and an agrarian way of life are being eroded and upended.

At the heart of Look & See, and what makes it important viewing for environmentally minded moviegoers, are Berry’s trenchant, urgent arguments against the industrialization of agriculture and in favor of family farms. Berry blurs the distinction between art and life as he critiques the consolidation of American farming in the pursuit of greater efficiency, productivity and profits, at the expense of the spiritual aspects of humans being planted in and connected to the land. In news footage Berry is seen debating President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, an  acolyte of maximizing profit through assembly line-type, increasingly technological methods of mass farming.

In his poetry and activism, which often intersect, Wendell advances a profound critique of corporate capitalism that ravages the tillers of the earth. The Kentuckian argues that industrialization and the mechanization of agriculture replaces traditional rural values with urbanism. In Look & See the poet/activist comes across as the champion of the common man and woman, advocating for a contemporary Jeffersonian democracy, with the family farmer at the heart of liberty.

Read the whole article by Ed Rampell at Earth Island Journal.