It has been 12 years since I first read Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer Liberation Front, and I’ve been devouring his novels, poems, and essays ever since. Which is, actually, not enough time to consume all 53 volumes that make up his prolific output. This is fine with me, as my to-read queue is fat and happy, contentedly waiting for me to get around to the next one on the list.
Last night, I had the pleasure of putting a face to the words, as I sat in a sold out crowd at the Herbst Theater as a part of the City Arts & Lectures Series to hear Mr. Berry answer questions and read from the three books he put out last year. Ladies and Gents, our dear Wendell is 78. And still, he puts out more books in a single year than some writers in their entire career. So, how does he do it?
1. He has a “writing place”, which he describes as a physical space in which “nothing is linear or square or rational”.
2. He allows himself to be distracted, by nature of the window he looks out upon as he writes, looking up from time to time at the world outside. He was once told to try staring at a blank wall while he writes, but he found that “not being distracted was the most distracting thing of all!” Wanting to be in conversation with the world, even while writing so that he doesn’t miss anything, helps him stay connected. ”I’d hate to be confined to a page!”
The Townsend Center for the Humanities presents poet Wendell Berry as Avenali Chair in the Humanities, 2012-2013. He is a conservationist, farmer, essayist and novelist. The master of many genres, Berry's focus on farming, community, and agricultural and ecological thinking has remained a constant throughout his work.
Wednesday Oct 31 (4pm)
2100 Bancroft Way
It is no secret I have an affinity for Wendell Berry ... at least his writings. Not one of his books yet has disappointed me, including this last one I've read: Andy Catlett: Early Travels. I had already met Andy in The Memory of Old Jack. He was a teenager then about to enter his first year in college. And I imagine I ran into him in Jayber Crow as members of the Port William society continually come up again and again in all of Berry's novels. In this particular book, he's a smite young. In 1943, at nine years of age, Andy embarks on his first out of town visit ... on a bus -- and alone, to a whopping tens miles away to see both set of grandparents who live in the now familiar to this reader, Port William. As he himself says, "As I saw it, it was nothing less than my first step into manhood." His right of passage
In his lyrical book, Hannah Coulter, author Berry gives us what can only be described as an exhilarating view of ordinary people living out their entirely ordinary lives. It is a book that both soothes and challenges.
The rhythm, language, and pace of the novel are almost somnolent in the same way the quiet rocking of a boat can lull a passenger to sleep. The reader is gently carried along by the narrative. But the principles espoused are a bold challenge to the shallowness of what we now call "modern living"; you know, that lifestyle that asserts that more is always better and that "he who has the most toys wins".
"When I teach Wendell Berry, a poet of agrarianism much beloved by the sustainable agriculture movement, I do so not to depict Berry as a racist because of his skin color, but instead to show how a romanticized American agrarian imaginary erases the explicitly racist ways in which, historically, American land has been distributed and labor has been organized ..."
Every plot of land has a story. Wendell Berry called the land a palimpsest. That’s a great word, and I had to look it up. A palimpsest is a writing tablet that has been erased and used again. Though in one sense, it’s a clean slate, you can still see the residue of the tablet’s previous use.
There was a time when the story of the land and its use would be passed down from generation to generation. I would love to have such knowledge of the land where I live. But what I know about the land where my suburban community now sits is only what I have experienced in the short time I have lived there, plus what I have been able to learn from public records.
As more evangelicals have turned toward their cities to understand how to bless their communities, the agrarian Berry's writings seem disconnected from our day-to-day lives and aspirations. One pastor of a prominent Reformed church whom I spoke with said he had never heard of Berry. Many of those who do know Berry don't think he has a great deal to teach urban Christians. Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs admires Berry and praised some of his essays, but said that he didn't think urban evangelicals should spend much time reading Berry. "He can't help them learn how to live faithfully in the city, because he hasn't tried that, at least not for long," said Jacobs. "[It would be] much better to seek out those who are really, seriously devoting their lives to that effort." So that brings us to our own version of Tertullian's question: What can Port William have to do with Portland?
If you know anything about our shop, Church Street Coffee & Books, you know that we probably stock more Wendell Berry books than any other shop in the U.S. On average, we sell a copy or two of Jayber Crow every week, and we have at least one of his books in pretty much every section — Fiction, Non-Fiction, Religion, Children's, and even Cooking.
This is partly because our co-owner, Cal, is obsessed with Berry. We mean, name-your-kids-after-characters-in-his-books obsessed.
A politics of Jesus in our time would must recall Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and remember that Luke includes woes along with his blessings, and thus inspires, perhaps, other odd and poetic voices deeply disturbed by the facts on the ground.Wendell Berry wrote this poem in January, 1991, during the first Gulf War. Hardly a day has passed during the ensuing 21 years – the entire lifetime of my eldest child – when the words of this poem did not ring sadly true. Berry’s remains a singularly prophetic voice, and one that anyone pretending to articulate a politics of Jesus ought to study with care.The year begins with war.Our bombs fall day and night,Hour after hour, by deathAbroad appeasing wrath,Folly, and greed at home.Upon our giddy towerWe’doversway the world.Our hate comes down to killThose whom we do not see,For we have given upOur sight to those in powerAnd to machines, and nowAre blind to all the world.This is a nation whereNo lovely thing can last.We trample, gouge, and blast;The people leave the land;The land flows to the sea.Fine men and women die, the fine old houses fall,The fine old trees come down:Highway and shopping mallStill guarantee the rightAnd liberty to beA peaceful murderer,A murderous worshipper,A slender glutton, orA healthy whore. ForgivingNo enemy, forgivenBy none, we live the deathOf liberty, become
What we have feared to be.