As I’ve lived in Kentucky for many years now, I have noticed that praise of Wendell Berry in Kentucky is about as abundant as bourbon, tobacco and coal mining (perhaps all three together!). He is especially popular among Christian hipsters. There is much I appreciate about Berry. I’ve had students read his work in Ethics classes of various sorts, and it has gone over well. I think his basic economic principles outlined in an article from the Progressive are insightful and accurate.
What I find problematic, however, is his application of agrarianism to all domains of life.
If communities are to form along the economies of nature, energy, and human spirit instead of the economy of money our country must learn and re-learn economic principles so that the earth, animals and humanity take more precedent in calculations than profits. The Mad Farmer encourages us to stop thinking about money and goods and to return to thinking about our communities and land.
It’s about all finished now. I took sick in the night back in the fall, past frost. When Coulter Branch came over to see about me the next morning I was down and couldn’t get up. Coulter called Wilma on the telephone. He was afraid to leave me to go get her, and she had to come from their house on the tractor, driving with one hand and holding the baby with the other. That’s a good girl, I’ll tell you. They got me up and fairly dressed and took me to the hospital. The hospital helped me over my sickness, but seemed like I was old after that and not fit to look after myself. And so the old place and all had to be sold.
They brought me from the hospital here to the nursing home at Hargrave. Rest Haven they call it, the end of the line. It’s all right. I don’t complain. But I was the last in Port William of the name of Gibbs.
Before I married Grover Gibbs, I was Beulah Cordle. Annie May Ellis was my first cousin. She was Annie May Cordle Ellis. I was Beulah Cordle Gibbs. Beulah means “a land of peace and rest.” A preacher told me that, back when I was young. It made him blush to tell me, and I knew why. But I wasn’t cut out to be a preacher’s wife, and I reckon he could tell.
Read the full story HERE.
It is eight in the morning on the last day of the world. We are standing, six of us, alongside the county road that cuts across Wendell Berry’s farm near the small Kentucky town of Port Royal. To our right, the Kentucky River has retreated back inside its banks after a tempestuous spring. In the lower pasture, a single llama guards Wendell’s sheep against coyotes. Up on the hill to our left stands the Berrys’ traditional white farmhouse as well as several busily occupied martin houses. The birds are what bring us here each May, but radio preacher Harold Camping’s doomsday prediction that the world will end tomorrow, May 21, has lent today a kind of cosmic, I mean comic, significance. “Well,” Wendell says, wearing khaki work pants and a team sweatshirt from one of his granddaughters’ high schools, “if this is our last day, we might as well have as much fun as we can.”
The speakers spelled out the scenario this way: When production and profits are seen as more important than the quality of the soil or the quality of living, when insurance companies buy up millions of acres of farmland for speculation, when increasingly we turn over our self-reliance and self-sufficiency to the manipulation of advertising and the whims of corporate agribusiness, then it is likely that our humanity and human values will soon become as outmoded as the family farm.
To help prevent such an eventuality, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, said that the Christian task is to proclaim over and over that greed and envy are sins, that we will not sacrifice our topsoil and our good communities for short-term interests and profits.
Wendell Berry, poet and farmer from Kentucky, in the keynote address to the assembly, called for a moral economy, one that would revitalize farming as a way of living rather than just a business, a way to make money. “The ecological teaching of the Bible,” Berry said, “is inescapable. We are obliged to take excellent care of this Earth.” He called the whole idea of Christian ecology “endlessly fascinating and relentlessly practical.”
Our pastor here at St. Andrew’s, Jim Rigby, often talks about the role of art in our spiritual and political lives, and he routinely suggests that we think of scripture as a form of poetry. If scripture is poetry, then poetry certainly can serve as scripture, at least when the Doctrinal Police aren’t watching. So, for today’s scripture, we turn to the Book of Berry, as in Wendell Berry, and his poem “How to Be a Poet.” Just as I am going to embrace an expansive conception of scripture, I suggest an expansive reading of these verses. I am not a poet myself and have no plans to take up poetry. For our purposes, let’s generalize Berry’s message and retitle this scripture “How to Be a Person.”
In 1989, Wendell Berry delivered a Commencement Address at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine that included not Ten Commandments but ten hopes. They are as follows (I highlight the ones that I feel are particularly applicable to the arts):
- Beware the justice of Nature.
- Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
- Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.
Go HERE to read more.
So what is this book that we should take so long to read? It is a reading of Wendell Berry’s work—his fiction, his poetry, his essays—“with an eye toward learning from it, not simply about it.” This is not a hagiology, but neither is it a study of Berry’s work as literature abstracted from the impact Berry’s work. Oehlschlaeger tries to understand Berry’s work on the terms Berry wants it to be judged—as an attempt to see his “native landscape and neighborhood as a place unique in the world, a work of God, possessed of an inherent sanctity that mocks any human valuation that can be put upon it.” In working from this attitude of both student and lover of Berry’s work Oehlschlaeger as critic leaves the position of the professional, set upon by the standards and restrictions of specialized knowledge, and enters the work of reading as an amateur—one who works for the love of it.
Wendell Berry once said that “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Knowing where you are requires being fully present in your place, and you can’t do that when you’re glued to your Twitter feed 24/7 or jetting around in search of face time with connections outside your local community. People who live in a place without inhabiting it are like vacant houses in a neighborhood. (And if they travel enough, their only presence in their community is their vacant house.)