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“A Curmudgeon with a Sweet Song”

barn silos

My first impression of Wendell Berry came from a photo of him smiling. It conjured an image of a gentle grandpa. But I soon realized Berry wrote essays like a grumpy old man who doesn’t like the internet.  He seemed to be some mad prophet crying out, “The whole world is off! Conventional ideas of the good life are almost all wrong!” And this curmudgeon proudly proclaimed he would never own a computer! But I leaned in closer and was eventually won over by the warmth of his fiction and poetry. Wendell Berry became one of my story guides

I refer to “story guides” as those who have named something for me, exposed me, or brought me out of isolation. Story guides clarify my experience, articulating some pain, longing, or joy that had left me tongue-tied or even ashamed. They often reveal my narrowness and uncover my facile explanations of my beliefs. Story guides ultimately help me clarify and connect to my own story, which helps me connect to other people’s stories. My story guides help me improve my work, which is to help others tell a better story.

Wendell Berry is one of my story guides. His novels moved me so much that I read all his fiction work in one season. I had never heard someone tell the truth about the human experience like this, capturing its comfort, joy, along with profound and unspoken sadness. And his settings and description show such appreciation of landscape and embodiment.

Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry put words to my anxiety and ambivalence about always being in a hurry, the diminishing availability of silence, and the distraction of technological devices. He questions the bias toward the convenient, the new, and the large. He’s bored by the blandness of mass production. He names a sense of loss I feel about the world, and plants foretastes of the world long for. I’ve had brief glimpses of that world and few words for it, but hope is soon beaten out of me by our frenetic and cynical cultural environment.

In many of his Sabbath poems, Berry walks the Kentucky countryside, encountering remnants of the first week of creation, and seems to hear faint echoes of its song.

To sit and look at the light-filled leaves
May let us see, or seem to see…
The blessed conviviality
That sang creation’s seventh sunrise,
Time when the Maker’s radiant sight
Made radiant everything He saw…
And everything he saw was filled
With perfect joy and life and light.

(A Timbered Choir, Sabbath poem 1979, III)

Berry’s fiction evokes a community with deep affection for each other and the land they’ve entrusted to them. His fictional town of Port William is no nostalgic escape to the “good old days.” While I sense a connection to Eden in Port William, the companionship experienced there includes hardship, disappointment, brokenness, illness, grief, and death. But the people are rooted in place and have cultivated gratitude, endurance, mercy, and an eye for beauty. They are a “membership” of interdependent and rooted neighbors.

Not only does he make beautiful art in his fiction and poetry, but Berry is also an essayist who protests. He names the frustration,  disconnection, and disillusionment I feel about the modern world. I would go further to say that Berry expresses an anger about the destruction that’s taken place in the name of “progress” by what he calls the “industrial” mind.

“The way of industrialism is the way of the machine. To the industrial mind, a machine is not merely an instrument for doing work or amusing ourselves or making war; it is an explanation of the world and of life.”

(The Agrarian Standard)

“For a long time now, we have understood ourselves as traveling toward some sort of industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity. And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise. Now we face overwhelming evidence that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault, and that nature does not tolerate or excuse our abuses.”

(Nature as Measure)
industry

Wendell Berry is willing to risk being called a curmudgeon to name something that we should be angry about. But his frustration and anger arise from affection because something beautiful and wonderful has been defaced. Berry’s thought reminds me of something I read by Cornelius Plantinga,  who wrote of the “vandalism of shalom.” Shalom is a term for the harmony and cooperation of humans, their land, and God, a local flourishing strengthened cooperation and embracing limits. Planting said that God is against sin because he for shalom

I admire Berry’s courage and non-conformity. Unlike so many politicians, Berry calls out the big corporations for destroying the environment and the local way of life. He is not afraid to embrace beauty, goodness, and truth out of fear of been called religious. Unlike so many preachers, Berry values the physical and doesn’t separate the Word from flesh. His character Jayber Crow, the seminarian-turned-barber of Port William, was frustrated by this tendency to hold “a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works… They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still, they liked it.”

In Port William, more than anyplace else I had been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it.

(Jayber Crow)

I wrote in my last post about feeling rootless like an exile.  I lived in five different places before I went to college, and three since. Berry extols being rooted, staying in a locality, and caring for it. I’ve never done that. Even when I lived in one town for years, I did not bond with the place. I lived abstractly, building affinity around professed beliefs.  The community I gathered with was more of a demographic enclave without connection to any specific geography.

I rejected a tremendous opportunity to put down roots as a young man. My father acquired from his father twenty-three acres of beautiful rolling and wooded hills in western Pennsylvania. But I dismissed it.  The place didn’t measure up to what I’d fallen in love with in California—the Pacific north of San Francisco, the Redwoods and Sequoias, Yosemite Valley. I now realize that we used those scenic places as tourists. But my parent’s land, shared with my grandparents, was home—a place of learning and memories I still draw on. No, it wasn’t perfect, but I was given a hands-on education of experience and interaction.  

As I read Berry’s respectful portrayals of farmers and shopkeepers, my unconscious shame or embarrassment was uncovered about growing up in a small town. When I was a college student, living in an urban area, my roommates said I was from a “hick town.” I sheepishly accepted their judgment and slowly strove to be an intellectual. I developed a smugness toward the rural and the “working class”—even though my experiences in so-called blue-collar work were formative.

Now, there’s no place I’d rather go than my little town of Wexford and live on the land again and have those old boring people come and tell their stories again. But that opportunity is no longer available. Fortunately, with the help of Berry’s emphasis on the stored treasures of memories, I do go and re-remember, savoring the enchanted moments. I’ve revisited in my mind my father’s little manufacturing company and seen the faces of the welders and machinists who teased me as I pushed my broom on the greasy floor.

Reading Wendell Berry’s body of fiction helped me revise my story. His stories showed me there was something abstract and defective about my story. I saw that I had become so intellectual and “spiritual” that I distanced myself from the early places, people, and physical experiences that nurtured me.

I made the mistake of thinking my experience of God began with the beliefs and behaviors I adopted as a member of a religious organization. The reality was, I was immersed in the sacramental realities of creation and embodied image-bearers from day one.

Suggested Reading

The best way to get acquainted with Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction is to start with That Distant Land, a collection of short stories that begin in the 1800s and take the reader through World War II to almost the present.

One of my favorite Berry stories is “Dismemberment,”  which shows one character’s wounds tempted him to cut himself off from his friends. The story is not in any book but can be read for free at  https://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/berry_su15.html

A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems 1979-1997

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