Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wendell Berry: Poet, Prophet, and Sage

It was 30 years ago that a colleague gave me a little book of poems, A Part, by Wendell Berry. I was teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College at the time. Reading Berry’s poems that were nestled so beautifully in the rural Kentucky woods and hillsides reminded me of my own experiences in rural Alabama. It was a most refreshing experience for me, being far from home and in the center of a crowded and noisy urban setting.  That book was also my introduction to Wendell Berry.  For all I knew, he was a Kentucky farmer who wrote some poetry, and I thought that was a wonderful thing.

Of course, I came to learn that Wendell Berry was also known for his advocacy for the family farm, for care of the environment, and for speaking out against the inhuman machine of modern technology. I learned that he was a prolific writer, writing novels, short stories and essays that call for a return to community, and a care for the land. His advocacy was not just sentimental tripe, it was an honest, carefully thought out, sensible call for sensible living. I learned that this rural Kentucky farmer had gone off to a successful career as a university professor and then returned to his farming roots when he bought farmland near his parents’ birthplace.  

He was an early activist speaking out against the war in Viet Nam and protested the building of a nuclear power plant in Indiana.  He is an observer of life who speaks out on issues that are destroying the fabric of society – issues such as pollution, destruction of topsoil, corporate mechanized farming, the breaking up of the rural community in service to technology and industry. Little wonder that he has been called a modern day prophet.

Naturally, when I heard that Wendell Berry was coming to my town, speaking at my alma mater, I made it a point to be there. Many others made it a point to be there. I entered the large performance hall at Samford University as Wayne Flynt was delivering the introduction. There were all kinds of people present: young and old, physicians and professors, community residents and college students, activists and law students, writers and farmers.  As Wendell Berry walked on to the stage following the introduction, there was not just applause, there were shouts and cheers.

The man looked and spoke exactly like the old men I grew up with. His plain spoken Kentucky drawl belied the fact that he has spoken to eager and receptive audiences all over the country, from Lindisfarne Association in Long Island, New York to the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, and all points in between.

Mr. Berry read a recent story, “Sold!” set in the fictional town of Port William where much of his fiction takes place (That Distant Land is a wonderful collection of short stories set in rural Kentucky in and around Port William). The reading demonstrated Berry’s masterful storytelling. By way of the reminiscences of and elderly lady, we heard about that character’s life of farming with her late husband, Grover.  We got a picture of what rural life was like from the 1920s, how WWII changed the dynamic of the family and community, and how the young folks began to leave home for places far and wide. We saw a clear dramatic picture, told in the homespun matter-of-fact style of a simple farm woman who in her old age must sell her farm, of how in a couple of generations the family farm has been obliterated to make way for the corporate farming conglomerate.

After reading the story, Mr. Berry took questions from the audience. The questions presented showed the variety of the audience and the vast expanse of Wendell Berry’s influence. The first question was from a man who wanted to know the author’s thoughts on how we will feed a world population which will reach 9 billion by the year 2050. A young woman then stepped forward to ask Berry how he developed his characters for his stories; did he have a certain method for crafting his stories? Another fellow wanted to know his thoughts on theology and eternity.  Someone else wanted to know how Mr. Berry got interested in writing and what writers were important for him. The final question came from a man who wanted to know Berry’s take on Alabama’s Immigration law.

If you are interested in Wendell Berry’s answers, I did take some notes. Here are some inklings from his responses:

Concerning feeding 9 billon people, Berry said that we were more capable of that 50 years ago than we are today. He decried the ramping up of technology in the food industry, the toxins were are putting into the environment, the loss of topsoil from the environment, and the amount of food on our plates that is already being wasted.

As to developing the characters in his fiction, he likes to wait for the muse, he does not have formulaic method. “I may have a story in mind, I may have it for 50 years, but then the time comes when I know it is ready to take form – I call it the muse.”

His thought on theology – Berry said that what he did understand of the Bible became much clearer when he took the Bible out of church and went to the woods. He said he understands the grandeur and beauty of something greater, and has a better sense of the eternal when he is in the woods rather than in a building. Mr. Berry then made reference to a poem, “Primary Wonder,” by Denise Levertov which he thought captured that concept. (You can read Levertov’s poem here)

How did he get interested in writing, and who were the authors who were important to him? Berry said the way to get interested in writing is to get interested in reading, and he credited his mother for instilling a love for reading.  He added that “there are many writers and many who are not writers who are necessary to me. Most of my life I have found the friend or the book that I needed just when I needed it.”

Concerning Alabama’s immigration law, Berry started out saying that he has heard more talk of religion in politics than he can ever remember hearing before. He said that if you are going to have religion, then there come the question of how will you practice it, and that all boils down to how you treat others. He said he would like to see all those folks so sure of their religion show a little more anxiety regarding society’s problems. He said that we ought to assess how much we really owe to the immigrant workers, because “without then we would starve.” Berry added that immigration is a complex matter that requires responsible conversation rather than slogans.

Samford University photo
Afterwards, Wendell Berry stayed to sign books for any who wanted so desired. I stopped by the book table and saw, of course, a wide range of topics in the books he has authored. There were essays on community and environment, fiction and social commentary as well as several books of poetry. I decided to get a collection of poems. For me, after all is said and done, poetry is the thing I always come back to. Also, poetry was my first introduction to the man himself. I found a recent book of poetry, Leavings (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2010) and then took my place in line for the author’s signature. It took me an hour to get to the table where Mr. Berry was autographing. Even though the hour was getting late, Wendell Berry was kind and gracious – taking time to talk and listen to each person in line. I think he is genuine.

As I left the event and drove off of the university campus, I was behind an aging Subaru Outback that had a specialty tag reading, "Farming Feeds." I knew that the driver of that car must represent one of the many reasons people came out to hear an old man from Kentucky. I’ll end with one of Wendell Berry’s poems that I read just this morning:


LOOK IT OVER

I leave behind even
my walking stick. My knife
is in my pocket, but that
I have forgot. I bring
no car, no cell phone,
no computer, no camera,
no CD player, no fax, no
TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods. I sit on
a log provided at no cost.
It is the earth I've come to,
the earth itself, sadly
abused by the stupidity
only humans are capable of
but, as ever, itself. Free.
A bargain! Get it while it lasts.

By Wendell Berry from Leavings, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2010



2 comments:

  1. Which colleague gave you that little book, Charlie? I'm curious. I can't remember when I first read Berry or who introduced me to his work. We heard him once here in Indianapolis, at a Spirit and Place Festival event. He's a wise man!

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  2. It was you, Steve! I should have given you a shout out and called you by name as the one who introduced me to Berry's work. I've always been grateful for that.

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