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On Wendell Berry and Institutions

Institutionalization is neither fundamentally conservative nor liberatory; it depends entirely on the nature of the original concept and how it is established and maintained. To preserve the ethos driving ecological agrarianism, we must insist over and again that the complexities of “nature’s standard” not be simplified and that experience in and service to actual places not be supplanted by placebos. Failing these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the sort of affection necessary for the paradigm shift an ecological worldview entails.

In this light, I ask: What would it mean for ecological agrarianism to become the established custom? Institutionalizing ecological agrarian thought will mean making a fundamental shift in our minds and, thereby, our cultures. Compassion, collaboration, and respect must guide our actions. In other words, we will be guided by affection. We will be asked to see ourselves as absolutely placed in particular, rather than abstract, locations because a “mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good.” In this vein, Berry writes in “The Whole Horse”:

[T]he agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material. It is not at all impressed by the industrial legendry of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned by gigantic corporations. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.

Read the whole article by Leah Bayens at The Whole Horse Project.

This is Part 2 of an essay by Leah Bayens. See Part 1 ("A Way of Thought Based on Land") HERE.

An Italian Reader Responds to Wendell Berry's "Jayber Crow"

Jayber Crow non è uno di quei libri che solitamente mi piacciono e mi conquistano. Eppure, in un certo senso, lo ha fatto. Bello lungo, con una trama apparentemente banale, con pagine apparentemente noiose e altre, invece, intensissime. È un libro che nonostante la pacatezza del narratore e protagonista, racconta con chiarezza cosa succede quando il progresso si scontra col passato; la natura, che coi suoi tempi, regna sovrana; la fede e il rapporto con Dio e di come cambia nel corso di una vita; le dinamiche dei rapporti umani, nel bene e nel male. È un libro che mi ha fatto anche un po’ incazzare (spiego dopo perché), ma allo stesso tempo mi ha fatto venire voglia di andare in un bosco, sdraiarmi lì e non fare niente tranne che stare ferma e immobile per qualche tempo a cercare di trovare quel legame con la terra che non ho mai avuto. Sensazioni contraddittorie, lo so, ma d’altronde 500 pagine non possono essere statiche.

Read more HERE.

And a sometimes charming, raggedy translation via Google:

Jayber Crow is not one of those books that I like and usually win me. Yet, in a sense, it did. Nice along with a seemingly banal plot, with seemingly boring pages and others, however, very intense. It is a book that despite the calmness of the narrator and protagonist, tells clearly what happens when progress collides with the past; nature, which, with its times, reigns supreme;faith and relationship with God and how it changes during the course of a lifetime; the dynamics of human relationships, for better or for worse. It is a book that made me a little 'pissed off (I explain later why), but at the same time has made me want to go to a forest, lie there and do nothing except stand still and motionless for some time trying to find that bond with the land that I never had. contradictory feelings, I know, but then 500 pages can not be static.

Wendell Berry's Remarks upon Receiving the NBCC Lifetime Achievement Award

From the Periphery to the Center

When I learned that this award for my life’s work as a writer, so far, would require a little more writing, I began of course to worry about what to say. I thought I would [say] that I am grateful, which I certainly am. I thought I would say I am as grateful as I am surprised, which would enlarge and intensify my thanks. I thought I would say that critics, who help us to enjoy books and to converse intelligently about them, are necessary to the life of reading and so to the survival of civilization. And I thought I should acknowledge my assumption that the literary judgment even of book critics can be wrong, and that my lifetime of writing is by no means singularly worthy of recognition. So much, I thought, would fulfill my two grandmothers’ expectations of decent manners, and so would let me off, as they might have said, with a lick and a promise.

And then I remembered a long-ago review of one of my books along with a book by my friend and ally Wes Jackson. The reviewer said that our two books, one by a rural Kentuckian, another by a rural Kansan, represented an effort by the periphery to speak to the center. “The center,” as I understood it, designated the great urban headquarters of national culture, finance, and politics — “the periphery,” then, being the country itself, the farms, forests, and mines, from which the nation lives, but of which the nation is largely ignorant, which it has too often used wastefully and with small thanks to the people who have done the fundamental work. One reason for the periphery to speak to the center is that it is wrong, because impossible, to divide urban and rural problems into two separate categories. Between country and city the economic interdependence is intimate, whether or not this is recognized by economists. Also many city problems have their origin in the country, and vice versa. Those thoughts settled my mind and forced me to abandon my hope to escape this occasion with an easy politeness.

My writing for fifty or sixty years has been given to regret for the manifold abuses of our economic landscapes, and so to advocacy for kindly treatment of all the lives involved in what Aldo Leopold called “the land community.” If this award to my work signifies it has been read and somewhat approved by literate and thoughtful people of the center, that goes palpably to my heart, and adds a substantial gravity to my thanks. Now I must thank you for encouraging me and my allies to hope that what we have known to be a mostly unheeded appeal from the periphery might at last become half of an actual conversation with the center.

From National Book Critics Circle Award.

On Wendell Berry, Farming, and Churches

In his book Remembering, Wendell Berry tells the story of two farmers. The first has acquired 2,000 acres through a patient buying out of his neighbors’ farms. He converted all 2,000 acres to corn fields, because corn produces the most cash. In order to farm all of those acres, he went into debt so as to have the necessary machinery and so as to buy all of the necessary chemicals, and “farms” from his plush office while the stress of his vocation slowly eats away at his body in the form of an ulcer.

The other farmer is Amish, and farms his 80 acres with plough horses. This farm is diversified, and is an economy unto itself, for the fertilizer comes from the animals, and the work is no more or less than can be accomplished by the farmer, his wife, and their children and neighbors. This farmer does not have an easy life, but has an ease born of the freedom of a right-sized agricultural enterprise.

(Somewhere, I’m told, Eugene Peterson has written that when Wendell Berry speaks of farming we are to think of the church. No matter if Eugene ever really said this, as my friend Andy Nagel has encouraged the same correlation, and his advice is more important to me than that of North America’s favorite grumpy pastoral theologian. No matter, too, if Berry himself would approve of the correlation. My hunch is that he wouldn’t, and would rant and rave–and who can rant and rave like Berry?–that he was talking about farming, da_ _’t! We are impervious to this rant because of that handy tool of postmodernity, the intentional fallacy.)

Read the complete article by Jeff Hoffmeyer HERE

Nick Offerman Honors Wendell Berry at NBCC Awards

On Thursday, March 17, Wendell Berry was presented with The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. The presentation speech was made by actor and woodworker Nick Offerman, whose remarks included:

Ladies and gentlemen, to my way of thinking, this exceptional lifetime achievement as farmer, poet, husband, citizen, novelist, neighbor, essayist, father, son, grandfather, pacifist, brother, and fisherman, with the disposition of a philosopher king, would not have so occurred had it not been for two imperative life choices. The first and most consequential of these was of course his marriage to his wife Tanya in 1957. I misspoke when I said that he alone had made his bed, because he and Tanya have tucked in the bedclothes together now for nigh on 60 years. They’ve each been responsible for 50 percent of the bed-making and if there has in fact been any deviation from that ratio, well, that’s their business. They’re still together so they clearly must have hit upon an accord of some stripe. However, as Mr. Berry is to be rightly and fulsomely lauded for the achievements he has compiled, I vowed that his marriage must be cited in the same breath, for in many ways marriage and fidelity are the central themes at the root of Mr. Berry’s life’s work. Literal marriage between two people yes, but also our undeniable betrothal to the natural world and our responsibilities to that bed as well. As he tells us in his essay “The Body and the Earth”: “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, we can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”

To read the complete speech, please visit


Another Review of "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

There’s more to the scope of Dunn’s film than just a willingness to talk to more conventional farmers, however. The entire film is deeply concerned with the life of Henry County. Dunn and her cinematographer Lee Daniel were in the area for all four seasons and so we see the same places throughout the year and walk the same trails in fall, winter, spring, and summer. So the fact of the land, the trees, the river, the wildlife, and so on is never far from your mind as you watch the movie.

We also see children from the community, hear Dunn interview some migrant workers who now do much of the manual labor on the farms themselves, and, through the interviews with older residents, hear about some of the departed citizens of Henry County who did their part to sustain the place and it’s unique way of life.

The primary wood carving used in the film’s promotional images also gestures toward the expansiveness of Dunn’s vision of the place. It also sums up Berry marvelously—we see Berry’s back to us and, through him, we see the land. This is one of the chief strengths of the film. When you first hear that Berry doesn’t actually appear in the film at all, it’d be easy to wonder what the film is about if the subject is never filmed, but in this case the result is likely more faithful to who Berry is than a conventional biopic could ever be.

Read the whole review by Jake Meador at Christ the Morning Star.

An Interview with Laura Dunn about Her Wendell Berry Film

One of the unique things about Berry’s fiction, and perhaps why some people find it less accessible, is that in many ways the books aren’t primarily about human characters but are instead about “a place on earth.” From what I’ve seen, you took a similar approach to Henry County in your movie. How did you go about trying to make Henry County, KY a character? 

You know, there’s this great line that Burley Coulter says where he says “we’re all a part of each other, each one of us is a part of one another, all of us, everything.” It’s this very theological idea, very similar to the words of Paul when he talks about the body of Christ having many different members but we’re all part of one body. That’s the image that was most in my mind as I worked on it and it’s very central to Wendell’s worldview; it’s very theological and ecological. 

The individual is a function of his place and the people around him; you don’t exist but for the others. That’s really profound and important and counter to the way our culture sees individuals now. We have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and we think every detail we do is important and it’s actually all vanity. Really, who am I without my family, my place, my neighbors? They aren’t just obligation, they are a part of me, they define me. That’s really important to Wendell. He talked to me about that. It’s not about the individual; it’s about the whole community, the membership.

As I approached the film, if you look at that visual image with the man looking away and his back is made up of the landscape, the birds, the clouds, the rivers, the trees, the houses… that’s who Wendell is and his desire to not have it be all about him points us at that very important and significant part of his worldview. To me I still call it a portrait of Wendell Berry because the very way we portray the community is an aspect of something absolutely essential about him, we’re looking at the world through his eyes, not the way the world sees him. 

That being said, I thought it was very important in terms of the natural landscape to film across all four seasons, so you’re going back again and again to the same walk down the hills, the same farmhouse, so I think that also trying to film interview lots of different members of the community they really, I didn’t want one voice, I wanted a collection of different voices. So that’s another way we approached it.

Read the whole interview by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.

Christianity Today on "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

The Seer's subtitle is “A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” but that's not strictly accurate. Berry (who is 81) only appears on screen in old photographs and footage from the 1977 debate between him and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. He speaks to director Laura Dunn throughout the film, though, and his wife Tanya and daughter Mary appear as well, along with a number of farmers from Henry County, Kentucky, where the Berrys have made their home for a long time.

So we do learn about his life. But The Seer is only sort of biographical, and that seems like at least partly Berry's doing. Just last week, when asked in The New York Times's “By the Book” feature whom he'd want to write his life story, Berry replied, “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.”

Luckily, The Seer—which premiered in competition at SXSW on March 12 and was directed, edited, and produced by Dunn—has a much grander goals than hagiography.

Read the complete article by Alissa Wilkinson at Christianity Today.

Wendell Berry and The New York Times


I have a friend who claims that Wendell Berry is the nemesis of The New York Times (or, at least, its Science pages) because of his neo-luddite, agrarian tendencies. That may be the case. He certainly is one of the oldest, most prolific and most regularly honored U. S. writers to be inconsistently reviewed by the Times. It's good to see him featured in the Book Review ... and in an issue that also reviews Rick Bass and Jim Harrison.

And yet, a search of the Times shows a fairly broad mention of WB over the years, though there are a few major works (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter) that don't get any or much attention, as far as I can tell. Overall, it does seem that Mr. Berry and the NYT have been performing a wary dance with each other over time (note the recent "Response to the New York Times Op-Ed"). It was in a full page, multi-column ad in the Times that Mr. Berry first released "A Citizen's Response to 'The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.'"

Maybe some vestigial memory at the Times has not completely forgiven Wendell for the joy he felt when he saw the city shrinking in his rear-view mirror as he and the family moved down the New Jersey Turnpike back to his native Kentucky.

Wendell Berry Film Reviewed Again

A poet and novelist whose passionate defense of traditional agriculture has made him more an environmental icon than a literary one, Wendell Berry may not have had the prophetic abilities implied by the title of Laura Dunn's The Seer— but he has certainly been clear-eyed about dangers to the heartland as they arise, and eloquently insistent on sounding the alarm. Sticking mostly to one corner of the turf Berry has staked out, this unusual and quite beautiful doc seeks to connect with him by getting to know the land and those who work it near the author's Kentucky home. Lee Daniel's fine photography helps make this deserving of big-screen attention, while support from eco-minded celebs — Robert Redford and Terrence Malick exec-produced; Nick Offerman offered hand-crafted furniture to Kickstarter donors — should attract enough attention to help it get beyond the fest circuit.

Read more at The Hollywood Reporter.