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"The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry" and Small Farms Considered at NPR

"A little nowhere place," Berry says, that's what these small rural towns are called now. Rural folks know all too well the prevailing sentiment in the country at large that, as Mary puts it: "If you were smarter, you'd do something besides farming."

And, of course, more of us than ever before are doing something besides farming: Once 45 percent agrarian, the U.S. is now only 4 percent agrarian. As Berry wrote in his now classic, non-fiction book The Unsettling of America, first published in 1977 — and as is heard again in the film — the decline in farming over time is tied to agribusiness. The expensive materials that make farming more efficient, all the technology and all the chemicals, cost so much that more acres have to be planted, and then those acres have to be farmed more efficiently, and so it goes, around and around.

Read it all at NPR.


More on Laura Dunn's "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

One of the key moments in Dunn’s film is when she shares a quote from an NPR interview with Berry from 1998. He had built a 40-pane window in his Kentucky farmhouse, and he always wrote by the light of that window. “When I set out, the idea of that 40-pane window was always important thematically,” Dunn said. “It was really provocative to me. He talks about looking through a frame, holding up an artifact through which you can see. There’s a beautiful contrast he draws between the frame of the window as a manmade construct, and the natural world that doesn’t behave how you’d expect it to.” This became Dunn’s inspiration for The Seer—it never shows footage of Berry himself, but rather gives us a view into his glass: letting us see what “the seer” himself sees. The closest we get to an actual glimpse of Berry is seeing him type with his old typewriter.

Part of the reason for this decision not to show Berry is, as I suspected, due to the fact that he himself did not want to be filmed. Berry’s work is very cognizant of the damages that machines—be they automobile and tractor, or television and computer—have had on human relationships. While this may not be the reason he asked not to be filmed, it fits his personality and body of work to hide his face from the camera.

Dunn could have laced together bits of footage of Berry to remedy this dilemma. But she didn’t. “This was the ultimate challenge: but for me, it was the ultimate opportunity, too,” she said. “He is such a distinct voice. To make a film, but not film him—it reflected something essential about him.” So she embraced Berry’s own reticence of the camera, and decided to paint this unique picture of his world and the people he loves.

Read the whole piece by Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative.


Wendell Berry Featured at NYT "By the Book"

The poet, novelist and environmentalist does not want his biography written. “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.”

What books are currently on your night stand?

My father’s much-marked Bible (King James Version), which I keep there for companionship and to read; Volume 1 of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” which I enjoy partly for the luxury of reading in no hurry, for I probably will never finish it; also “Venerable Trees,” by Tom Kimmerer, about the surviving trees of the original savannas or woodland pastures of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Read more at The New York Times.


A Brief Conversation with Laura Dunn about Wendell Berry Film

As it happens, Wendell Berry, prolific writer, modern philosopher, champion of agrarian culture, has a well-documented problem with screens. The subject of local filmmaker Laura Dunn's latest feature documentary, The Seer, wrote about his stance in a now-famous essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer," in 1987, and he hasn't budged. In fact, he only appears in this film in old photographs and recordings. "That's an important part of the story actually," Dunn explains. "I wanted to do a portrait of this man, but it was going to have to be an unconventional portrait. I couldn't make just a typical biopic. It's got to somehow be a commentary on the screen itself.

"He is anti-computer, anti-screens, anti-film, anti-TV. I've asked him a lot about this, and his answers are complex, but I do think that he thinks that media and screens of all kinds are contributing to the decline of literacy. That's one of many reasons that he eschews films of any kind. He's declined to participate in films of any kind for a very long time. He doesn't even watch films. He has a very low regard for my medium," she quipped.

Read it all at The Austin Chronicle.


Brief Interview with Wendell Berry on NBCC Lifetime Award

Christina Berke: What do you hope this prestigious award will help you do?

Wendell Berry:  My side on the issue of land use has not much standing and receives little notice, although most of the land that’s now in use is seriously and dangerously abused. Any notice or prestige that comes to me, I hope, will increase a little the standing of my side.

CB: In your essay/speech “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People” you outline 12 ways to save the people and the land. Most of these center around community and household action. How can we make these relevant and concrete to our youth, or more particularly, college-age students?

WB: The economy that people actually depend upon for food, clothing, and shelter cannot dependably be invented and imposed by corporations in the best interest of the land and the people. People can defend themselves and their places only by making their household and community economies as diverse, coherent, and self-sufficient as possible. Most colleges are not going to teach this. Most professors don’t know it. Young people will have to learn it from parents or other elders or historical examples, and of course from their own reading, observation, and experience.

Read it all at The New School.


An Interview with Wendell Berry in Italian

Non possiede telefono. Non usa la posta elettronica. E non concede spesso interviste: protegge con cura la privacy nel suo buen retirodi PortWilliam (nel Kentucky), l’epicentro fisico e culturale dei suoi romanzi. Wendell Berry è uno dei più letti, acclamati e appassionanti scrittori americani d’oggi, erede di quella grande tradizione di narratori- attivisti alternativi al mainstream commercial-letterario: in questo deve aver giocato un ruolo anche la sua amicizia con Thomas Merton, il celebre scrittore-monaco. 

Wendell Berry, classe 1934, sta conoscendo in Italia – grazie all’editrice Lindau – una seconda giovinezza di notorietà (negli anni passati fu tradotto dalla Libreria editrice fiorentina). Proprio lui, che negli anni Settanta assorbì in Italia (era venuto a Firenze per insegnare inglese) il gusto della bellezza del paesaggio e di un’agricoltura in armonia, e non in alternativa, con l’uomo. Di lì la sua decisione di tornare nel natio Kentucky e di portare avanti un modo di coltivare i campi non più intensivo né predatorio, ma in simbiosi con il creato. Lui, che ha più volte manifestato la sua adesione al cristianesimo, per quanto non in maniera confessionale, bensì esistenziale: «Sono una persona che prende sul serio il Vangelo» ebbe a scandire un giorno durante un talk show. E proprio in questa visione religiosa della vita si inscrive la sua scelta radicalmente «verde». 

Read the whole interview at Avvenire.it


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

What makes this documentary beautiful is not only its sympathetic portrayal of its subjects, but also its deliberate and careful camera angels. The camera takes us through these rural places slowly, often from a child’s perspective. Laura and her husband have six young boys, and she has clearly learned to see the world through their eyes. We look directly into the face of a piglet or a lamb from its own level. We see the hands of farm workers and gardeners and craftsmen and artists. Such sympathetic viewpoints embody Wendell Berry’s own efforts to see the world humbly.

The care with which The Seer is put together may be seen most clearly in a sequence where Dunn is talking with Berry about our cultural and agricultural fragmentation. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” with its haunting line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” epitomizes this condition for Laura. As she admits to Berry, “That theme, unfortunately, seems to define the world that I’ve come of age in. And so there’s this need to try to find a way to piece things back together.” Berry concurs, telling her that we live in an age of divorce where “things that belong together have been taken apart.” The proper response to such disintegration is the work of humble, faithful care. As Berry tells her, “You take two things that ought to be together, and you put them back together. Two things, not all things.”

Read the whole piece by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


On Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and Donald Trump

Jayber Crow must answer the question “How does one keep faith when a place is killed by urbanization and industrialism?” Many of us are faced with a different and possibly more difficult question: “How does one keep faith when a place succeeds according to the terms of urbanization and industrialism?” To keep faith with Port William, Jayber must simply go on living as he always has in the town, honoring its life and caring for its dwindling number of members. And when Jayber departs from the world, so will much of the memory of Port William save what lives on in the work and life of the Branch family who are, in most ways, the sole modern heirs of Port William in Berry’s fictional universe.

But most of us have not been tied to places like Port William. We are not members of the small towns, neighborhood churches, and small local organizations that have been driven into extinction by the cruel forces of capitalism unhinged from anything save greed and ambition. Rather, we are tied to the sorts of places and communities that have often grown and become more successful (in a manner of speaking) thanks to those things.

Read the whole, thoughtful piece by Jake Meadow at Mere Christianity


Having Seen "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

The first four minutes or so of The Seer offer a vivid fabric of sight and sound that states The Problem. Guided by Mr. Berry’s voice reading a Sabbath poem from 1997, we see and hear a critical—even bitter—meditation on who we have become as a people and a culture. Then sudden darkness. Rise to light on a wooded path, footsteps. And then, Wendell’s voice speaking of a life-long friendship. This movement suggests that if there is hope for any of us, it lies in actual, lived relationship with others ... in some real part of the actual world.

Laura Dunn’s film is just terrific—a beautiful, rich consideration of Wendell Berry’s thought … of and in its proper place. In its attention to this, The Seer stays clear of a plodding biographical narrative and wall-to-wall interviews concerning the wonderfulness or weirdness of its subject. 

The film rightly avoids canonizing Mr. Berry, an impulse that we long-time readers are sometimes prone to. It presents, in fact, a fairly oblique take on him. He is there, of course, in the right place, throwing some light on the damage that has been done to that place … and on the hope that remains. As the filmmakers put it, "Rather than lens the way the world sees Wendell Berry, let us imagine the way Wendell Berry sees the world."

That place is, of course, Henry County, Kentucky. We are able, via the fresh camera work, to move through it. The voices of some younger and older farmers of Henry County make clear the problems created by industrial agriculture in their lives and work. The voices of Tanya and Mary Berry, Wendell's wife and daughter, also speak not only of him but of their own ongoing relationships to the place and its people.

And it’s good to see the filmmakers use footage of Wendell’s 1974 speech in Spokane, Washington. At that time, these deeply felt words provided fuel for an emerging alternative agriculture movement in the Northwest and were a crucial step toward the composition of The Unsettling of America. His words are also, sadly, as apt in this time as they were forty years ago.

But it's not all doom & gloom. The Seer reminds me of just how great it is to live on a planet that’s so productive of trees and pigs and shining days and cattle and babies and old barns and grass and fog and rivers and dogs and shadows and music and life and all. I shift from the film back to the solid world with a deeper appreciation of the goodness of creation and all its members.

A bit of proof-reading: I notice that in the final credits the name of a printer I’ve known as Gray Zeitz, founder of Larkspur Press, may be misspelled (if that's the person to whom they refer). Oh well, if that’s the biggest problem I can find …

This is a wonderful and important movie. It still needs some help. Support it HERE if you can (and maybe get some good stuff).

[UPDATE: I'm told that the misspelling of Mr. Zeitz's name will be fixed :-)]