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Just Found: 2000 Interview with Wendell Berry

As the world’s growing environmental crisis becomes more publicized, is there a risk that it is also being too simplified?

The “environmental crisis” has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household
of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of “raw materials,” and that we may safely possess those materials by taking them.... And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as “environmental” problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them.

What do you mean by “economic oversimplification?”

What has happened is that most people in [the developed world] have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and elderly, and many other kinds of “service” that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities....
The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.... The “environmental crisis,” in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies.

Read more at World Watch (opens as a pdf)

Introducing Wendell Berry

One writer who has influenced countless Americans, including me, turned 80 earlier this year. Wendell Berry has, in fact, been producing a variety of notable books for 50 years—volumes of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Moreover, he has been for decades a major crusader for such relevant matters in our time as sustainable agriculture, community commitment, and nature-based, spiritual-mystery-focused religious belief.
Berry was born in rural Henry County, Kentucky, in 1934. He studied at the University of Kentucky during the 1950s, earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in English, and he later taught there as well. In the mid-1960s he returned to his native place, near Lexington, to farm and to write where his family had lived for generations.
He is very well known for his critique of modern agriculture—a field which now regards our industrial economy as its model and consequently damages the health of the land, destroying rural culture in the process. Berry’s searing critique has been presented in such books as “A Continuous Harmony” (1972), “The Unsettling of America” (1977), and “The Gift of Good Land” (1981), as well as in talks that he has given in many states.

Read more at The McDonough County Voice

Wendell Berry cited in reflection on nature

When asked by interviewer Sarah Leonard about persistent themes in his writing, Berry responded:

"‘Wonder’ is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful."

That wonder often appears in Berry’s writing, especially his poetry, in moments of sudden revelation, where beliefs are upended, even reversed. A tree falls: the world is changed. Married for decades, a couple discovers they have continents worth of knowledge to discover in each other. I mentioned before the poem “Breaking,” from The Country of Marriage, in which the speaker compares his previous beliefs to water flowing over ice. The speaker concludes: “And now / that the rising water has broken / the ice, I see that what I thought / was the light is part of the dark.”

That sudden change, that sense of reversal, is exactly what one feels on reading his essay “Poetry and Marriage: the Use of Old Forms.” That’s what I was trying to get at last week: Berry traces a systematic argument about poetic form and then, we could almost say miraculously, finds a way to accommodate a poet (Walt Whitman) who violates the central principle of that argument. And he does it not begrudgingly but cheerfully, as if making a discovery: Wow. The world is bigger than I imagined.

Read much more at Letters to the Catholic Right

Report on Wendell Berry at SAMLA, 11.14

Wendell Berry’s appearance at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) last weekend in Atlanta is just the latest indication of his increasing profile in the academy. There were at least 13 presentations on Berry, including a talk on Jayber Crow’s critique of agribusiness by a professor from South Korea and a personal narrative from a former high school English teacher who quit her job and started a CSA. So despite his criticisms of the university, Berry’s writings are appearing in many college classrooms.

Berry spoke at two sessions during the conference. At the first he read excerpts from a forthcoming essay, “Our Deserted Country,” and his recently published short story “The Branch Way.” At the second, Chad Wriglesworth, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo and the editor of Distant Neighbors, interviewed Berry about a wide range of topics. Both sessions included time for questions from the audience. Rather than trying to cover everything Berry talked about, I’ll discuss some of the recurring themes and then briefly contrast Berry’s vision with that of the other keynote speaker at the conference, Ursula Heise.

Read more at Front Porch Republic

Wendell Berry cited on need for humane decision-making

In another essay I have quoted Berry on our callousness toward the lives of others. Here are a few of those quotes. In 1999, he wrote, “How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace?” His answer is “None. Please, no children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.” In his novel Hannah Coulter (2004), his main character thinks that “want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination.” And once war begins “the rhetoric of violence prevents them [opposing sides] from imagining each other.’ And in 2012, Berry expressed his belief that we kill other people partly because we view them abstractly, as statistics: “Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life.”

Read it all at LA Progressive

On Wendell Berry's elegy for JFK

In early 1964, a book edition of the poem was published by George Braziller Inc. of New York with drawings by Ben Shahn, the distinguished painter, graphic artist, and photographer. In a short introduction, Shahn writes that he found the poem “extraordinarily moving.” He adds “It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. It examined soberly and sensitively just this event in its every detail. Its images were the images of those days, no others. In so sharply scrutinizing his own feelings, the poet has discovered with an uncanny exactness all our feelings. His words have created a certain monument, not pretentious, but real, and shared. When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, not lost in the pages of last week’s magazine. I turned it into a book, accompanied by the images that it invokes for me.”

Read more (and see the photos) at buckeyemuse.


Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder letters reviewed

Reaching out from their individual perspectives, Berry and Snyder consider the world from each other’s viewpoint with startling vulnerability. Revealed here is a brand of curiosity that can seem all but absent from modern social discourse, given our tedious devotion to the over-specialization of opinions, to a dull intellectual territorialism. Indeed, having read a 1977 interview with Snyder in the East West Journal, Berry notes that Snyder’s words formed a powerful suggestion that “thought might proceed — instead of by argument, dialectic — by people speaking for, clarifying, confirming one another’s experience.”

Moreover, throughout the correspondence in this collection, from 1973 to 2013, the friends seem to keep each other in a delicious state of flux, their vitality growing by virtue of their willingness to put as much priority on questions as answers.

Read more at L.A. Review of Books

Wendell Berry and Naturalistic Sacramentalism

In his typically unassuming way, Berry has demonstrated a profound acuity regarding the art’s sacramental relationship to nature. Furthermore, the brilliance of his insight resides in the fact that, while he speaks sacramentally, he remains unencumbered by doctrinal baggage. For Berry, nature is a mysterious gift given and giving, and art is a medium which mediates its grace. On its own, this naturalistic sacramentalism will be satisfying neither to those who demand a robust Christian orthodoxy nor to those who adhere to a naturalistic viewpoint. Yet a naturalistic sacramentalism, as articulated by Berry, opens a space where both the distinct discourses of religion and science might intersect.

Read it all at EcoTheoReview

Wendell Berry among the American Agrarians

World War II put an end to most mid-century agrarian dreams of a simplified, home-centered economic order. Promising developments during the 1920s and ‘30s were swept aside by the greatest centralizing, industrializing, and complex event in human history. Standing almost alone as a national voice for Agrarianism after 1960 was the novelist, poet, essayist, and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry.

He paid homage to Thomas Jefferson for advancing the ideal “that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land” and so be bound to it “by the investment of love and work” and by family bonds, memory, and tradition. As had Andrew Lytle, Berry yearned “with a kind of homesickness” for the “naturalness of a highly-diversified, multi-purpose landscape, democratically divided” and “hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and to the wild play of human children.” Along with Ralph Borsodi, Berry shared enthusiasm for the recovery of self-sufficient farming. “Commercial farming must never be separated from subsistence farming,” he maintained. “The farm family should live from the farm.”

Read it all at Transition Voice