The progression of affection-as-motive, then, is this: I live in a place. I have, then, commitments to this locality. This locality and my commitments/debt to it provide guidance to me. The locality comprises both the human community and the natural system—that is, Nature. To be guided, even in part, by a debt to the non-human, to Nature, is a realization and articulation of human limits. This guidance that shows me my debts and my limits is affection. It is always particular—to both the locality and, in increasingly small subdivisions, every community within the locality, down to the individual. It is determined, at least in non-negligible part, by particular, individual experience.
So far, so good. In a world without conflicts, this affection would suffice. But if affection is particular, my affection can come into conflict with my neighbor’s. This, I suppose, is easy enough to resolve through an appeal to communal experience as a means of determining a compromise or proper, affective, choice. (One of us, after all, might have accidentally veered into a short-sighted affection that Berry acknowledges.) Such a conflict could, that is, be resolved by recourse to affection itself.
Full disclosure: Wendell Berry annoys me (for a ludicrously unfair reason based on old hearsay: I was told he once made a comment to someone I knew that seemed unnecessarily arrogant and imperious), so I came into this an attitude, which the story itself did nothing to dislodge. I have put a lot of effort into seeing the story honestly and without my own filter; I do not think I have been successful.
He admits in his Contributor Notes that it “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story.” I’m ok with that; some non-story stories work for me, others don’t; the failure for me isn’t in the lack of story-ness but in other things. It’s mostly polemic, and hey, that’s what a lot of The Jungle and Magic Mountain is too, back before nonstop narrative forward motion was the order of the day. Jess Row, Seth Fried – some of my favorite recent fiction leans towards polemic, though there’s usually a character involved.
Thing is – I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.
Actual education seems now to be far more probable in the smaller schools, and I think you graduates are fortunate to have been students at Bellarmine. A school the size of this one still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim. But you must not forget that the purposes and standards of the world into which you are graduating have not been set by institutions such as this one, but rather by the proponents of STEM, who would like you to have a well-paying job as an unconscious expert with Jesus Christ Munitions Incorporated, or Cleanstream Water Polluters, or the Henry Thoreau Noise Factory, or the John Muir Forest Reduction Corporation, or the Promised Land Mountain Removal Service.
I came to Wendell Berry’s writing only lately, and there is too much to read it all. In our reading life, there is inadequate time to consider all of what any one author wrote, but only bits and pieces. There are no exceptions to this, even for favorite authors, at least with me. No time for re-living other people’s lives.
What makes Berry of interest is his relevance to how we have come to live in Big Grove.
We own 0.62 acres of what used to be Kasparek’s farm. When we arrived, the soil was thick with clay and grasses. A neighbor had mowed an area of the lot for a golf tee to hit balls back into his lots at the top of the hill. There were two trees, a mulberry, the seed of which was dropped by a bird sitting on the surveyor’s marker, and an unidentified one that died shortly after we moved here.
I had just enough time between mind-numbing meetings yesterday afternoon to leaf through A Sanctuary of Trees. The early pages have a good bit to say about Logsdon’s early mis-education: a preparatory school for boys who were seminary-bound, and then seminary.
But, as Shakespeare wrote, we sometimes “by indirections find directions out.”
“I made probably the stupidest decision of my life,” Logsdon writes, “only to have it turn out to be the smartest thing I ever did. I decided to listen to my teachers when they suggested that I should study to become a priest.” The reason he decided to do this, he goes on to say, is that “the high school prep-seminary … was situated on four hundred acres of woodland. My cousin Ed, who was my frequent companion in the woods, decided to go too. We thought about those four hundred acres and decided it might turn out to be fun to study for the priesthood.”
I am a long-time reader and admirer of the work of Wendell Berry. On April 23, I was privileged to be among those in attendance at the Kennedy Center to hear his 2012 Jefferson Lecture. With Berry nearing the end of his career, I had not expected to hear anything particularly new from him that evening. His talk met these modest expectations, though I must concede that the lecture fell short of most of his published expressions of his commitment to the virtues of family farming and small-scale community life. I must also confess that I was surprised by his decision to address these perennial themes through what appeared to be a very personal dual between his tobacco-farming grandfather and tobacco baron, James B. Duke, president of the American Tobacco Company (and major patron of Duke University). I was more surprised still by the venomous attack on Berry’s address by Matthew J. Franck on the website of First Things. Berry clearly touched a raw nerve (or the guilty conscience) of a certain kind of Catholic and a certain kind of American. Where one stands on Berry says a lot about where one stands on Catholicism and America, or more precisely on Catholicism in America.
The Jefferson lecture has many moving passages. But it somehow struck me as a kind of ecological utopianism. It promotes a world of villages. Berry wants to put us all to work. He seems to reverse Pieper’s notion that we work in order to have leisure. The lives of his characters are honorable and deeply sensitive, no doubt of it. His grandfather, he tells us, took but one trip in his life, to Tennessee, and didn’t see much there that would want to make him leave again. Ever since I read William Cobbett, I have realized that we can achieve our salvation even if we never leave home. If Berry does anything, he makes us nostalgic for our homes. To what extent we are also “restless” at home is not always clear. The Jefferson Lecture re-domesticates us. Still, it does not seem like a lasting city, let alone a lasting farm, even when we live there all our lives and care for the land and animals.
On the whole, if we know what a person thinks about any one given political issue, we can usually guess where he or she stands on most other issues. The range of possible political positions in our culture is, by itself, already narrow. But this range is narrowed even further by the fact that only certain contingent combinations of these positions seem to be culturally permissible. Thus, we meet very few pro-life socialists in America — both because there are very few socialists in America, period, and because the socialists that do exist are very unlikely to be pro-life.
This is why I was delighted to see that Wendell Berry had been chosen to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last month in Washington, D.C. The National Endowment for the Humanities describes the Jefferson Lecture as “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Berry is a man who stands in stark contrast to our cramped and rigid public intellectual culture. Spotlighting him with this lecture allowed the American public to see that there is intellectual life beyond simplistic left-right dichotomies.
The nonprofit Foundation for Sustainable Forests is hosting a forestry conference this month featuring Wendell Berry.
"A Conversation with Wendell Berry" will open the event May 18 at 7 p.m. at Allegheny College in Meadville.