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.


On Wendell Berry's 'The Hidden Wound'

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Read all of "Review: The Hidden Wound" by Bob Trube at Bob on Books.


British collection of Wendell Berry Short Fiction reviewed

Berry’s lifelong ruminations on the theme of human community and its ties to the soil culminate in Stand By Me. This collection of 18 short stories, published individually between 1984 and 2015, traces the decline of the fictional, adjoining Kentucky towns of Port William and Hargrave and the lives of the people within them over the course of a century. Berry’s stories follow a “membership” of connected families, from Port William’s early days in 1888 as a rural outpost on the fringes of civilization up to 1981, by which time real estate companies have bought the farms so meticulously and lovingly maintained by generations of Port Williamites and transformed them into purely functional suburban housing. A deep melancholy pervades Berry’s tales of Port William’s later days, as beloved point-of-view characters die off and, unlike in previous generations, are not replaced in the membership by offspring interested in taking up the hard work of maintaining the land. Instead, the young of Port William flock to cities and universities, where they are made either too rich or too smart to ever consider the life of a farmer. Despite being written decades apart, the last few stories in Berry’s collection consistently portray Port William’s future as dire. These stories, the shared culture of generations of centuries-old families like the Feltners, Coulters, Rowanberrys, Catletts, Proudfoots, and Branches, will soon have no one to remember them. Port William’s bucket is being overturned.

Read all of "The Wealth of Intimate History: On Wendell Berry's 'Stand By Me'" by John-Paul Heil in Los Angeles Review of Books.


On the 50th anniversary of Wendell Berry's book on racism

Berry begins The Hidden Wound by reflecting on personal experience, including stories shared in childhood. Learning about his great-grandfather selling an “unmanageable” slave brought home to him the inescapable brutality, the “innate violence,” of slavery. The violence was systemic, and every slave owner complicit. Even a master who did not want to use cruelty had to exercise at least the cruelty of abandonment: selling the slave into cruelty somewhere else.

As Berry notes, many accounts of Southern culture were unable to face this. The oddly nostalgic bookKentucky Cavaliers in Dixie used “a poeticized, romanticized, ornamental gentlemanly speech, so inflated with false sentiment as to sail lightly over all discrepancies in logic or in fact, shrugging off what it cannot accommodate, blandly affirming what it cannot shrug off.” Looking for models of honest treatment of race, Berry even found much Christian preaching evasive, and much Christian practice hypocritical.

Berry saw racism as something constructed to protect a sensitivity. He compares racism to Puritanism; the two “have meshed so perfectly in the United States” because both are contrived to insulate uncomfortable lies from being exposed by the uninhibited honesty of childlike candor. They deny something in human nature in order to enforce an oppressive code of behavior.

Read all of "Race & Anti-fragility" by Joshua P. Hochschild at Commonweal Magazine.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack

At the book's opening, it is September, 1952, and Jack Beechum -- Old Jack -- is 92 years old and has begun to worry his loved ones. He lives at the hotel turned nursing home in town, forced to give up his beloved farm when it became clear he could not manage it on his own. He still rises before the sun, spending the bulk of his day lost in his own memories. So, too, do we. The shifting tenses of that opening paragraph are not a mistake, not evidence of sloppy editing. They are part of the story; they are the story.

Though the book is relatively short, it takes its time. Not at all unlike an elderly family member navigating the journey from the living room to the bedroom, the narrative moves carefully, thoughtfully, and with no unnecessary haste. Through Jack's memory, we trace with him the changes over the years: in farm and town, culture and family. We learn of his pride and ambition and failings; we learn of his heartbreaks and passions and devotion to the land. We see him through the eyes of the loved ones in the present; we learn from his mentors in the past. And we begin to understand what Berry was doing in the opening paragraph.

Read all of "On Invitation and Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack" by Sarah Beth West.


Response to a recent review of Wendell Berry's essays

Instead of this Christian vision, Scialabba calls for “a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism.” Berry’s early writing did espouse a kind of pious paganism, but Berry ultimately found that insufficient and returned to his Christian tradition and language. As Scialabba’s largely sympathetic review attests, however, Berry’s theological vision remains winsome, attractive even to those who don’t share it. Throughout his essays, Berry pairs his theological, moral arguments with ecological, pragmatic ones. This approach enables him to build common ground with people like Scialabba who don’t share his belief in God.

Read all of "Love Is its Own Justification: Wendell Berry and the Lure of Political Efficacy" by Jeffery Bilbro at Front Porch Republic.


On Wendell Berry and Antimodernism

Wendell Berry is probably the best-known and most influential antimodernist alive today, at least in the English-speaking world. Besides being a prolific essayist, novelist, story writer, and poet, Berry is a farmer in the Kentucky River Valley, an experience that has provided him with his material, his message, and his pulpit. He did not come to farming in midlife, as a novelty or a pastoral retreat. He grew up where he now farms, and his family has been farming in the area for many generations. Farming is the deepest layer of his mind; writing—learned at the University of Kentucky and then at Stanford in a famous seminar with Wallace Stegner—is the upper layer. That upper layer itself is divided: the fiction (a selection was issued last year by the Library of America) and poetry are slow-moving and deep-gauged, beautifully observed and full of interior incident, never loud or didactic. The essays, by contrast, though full of elegantly phrased and powerfully rhythmic sentences, are intensely earnest, aiming not to entertain or even to instruct but to convince and move. It’s been a feat, writing eight or so novels, several books of stories, several more of poems, and hundreds of lengthy essays and occasional pieces, all while managing a 117-acre farm, with only his wife and (occasionally) his children to help him. It’s an equal feat, traversing registers: the droll, meditative equanimity of his fiction, and the ardor, sometimes anger, of his nonfiction.

Read all of "Back to the Land: Wendell Berry in the Path of Modernity" by George Scialabba at The Baffler.


Wendell Berry's 1993 reprinted collection reviewed

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Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a departure from reality in that it is hopeful and romantic, and reality is bureaucratic and corporate. In an age when gnostic spirituality and transhumanism are valorized, however, we are quick to call the modest philosophy of people like Wendell Berry untenable. With the lofty promises every sterling new gadget gives us, it’s reflective that it seems impossible to return to a place that had already existed, while achieving eternal youth is likely a work in progress in a California lab. But in creating a fantasy world of the past in the present, the reader must face the prospect of a future that isn’t much different than the physically and spiritually polluted one that Berry pathologized.

Read all of "Poets of Brutality and Redemption" by Marlo Safi at The University Bookman


On Wendell Berry's work (especially the essays)

There is always movement in Wendell Berry’s sentences. He writes about what he has experienced, what he has learned, and always with humility for what he does not know. The natural world is his primary teacher: its rhythms, its largesse, its mysteries. And in the essays, the natural world often reflects how change in humans is also natural, inexplicable and possible. I think this is what many who love his writing appreciate most about Berry, whether they realize it or not. For his Christian readers, this becomes an expansion of what we understand as conversion.

Read all of "On the Road with Wendell Berry" by Jon M. Sweeney at America Magazine.


French reflection on Wendell Berry's thought

Car Berry n’est pas un simple défenseur des intérêts matériels des agriculteurs, ni ne croit naïvement – comme Jefferson – qu’ils sont des citoyens plus vertueux parce que propriétaires ; il défend la qualité du travail des paysans, parce que c’est leur travail qui les rend susceptibles de devenir plus vertueux pour la société. En effet, ils sont intrinsèquement les intendants (stewards) de la nature, cela très précisément parce que leur rapport à la nature n’est pas contemplatif, voire touristique, mais instrumental. Ils sont à la nature ce que pour Péguy les artisans étaient à la matière : ceux qui expérimentent, dans leur travail et pour leur survie, la résistance, la logique propre de ce qui est en face d’eux, de ce dont ils dépendent pour vivre. Un artisan apprend qu’une simple erreur, un petit coup de travers dans son bout de bois ou sa pierre peut rendre caduque toute son œuvre ; il apprend donc à s’adapter à la matière elle-même. Il en va de même pour le paysan qui ne peut pas faire de la glèbe ce qu’il veut, comme il le veut et quand il le veut. Péguy opposait le travail de l’artisan à celui des fonderies, soulignant (peut-être avec un peu de légèreté, d’ailleurs) que lorsqu’une pièce de métal était mal faite, il suffisait de la fondre à nouveau et de la remettre dans le moule.

Read all of “Wendell Berry: paysan, poète et penseur de l’écologie” by Frédéric Dufoing at L'inactuelle.