Review of Sutterfield's book on Wendell Berry

Like Berry’s own writings, Sutterfield’s book follows a symphonic structure: Throughout its 12 brief chapters, themes emerge, develop in new contexts, and find creative resolution. It is perhaps helpful to understand Sutterfield’s exploration of a given, creaturely life as having four main movements. The first considers Berry’s understanding of coherent, loving communities. Berry always works as an amateur—in its etymological sense of lover—whether he is tending his small Kentucky farm or writing poems, essays, and fiction. In all its varied forms, his work models the humility and love that characterize neighborly economies.

As finite creatures, we are always acting from a place of inescapable ignorance. Too often, Americans arrogantly seek to overcome this ignorance, but Berry proposes instead that we limit the scale of our actions and endeavors to fit our work into the fundamental patterns of creation. Such proper humility enables authentic love. Because love cannot be abstract, we can never love globally but must, like the Good Samaritan, tend our wounded neighbor.

Read the whole article by Jeffrey Bilbro at Christianity Today.


Reviewing Wendell Berry's "Our Only World"

It’s a shame Wendell Berry’s new book of essays, Our Only World, has received scant recognition from reviewers. Not that the media have failed to acknowledge the work, just that they have all printed the same review by Kevin Begos of the Associated Press—a good review, but sadly singular.

Spiritual kin as well as an associate of Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey through Wallace Stegner’s Stanford writing class, the Kentucky-born poet-philosofarmer deserves more attention. His informed and deftly crafted prose alone recommends him, but also in this book Berry directly takes on the greatest of civilization’s recent enemies—climate change.

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Well known as a foe of thoughtless resource extraction, Berry takes on industrial farming and forestry in this latest work. He argues that the extreme technologies humans have now achieved “barter the long-term health and fertility, which is to say the long-term productivity, of local ecosystems for a short-term monetary gain.” The destruction of locally based household economies and the conversion of large numbers of small independent producers into entirely dependent consumers, for whom everything needed must be purchased (not cultivated), severs the link between people and the land.

Read the complete article by Sandy Dechert at Planetsave.


Review of recent UK Wendell Berry collection

In the end Chesterton’s mock-medievalism – his idea that we should all be much better off with a pig than a radiogram – defies most of the classifications of contemporary politics. In his brief introduction to The World‑Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth makes the same point about Wendell Berry’s half-century campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism, the sanctity of the dairy farm and the sharecropper’s 40-acre plot. From one angle, Berry (born 1934), with his sonorous, preacher’s style and his horror of colonising concrete, looks like an arch-conservative, and yet money, markets and corporatism are forever looming into his sights. From another, he looks like a classic eco-lefty pitting himself against the big battalions of agri-business, and yet his assaults on individualism, rootlessness and urban snobbery will be enough to leave most leftwingers feeling deeply uncomfortable.

All this is further complicated by the particular locales (or rather, locale, as the author has stayed tethered to his native Kentucky for the last 50 years) through which Berry so observantly passes. He is not, for instance, a great-outdoors merchant in the manner of Edward Hoagland and Annie Proulx; he is more interested in soil quality than fauna. The mistiness that most British writers bring to considerations of that tantalising notion of “the land” is altogether beyond him, and on the evidence of the 30 or so pieces collected here, he never wrote a sentimental line in his life. About the closest equivalent to his tough-minded, small-scale environmentalism on this side of the Atlantic would be the George Ewart Evans of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay or the John Stewart Collis of The Worm Forgives the Plough, and even that is not very close.

Read the complete review by DJ Taylor at The Guardian.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry, that Film, and His Not-Quite-Rockstar Status

Three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a talk between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson at Cooper Union in New York City (my first time in New York City as an adult, which was a story in itself), moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Wanting to quote a particular exchange between Berry and Jackson for a recent post here on From Filmers to Farmers I listened to the audio recording of the event to transcribe what I was after. While I was able to locate the sought after passage, I was aghast to find out that my favourite portion of the entire event was absent from the publicly available recording, something that was relevant to this post you're currently reading. So not only do I unfortunately not remember the lead-up to the particular exchange between Berry and Bittman, but I'm also forced to quote from memory. As I recall:

Bittman: You're a rock star.

Berry [quietly and sombrely]: No.

That got a bit of a giggle out of me. But as my sense of humour's fortune would have it, Bittman wasn't about to give up so easily.

Bittman: Yes, yes! You're a rock star, you're a rock star!

Eschewing an elaborate retort or explanation, and even more quietly and sombrely the second time around, Berry lowered his head, ever so slightly shook it, and once again simply said –

Berry: No.

Well that was just too much for me, and as I kid you not that that was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen and heard in my life, I couldn't help but instantly burst out with an appropriately over-the-top boisterous laugh. Thing is, and as I just as quickly noticed, not a single other person in the entire audience was laughing as well – not even a peep. So just as fast as I started laughing I somehow managed to contain my convulsions, kind of clearing my throat and sheepishly hoping that my tiny outburst could somehow be disguised and confused for a weird sounding cough.

While I of course wondered to myself why nobody in the entire audience seemed to have even snickered (Cooper Union – and the rest of New York City – was full of rock stars?), and more recently have wondered why said portion was edited out (I wanted to see if I could hear my "cough" and what it sounded like!), the more pertinent question is, Why did Berry disagree with being called – appropriated as? – a "rock star"?

This is just the beginning. Read the complete essay by Allan S. Christensen HERE.


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.