The time is ripe for Wendell Berry

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By Special to The Sun


If you haven’t heard, then you may be the last to hear, the passion, teachings, insights and philosophy of Wendell Berry is coming to St. Catharine College.

The Berry Center of New Castle, Ky., and St. Catharine College have announced an agreement and partnership to provide a vital, interdisciplinary degree program in farming and ecological agrarianism. The program will embed academic coursework with fieldwork and immersion experiences, using nature as the standard, in an effort to bring awareness, knowledge and cohesiveness to students interested in farming, rural communities, local economies, agriculture, geographical sustainability, and stewardship for the land. And while most folks know that Wendell Berry is a famous writer from Kentucky, not everyone is aware that he is, in fact, one of America’s most prolific, provocative, and prophetic contemporary writers. As evidence of this, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has just recently named Wendell Berry as the 41st Jefferson Lecturer in Humanities. This annual lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. According to NEH Chairman, Jim Leach,
“Wendell Berry is an American treasure whose prose and poetry have— with subtlety, intelligence, and conviction—helped open our eyes to the importance of respecting and living with nature. Tilling the land of his Kentucky forebears, he is a 21st-century Henry David Thoreau.”
This two-part article will provide a closer look at the life, writings and philosophy of Mr. Wendell Berry.
Wendell Berry was born on August 5, 1934 as the first of four children to John Marshall Berry, Sr. and Virginia Erdman Berry, in Henry County, Ky. Wendell’s father was a lawyer and tobacco farmer in New Castle, Ky., in Henry County. As a country lawyer, as well as in the United States Congress, Wendell’s father, John, often called the “father of the burley production program,” worked tirelessly to bring prosperity to the tobacco farmers of the Burley Belt by being a founding member of the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-Op and establishing the tobacco program which offered tobacco farmers, for the first-time ever, parity in the marketplace. The fact is, both of Wendell’s parents grew up in farming families of Henry County that stretch back several generations. And Wendell’s brother, John Marshall Berry, Jr., like their father, has worked in Henry County as both a farmer and lawyer. During a distinguished career in the Kentucky legislature from 1974 to 1982 he spoke, wrote and legislated in support of farmers and the environment.
Wendell attended secondary school at Millersburg Military Institute. He then went on to study at the University of Kentucky, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1956 and a Master of Arts degree in English in 1957. That year proved to be significant for Wendell in other ways, as that is the year he married Tanya Amyx. In 1958, Wendell Berry attended Stanford University as a recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, studying under Stegner himself. Stegner was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. Berry wrote his first novel, Nathan Coulter, which was published in April of 1960. And he saw The Broken Ground, his first work of poetry, published in 1964. He has taught at Stanford University, Georgetown College, New York University, the University of Cincinnati, Bucknell University, and the University of Kentucky. Since 1965, Berry has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, at Lane’s Landing, a 125-acre farm in Port Royal, Ky., near the birthplace of his parents.
Any attempt to describe the writings and philosophy of Wendell Berry might be compared to describing the phenomena of a rainbow, with its many brilliant colors, but being aware that rainbows are produced with that unique combination of sunlight, darkness and rain. In fact, the opening sentence of Berry’s first published novel, Nathan Coulter, is but a single word, “Dark.” This simple word depicts the moment at which young Nathan moves from the waning light of day and the house, to the wonderings of his imagination in sleep. This is Berry’s first work in the Port William series. Port William is a fictitious Kentucky town, located near “the river,” that emerges through at least eight Berry novels and 38 of his short stories, 23 collected in That Distant Land, (2004). When read as a whole, these novels and short stories chronicle the people, lives and place of Port William. Port William seems to have much in common with Berry’s own town of Port Royal, which lies on the western bank of the Kentucky River. From Jayber Crow (2000),
“Port William had little written history. Its history was its living memory of itself, which passed over the years like a moving beam of light. It had a beginning that it had forgotten, and would have an end that it did not yet know. It seemed to have been there forever.”
And from Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006),
“The town of Port William stands less than a mile from the river on an upland deeply grooved by branching valleys and hollows. The human geography of the countryside around it is inscribed by roads winding out along open ridges that give way at their edges to wooded bluffs, and by roads winding through the valleys of the larger streams.”
Other works in the Port William series include A Place on Earth (1967), which focuses more on the place, then on the characters; The Memory of Old Jack (1974), in which Old Jack Beechum spends a day reflecting on his flawed, yet admirable life; Remembering (1988), which introduces Nathan’s son, Andy, who could well stand as Wendell’s alter-ego; A World Lost (1996), which covers an incident that occurs shortly after the time covered in Nathan Coulter; and Hannah Coulter (2004), a favorite of many Berry readers, that focuses on an admirable woman who joins the Port William community. From Hannah Coulter Berry writes,
“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
And like the rainbow that does stand out from the darkness, sunlight, and the rain that join to produce it, Wendell Berry’s passion and philosophy emerges from the many pages of his body of writings.
In addition to his novels, Berry has written volumes of poems and essays that express his thoughts and perspectives on love, life, land and place, in addition to education, politics, raw human emotion, as well as spirituality and Christianity. Berry has also produced many works that examine the earth and our connection to it. Ultimately, what unfolds in Berry’s explorations of verse and prose is his insistence that to live well is to love. From The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2002), Berry writes,
“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”
And one of his many famous quotes, from his work, Standing By Words (2005),” Berry states,
“What can turn us from this deserted future, back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page—for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it, and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or “religious”), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows.”
Keeping in mind that St. Catharine College will be creating an academic program that will strive to express the wisdom and philosophy of Wendell Berry, it is important to get some idea on Mr. Berry’s perspective on education. From In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World (2001), Berry says,
“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.”
Berry’s words challenge us, especially in light of today’s world of high-tech, online, “distance” education where we are beginning to believe that what is most important is the sharing of facts and information, rather than meaningful, individual formation. As the battle-lines continue to be drawn with regard to the convenience of learning alone from the confines of one’s own home, rather than face to face with other human beings, Berry reminds us of the importance of putting “first things first.” From one of his college commencement addresses, Berry states,
“You will have to avoid thinking of yourselves as employable minds equipped with a few digits useful for pushing buttons. You will have to recover for yourselves the old understanding that you are whole beings inextricably and mysteriously compounded of minds and bodies.”
Education is first and foremost a human activity that involves sharing space together which affords us the possibility of creating the space necessary for real, human transformation. For we are, indeed, embodied beings.
One of my personal favorite Berry quotes comes from Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, where in these troubled times, when we become anxious over the multitude of problems that we face each and every day, he advises,
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
As you can see, the writings of Wendell Berry create a tapestry whose design unfolds slowly, yet purposefully and precisely right before one’s eyes. And while I have touched upon a variety of Wendell Berry’s writings in this essay, what remains is perhaps his most important and significant feature, which is his understanding of the land and our place on this earth. Of Berry’s nonfiction works, most focus quite explicitly on the relation between land and people. These works include The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977), perhaps Berry’s best known book in which he examines the short-comings of modern industrial agriculture and their historical origins; The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2002), which is a collection of twenty-one of Berry’s agrarian essays; Home Economics: Fourteen Essays (1987), an absolute gem from the time when Berry was actively working out his understanding and the fundamental importance of agrarianism; Another Turn of the Crank (1996), which contains six short essays, and is probably Berry’s most precise expression of his agrarian philosophy from the 1990s; Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1992), which also includes some of Berry’s thoughts on marriage, peace, spirituality and Christianity; What Are People For? (1990), that contain a number of insightful essays, including agrarian perspectives; and The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1981), an early collection of twenty-four remarkable essays that Berry wrote for farming publications.
In part two of this two-part article, I will be exploring Berry’s writings as they pertain to using nature as the standard, in an effort to bring awareness, knowledge and cohesiveness to anyone interested in farming, rural communities, local economies, agriculture, geographical sustainability, and stewardship for the land. It is most specifically with regard to this that St. Catharine College and The Berry Center have joined to produce a meaningful program for students, as well as to create opportunities for the community at large, to gain a better understanding of who we are as embodied people in relationship with our mother earth, under the watchful eye of the Father, and in accordance with the will of His spirit. Ultimately, Berry’s insights into these topics are of utmost concern to all of us, especially now, as we rest ourselves on the tittering edge of potential self-annihilation or grace-filled transformation.
Sources used for this article include The Berry Center website (www.berrycenter.org), the Cumberland Books Wendell Berry site (www.cumberlandbooks.com/wendellberry.php), the National Endowment for the Humanities February 6, 2012 press release (www.neh.gov/news/archive/20120206.html), and the Wendell Berry Books site (www.wendellberrybooks.com).