By W.L. Prehn
A prophet’s gift and calling are not necessarily to predict the future but to know the present with such penetrating insight that the community the prophet serves gains a sense of God’s truth and will. Wendell Berry is a prophet with a profound understanding of the present and wise warnings about the future. Through some of the best poems of the last half century, and more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, Berry has become one of the most admired artists in contemporary American literature.
A native of Kentucky firmly rooted in his ancestral tillage, Berry received the National Humanities Medal and was the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013, and in 2015 was the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. He’s been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Guggenheim Fellow, taught in the English department of New York University, and was a creative writing teacher at the University of Kentucky for 17 years. The esteem for Berry’s work is such that the canonizing editors of the Library of America now publish it.
But Wendell Berry will tell you he is a farmer. He has serious literary interests (to say the least) but he is, first of all, an American farmer and an engaged rural citizen. He assumes that both callings are noble and necessary. Like all great writers whose work lasts beyond their lifetimes, Berry is firmly rooted in a particular place and in the people with whom he plants, votes, and trades stories (and tractor parts). It is only natural that his reflections on place and people rise to both poetry and truths universal. His simple lyrical verse about his beloved patrimony on the Kentucky River reminds us of the Georgics of Virgil, though Berry’s oeuvre is far more rooted in real-world agrarian experience.
The poet laureate of Daniel Boone country embraced the bright world of modern America until he was 30. For some years his desire was to get away from his agrarian roots and find contentment and prosperity in the Big City of unlimited opportunity. He was a sucker for a few seasons only. Not satisfied with his life fueled by a questionable economic system, he returned home to depopulating Henry County, Kentucky, in order to reconnect with the real world. Letting the soil teach him, this gifted writer and brilliant thinker has come to the house of fame by a most unexpected route. He’s made it a habit to stop and take a look at things. He appreciates the world around him.
The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice of this place,
sings in the tops of the tallest sycamores,
but one day he came twice to the railing of my porch
where I sat at work above the river. He was too close
to see with binoculars. Only the naked eye could take him in,
a bird more beautiful than every picture of himself,
more beautiful than himself killed and preserved
by the most skilled taxidermist, more beautiful
than any human mind, so small and inexact,
could hope ever to remember. My mind became
beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only
of himself alive in the only moment of his life.
He had upon him like a light the whole
beauty of the living world that never dies. (From Sabbaths 2003)
The America where the yellow-throated warbler and Berry live in a holy harmony is neglected, abused, and largely forgotten. Even outdoorsmen, environmentalists, ecologists, and health nuts seldom stop in this farm country to buy eggs. A friend of mine who farms in Floyd County, Virginia, says there are two kinds of Americans: those who live “by pavement” and those who live “by dirt.”
The sophisticated and now lionized Berry is decidedly “by dirt.”
Wendell Berry dares to investigate the systemic malaise of the West. None is more fascinated with the interesting epiphenomena of the world than he, but he knows something’s gone wrong and he wants to look deeper. While Berry cannot be pigeonholed politically or religiously — he is at once liberal and conservative, blue and red, a true believer who does not believe everything — he can be called a radical in the best sense of the word. He was once taught how to think. He thinks deeply about any matter about which he and other Americans are asked to vote. Obliged to evaluate fertilizer content or look for pink-eye in his cows, Berry considers the facts in front of him before he decides anything. While he’s cutting back the trumpet vine, Berry will ask the same old question put by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others who cannot take appearances for reality: What are the requirements of human flourishing? Berry’s answer is in this case traditional: We need God. We need the earth. We need each other. He believes late capitalism is destroying our sense of the need for all three.
We should expect a person of Berry’s great moral courage to pull no punches.
The collapse of families and communities—so far, more or less disguisable as “mobility” or “growth” or “progress” or “liberation”—comes from or with the collapse of personal character and is a social catastrophe. It leaves individuals subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by government. The liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological, and even economic responsibilities. Preoccupied with these degraded freedoms, both sides have refused to look straight at the dangers and the failures of government-by-corporations.
The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their semi-religion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for too few restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semi-religion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to temporary homes that are empty all day, every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry, and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that are indefensible and therefore cannot be compromised. (“Caught in the Middle” in Our Only World )
Berry believes we’ve been bought. Our souls are shrinking into pea-sized simulacra of persons. This is integrally related to the fact that our soil is losing its power to grow food and our Enlightenment ingenuity can scrape away the top of a million-year forested mountain in less than four seconds. Our minds are filled with scintillating rationality and little understanding. We have no hometown. We are proud of our self-reliance and individualism and are lonely as hell. We crave satisfaction, have more choices than ever, eat too much, and go to bed hungry. We have become an altogether new thing in nature: Consumers. Our family life, education, and religion make us such. And our democratically elected government is wont to fill the vacuum created by the loss of community and true belief with strange, novel sentiments. But the new idealism only poisons the living well of civic consciousness and the village sympathies that make life enjoyable.
Berry’s understanding of the basic, fundamental facts and needs of human existence is what guides him into his characteristic appreciation and celebration of the seamless unity of all that is.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here. (“What We Need Is Here”)
The intuition of order and harmony in nature is not, and does not need to be, verified by empirical science. Everyone knows about it, even laying hens and cockroaches. Berry reminds us that “nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself which includes it. A work of art, which accepts this condition, and exists upon its terms, honors the Creation, and so becomes a part of it” (Standing by Words). Berry believes that the human mind is amazing but must learn anew how to comprehend all the connections that make reality.
This great Bard — as great an American voice as Thoreau’s or Whitman’s — assumes that the reality before and all around us in nature is infinitely complex and therefore cannot be fully comprehended by any human intellect. This should give us caution. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” If God is the Author of creation, and humans are made in the image of God, then the godly man or woman will grow wise by stopping long enough to behold the goodness all around us and to look for signs of God in the created world. The following lines are advice to all of us, whether city folk or the hard-working country people with and for whom their bardic champion and eloquent prophet lives his life.
So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed. (“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”)
To take Berry for an idealist, or even for an agrarian romantic, would be to overlook his contribution to American agriculture and underestimate his genius as a writer. He is a realist. He must pay bills and keep up with commodity prices in The Wall Street Journal. He must know why young heifers lose weight. We shall not hold it against him if he discerns glory in the dark humus and the struggling, forgotten people “whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,” those for whom “the soil is a divine drug” (“The Man Born to Farming”).
Wendell Berry says that God means business. We must stop what we are doing. We must plant both feet firmly on the ground. We must look around and take deep breaths. We must associate with others who are as worried as we are. We must allow the seamless reality of this world to impress us with its goodness, beauty, oneness, and truth. If we would but follow this Bard’s homemade advice, then perhaps the Creator of our only world will find that our fallow souls have become fertile.