Wendell Berry: the cranky farmer, poet, and essayist you just can’t ignore


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A writing project for America The Advent Reflections Series last week gave me the opportunity to revisit a favorite poem (“IX”) from an author who knows more than anyone about the seasons, both liturgical and agricultural: Wendell Berry. Now 87 years old, this man of many names (Is he a farmer? A novelist? An environmental activist? An essayist? A poet? A cultural critic? A grumpy old professor? A Christian prophet?) Was the voice of practical reason. and concise cultural commentaries in his more than 80 books published over six decades.

My first encounter with the writings of Wendell Berry was not through his poetry, but his essays. It happened in college, when a professor of philosophy (now retired, he recently ran for governor of California; professors of philosophy rule) Another turn of the crank, Berry’s book of five essays on the global economy, health care, forest preservation, private property, and wealth and ecology. In a 1995 review for America, Patrick Samway, SJ, wrote that “all of these essays speak to mind and heart with the same force and clarity as the writings of Annie Dillard, Henry David Thoreau or Wallace Stegner”. To this august list I think I would add distributors like Peter Maurin and GK Chesterton and the early Garry Wills (included here mainly so I could write “the early Garry Wills”), but at the time my reaction to student was simple: Wendell Berry just jumped off the page and hit me on the head with a fence post?

My reaction was simple: Did Wendell Berry just jump off the page and hit me on the head with a fence stake?

The writing was lyrical but full of common sense and practicality. Berry, who had returned decades earlier to the farming life of his childhood and was an advocate for a tried and tested agrarian life, made it clear that America was built on certain principles: respect for the land, small communities and economies. shared. , the transmission of proven traditions and lifestyles, an assumption that a life of faith was natural, a management of resources that allowed for seasonal cycles – all of which were abandoned, sacrificed to the gods of technological innovation, of individualism, mercantilism and unfettered capitalism.

I argued in my last article for the class that Berry was right, but his solution was wrong: the only solution was Christian Marxism. (Could it have only been a year since I was 21? It must have been a long time by then.) In sharp, practical prose reminiscent of Berry himself, the Professor tore up my essay. But I still remember the book well.

If you ask the many Berry fans, this slim volume isn’t usually among their favorites. Berry was first built with his poetic works from the 1960s and 1970s, such as The broken ground (1964), and many environmentalists and distributors hold his 1977 collection of essays to heart, TThe Destabilization of America: Culture and Agriculture. His novels, the first, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960 – have their own fans, and you can usually find them revolving around his “Port William novels” like Hannah coulter (2004) or Jayber Raven (2000). (Keep your ears open the next time you go to the farmer’s market – a one in 12 chance that guy selling you homemade mead is called his son Jayber.)

Keep your ears open the next time you go to the farmer’s market – a one in 12 chance the guy selling you homemade mead is called his son Jayber.

In a 2019 review for America of What i’m standing on, a raucous two-volume anthology of Berry’s writings edited by Jack Shoemaker, Jon Sweeney identified exactly when he first became a Wendell Berry enthusiast: at the age of 16. two of Berry’s books, Wheel (a book of poems) and Tests collected, and said “I think you should get to know this author.” Sweeney did him better, becoming so obsessed with Berry’s writings that he decided a few years later to undertake an impromptu pilgrimage to Berry’s farm in Port Royal, Ky. Alas, Berry was not at home. , but that did not dampen Sweeney’s enthusiasm for his writing.

“There is always movement in the phrases of Wendell Berry. He writes about what he has lived, what he has learned, and always with humility for what he does not know. The natural world is its main master: its rhythms, its largesse, its mysteries, ”Sweeney wrote. “And in trials, the natural world often reflects just how natural, inexplicable, and possible change in humans is. I think that’s what a lot of those who love his writing appreciate the most about Berry, whether they realize it or not. For his Christian readers, this becomes an extension of what we mean by conversion. “

The focus on conversion may seem a bit ironic in Berry’s case, as at first glance he doesn’t appear to be a big fan of change in general. “He frequently questions society’s attempts to make things better, to modernize or to make lifestyles more efficient. These words-improve, modernize, efficient– might as well be in quotes whenever they appear in an essay by Berry. He constantly doubts it, ”Sweeney continued.

There were times in the anthology when Berry made Sweeney bristle: “He’s not always right. Any worthy essayist will make you angry and bore you from time to time. Berry can be cranky. On the other hand, “his wisdom, and his call for better habits, is too essential. Ignoring Wendell Berry is like trying to ignore your grandmother: you can’t.

“There is always movement in the phrases of Wendell Berry. He writes about what he has been through, what he has learned, and always with humility for what he does not know. “

Two years before Sweeney’s review, Anna Keating wrote a review for America on Laura Dunn’s new documentary, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”. In the film, an 83-year-old Berry “draws his Southern essays on footage of his working farm, the land he and his family have cultivated in Kentucky for five generations.” He and his wife returned to this land after their graduate studies, in search of a home and a sense of belonging or, as William Faulkner called it, “important soil,” Keating wrote.

Filmmakers never interview Berry on camera; instead they try to take viewers into the world of Berry: “You hear the sound of footsteps when an invisible person walks through the hills or around the farm. You get to know some of the people Berry loves: his wife and collaborator, Tanya, his daughter, Mary, and his fellow farmers, both industrial, subsistence and organic. Berry, Keating wrote, “is an advocate for small farms, rural communities, and Judeo-Christian values ​​like kindness, all of which have been undermined by industrial agriculture ‘get big or get out’. His life and his work bear witness to the fact that it is never a Christian to say: “I can do what I want with my own land” or “with my own body”. We are stewards, not owners. Additionally, the “I can do whatever I want” attitude is toxic to land and water, family and community. “

Keating owns a small business with her husband and is particularly interested in both Catholic social education and distributive writers, notably Chesterton and Maurin, but also Hilaire Belloc and Dorothy Day. She defined distributism as a way of thinking that “seeks to unite what has been separated, labor and capital, through the ownership of small businesses and farms or through the ownership of tools and a trade or through the ownership of small businesses and farms. participation in a guild, so that wealth is not consolidated in the hands of a few wealthy individuals (capitalism) or in the hands of the state (socialism). She found that the life Wendell Berry created and the views he espouses “both conform to this vision and may prove useful to Catholics, serving as an antidote to the many ills of our time.”

There is much more to the America archives on Wendell Berry, including this 2009 appreciation by fellow writer-farmer Kyle T. Kramer and this 2017 interview by Sean Salai of Berry’s daughter, Mary, executive director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Ky., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting his father’s legacy.

“His life and his work bear witness to the fact that it is never a Christian to say, ‘I can do whatever I want with my own land’ or with ‘my own body’. We are stewards, not owners. “

If you’ve noticed in recent weeks that we’ve delved into an author or topic a little more than usual, you are a careful reader of Americaliterary criticism. In this space each week, we will feature literary reviews and commentaries on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archives span over a century), as well as poetry and d other America Media offers. We hope this will give us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that is not featured in our newsletters.

Other columns from the Catholic Book Club:

Dorothy Day, revolutionary saint

Willie James Jennings and the University Culture of Exclusion

Who is the next great Catholic novelist? Is this Sally Rooney?

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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