A Profile of Wendell Berry

I first heard of Wendell Berry when I was ten years old. One evening in 1964, my father, Dan Wickenden, came home from his editorial office at Harcourt Brace, in midtown Manhattan, and described his new author: a lanky youth of thirty, who sat with his elbows on his knees, talking in a slow Kentucky cadence and gesturing with large, expressive hands. An image lodged in my mind—busy men in dark suits, their secretaries typing and taking dictation, while Berry told amusing stories in bluejeans and scuffed shoes. (Tanya disabused me of that part of the memory: “Khakis, maybe. Not bluejeans.”)

I remembered this encounter not long ago when I pulled from a bookshelf “A Continuous Harmony,” a collection of Berry’s essays that my father edited in 1971. With its homely brown jacket and yellowing pages, it looked its age, yet it spoke urgently to our current compounding crises. One of the pieces, “Think Little,” announced, “Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet.” Berry went on to say that he was “ashamed and deeply distressed that American government should have become the chief cause of disillusionment with American principles.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry's Advice for a Cataclysmic Age" by Dorothy Wickenden at The New Yorker.


Thinking About Wendell Berry's "Think Little"

In 1969 the agrarian writer, poet, and Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, published Think Little, a short essay dealing primarily with environmentalism and the principle of subsidiarity. I found it to be a well written and compelling piece. While it is brief, Berry’s essay contains striking observations that continue to be relevant in our own day.

As I began reading it, my immediate thought was how little has changed. This short essay could easily have been written yesterday. “First there was Civil Rights, and then there was the War, and now it is the Environment. The first two of this sequence of causes have already risen to the top of the nation’s consciousness and declined somewhat in a remarkably short time.” While the Civil Rights Movement itself has passed, the issue of race has again come to the forefront of the national and global stage. In 2020 the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests and riots dominated headlines, while in 2021 Critical Race Theory surfaced as a major point of contention. Then, though Berry speaks of Vietnam, one could easily replace that with the war in Afghanistan or even just the broader War on Terror. As for the Environment, there has hardly been a more prevalent and constant issue than Climate Change. The push for expanding renewable energy sources, building more electric cars, changing people’s diets, and reducing carbon emissions has been in the national and global discourse for decades now. Yet, as Berry points out, both Civil Rights (race) and the War (of your choice) have been short-lived in their prominence in the public sphere. This is not to say that racial issues have disappeared necessarily, but neither the protests of 2020 nor Critical Race Theory have actually lasted very long in terms of how important they are perceived as being and how much they dominate the political sphere. The protests came and went, and the Critical Race Theory debate has mostly given way to debates surrounding COVID-19 regulations and mandates (at least for now). Afghanistan is a similar story. While it took over headlines for a month or two, it has practically disappeared from the news and from public discourse. I doubt many people are actively thinking about our withdrawal and defeat at all, and likely will not remember it until it appears in midterm election advertisements.

Read all of "Wendell Berry’s “Think Little” Remains Relevant Today" by John Thomas at The New Utopian,.


Encountering Wendell Berry's work

The writing was lyrical but commonsensical and practical. Berry, who had returned decades before to the farming life of his childhood and was an advocate for time-tested agrarian living, drove home the point that the United States had been built on certain principles—respect for the land, shared small communities and economies, the handing down of tried and true traditions and lifestyles, an assumption that a life of faith was a natural one, a management of resources that allowed for seasonal cycles—that were all being abandoned, sacrificed to the gods of technological innovation, individualism, commercialism and unfettered capitalism.

Read all of  "Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet and essayist you just can’t ignore" by James T. Keane in America.


Appreciating Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is willing to risk being called a curmudgeon to name something that we should be angry about. But his frustration and anger arise from affection because something beautiful and wonderful has been defaced. Berry’s thought reminds me of something I read by Cornelius Plantinga,  who wrote of the “vandalism of shalom.” Shalom is a term for the harmony and cooperation of humans, their land, and God, a local flourishing strengthened cooperation and embracing limits. Planting said that God is against sin because he for shalom

I admire Berry’s courage and non-conformity. Unlike so many politicians, Berry calls out the big corporations for destroying the environment and the local way of life. He is not afraid to embrace beauty, goodness, and truth out of fear of been called religious. Unlike so many preachers, Berry values the physical and doesn’t separate the Word from flesh. His character Jayber Crow, the seminarian-turned-barber of Port William, was frustrated by this tendency to hold “a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works… They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still, they liked it.”

Read all of  "A Curmudgeon with a Sweet Song" by Mark J. Bair.


On Wendell Berry and Rebuilding Rural Communities

Wendell Berry has little use for politics and even less use for politicians. This is not to say that he does not participate in politics, because whether he likes it or not, his advocacy for rural people, rural community, and agriculture ultimately gets entangled with politics. But politics are not his end game. As a result, over the last 60+ years, Berry has alternately appealed to and infuriated politicians and activists from every point on the political spectrum.

In 2012, Berry told an interviewer, “my own inclination is not to start with a political idea or theory and think downward to the land and the people, but instead to start with the land and the people, the necessity for harmony between local ecosystems and local economies, and think upward to [policies].” People and place are Berry’s endgame and ultimately, he cannot abide any sort of movement that views people and place as dispensable cogs. I agree. Rural people and rural communities are my endgame.

Read all of "People and Place" by James M. Decker at Essays from West of 98.


Russell Moore on Wendell Berry's possible response to Lee statue removal

Around the time that I had sent my response to the student, I was out at the poet and novelist’s farm, where at his kitchen table I awkwardly brought up the subject of Lee. I say “awkwardly” because I was quite sure that Berry would disagree with my counsel. After all, I had just read a defense he’d made of Lee, and I was sure he would think that the picture’s removal was one more example of a mobilized and rootless modern society that refused to even remember the past.

Other than the one essay, however, I really had no reason to guess his response. Berry, after all, is an agrarian writer but decidedly not in the strain of “moonlight and magnolias” Southern agrarianism, which at best whitewashes and at worst romanticizes the violent white supremacist caste system of old Dixie. To the contrary, he has written poignantly on the “hidden wound” of white supremacy and the damage it has done.

Read all of "Good Riddance to the Robert E. Lee Statue" by Russell Moore in Christianity Today.


Interview with Jack Shoemaker, Wendell Berry's publisher

FF: One of your correspondents, Wendell Berry, famously wrote that he would never buy a computer. What do you think he got right, and what wrong, in that stance?

JS: Well, I just re-published Why I Won’t Buy a Computer, I just republished that little book in a pamphlet form. Wendell and I—we spoke this morning!—Wendell and I are working on a very big book, a very big book about racism and forgiveness and a lot of stuff. A five-hundred-page book. It’s going to be a book that a lot of people will look at as a kind of bookend to Unsettling of America, I think. And during the process, we’ve been doing this for about five years, we’ve been doing this really often, likely weekly, for two years—the editing. ...

You know, he writes on a long yellow tablet, by hand. And his wife Tanya types the first draft of the manuscript. And he is devoted to her and to her work and extremely responsive to it. After all these years, she becomes, really, in the process, his first editor. And then they make a typescript, and they used to make carbon copies. Now she goes into town and gets a xerox made and sends it to me. So that initial part of the process is all handwork. If he makes changes, I get substitute pages—in hard copy. I don’t get electronic things. I think we both have just so learned to deal at this pace, and when I’m dealing with my other writers, who are all electronic and they’re all hurry-up-and-wait kind of people, it can seem weird to me, compared to what Wendell and I do with each other, which is to take our time. And to be patient with one another. But it does elongate the process, there’s no question. We spend a long time in this work.

Read the whole Fare Forward interview HERE.


On Wendell Berry's 'Our Only World'

Berry’s writing is… unsettling. His focus on forestry and how to do it better might infuriate you. It seems so bloody obvious. [Like a wide-eyed reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when it was first published – pesticides and insecticides are poisonous and we’re spraying them everywhere?! Or James Baldwin’s eye-opening memoir on race and being Black in America – This is how we treat Black people?!] To do justice to the patience of his feelings, the deep thoughtfulness of his conclusions and the multi-sided reasoning he seems to apply to even the smallest kernel of nature, I must summon something greater than my current gifts.

Instead I clutch to the thematic trunk which elevates Our Only World: how to see and value nature. Berry says – abundantly, patiently – that we can exist within nature, but it cannot be a commoditized, individualized or disposable resource.

Change within ourselves, not simply our lives, but our selves. Can it be done?

Read all of this reflection by Ellen Vrana at The Examind Life.


Listening to Wendell Berry scholar, Jeffrey Bilbro

Over the past few years, Jeffrey Bilbro, Associate Professor of English at Grove City College, has become one of the most lucid and prolific proponents of Wendell Berry's thought. He thinks and writes from an explicitly Christian perspective, helping Christians and others to find and develop more healthful relationships to our home, the earth.

He has lately discussed his work on several internet platforms.

Liberal Arts and Agricultural Arts
"Jeff talks with Leah Bayens, the dean of the Wendell Berry Farming Program. They talk about the program she directs and the challenges and opportunities of uniting liberal arts education with agricultural education."

Faith and Imagination: Virtues of Renewal
"Jeff discusses how Berry’s thinking stands in stark contrast to many of the norms and habits of modern society and how greater mindfulness of some key virtues may help us find moral, spiritual, and social renewal."

Creation Care - "Wendell Berry and Local Place"
"Bilbro’s work on ecology and theology has been heavily influenced by Wendell Berry, an environmental activist and author best known for his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Bilbro calls his readers to a greater ecological and cultural imagination based in the idea of shalom, a vision of relational and community healing in the context of our environment."

And check out these good books:

Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Forms

Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (written with Jack R. Baker)

Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’'s Imagination of Port William (edited with Jack R. Baker)


On a critique of Wendell Berry by George Scialabba

What good, though, is a changed life in an unchanged world? It is true that Berry, albeit always an urgent and sometimes an angry writer, does not hitch his prescriptions to the prospects of success. He is something of a hopeful pessimist. And so his “advice,” as Scialabba calls it, though not a strategy for winning, can be described as offering a vision for living with integrity whether or not one wins. Which means, to put the matter more sharply, it is a portrait of how to live without despair when losing is likely. For the likelihood of loss is unbearable only if value—the goodness of a neighborly deed, the beauty of a creek at sunset—arises from consequences, not from things as they are in themselves.

For half a century, Berry’s poetry and prose have bristled with irritation, outrage and indignation. But it has always lacked what Scialabba, I think, wishes he found in it: desperation. The absence of desperation is not, from Berry’s perspective, a failure to recognize the gravity of the situation. Nor does he recommend private virtue as a solution. His posture, rather, is a conscious decision rooted at once in a way of apprehending the world—as a gift that precedes and encompasses us, what Marilynne Robinson calls “the givenness of things”—and a corresponding response that accepts one’s place in it. Such a stance of humility and gratitude is not one among other viable options. The world calls it forth in us. Without it, we are lost.

Read all of "When Losing is Likely" by Brad East in The Point Magazine.