On Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton

In 1965 Thomas Merton, after long waiting, moved into his hermitage on the grounds of Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he had lived since 1942. A few months earlier and eighty miles north, Wendell Berry took apart a cabin that had belonged to his uncle and rebuilt it as his writing place, a kind of hermitage of his own, which James Baker Hall describes as “not just a quiet place, it was a place of quiet.”

Merton and Berry met, it seems, at least once— on December 10, 1967, exactly one year before Merton’s death. Wendell and his wife Tanya, poet Denise Levertov, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and his wife Madelyn all met at Gethsemani for lunch. The meeting seems to have been pleasant but exhausting for Merton, who wrote in his journal for that day “I am hoping this next week will be quiet — a time of fasting and retreat. Too many people here lately.”

Read all of "Work and Prayer: The Brief Friendship of Thomas Merton and Wendell Berry" by Dan Rattelle at Front Porch Republic.


On Wendell Berry and Gracy Olmstead

As a writer and farmer, Wendell Berry has plowed the same plot of Kentucky hillside for nearly sixty years. The themes he tenderly brings to life in his novels and short stories—all of which are set in and around the fictional village of Port William, Kentucky—are the same he explores with rigor and subtlety in his nonfiction and poetry. His focus across all literary forms is community built on fidelity to neighbor, creation, and Creator.

Recently, Gracy Olmstead, a friend of Strong Towns, wrote an excellent piece about re-reading Berry’s classic essay, “Health Is Membership,” in light of the COVID-19 crisis. She begins, as Berry does, by reminding us that the word “health” stems from the same root as the word “whole.” To be healthy is to be whole. Therefore, full health—“health as wholeness”—can’t be considered in isolation from the health of the “culture, community, and ecology. It rejects the separation of family from family, as well as the specialized view of the self that severs body from soul—or even parts of our body from other parts.”

Read all of "We Approach Our World like a Machine" by John Pattison at Strong Towns.


On Wendell Berry (and others) on Hope

In a hay field is precisely where one might expect to find Kentucky writer, Wendell Berry. Author of more than sixty books, including novels, short stories, poems, and essays, Berry, a farmer, knows a few things about fields and fences. And he has written about both. He also knows and has written a few things about hope. In fact, Berry may well be one of the most hopeful writers of the last sixty years. Though he insisted in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture that affection or love is the centering and primary motive for good and proper care and use, he doesn’t maintain it is only affection that matters or motivates. Faith (coming alongside good works—since faith without works is dead), hope, and love are all central to Berry’s thought. “Affection,” he asserts, “leads by way of good work, to authentic hope.” Throughout his poetry, essays, novels and even in recent interviews, Berry has constantly emphasized the importance of the virtue of hope.

Read all of "The Danger of Hope: Lana Del Rey, Stephen King, and Wendell Berry in the Days of COVID-19" by Richard A. Bailey at Front Porch Republic.


An Appreciation of Wendell Berry

For me, Wendell Berry, like the simple shepherd in Jean Giono’s story, has persistently planted “over many years” his message about humankind and sustenance and nature and how we are inextricably bound to the health and rhythms of our natural world. As a poet, essayist, environmentalist, small town farmer, family man and scholar, Wendell Berry has humbly stood his ground and repeated his message for all to hear: we must take care of the earth; small scale farmers take care of the earth; small scale farming represent the glue that binds together communities; and we are running out of time. Berry has insisted that our market economy and monoculture farming are not only killing our natural world but devouring our communities and communal ties one-by-one.

Read all of "A Visible Mark Upon the Earth: Why Wendell Berry" by Tony Klemmer at The Aspen Institute.


Wendell Berry, Health, and Pandemic

In his essay “Health Is Membership,” Kentucky essayist, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry suggests that individual health cannot ever be divorced from one’s larger membership with the earth and its various communities. Therefore, as we remind ourselves of the curse and its implications, we must not just turn inward—but also toward each other, toward community. Health, Berry suggests, requires re-membering: resisting a culture that “isolates us and parcels us out.”

But how does this apply to our current moment, in which we are all, in fact, physically isolated and segregated from each other? How do we begin to deal with the spiritual, physical, economic, and communal devastation caused by the COVID-19 virus? What ought we to remind ourselves of, and what ought we to remember in a more communal sense, going forward?

Berry wrote “Health Is Membership” approximately twenty-six years ago. But its prescriptions and condemnations are well suited to our own complex, troubling moment.

Read all of "Wendell Berry's Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic" by Gracy Olmstead at Breaking Ground.


Wendell Berry and Zoom

Coming to terms with the limits of his prosthesis enables Andy [in the novel Remembering (1988)] to be patient with himself and others and to openly acknowledge his dependence on the help of his neighbors and family. Even as his missing hand divides him from his community, it makes him more dependent on their help than ever. A similar dynamic, I think, takes place when our conversations are filtered through the digital ether; we need to be patient with the technical glitches, the loss of meaning, the dog barking in someone’s house. The success of a class is more dependent than ever on the efforts of others to attend and contribute to our discussion.

Even as Andy becomes more adept with his replacement hand, he remains uncomfortable with it. This discomfort reminds him of what is wrong both in his society and in his soul. As the narrator explains, Andy has come to see his various prosthetic devices as symbolizing the “inescapable dependence of the life of the country and his neighborhood upon mechanical devices.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry and Zoom" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


Wendell Berry's Burley Coulter and "Burley Coulter at the Bank"

A friend recently reminded me of a song that is somehow related to Wendell Berry’s fictional character Burley Coulter.

Back in early 2018, folk songwriter John McCutcheon released his 39th album, Ghost Light, which contains "Burley Coulter at the Bank". A review at the time describes the song as a "story of progress serving the few while draining the many of their meager fortunes. It's a story made all the more poignant because the young go-getter is a local who realizes too late that his duty to his job betrays his own neighbors." (Ed Whitelock, Pop Matters)

At his website (where the song is identified as "Burley Coulter in the Bank"), Mr. McCutcheon thanks Mr. Berry "for loaning me the name of one of his most memorable characters." And since there is no such bank incident in the Port William fiction, it's clear that the songwriter is paying homage to the novelist who has thought so intensely about the destruction of small farms and rural communities. It's also clear that the song's Burley is a sad homage to an older generation who have been ruined by brutal 20th century financial practices.