The Christian Science Monitor once hailed Wendell Berry as “the prophetic American voice of our day.” Raised on a farm in northeastern Kentucky, Berry studied English at the University of Kentucky and creative writing at Stanford. In his early 30s, he returned to his native Henry County and purchased a farm, where he has remained for more than 40 years, writing, teaching and farming. With a voluminous corpus of fiction, poetry and essays, Berry is best known as a cultural critic, calling the modern world to task for its addiction to technology and economic growth, and arguing that this unchecked infatuation has often engendered violence against both nature and human communities.
Considering Berry’s not-undeserved reputation for grumpiness, I would imagine that “prophet” might be a tough mantle to wear; but like Jeremiah and other prophets of old, Berry has consistently lamented the destructive tendencies of our age with a forceful, eloquent and uncomfortably accurate critique. I am no expert on his work, nor am I on very familiar terms with him, but Wendell Berry and his writings have played a pivotal role in my own vocation as an organic farmer. From my experience, then, I offer an appreciation of him in three kinder, gentler roles: mentor, model and midwife.
Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Robert Bly and others in the modern “men’s movement” have averred that men need mentors to help them journey through childhood, adolescence and the stages of mature adulthood. They are right about this need, not only for men but also for women, and even for the culture at large. Though he would likely not realize it and would certainly not claim the title, Berry has been a mentor to me for almost two decades, ever since I struck up an occasional correspondence with him after encountering his writings in a college seminar at Indiana University, taught by Scott Russell Sanders, an author, friend and fellow conservationist of Berry.
A mentor inspires; a mentor counsels and guides; a mentor challenges and affirms. In Sanders’s college seminar we read The Unsettling of America, one of Berry’s best-known books. Like much of his work, Unsettling decries the industrialization of agriculture, as epitomized in the admonitions to “plow fencerow to fencerow” and to “get big or get out.” The book offers a powerful critique of the culture out of which large-scale, environmentally and socially destructive “agribusiness” can emerge. As a youthful idealist, I was not only convinced by Berry’s critique; more important, I was inspired by his vision of a humbler, more decentralized economy and culture that would be more intimately connected to the unique possibilities and limitations of particular locales.
The trouble is that a gentler, more sustainable future is uncharted territory, and no one knows exactly how to get there. Even if we had cultural blueprints or roadmaps, each of us has a unique path to tread, dictated by our temperament, gifts and circumstances. Over the years Berry patiently read and responded to my long letters, in which I puzzled out difficult vocational choices related to career and lifestyle—two priorities that often tend to compete with each other in the modern age. When I was ready to give up my academic pursuits for the romantic ideal of “life on the land,” his short, pithy, handwritten reply reminded me kindly (but firmly) that farming is a tough way to make a living and that it would be wise to have a good education to fall back on. When I later lamented that trying to farm part-time alongside the responsibilities of family and a full-time job gave short shrift to all three, he was quick both to commiserate and to affirm the good in these efforts, despite their often wearying frustrations.
Be careful about meeting your heroes, I have always heard—it is a setup for disappointment. Nonetheless, a few years into our correspondence I arranged to visit Berry at his farm. I was thrilled and terrified at the prospect. I knew he admired the Amish, farmed with horses and wrote only by hand and only by daylight. Would he have electricity or any modern conveniences? Would he and his wife Tanya have the perfect and pristine farm, as I had always imagined?
It was indeed a lovely and well-kept place, perched on a lush green hillside overlooking the Kentucky River valley and complete with the requisite white-frame farmhouse, barns and other outbuildings, all in good repair. A woodstove and sturdy, full bookcases were prominent interior features of their home. A television set was conspicuously absent, but I was relieved to discover electric lights, a phone and (praised be Jesus) even store-bought food in the fridge. Like the rest of us mere mortals, Berry makes his own compromises with the modern age.
I was struck most, however, by the degree to which Berry truly did model the values he espouses in his writing. His farm, though situated on difficult, steep terrain (he joked that he breeds sheep with legs longer on one side), offered a testament to decades of patient, rehabilitative care. He seemed to have intimate knowledge of every square foot, and we spent much of my visit hiking through his woodlot, identifying trees and talking about his efforts to heal a hillside scarred with gullies of erosion. Though care and concern for his land often weighed upon him, I could see how truly and deeply he loved it, that his love had made it beautiful and that this challenging landscape was his muse and measure as a writer and a farmer. I keep that land in mind when I read his work, knowing that his writing comes not simply from abstract imagination but from a lasting relationship with a place he knows well. Wendell Berry is a man of his word.
If it is true that any significant and durable change—in a person, in the church, in a culture or in an economy—must balance continuity with the past against the new and different demands of the future still waiting to be born, then perhaps Berry’s most important role is as a midwife: a bridge figure between what has gone before and what lies ahead.
Midwives tend to the health of the mother. Likewise, I believe Berry wants to honor all that is good and right in our past. Much of his work, particularly his fiction, with its consistent cast of characters, centers therefore on the theme of memory: the recollection of a place, the people of that place and all their interconnected stories of heartbreak and joy and wounds and redemption, and respect for the strong, ancient values of community and faithfulness that undergird their love and work. In The Memory of Old Jack, several members of Berry’s fictional Kentucky farming community gather their memories of Jack Beechum, a farmer and wise local patriarch, recently deceased:
In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work. They know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss. The like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.
Given the wistful thread running through Berry’s work, I have often found myself wondering whether he wishes to turn back the clock to an earlier, simpler time. I think he does, in some ways, but he is not blindly nostalgic about the past. In The Hidden Wound, for example, Berry grapples eloquently and personally with the Southern legacy of slavery; and when writing of the fictional community of Port William, he makes clear that it contains seeds of its own decline and demise. He understands that even as we try to remember and preserve the best of our history, we cannot cling to it, but must build on it as the foundation for the future. As what has gone before yields to what is emerging, however, much that is good is inevitably lost. Berry tries to grieve its passing properly.
Birth always entails uncertainty and risk. When it comes to the transformation of cultural values, surely Wendell Berry realizes that a stillbirth is possible. As a collective, we might indeed fail to embrace—or embrace soon or thoroughly enough—the virtues and practices that will heal our environment and our communal lives. Believing that we can circumvent sacrifice and suffering, and discounting our own greed and sinfulness, we might put too much naïve and optimistic faith in mere technical ingenuity and innovation.
Any midwife or mother knows that to bring a child into the world requires pain and great effort. Wendell Berry has worked faithfully and ceaselessly amid our era’s long, difficult labor for a more hopeful future, and I honor and admire him for sharing in its pangs as an unflinching and clear-eyed witness. But as he testifies in his decades-long series of Sabbath poems (collected in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997), there is a time for work and worry, and there is a time for rest and wonder, when the God of mercy bids us to realize that whatever is good and right in the future will come not only by our choosing and working for it but—like a newborn child—as a gift:
Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.
The seemingly insignificant birth of a child in Bethlehem two millennia ago changed the course of history. I believe Berry harbors a stubborn, disciplined hope that a healthier future can likewise be born, but likely not in the form of a grand, dramatic scheme of government or industry. Rather, it will begin—it has begun—much like a child enters life: as a small, humble, vulnerable movement in which individuals and small groups embrace Gospel-rooted values of sufficiency, loving fidelity to places and people and healing work balanced by God-given rest.