Concerning new Wendell Berry collection, "The World-Ending Fire"

It would be as reductive to call Wendell Berry a conservationist as it would be to call him an essayist. In the 31 pieces collected in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, the National Humanities Medal-winning poet, novelist, essayist, conservationist and farmer expounds on topics that range from farming, technology, economics, man’s proper relationship to nature, government, and social movements, to industrial disasters, marriage, the human acquisition of knowledge, drowning, labor, animal husbandry, eating, education, the Bible, Huckleberry Finn, and pleasure. Written between 1968 and 2011, all of the essays are ultimately about the same thing: how to live a rightly-ordered life.

Berry is not the type of chipper environmentalist who believes that capitalism can persist unabated as long as we install more solar panels. Nor is he the type of cerebral climate catastrophist who considers all action futile, opting instead to mutter into his wine glass about the anthropocene. In his view, the rightly-ordered life respects nature’s ability to give us sustenance and to destroy us, as it brings both the yearly flowering of bluebells and the deadly currents of the flooded Kentucky River. Topsoil is “Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence.” Nature is, in the words of the poet Edmund Spenser, “the greatest goddesse… the ‘equall mother’ of all,” who “knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.’” She operates as God’s deputy to mete out earthly justice. And she has a warrant out for us.

Read "What Wendell Berry Wants" by Colette Shade at The New Republic.

The World-Ending Fire will be published on May 8, 2018 by Counterpoint.


Book Reviews: Wendell Berry and others criticize the environmental movement

As Berry states from the outset, this book, like so many of his others, centers on "the relationship of our lives, and of our communal and economic life, to the lands we live from."

Looming over this relationship is what Berry calls "the ecological, agricultural, economic, and social catastrophe of industrial agriculture." We are still suffering, he argues, from the effects of the mid-20th-century "Get big or get out" agricultural policy.

With the author now in his 80s, a sense of wariness and sadness pervades Berry's writing. Of the healthy agrarianism of Port William, the fictional town about which he's written for nearly 60 years and which is based on his own home, Berry writes that it is "past and gone."

Weighing in on the environmental movement's focus on climate change, Berry is troubled. Though no "climate denier," Berry worries that the single-minded focus of this global crusade has the potential to become a fad, and to overshadow the very real need to stop other forms of environmental destruction on a local level. While Berry of course sees the need for averting climate change, he contends that the effort will little impact the life of rural land and people, which will continue its rapid decline.

Read the whole article by Eric Anglada at National Catholic Reporter.


On Wendell Berry's "The Art of Loading Brush"

In the end, Berry’s mournful story teaches us that it is not utopian, not ridiculous, to insist upon a different economy than a profit-driven capitalism, a different community than one separated by an industrially determined notion of individual freedom from a sustainable and local engagement with the land. It will take time to do, it will be complicated, it will probably not last forever, it will not satisfy everyone, and in the meantime it will have costs. But to take those caveats as proof that a thing cannot be done, that the economic and technological logic of growth is simply and always inevitable, is to blind oneself to a deeper set of possibilities: the possibility of taking collective responsibility for one’s place, emphasizing provision over profit, prioritizing public goods and public safety over corporate balance-sheets, and working out, one bit at a time, in Berry’s words, “a harmonious balance among a diversity of interests.” When it is done right, he concludes, for however long it lasts, “it is a grand masterpiece to behold”

Read "What Wendell Berry’s Brush Teaches Us About Capitalism, Community, and 'Inevitability'" by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic.


Review of Wendell Berry UK poetry collection

This column is usually reserved for new collections, but there is a reason to break this rule for Wendell Berry. It is extraordinary that he is not better known. I was on the verge of saying he should be a household name, but households have never been his thing. His selected verse, in a new edition by Penguin, is the work of an outdoorsman; it aspires to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea that nature is, for all the depredations, “never spent”. This is poetry to lower blood pressure, to induce calm.

Berry’s gift, as a Kentucky farmer and as a writer, is to root himself as a tree might – not to commandeer nature but to cherish it. I do not think it fanciful to see these poems as a form of manual labour – of necessary work. The title poem – his best known – is, at the same time, a secular prayer. The language is slightly churchy, which might not be to everyone’s taste, although there is pleasure in seeing church and meadow come together harmoniously. Berry repeatedly finds a remedy in nature, yet never comes to it in quite the same way.

To read the whole review by Kate Kellaway, go to The Guardian.


Reflections on LoA's first Wendell Berry volume

Significantly, however, the first volume from the Library of America is not a selection of his essays but of his fiction. And indeed it is as a storyteller that Berry is most uniquely able to unite our divided country. His fiction probes the virtues that sustain heterogeneous communities and the vices that threaten them, and reading his stories can help us imagine how we might set to work mending the fractures that threaten our communities. In particular, Berry’s stories bear witness to the redemptive, reconciling power of patient imagination; before we try to convince others of our firmly held convictions, we need to learn how to belong in membership with them.

Particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many observers have pointed out America's increasingly polarized geography. More and more of us live with people who think like we do, who share our income bracket, and who consume news from the venues we do. Yet Berry doesn't easily fit into any of our major political or cultural tribes. He's not a nationalist or a globalist; he's a patriot. He's not an industrialist or an environmentalist; he's an agrarian. His unorthodox thinking has attracted a broad and diverse readership: you are as likely to find his words in a church bulletin as on a climate-march sign. In spite of his own occasional participation in nonviolent protests, Berry is fundamentally against movements and the fashionable politics of the moment (in 1969 he presciently warned that popular causes in the electronic age almost invariably become fads).

Read the full essay, "Patiently Learning to Belong," by Jeffrey Bilbro at The University Bookman.


"Wendell Berry and the Given Life" reviewed

It might be easiest to define this book by what it is not. It is definitively not a biography of Wendell Berry, which is a good thing, considering how often and forcefully he has rejected the idea of a biography himself. (One of my favorite Berry quotes regarding this is from an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked who he would want to write his life story: “A horrible thought. Nobody. 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.”) Sutterfield acknowledges this at the outset as well and offers only cursory demographic information. This book is also not a dissertation-style explication of a single author’s work; Sutterfield generally stays away from literary criticism at all. The book is only 150 pages and written in relatively plain language, which also excludes it from the average critical analysis.

Instead, the mission of the book is laid out early and adhered to well: to cast a cohesive vision of what Berry writes about across the breadth of his work, which includes his poetry, fiction, and essays. Sutterfield does spend some time placing Berry’s work in context, and of course any reader of Berry’s knows how important context – specifically place – is to him and his writing. This is the first book I’ve read, to my memory, of this style; writing exclusively about an author and his work, but not attempting to analyze the work in a typical criticism style. I suspect that Sutterfield – a writer, teacher, and naturalist, who is obviously very familiar with Berry’s work – wrote this book for the same reason I would: he loves the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s writing is uniquely rich and covers ground that is both narrow in scope and endlessly complex, and Wendell Berry and the Given Life seeks to tease out some of the major themes.

Read the whole review by Brent Schnipke at Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith


Reviewing "Wendell Berry and Higher Education"

“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”

Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.

As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.

Read the complete article by Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative.


Thinking along with "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

But Look and See is not about Berry as much as it is about what Berry can teach us about seeing. To underscore this point, Berry himself is noticeably unseen in the film, though he is heard throughout. Much of the film consists of voiceovers from Berry, often reciting his own poetry as we see images of trees, dirt, streams, skies, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Lee Daniel, who previously shot films like Boyhood and Before Sunset.

A motif and guiding frame of the film is the forty-pane window that Berry sits before as he writes. From his desk, he looks out through this window and sees tobacco fields and the Kentucky River. He describes the window as “a graph” that structures our seeing but nevertheless cannot contain the wild, organic, and unstructured life on the other side of the glass. “The window has forty / panes, forty clarities,” we hear Berry read, from his “Window Poems,” describing how the “black grid” frames the wilds of nature beyond: trees, rivers, slopes, clouds.

To learn to see, we must learn to love windows as Berry loves his, to love them for their “clarities” in spite of their smudges and dust. To see well is to position ourselves before windows but to also recognize their limits. Any given window can only frame part of reality, just as any given photograph or film shot can only glimpse a fraction of what is seeable. A window helps us see because it fosters curiosity. Its limits and boundaries beckon us to explore beyond, to imagine where the river bends next and from where the wind blows.

Read the whole article by Brett McCracken at The Other Journal.


Review of "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

For 52 years, the nature writer Wendell Berry has sat down to work every day at a long wooden desk in his office, facing a large window with 40 panes of glass. The window, which Berry built himself, overlooks his farm in tiny Port Royal, Kentucky. Most people would say the view isn’t much: just a few tree branches and a river off in the distance. But Berry revels in the smallest, most mundane details, and he’s written volumes of poetry based on the view from his window. He thinks of its 40 panes as a graph, a framework he can use to make sense of the world outside. “In a sense what I’ve done all my life,” he says in a new documentary inspired by his work, Look & See, “is hold up an artifact that you can, so to speak, see through against the world.”

At 83, Berry is one of the most celebrated environmental writers and activists in the United States. He’s published more than 40 books in genres as diverse as lyric poetry, political essays, an eight-novel series and at least 47 short stories. Berry has won almost every major literary award and often draws comparisons to Faulkner and Thoreau. He’s an acclaimed activist who once debated the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, yet he’s also notoriously media-shy, preferring to grow vegetables and raise sheep on his family farm rather than participate in movies or magazine profiles. Last year, when the New York Times asked him who he’d want to write his biography, he replied, “A horrible thought. Nobody.”

Read the complete review by Rose Cahalan at Texas Observer.


Early review of forthcoming Wendell Berry volume

As a novelist, essayist, and poet, Berry (Roots to the Earth, 2016, etc.) has been writing work that is all of a piece for more than half a century; reduced, if it must be, his aim is the old agrarian ideal of standing for what one stands on, defending one’s place on Earth. The author notes his wife’s observation that “my principal asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself,” a gentle jibe that is true, but necessarily so. There’s no end to threats to small farmers, or an economy of health, or “good work,” the opposite of which is “waste of fertility and of the land itself.”

Alb

(Cover art via nlcaputo_design at Instagram)

See the complete (brief) review at Kirkus.