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August 2007 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

On August 5, Wendell Berry turned 73 years old.

If you know Berry’s life and work, odds are that you join me in wishing him a happy birthday and a long life. If you haven’t made the acquaintance of Wendell Berry, I’d like to introduce you to him.

I’ve been reading Berry – mostly his essays – for more than 35 years and some of the essay-collection titles that are on my shelves include: The Way of Ignorance, Standing by Words, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, What Are People For?, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, The Art of the Commonplace, and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

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This is just a sampling of some 38 books that Wendell Berry has written. Besides being an indefatigable essayist – “polemicist” would be my term – Berry is also a poet and novelist and short-story writer. I don’t really care for his novels (for reasons I’ll go into in Part II of this essay) although I have some of them on my shelves – The Memory of Old Jack, Hannah Coulter, and Jayber Crow. I also have some collections of his poetry and would refer the interested reader to his earlier work, including his oddly titled 1979 Farming: A Handbook. Personally, I much prefer Robert Frost or W.S. Merwin to Wendell Berry for this kind of poetry (“this kind” meaning agrarian or nature-oriented, with interesting subcurrents and metaphors and messages.) As one admirer but critic of Berry’s poetry has pointed out – “Frost was the better poet, but Berry is, by far, the better farmer.”

Berry is indeed a farmer – a lowland Kentucky farmer who still uses horses rather than tractors to till his land – which makes him that rarest of things in the United States: an intellectual and man of letters who is also rural rather than urban, a farmer rather than professor (although he has done a lot of professoring over the decades.)

You may have picked up just from the titles that Wendell Berry is an agrarian contrarian. He is that. But he’s also much more than that. Berry has created an aggressive but consistent political-environmental philosophy and set of indictments of modern American life that can only be called unique.

Now that the contrarian is 73 years old and a winner of many awards, both literary and agrarian, many groups rush to hug him and hold him up as a representative of their party and philosophy. Wendell Berry rejects them all.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I’ve loved Berry all these years. When someone tries to stuff me into a box of their neat assumptions, saying that I am a conservative or liberal, radical or reactionary, Democrat or Republican, environmentalist or technophile, Luddite or SF writer, I just shake my head, point to Wendell Berry, and say, “I’m with him.”

Wendell Berry and I agree with the statement attributed to Groucho Marx and often quoted by Woody Allen, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.”

Berry was a yellow-dog Democrat for decades (for our foreign or politically unastute readers, that translates as “If the Democrats run a yellow dog on their ticket, I’ll vote for him”), but when Democrats today try to hug Wendell Berry to their ample bosom, he stomps on their toes and says, in effect, “Abortion is an attack on the family and on relationships. It is a betrayal of community. Welfare states, however well-meaning, inevitably become impersonalized machines in which bureaucrats treat other human beings as means rather than ends, as a class to be served rather than individuals with their own worth. A stronger central government is the last thing we need. Be gone!”

When Republicans, misreading Wendell Berry’s Jacksonian dislike of big government as a libertarian streak, try to bring him into their tent, he knees them in the bajoobies and says, if I may paraphrase, “Your party promotes business at the expense of communities and the land, promotes globalism at the expense of local tradition, and has abandoned forever the cause of true local independence. Your party stands for carpe diem profit today at the expense of discipline, sacrifice, and necessary planning for tomorrow. Away with you!”

Environmentalists, noting Berry’s more than fifty years of personal as well as theoretical dedication to conservation, try to stick his name on the letterheads of their stationery, and Berry clonks them on the head and says, more or less, “You’ve all become Movements. I disavow Movements. Movements adopt the strategies and rationales of those they oppose and forget to live what they advocate. I don’t want to hug your damn trees – I want to use them responsibly to build my home and my community. I don’t want to backpack through those fields and hills, I want to tend and improve them as pasture in a way that will allow them to be more productive. I don’t want to kayak down that river, I want to plant along its banks and make sure that when my neighbor runs cattle, those cattle don’t erode everything in sight. Get away from me!”

Berry’s thinking is deeply Christian, but he dislikes organized churches and the trend of Protestantism in America today. When Christian theologians, radical or conservative, try to use him as an example of their thinking, Wendell shakes his head and tells them, in different words, “At least the pagans had the good sense to worship the power of nature, the sacramental element of the seasons, and the fact that our animals and trees had souls. You’ve misread Scripture to say that the Creation is a thing apart from us, our bodies alien to our souls, nature not as important as getting to Heaven – when, all along, Heaven is in the warp and weave of our daily lives here on this Earth. Go away!”

Antiwar groups love Berry for his pacifism and his opposition to post-9/11 policies, but Wendell shakes his head and says, essentially, “Go away. Where were you when I opposed World War II? ‘The greatest generation’ my butt. I knew those men. Most of them were drafted and went off to kill others because they had no choice. Too many of them failed to come home not because they were killed or wounded, but just because they found the rural life of family, hard work, and community boring after seeing the cities. Your dream of total non-violence is a fool’s dream.The drunken boor gets in my face, I’ll punch him if he doesn’t get out of my way. It’s the nation-state that cannot be allowed to have the power of life and death in its inhuman hands. Go do your political marches somewhere else and leave me out of them.”

World Trade Organization protesters adore Wendell Berry for his consistent and articulate rage at the machine of globalism, but Berry would say to them, “Your answer is to kick in the windows of McDonalds and to attack police? How does that differ from the random viciousness of anarchists? How has this strengthened the ties of our community? Where do you live? What have you done to improve things there? What do you grow and make? What discipline and restraint have you exercised to give you the moral high ground? What have you given to your community other than violence? Do not include me in your mob.”

You get the idea.

Wendell Berry has been more than an agrarian contrarian for more than half of a century. He is truly America’s Prophet. And like all real prophets, his message is hard to digest, his admonitions impossible for most of us to follow. We agree and agree and nod our heads and agree some more and when it comes to his imperatives – what he insists we get up and go out and do, not later, not tomorrow, but now – we shake rather than nod our heads and say, “Well, shit, Wendell, I can’t do that. That’s a little extreme, amigo. Let’s go back to the theory part of this discussion.” Wendell Berry holds our collective feet to the fire and our national noses to the grindstone. He has weighed us and found us all wanting. He is our American Jeremiah and his many polemical essays – articulate, gentle, worded with the care and precision deserving of the poet he is – are true jeremiads.

#

In an early 1990’s essay titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” – reprinted in Harper’s – Wendell Berry listed his nine standards for changing technologies (in this case, from his yellow legal pad to a computer). But after listing those nine (which I will cite below in a minute), he added offhandedly that if he started to write his novels, poems, and essays on a computer, or even a typewriter, it would deprive his wife Tanya of the pleasure of typing up (and commenting upon) his handwritten draft.

Well . . . .

Feminists landed on poor Wendell as hard and fast as a falling piano would seek out Laurel or Hardy. They were on the old guy like hair on a gorilla. The name of “Wendell Berry” was scratched off the visiting-speaker lists of many top universities and colleges (those that knew who he was to begin with) as Harper’s printed five of the letters in their next issue, all condemning the sexist old fart. Wendell Berry who – if he was known at all – had been somewhat of a favorite of radicals on campus, now became persona non grata among feminists and their countless supporters in occupied territories everywhere.

As Berry himself wrote in a follow-up essay titled “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” –

“Without exception, the feminist letters accuse me of exploiting my wife, and they do not scruple to allow the most insulting implications of their indictment to fall upon my wife. They fail entirely to see that my essay does not give any support to their accusation – or if they see it, they do not care. My essay, in fact, does not characterize my wife beyond saying that she types my manuscripts, and tells me what she thinks about them. It does not say what her motives are, how much work she does, or whether or how she is paid. Aside from saying that she is my wife and that I value the help she gives me with her work, it says nothing about her marriage. It says nothing about our economy.

“There is no way, then, to escape the conclusion that my wife and I are subjected in these letters to a condemnation by category. My offense is that I am a man who receives some help from his wife; my wife’s offense is that she is a woman who does some work for her husband – which work, according to her critics and mine, makes her a drudge, exploited by a conventional subservience. And my detractors have, as I say, no evidence to support any of this. Their accusation rests on a syllogism of the flimsiest sort: my wife helps me in my work, some wives who have helped their husbands in their work have been exploited, therefore my wife is exploited.

“This, of course, outrages justice to about the same extent that it insults intelligence.”

Alas, too late. “Condemnation by category” is the sine qua non of all self-righteous movements, and feminists everywhere had quit listening to Berry the moment he had written – “and I would miss the fact that my wife types my handwritten poems, essays, and novels.”

But to return to some loose semblance of a point – what were the nine reasons that Wendell Berry in the early 1990’s (and to this day) would not buy a computer?

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer) has paraphrased (for brevity) Berry’s original nine arguments against buying a computer (or any new “labor-saving” widget).

  1. The new tool should cost less than the one it replaces.
  2. It should be at least as small as the one it replaces.
  3. It should do better work.
  4. It should use less energy.
  5. Ideally it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
  6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence.
  7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
  8. It should come from a small shop that will take it back for repair.
     
    (And most important, in Barbara Kingsolver’s opinion . . .)
     
  9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

Kingsolver goes on to say, “I know that the author was wisely and manageably sticking to his point. But I tend to wander, and I have found these standards can be used for judging not just technical beasts like cell phones and computers but virtually all the categories of durable goods we bring into our lives.”

And she says elsewhere – “All of us have our prophets whose teachings help us navigate the rockier straits of our lives. For me, the thorniest passage is to raise a spiritual family in an overly material world, and the question I often ask myself is: What Would Wendell Do?”

Wendell would eschew the purchase of a computer for the rest of his life and – although he has had reason to compose on manual typewriters before – would continue to enjoy composing on a yellow legal pad and having his wife type his work, making suggestions as she goes. He does not own a cell phone for some of the reasons listed above but also for other, more complex, reasons having to do with the creative person’s need to be “out of touch” from time to time and his own conviction that conversation is usually best served when two human beings are facing one another. Barbara Kingsolver goes on to say, “It was reader’s bigotry, not the author’s, that created the furor over “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” It grieves me to see any words become celebrated for what they did not say, while the real point was missed, rowdily and entirely.”

What was the real point to Berry’s essay? “The idea,” she writes, “is that we ask the right questions as we walk toward every possibility of a new thing in our lives. And believe me, that walk is what most of us call life itself, at least in the country where I live.”

Kingsolver understands at once that the most important reason that Berry gives for rejecting computers – and so many other common aspects of modern life (he plows with a horse, not a tractor) – is that a new purchase “should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.”

Kingsolver has the good novelist’s and astute observer’s ability to see that almost all of the major technological and social changes we’ve embraced in recent decades do, in one important way or another, replace and disrupt (and sometimes destroy outright) good things that already exist . . . especially family and community relationships. But Kingsolver also confesses that while she loves and needs “my minister and consultant, my twelve-step sponsor, the Most Reverend Berry” in helping her and her already-green and responsible family make sane decisions in our less-than-sane disposable consumer society, she did buy a computer. And, more recently, a cell phone.

But, more often than not, she hears her Most Reverend Berry’s voice in her ears when the fundamentalist missionary-salesmen of constant consumption beat at her door –

“At the slightest hint of a threat to their complacency, they repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright , lively, centralized, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better.”

“I picture myself a toad in a chorus of toads,” confesses Kingsolver as she sits at her computer or takes a call from one of her kids on her new cell phone. “I vow to be something better. A sleek frog, maybe. A salamander. I will wriggle out of this mess, day by day.”

My dear friend Harlan Ellison, who is – I believe – exactly the age of Wendell Berry (but no Luddite, he loves gadgets), eschews computers in his writing for a central reason that Berry never got to in his listing. Harlan argues that writing fiction is a craft – a serious bluecollar undertaking rather than some artsy-fartsy divine-ethereal undertaking – and that craftsmen (and, yes, craftswomen) sweat when they work. “It takes foot-pounds of fucking pressure to pound those keys!” I have heard Harlan tell a doubting, head-shaking, cybersavvy, glass-teat-worshipping audience. “When I finish a day at my manual typewriter, I have to go take a goddamned shower. I know I’ve done a serious day’s work.”

But this solidarity with the working man isn’t Harlan’s real reason for refusing to begin writing on a computer, any more than not requiring others to dig coal and precious metals from the earth in the making and powering of the computer components is Wendell Berry’s real reason. Both men know the sacramental importance of their work. Neither man wants to mess with that element of the sacramental in what they do – not because they’re both in their seventies and are suspicious of new technologies, but because they both know that their work is vitally important and need to honor it through retaining the sacramental and physical celebratory aspects of it.

#

I mentioned earlier that Wendell Berry is that rarest of rare things in the 21st Century (or for most of the 20th Century, for that matter) – a serious intellectual who is also rural and agrarian.

We simply take it for granted that our serious thinkers will be urban men and women, professors and travelers all, sophisticated, disconnected from some mere physical place, citizens of the world rather than turners-of-dirt and spreaders-of-manure who identify with one little patch of land in one little county in one backwater state.

But think about the Founding Fathers of our country – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson – the last two being some of the greatest of all the final philosophes of the Enlightenment. And while neither Washington nor Jefferson made a habit of coming to the dinner table with manure on their boots, all of these philosophes and Founders were men of the soil – farmers, land owners, men who loved and identified with local and specific places, husbandmen, nurturers. Franklin’s wit and wisdom, like Wendell Berry’s, was ripe with real-world knowledge, with deep care for community and place, and with a farmer’s love and understanding of the perversity of weather, crops, animals, the economy, and human nature.

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the least-likely (at least in terms of physical appearance and background) profound intellectual in America’s history, combined – as does Wendell Berry – the deep learning of books, the real lessons of the classical Greeks, and the down-home humor of plows, pig lots, and manure spreaders. All of these men were revolutionaries. And all of these men loved both tradition and communities.

Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America

“Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors (i.e. the happy bringers of new technologies and specialties and profit motives and cultural changes in American life) have fragmented and demolished traditional communities . . . They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible. And with alarming frequency they have been believed and trusted by their victims . . .

“The best farming requires a farmer – a husbandman, a nurturer – not a technician or businessman. A technician or businessman, given the necessary abilities and ambitions, can be made in a little while, by training. A good farmer, on the other hand, is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly, in what his time imposes or demands, but he is also made by generations of experience. This essential experience can only be accumulated, tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground, in which the past has prepared the present and the present safeguards the future.”

#

The philosophic and political sources of Wendell Berry’s conviction are very difficult for somone outside the American tradition to understand. To be honest, they’re very difficult for someone within the American tradition – even scholars – to understand, especially in this debased era where so much political thought has come to be expressed in the form of violent and preliterate verbal cartoons that appear to have come from inmates in some particularly unpleasant asylum.

To find the sources of Berry’s vision one can begin with Aristotle’s statement that the whole governs all of its constituent parts rather than modern liberalism’s assumption that priority should always be given to various “parts” – to minority and special-interest groups within the larger polity, to the “wild” bits of “the environment rather than to the reality of nature of which we’re all a part, to the “parts” of the economy rather than to the holistic view of the economy as every part of our life and community and work.

Berry from The Way of Ignorance

“We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with the parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to each other only within the pattern of the whole to which they belong.”

Like Aristotle, Berry believes that the parts of our society, our economy, our community, and our human souls can thrive only when the whole is considered, comprehended, heeded, and cultivated. This, he explains, requires a return of community and individual memories and traditions that we’ve worked hard to throw away in the last century and more.

This demand for focus on the whole rather than the part reflects the writings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:20-22 where Paul writes –“but now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more than those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” As such critics of modern American society as Christopher Lasch have pointed out, the single word that most expresses modern life is “specialization,” and Wendell Berry is no friend or advocate of this process. Specialization, Berry reminds us, has a way of divorcing our work from our understanding of its contribution to, and reliance upon, a greater whole.

Berry chastises those of us who buy into (literally) the modern liberal economy and globalist utopian dreams for our “profound failure of imagination.” He points out that “most people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic. Most people are now fed, clothed, and sheltered from sources, in nature and in the work of other people, toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility.”

To understand the peculiar American antecedents to this Berryian attempt to reconcile the parts with the whole and to reintegrate the individual with the land, community, and natural world surrounding them, one would have to go back to the writings and movements of earlier agrarians: the Populist Movement of the 1890’s, the nineteenth century “Patrons of Husbandry” (the Grange movement), the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliances, and the authors of the 1930 agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand.

These men and movements and communitarian ideals are all but forgotten in the modern liberal world (since the tenets of modern liberalism, as Berry patiently explains, dominate “conservative” as well as “liberal” political philosophy these days.) But the core of these agrarian and communitarian philosophies lives on in the curmudgeony writings of Wendell Berry.

As Eric T. Freyfogle writes in his essay “Wendell Berry and the Limits of Populism” –

“A central theme in the writings of Wendell Berry – maybe the most important one – is his concern about relationships and about the practical and moral urgency of mending them. The world that Berry observes is not made up of parts in isolation: of individual people, distinct tracts of land, and natural resources. It is composed of connected elements, and the connections are as significant as the elements themselves. We have neglected these many connections, Berry tells us, in varied powerful ways. We see the world in fragmented terms, valuing its parts in isolation and ignoring or underestimating the bonds. This fragmentation in perceptions and values extends beyond the physical realm to the intellectual and the moral; here, too, we are prone to see and value pieces and to discount the necessary ties.”

Berry’s solution to some of this fragmentation is an almost forgotten Aristotelian virtue – phronesis. This can be translated as “prudence” – a value that most Americans have put low on their priority list in their rush to get things done, in their preference for “change” at the cost of so many connections to be lost. Phronesis would best be exercised on both local and national scales, Berry argues, by forming judgments not on abstractions or theory, but rather always upon particular circumstance and local knowledge, and always within the demands and limits set by nature.

For all of today’s trendy talk of nature and limits, I cannot imagine Wendell Berry ever becoming a friend or admirer of Al Gore, and not just because Gore has qualified himself as one of the latest entries in America’s long list of big, fat hypocrites.

Gore is the advocate of Reason Über Alles; Berry is the prophet of love. Gore speaks always in sweeping global terms; Berry turns all discussions to the specific person and place. Berry might remind us of the days, not so long ago, when Al Gore and Bill Clinton had themselves seen and photographed stringing fiberoptic wire to schools as the two explained that connecting all schools and students to the Internet was the “cure for education.” Berry might point out that driving young children to the raunchiest red-light district in the toughest part of a major city and kicking them out of the car would certainly offer an “education” to the young ones, but it is not good policy.

Al Gore has been touting the beauty of the Information Superhighway for some time now. Wendell Berry is one of those few remaining voices that reminds us that superhighways are good for getting somewhere fast if you don’t really care about all the places you’re whizzing by. Berry might even remind us that those superhighways, information and otherwise, cut through private places that were once fields and homes, bypassing real communities as they go.

Finally, Al Gore and his many end-of-the-world false-prophet clones represent the kind of force-of-history Movements (with a capital “M”) that Wendell Berry deeply dislikes and always distrusts. Gore and his technocrat ilk give us globalism disruption and runaway-technology destruction with one hand and point with alarm with the other hand.

Most of all, they make a fortune saying they’re trying to save the Earth when few if any of them have ever had any real earth of their own to save.

Berry writes in “Preserving Wilderness” that humans must – “consciously and conscientiously ask of their work: Is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning and answering of this phrase is minutely particular: it can occur only with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems, and neighborhoods.”

#

Wendell Berry is the only person – other than myself – who I’ve heard ask, in the terrible aftermath of 9/11 – “What is all this Homeland Security shit?” (Except, of course, Berry is far too much the gentleman to use the word “shit” in his public spoken or written language. He may shovel the stuff much of each day on his farm, but he doesn’t shovel it in his essays. That’s my crude contribution to the discussion.)

But then again, what is all this “Homeland Security” shit?

“Homeland” – a word that popped fully grown and gowned from the forehead of the Bush Administration shortly after 9/11 -- is simply not an American term to me. It does not reflect an American way of thinking. I have almost never encountered it in my decades of reading books by Americans about America, even after trolling across four centuries of such writing. “Homeland” is the kind of word that I would expect to hear fall trippingly from the tongue in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. In my experience, Americans love to talk sentimentally about “home” – as in, “I’ll be home for Christmas” -- but not about some huge, abstract, waiting-to-be-saluted-or-defended “homeland.” This whole new word and idea of “Homeland” – related to security or otherwise – has appeared like a huge, black wart on our nation’s beloved and familiar face. And it looks cancerous to me.

Kimberly K. Smith, in her essay “Wendell Berry’s Political Vision,” wrote – “The lesson of September 11 was for Berry an ancient one, and one that permeates all of his writings: the world is not and never will be a safe place. We must learn how to live a fully human life in a dangerous and unpredictable environment – not by seeking godlike control over the conditions of our existence but by cultivating those virtues (moderation, prudence, propriety, fidelity) that will allow us to live gracefully in the presence of fear.”

To understand Berry’s response, we again have to return to a currently out-of-favor concept that was considered an essential virtue by the ancient Greeks – sophrosyne. This was their counterpart to the classical vice of hubris or arrogance. Sophrosyne, Smith explains, is sometimes translated as humility, “but it also denotes self-control (moderation, temperance), prudence, and good management.”

Smith continues, “Wendell Berry’s political vision is a provocative alternative to the vision guiding most of his fellow citizens and lawmakers in the post-September 11 world. Against our national ideals of security, autonomy, and economic and military ascendancy, Berry advocates humility, community, and restraint. No amount of power, he warns, will make us completely safe; we cannot through technological advance escape our responsibility for and dependence on the land and each other. A meaningful life consists in embracing these dependencies and fulfilling our obligations as best we can with our limited capacities.”

In his post-9/11 essay “A Citizen’s Response to ‘The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,'” Berry wrote –

“A nation can be independent, as our founders instructed us . . . Though independence may at times require some sort of self-defense, it cannot be maintained by the defiance of other nations or by making war against them. At the very least, a nation should be able sustainably to feed, clothe, and shelter its citizens, using its own sources and by its own work. And of course that requires a nation to be, in the truest sense, patriotic: Its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and productive love. They must not, for any price, destroy its beauty, its health, or its productivity.”

In Wendell Berry’s world, there is neither “homeland” nor “security” in our obsession with “Homeland Security”. All truthful talk of “home” must relate to real places, actual people, and living relationships. “Security” can only come from making these places, people, and relationships more integral to your life, more dear to your heart, and more central to your work.

From his poem To a Siberian Woodsman –

I sit in the shade of the trees of the land I was born in.
As they are native I am native, and I hold to this place as
        carefully as they hold to it.
I do not see the national flag flying from the staff of the
        sycamore,
or any decree of the government written on the leaves of the
        walnut,
nor has the elm bowed before monuments or sworn the oath of
        allegiance.
They have not declared to whom they stand in welcome.

Wendell Berry would have no interest at all in our newly discovered “online communities” – nor in the “gay community” nor the “Christian community” nor any other community that consists of seeking out the like-minded and similar-believing. To him, the true “homeland” is the real community near you, beginning with one’s neighbors – and the “first neighbor,” as Kierkegaard taught us, is our wife or husband. To the rest of one’s family and to one’s real, physical neighbors, Berry admonishes us to imagine and practice the full range of what Kierkegaard called “our joyful duties” – work, worship, stewardship, the preservation of mystery and dignity in ourselves and those near us, and return. Always, when we can, return.

In his “Citizen’s Response,” Berry pointed out the deep and inescapable con job that lies beneath even the most well-meaning rhetoric about “homeland security” –

“Increasingly, Americans – including, notoriously, their politicians – are not from anywhere. And so they have in this ‘homeland,’ which their government now seeks to make secure on their behalf, no home place that they are strongly moved to know or love or use well or protect.”

Wendell Berry is no world-saver. He has no use for “you easy lovers and forgivers of mankind,” those lovers of disembodied Men but despisers of so many individual specimens of the race. He explained this to us decades ago in “The Mad Farmer’s Manifesto: The First Amendment” –

       My love must be descriminate
       or fail to bear its weight.

In the opening chapter of Berry’s 1988 elegiac novel Remembering, the character of Andy Catlett – who has lost his connection with his community and self when he lost his hand in an accident – passes through an airport “Gate of Universal Suspicion” and is . . . . reduced. As P. Travis Kroeker writes – “The electronic eye is not merely an abstracting, depersonalizing gaze that admits ‘passengers’ according to the apparent harmlessness of their personal effects. Its more sinister effect is to foster the disembodying gaze of erotic fear and fantasy that comes to replace the loving eye of the soul when the vision of trust is lost.”

Imagine, if you can, how much wider and deeper that disembodying gaze of erotic fear and fantasy that has replaced the loving eye of the soul has become in the years since 1988.

How can we regain the vision of trust that some of us only dimly remember and that so many of us have never experienced? Not, Berry argues, by putting our hopes in either what the poet W.H. Auden called Arcadian (“things were perfect once”) or Utopian (“things will be perfect when we make them so”) visions. Those are fantasies that will always remain unfulfilled.

Rather, we can – as the lost character Andy does – pour into our current emptiness a host of memories of our own people, our own loves, our own past and present hopes for community and simplicity. Andy’s turning point – away from despair – was marked by a memory of a time spent with his grandmother, to whom he was sent to provide help on the farm and company after her husband died. One of their shared activities was to raise chickens hatched in the old-fashioned, traditional way under a hen.

        The evening comes when they put the eggs under a setting hen in the henhouse. He is holding the marked eggs in a basket, and Dorie is taking them out one by one and putting them under the hen.
        “You know, you can just order the chickens from a factory now, and they send them to you through the mail.”
        “
But this is the best way, ain’t it?” He hopes it is, for he loves it.
        “It’s the cheapest. And the oldest. It’s been done this way for a long time.”
        “How long, do you reckon?”
        “Oh, forever.”
        She puts the last egg under the hen and strokes her back as she would have stroked a baby to sleep. Out the door he can see the red sky in the west. And he loves it there in the quiet with her, doing what has been done forever.
        “I hope we always do it forever,” he says.
        She looks down at him, and smiles, and then suddenly pulls his head against her. “Oh, my boy, how far away will you be sometime, remembering this?”

In later years, after the pain and loss of his hand and his ability to work and live the way he wants drive him to something like madness, Andy runs as far away from his tiny town of Port William, Kentucky, as he can. He ends up in California, where so many Americans have fled, and looks down at the bay and Pacific Ocean beyond. He realizes, as our nation must, that he can go no further in flight or fear or selfish fantasy. Turning back from the bay, Andy sees the risen sun.

He is held, though he does not hold. He is caught up again in the old pattern of entrances: of minds into minds, mind into place, places into minds. The pattern limits and complicates him, singling him out in his own flesh. Out of the multiple possible lives that have surrounded and beckoned to him like a crowd around a star, he returns to himself, a mere meteorite, scorched, small, and fallen. He has met again his one life and one death, and he takes them back.

Sincerely,

(Note: Part II of this essay about Wendell Berry will be in the next Message from Dan)

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