Review: Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (Counterpoint Press. Pp. 192. $26)
Review by Cole Hartin
Reading Wendell Berry always feels like that first splash of cool water in front of the bathroom sink each morning. It’s sobering, refreshing, and alerts us to the world around us. In a world obsessed with technology and progress, and in a Church obsessed with relevance and growth, Wendell Berry takes the reader back to more essential ingredients in life: the food we must eat, the people who raise it, and the land on which it all takes place. Berry’s vision is deeply theological; his work is always colored by the reality of God and our role as human creatures, even if this fundamental truth hovers mostly in the background.
The Art of Loading Brush, Berry’s most recent contribution to an agrarian way of seeing the world, spans across several genres, beginning with philosophical essays, moving to fiction, and ending with a poem.
One of the themes that resounds throughout the bookis Berry’s continued insistence on treating the local before the global, and the immediate present over the abstract future. For readers familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s ethics, Berry’s work offers a complementary vision of the world of food and farming that — though not as theologically rich — is deeply humane.
The first essay in Berry’s work is reflection on what it might mean to live within limits regarding farming, a vocation that at its core is not an industry, but rather an art requiring deep knowledge and affection for this field and that river. This essay deals with the specifics of governmental regulation and community farming initiatives, all with a consciousness regarding the age of Donald Trump, in which both the major vying political parties are deaf to rural farmers of all stripes.
Written with an impressive depth of philosophical sophistication, the second essay, a “letter to a scientific friend,” is a kind of plea for challenging the now orthodox belief in the comprehensive and salvific character of science. Berry quickly moves abstract discussion to his farm as he tackles such questions as climate change, making the ever-pertinent point that however much we may be facing environmental degradation on a global scale, there are truly no global problems or solutions. Rather, we face decisions at home where we live, and the only solution to climate change or any other problem is to begin making better choices on a local scale, here and now.
The last and most substantial essay in this section is an exploration of agrarianism and the treatment of Nature in the poetic tradition; Berry spends a significant amount of time with Alan of Lille, but weaves Homer, Virgil, Milton, Spenser, and Wordsworth into the conversation to present a more agrarian understanding of Nature that he argues has existed intermittently in the Western literary tradition.
The fiction section of the text begins on a somewhat disappointing note; the first piece is simply a thinly veiled description of Berry’s acquaintance with his literary friends (who retain their names) under the guise of Andy Catlett. There is little to delight here. In the few brief pieces that follow, Berry’s old tales of Andy Catlett are revived with descriptions of him as an old man, reflecting on his life and losses; these works are little jewels, but sadly make up so little of this volume.
The last section is really one long “sabbath poem,” for those familiar with Berry’s other poetic publications. These verses are all written on Berry’s weekly sabbaths throughout the year, this one sourced from 2016. In this continuous piece, Berry weaves interior reflections into free-verse depictions of life in Port William.
The Art of Loading Brush will mostly appeal to those who are already admirers of Berry’s work. It does not have the narrative force of his many longer novels on life in Port William, nor the focused clarity of most of his collected essays. It is not classic Berry. It’s a collection of literary gleanings that can’t stand on their own, but together add further depth to this man’s already impressive corpus. They leave the reader with the healthy nostalgia (or is it longing for the world to come?) that permeates so much of Berry’s work, now taking on further importance as the words of a prophet nearing the end of his life.