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. 

 


Silas House visits Wendell Berry

Wendell is showing me the land he loves on the day before his eighty-fourth birthday. Most people might imagine rolling pastures with neat swirls of hay and shining thoroughbreds. But this is the man who wrote the masterpiece “The Peace of Wild Things” and he has seen to it that his land offers concord to the untamed. We are on a gravel road where the air grows green with leaf-light. On my side of the truck there is a steep bank rising skyward. On Wendell’s side the land drops down toward the meandering stream called Cane Run, whose waters flow calmly against sandy banks but possess a music when they swirl about in the exposed roots of beech trees or stumble over small congregations of rocks. Most of the trees are thin, and when I notice this Wendell tells me that all of this land was once cleared to make way for tobacco fields in which he worked as a young man, just as I did as a child. “It’s a gone way of life,” he says as we remember the beauty and misery of setting the plants, staking them, hanging the tobacco in the stifling, fragrant heat of the barns. We both recall the cold depths of a swimming hole after working in the fields all day. The camaraderie. The aunts on the setters, chattering over the groan of the tractor. I was once a twelve-year-old boy, beaming with pride as I drove the truck across the fields. Wendell was once a man in his early thirties, fists on his hips as he looked out at the tobacco planted across the bottomlands.

Read all of this essay by Silas House at South Writ Large ... excerpted from Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia.

 


Wendell Berry listed among conservative thinkers

Gracy Olmstead has composed a brief but evocative essay on key figures in conservative thought. Here she speaks of Wendell Berry:

An additional thought might be added here from Wendell Berry, an invaluable thinker who does not see himself as “conservative” but who avoids the name for reasons I think Kirk would approve of. Berry is too particular and too prudential to give a political label to his thought. The term does not “help him,” he once told me, because it does little to advance or enliven his work—and means very little in his local context.

I have found myself agreeing with Berry more and more over time. I am loath, in fact, to embrace the label “conservative” myself—in part because of the ways most people define it, and in part because I am unsure whether any political label fully defines my beliefs. But it could be that the very impetus to abandon labels, to forsake party and creed to more fully embrace one’s principles and one’s place, might itself be a “conservative” sentiment—at least according to Kirk’s view.

Read all of "How to Identify Today's Conservative Thinkers" at ISI.


Podcast inspired by Wendell Berry's "Health is Membership"

The first episode of "Health is Membership: 25 Years Later" consists of "a conversation with Duke University professor, agrarian, and theologian Norman Wirzba on parenting, the erosion of attention, and relationships that cultivate the potential of every person."

Professor Wirzba has published several books, including The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of ChristianityFrom Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (in its 2nd Edition), and (with Fred Bahnson) Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. He also has edited several books, including The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land and The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.

Listen to "Health is Membership: 25 Years Later."


On Wendell Berry and bell hooks in place

Berry, a white agrarian-activist-author born in 1934, left his remote central Kentucky farm life to pursue education which ultimately led him to New York City where he was poised by his thirties for literary success as a professor at New York University. 

hooks was born in 1952 and her childhood roots were in Hopkinsville, Kentucky soil but transplanted to Southern California for college. She hoped, as an African American girl raised in racial segregation, to find a more accepting climate for community. Studying English at Stanford University, she garnered success as a writer and activist and, a couple of decades after Berry, found her feet planted in New York City with diverse community and career dreams. 

Berry and hooks are kindred although not kin. Their careers took them to the biggest apple from which an American can bite. Yet upon arrival they found it lacking sustenance. So, independently from each other, Berry, then hooks, made their way back to Kentucky. Berry’s Bluegrass State homecoming in 1965 planted him in Port Royal where he has farmed and written an impressive canon of essays, poetry, and novels. 

hooks, partly inspired by Berry’s agrarian essays, decided to depart New Yorck and make Berea, KY, a town begun by abolitionist pastor John Fee in 1850 as a place for blacks and whites to dwell in community, her home in 2004.

Read all of "Berry, hooks, and the Courage to Live Small" by Rusty Woods at Fathom.


A Lecture on Wendell Berry and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

This lecture was given at the University of Texas at Austin on 24 October 2019.

Joshua Hochschild is the Monsignor Robert R. Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University, where he also served six years as the inaugural Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. His primary research is in medieval logic, metaphysics, and ethics, with broad interest in liberal education and the continuing relevance of the Catholic intellectual tradition. He is the author of The Semantics of Analogy: Rereading Cajetan’s De Nominum Analogia (2010), translator of Claude Panaccio’s Mental Language: From Plato to William of Ockham (2017), and co-author of A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (2017). His writing has appeared in First Things, Commonweal, Modern Age and the Wall Street Journal. For 2020-21 he’s been elected to serve as President of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

Listen to "Wendell Berry, Political Philosophy, & the Catholic Intellectual Tradition" by Prof. Joshua Hochschild at Soundcloud


Mr. Wendell Berry is not Fr. Thomas Berry, CP

Over brunch today with some Catholic friends, I happened to mention something about Wendell Berry—which occurs with some frequency, as you might guess. Today, however, one of my friends mentioned that Wendell Berry was "a Passionist." And I replied, of course, "Oh, you mean Thomas Berry." But was met with "No, Wendell Berry."

The confusion between Fr. Thomas Berry, CP (a Passionist eco-theologian and author of The Dream of the Earth) and Mr. Wendell Berry is understandable. When Fr. Berry died in 2009 there was a significant flurry of concern over the health of Mr. Berry. With clarifications from a number of directions, however, things settled down.

And yet, here it is again. So during this meal I felt compelled to pull out my phone and search. To my surprise, I easily found a link to an essay ("Strangers in Out Midst: Catholics in Rural America" by Jeffrey Marlett) in the collection Roman Catholicism in the United States: A Thematic History, which referred to "radical agrarians like Passionist priest Wendell Berry." The complete volume was just published this year by Fordham University Press.

It remains a bit irksome that even now, a full decade after Fr. Berry's death, Mr. Wendell Berry is misidentified as a Catholic priest—though this may be the source of some chuckling among Mr. Berry, his wife Tanya, and their children and grandchildren. Oh well ... I offer this simple graphic:

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Poetic Response to Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer

Jason Rodenbeck has begun a challenge to readers to compose poems as responses to Mr. Berry's "Mad Farmer." His poem begins like this:

I saw the Mad Farmer
outside the city
standing defiant
at the treeline;
I heard his voice
crying out for the wilderness

from the false security
of my sanitized room
I witnessed his
lonesome prophecy
and I felt myself then
for the first time hollow
as I always had been
chasing dreams of
greatness and
manufactured purpose,
empty distractions and
greedy comforts

I heard his voice calling me,
“Forget those! Know your smallness!
Inhabit your incompleteness!
Embrace your partiality, your
connections to this earth and
your neighbor!”

Read all of "for the Mad Farmer" by Jason Rodenbeck at his blog,  Thinking Peacefully.


Wendell Berry in conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge

Wendell Berry: The issue there again, it seems to me, is the acceptance of a limit. Science that accepts limits would do no harm to an ecosystem or a human body. This is very different from the kind of science that too frequently turns out to be product development, without control of its application. The nuclear scientists who developed the atomic bomb are a very good example. But so are chemists who develop toxic substances for a limited use that they have in mind, but then turn it loose on the market and into the world. So you develop a chemical to control weeds in crops, and you ask only the question of whether or not the weeds are controlled; you don’t ask what happens when it runs off into the rivers.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: This is why there has to be the precautionary principle, as Rachel Carson reminded us. But the only entities really capable of enforcing the precautionary principle are governments—and trade treaties and the globalizing economy have given giant multinational companies more and more power over governments. We’ve seen these last thirty years the enormous damage that this power shift created. And then with the financial breakdown in 2008, it was so clear that we needed regulation; but it didn’t happen.

WB: The global economy is almost by definition not subject to regulation. And this simply means that corporations can pursue economic advantage without limit, wherever in the world those advantages are to be found. And as I’ve thought of it in the last several years, it has seemed to me that we’ve had a global economy for about five hundred years—ever since the time of Columbus. And this allowed us to think that if we don’t have some necessity of life here, we can get it from somewhere else. This is the most damaging idea that we’ve ever had. It’s still with us, still current, and it still excuses local plunder and theft and enslavement. It’s an extreme fantasy or unreality, the idea that if we don’t have it here, we can get it somewhere else—if we use it up here, we can get it somewhere else. It’s the stuff of fantasy.

Read all of "Caretaking," a conversation between Wendell Berry and Helena Norberg-Hodge at Orion.