Critical Annotations: Three books by Wendell Berry
- What Are People For?
- In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World
- Sayings and Doings
Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is (or has been) an ecologist, a writer, a farmer, an activist, a father, a poet, a teacher… the list goes on. But at heart, it would be fair to say that Berry is a human being. He is someone intimately concerned with what it means to live, to be, and to do so effectively, with grace, love, and humility. The three works referenced here are all written with that goal clearly and obviously in mind. Berry writes almost exclusively from the realm of his personal experience. He is unquestionably concerned with the larger world, but searches for answers and perspective in his daily life and in the community of people, animals and natural phenomena that surround him.
What Are People For? Is a collection of essays (and a couple of poems) that span the years from 1975 to 1990, all dealing with the question of the human in some way, what it means to be human, how we interact with each other and with the planet. The individual essays are wonderful, but the book, when taken as a whole, creates a grid by which you can begin to see Berry’s over-arching worldview. This is a man (one could imagine) who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, who has great affection for the things that could be considered “real” (people, animals, food, relationships), and who will not be complicit (either by action or by inaction) in the ills and wrongs he sees in the world around him.
The book begins with two poems titled “Damage” and “Healing.” The first, written in 1975, is a four-page work that tells of a pond he attempted to sculpt from a hillside on his Kentucky farm. It is the story of the failure of that effort, when a heavy rain caused the downhill levy of the pond to give way, flooding several acres of his farm, and damaging not only land, but equipment and dwellings. He takes full responsibility for this failure, and feels not only the responsibility, but also the regret, deeply:
“And yet there is damage—to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.
Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it”(p. 6).
The second poem, “Healing,” is a meditation on grace, upon what he calls “The grace that is the health of creatures,” and which, “can only be held in common”(p. 9).
These poems set the tone for the book, much of which could be considered cultural critique, firmly in the context of personal responsibility. Berry is not interested primarily in telling others how to live their lives; he is interested in further discovering how to live his. But his passion for authenticity, and for the protection of the earth, of lives, of relationships and resources, necessarily forces him to take on the mantle of activist from time to time. It’s not enough to retreat to your farm in Kentucky when you see that the strip mining is corrupting the land, polluting the water, and poisoning the air.
The book is divided in to three parts. The first–the two poems already mentioned. The second part is consists of stories he tells of people who have lived on the land, and have done so (at least in some ways) rightly. He tells the story of Nate Shaw, a black sharecropper in Alabama in the late 1800’s who, despite any real education, knew the land, knew the value of people, and believed in his knowledge so fiercely that refused a plea bargain and spent twelve years in jail after confronting a group of sheriff’s deputies who had come to take another man’s stock. Berry makes it clear that “Shaw is not potentially admirable; he is admirable as he is”(p. 24). In other words, he is not to be admired for what he could have been had he not been so disadvantaged, he is to be admired for exactly who he was.
As he tells the story of “Henry Claudill In The Cumberlands,” and “Wallace Stegner And The Great Community,” you begin to get a sense of what these men have in common, and why Berry holds them in such high esteem. It comes clear in “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” as he clarifies the difference between Abbey as an environmentalist, and Abbey as an autobiographer. He says:
“As an autobiographer, his work is self-defense; as a conservationist, it is to conserve himself as a human being. But this is self-defense and self-conservation of the largest and most noble kind, for Mr. Abbey understands that to defend and conserve oneself as a human being in the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else. What would be the hope being personally whole in a dismembered society, or personally healthy in a land scalped, scraped, eroded, and poisoned, or personally free in a land entirely controlled by the government, or personally enlightened in an age illuminated only by TV?”(p. 40)
This is Berry’s goal, not just his own conservation, but that of the world in which he lives, of the people with whom he lives and works.
The third part of the book, with this groundwork of context already complete, is devoted to his pointed essays and cultural critiques. Again, these are shorter essays (most are only three to five pages), written on specific issues. But presented as a whole, and in context, they build a powerful picture of the human, and of the value Berry places on work, ecology, and community in the process of defining that idea.
He speaks of protest in the chapter “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” writing about Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.” Berry speaks of the futility of social critique, and the pointlessness of individual action in the face of overwhelming cultural disagreement. He acknowledges the futility, but makes the point that the action is still necessary because, “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by the hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence”(p. 62).
In the chapter “Style and Grace,” he compares Hemmingway’s Big Two-Hearted River with Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, wondering why Hemingway’s work troubles him so, and eventually deciding that it’s because he can’t associate with Hemmingway’s ending because it has more to do with style than it does with grace. The grace he speaks of here is the same he mentioned earlier in the poem “Healing,” where it is a grace of community, of relationship:
”Fishing here is understood as an art, and as such it is emblematic of all that makes us companions with one another, joins us to nature, and joins the generations together. This is the connective power of culture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails; when it fails, it fails into tragedy, but here it’s a tragedy that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66).
This theme, of community, and its centrality to true human experience (love) is one that emerges, almost unexpectedly, as the book goes on. Berry equates ecology, our relationship with nature, others, and ourselves, as a truly holy ground. And out of that comes his definition (although he rarely uses the word) for love itself. But this is a love that requires great work, on both an individual and a societal level. Like the land itself, it is not something that will bear fruit without diligent effort, as he says in his essay on Huckleberry Finn, called “Writer and Region”:
“It is arguable, I think, that our country’s culture is still suspended as if at the end of Huckleberry Finn, assuming that its only choices are either a deadly ‘civilization’ of piety and violence, or an escape into some ‘territory’ where we may remain free of adulthood and community obligation… We have hardly begun to imagine community life, and the tragedy that is at the heart of community life”(p. 75).
It is his belief that these tragedies, this pain and growth of community life, are the way toward being fully human, that these experiences are the ones define our lives and give it meaning (although I doubt he would use those words… or that he would even conceive of a life “without meaning”). He concludes that Twain, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, foreshadows his own eventual obsession with:
“’…the damned human race’ and the malevolence of God—ideas that were severely isolating and, ultimately, self-indulgent. He was finally incapable of that magnanimity that is the most difficult and the most necessary: forgiveness of human nature and human circumstance. Given human nature and human circumstance, our only relief is in this forgiveness, which then restores us to community and its ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy”(p. 79).
Throughout the rest of the book, and the remaining essays, Berry delves into issues of politics and religion (“God and Country”), local economics and ecology (“An Argument for Diversity,” “Economy and Pleasure”), and even technology and gender relations (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” and “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – and yes, he does tie them together eventually), but for my questions, and my current search, it’s all icing on the cake. He has made his stand in terms of community, relationships and the worth of the human being. It’s stirring stuff.
Similarly, the book In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for A Changed World is a collection of essays on a theme. It starts with an piece written for Orion magazine in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This essay (bearing the same title as the book), in twenty-seven paragraphs states the clearest, most concise and coherent response to the tragedy I have ever read. Berry presages the “War on Terror,” predicting that any violent response will simply provoke greater violence. He starts from the observation that we will soon equate that date (9/11/01) with the “unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day”(p. 1), and quickly moves to further rumination about the nature of that optimism, the degree to which our culture has placed its faith (and its fate) entirely in the hands of those who would feed that “unquestioning optimism,” and eventually on to what he calls “National self-righteousness”(p. 5), and to the need for investment in true “peaceableness.” He ends the essay by stating that the only remedy, eventually, is to “teach our children (and learn ourselves) that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve… An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy”(p. 9)
Following this, are two longer-form essays, one titled “The Idea of a Local Economy,” in which he builds the case for a truly local system of exchange and production, and finally the essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” wherein he advances the insane and potentially revolutionary idea that people should ultimately take responsibility for their own destiny, and that we must stop giving the power for our most important decisions over to organizations where the decision-making is determined by corporate interest. This essay contains one of my favorite phrases of Berry’s:
“One way we could describe the task ahead is by saying that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know—and care—what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution, but it is also common sense”(p. 41).
This sums up Berry’s whole ethos. He is a revolutionary, but only because common sense has gone so entirely out of style that it is now considered sedition.
Berry’s small book of poetry Sayings and Doings is, in many ways just like the second chapter of What Are People For?. It is a series of small poems, often just three or four lines, that tell stories from his past. Sometimes they are just anecdotes re-recorded as they happened (almost like a “heard on the street” column in a newspaper), and sometimes they are longer pieces, designed to tell a story. But in every instance, and especially in totality, they present a picture of a time and place, a recollection of a life spent with people of the land, and of the wisdom that comes from people who have lived their lives with each other, and for each other.
There’s the story of the waking up in the night when he was six. His father had taken the tobacco crop to town to sell, and they stayed up all night talking about how it might go, whether he might get anything for it. It was “a bad time,” where “a year of a man’s work might be worth nothing.” And in the end, when his father came home, he “came back in the dark that night, without a dime.”
These are short clips, snapshots that speak thousands of words. As in the poem (they are not named, nor are the pages numbered) where two men meet after some hard times, where the markets were down, and the tobacco was too cheap to even sell:
“An old man
I knew came up to me at the sale and said,
‘Well, Harry, we made it,
and we didn’t commit suicide, did we?’
And I thought to myself, ‘No,
but you’ve thought about it.’”
Berry’s belief is that it is through community, in relationship with others, and in right relationship with the earth and with God that we discover the truth of who we are. He is not interested in Thoreau’s naturalist hermitage. As the poem “Healing” at the start of What are People For? states:
“In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world”(p. 9).
Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (June 2005). In the presence of fear: Three essays for a changed world (5th ed.). Great Barrington: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Orion Society, The Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (Oct. 1975). Sayings and doings. Frankfort: Books In Print, (c) 2006 R.R. Bowker LLC; Gnomon Press Publisher Record.