Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Wendell Berry and the Sacred Task of Writing
Today I managed to catch a discussion of Wendell Berry’s book, Hannah Coulter on the "The Diane Rehm Show" which airs on National Public Radio. I hold Wendell Berry in high esteem as one whose writing truly exhibits a sacred task. I first learned of him back in 1981 when I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University). A friend and colleague, Steve Fox, gave me a little book of poetry by Wendell Berry titled A Part. Steve knew that I had a love for poetry and had been writing poetry. I think Steve was in his fourth year teaching at the college, and I was in my first year. “I think you’ll like this guy,” he told me. I did enjoy reading A Part. I felt that I found a kindred spirit in someone from rural Kentucky whose love for the forest and the land came through as an ever present backdrop for the images of love, friendship and community that he expressed in his poetry. His poetry brought to mind days I spent growing up in rural Alabama.
A few years later, I read some essays that Berry had written about ecology, the environment, and the need to preserve the small farm in an age of ever encroaching large scale mechanized and industrial style farming. I was even more impressed with the man. Then a friend gave be a book of fiction, That Distant Land. It was the first work of fiction by Berry that I had encountered. I was deeply moved by his prose. That Distant Land is a collection of stories of different people from various time periods, all centered around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. From the very first story in the book, I saw people who were so very much like the people I grew up with in rural Alabama. I read of a life that resonated with stories that my own father and mother had told about family and neighbors in the farming communities they had grown up in. The book provides a clear view of life in rural Kentucky that spans from the late 19th century when farming was central to the community up to near present day as changing times bring new challenges to family and community. Reading That Distant Land was sacred time to me.
I haven’t read Hannah Coulter, but it also takes place in Port William, the town that figures in to so much of Berry’s fiction. Listening to the discussion on the radio today became sacred time for me as well. I was in the midst of getting ready for our Thanksgiving celebration, and spent most of the time in the kitchen preparing the dough for the homemade potato rolls. Those rolls have been a family tradition. My daughter says that it doesn’t matter what we have for Thanksgiving dinner as long as I make my rolls. I follow a recipe that my mother used for holidays and special occasions. So the act of making bread put me into a place that transcended time and connected me with past generations. Listening to people on the radio talk about Wendell Berry only heightened the sacredness of that space. You can listen to and read about the broadcast here.