Tag Archives: wendell berry

Our Only World


When readers of Wendell Berry see that he has a new book coming out, we tend to read it on reflex. The themes are seldom new; that’s part of the appeal. We read because it means immersing ourselves once again in a particular mind and set of values, expressed with clarity and conviction.

In that sense, this book met expectations. It travels familiar ground: farming well, ecological responsibility, neighborliness, love for one’s place and community, and everywhere a desire to think through even complicated issues systematically, with hope.

Yet I felt a sadness too. There is a pervasive sense of loss in this book — of a culture impoverished of important knowledge, of ties to locality, of vital connections with one another, of basic virtues that once informed our care of “our only world.”

The dominant perspective of the book is that of a farmer who sees the whole complex of American life through the lens of our treatment of land. He refers often to “the middle of the last century” as a time of more intelligent, more coherent agriculture. Farming then was characterized by an attentiveness to scale, contour plowing as an effective way to counter erosion, and diversity. These represent a contrast to the now common techniques of “no till” planting, toxic chemicals, and the vast monocropping of soybeans and corn. Industrialized agriculture, Berry warns, operates according to industrial values of quantity and profit rather than preservation and care. The result is a culture dangerously unaware of the sources of our own life, and one increasingly dependent on large, impersonal entities.

I suppose that’s why Berry felt it necessary to include an essay on the politics of both abortion and homosexual marriage. He paints with a broad brush and misses whole dimensions of the issues in this essay. Though I agree with his basic sense that these are not issues a government has the authority or practical efficacy to resolve, the essay didn’t resolve much either. I found his treatment of the Boston bombing, “The Commerce of Violence,” a more compelling examination of a recent event because it underlines violence as one of the norms of American life, in ways we don’t think about.

Still, he is at his best in these pages writing about the land, whether he’s describing smart forestry, or the 50-year farm bill, or the loss of the willows along the Kentucky River, or the sudden appearance of corn and soybean crops on the rolling hills of his native state. It took me awhile to get through these essays because I often set the book aside with a heavy heart. But as always, Berry does make an effort to hope. He points to examples of people who are getting it right; makes a case (more than once) for the 50-year farm bill published in 2009 by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas; and lists an inventory of resources at hand to help us improve our lot.

Overall the message of the book is that positive change is within reach, but it comes through personal choices and households, not government programs. Berry has a large enough body of work, and a large enough audience after devoting himself to these subjects for over 50 years, to reasonably hope that he is making a change himself when he sits down and takes up a pen to share his take on the world.

I’ll give him the last word here:

Though a clean slate is impossible, as it has always been, we are not destitute of instructions and examples. Though our present anxieties incline us toward theories and illustrations of the natural rapaciousness of humans, not all humans and not all human communities have been so. I don’t think the present bunch of living humans can be allowed to make the (very restful) claim that there is nothing they can do, pleading the incorrigibility of their nature or their circumstances…. My obligation here is only to show that we do have resources, probably enough, if we would pay attention to them.¬† (From “Our Deserted Country”)

Why bother?

“When we reflect that ‘sentence’ means, literally, ‘a way of thinking’ (Latin: sententia) and that it comes from the Latin sentire, to feel, we realize that the concepts of sentence and sentence structure are not merely grammatical or merely academic — not negligible in any sense. A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought — what we have to think with, and what we have to think in. It is, moreover, a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding, but on our hearing, our sense of rhythm and proportion. It is a pattern of felt sense.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” emphasis added)




My eighth grader was asking me last week if I ever thought about whether it was a compound, mixed, or compound-complex sentence that I was writing, and whether I then wrote it down with attention to every phrase and sentence part — adjective, noun, direct object, etc. Brilliant teacher that I am, I extracted the pith of her question: “What’s the point of sentence diagramming?”

She is doomed to diagram sentences, because we use Rod and Staff English. And what she does at the eighth grade level is pretty challenging. I myself only had to practice sentence diagramming twice in all my years of education: in eighth grade, and in a graduate linguistics course. She has been doing it steadily for years now.

Her question is common enough. I have a feeling the only place sentence diagramming is still done (occasionally) is among homeschoolers, and not by all of them. No one seems to like it. (Except geeks like myself, for whom it’s kind of like putting together a puzzle.) And no one seems to know why we should bother with it.

I’m not altogether sure myself. What I told my eighth grader is that it’s like working with legos. Once you learn the different kinds of building blocks, you can put them together to create anything you want without having to think about it. You just reach for what you need, and you know what looks right, and you know how to structure something that will do what it’s supposed to do.

But today I stumbled upon this wonderful definition of a sentence in Wendell Berry’s 1979 essay “Standing by Words.” As is usually the case, he lays his hand with precision and elegance on the heart of the matter. Probably no one thinks in terms of grammatical labels when they build sentences, but they’re helpful in understanding how sentences work — and sentences provide the opportunities and limits through which we can connect with the world outside ourselves. A little tedium is a small price to pay in learning to use them well.

Think she’ll buy it? Her first response was, “I can think without sentences.” But try coming up with an actual thought without a sentence…


A Place in Time

placeintimeThese stories went straight to my heart.

I’ve been a Berry-reader since the mid-nineties and have read everything he’s written, but not since my first reading experience (The Memory of Old Jack) have I been so deeply moved by something he’s written. A Place in Time offers twenty short stories about the people and events of Port William, the fictional community in Kentucky that Berry has been developing imaginatively since Nathan Coulter in 1960.

Like Old Jack, much of this book is preoccupied with aging and mortality. Characters we’ve grown to love are getting old, and we are given a tender account of what’s on their minds, and how they view their lives, as they approach death. Their lives are full of richness, and also heartache. In one story, we meet young Tom Coulter before he goes off to war. In another, Burley Coulter remembers various people and eras — including the events of Nathan Coulter, and the loss of Tom in the war, as seen from his perspective. In another, we see Big Ellis courting Annie May Cordle, a vision of him in his youth that’s followed a few stories later by a glimpse of him on his deathbed.

The cumulative effect of working through these stories is to place us within the remembering mind of someone who has loved, and belonged to, the Port William membership. The structure of the book is psychologically realistic, because our minds and memories work associationally. As we read this collection, we encounter Burley Coulter alive and exuberant in one story, yet in another, he’s dead and buried as Art Rowanberry points out his burial place to Andy Catlett. In one story Elton Penn is young and strong and compelling; in another, he’s unexpectedly gone, leaving a house full of mourners and a neatly hung work jacket on the barn wall. The sequence isn’t chronological but associational, and probably thematic.

Several stories made me cry. Probably the most tender, to me, is “The Requirement,” in which Burley visits a failing Big Ellis. A few made me laugh out loud as well, such as “The Early Education of Andy Catlett.” I read this one aloud to my family in the car. I had read it online a few years ago, but it struck me as funny now as it did then, and my family loved it too.

As in previous works, I feel that Andy Catlett is the narrative center of this collection — the perspective in which Berry most invests himself. Andy (like Berry) is a member of my parents’ generation, and that too made these stories very meaningful for me. I felt like I recognized some of the themes and preoccupations of a soul in the rapidly changing world, themes I am beginning to develop myself in my thoughts, and which are more advanced in my parents: the search for coherence in one’s life; the growing awareness of mortality, and of suffering; the immeasurable value of dependable friendships; character, and exemplary lives; memory. The didactic voice was more subdued in these stories than in some previous works, in which the main concern has seemed to be to make an argument about culture and agriculture. Yet the values Berry has been setting before us for 50 years now shine from these pages in characters whose lives exemplify the quiet heroism of long perseverance and care for the world.

Jayber Crow

I read Jayber Crow when it first came out, and I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. Over the last week I’ve reread it, and I liked it better this time around. Purportedly the life story of the barber in Berry’s fictional community of Port William, I enjoyed the reflectiveness, the way Berry’s narrative slows me down and won’t permit skimming, the beauty of the nature writing, and the expertly-drawn passage of time from an earlier America to the angst of the modern age. Jayber’s life spans some key transitions from local to global, from peace to habitual national war, from small, diversified agriculture to agribusiness, from community to… what? What do we call what we have now?

I still found myself struggling with the book, though the struggles make me realize how thoroughly I can enjoy a book even if it frustrates me. Like with Hannah Coulter, the first-person narrative of Jayber Crow doesn’t really convince me that it’s Jayber talking. It’s Berry talking. The beautiful language and fine discernments, the habit of making poetry while chopping wood, the bits of life history lifted directly from Berry’s own, the uneasy relationship with officialized Christianity (or officialized anything, for that matter) all seem more like thinly-veiled Wendell Berry than a distinctive character. I guess it supports my understanding of Berry as an autobiographer, more than anything else. I like all of these qualities, and I think I’m typical of his devoted readers in the way I tend to view my liking for the books as a liking for the man. People who like this author seem to feel a personal connection to him, and to enjoy the return to the familiar ground of certain themes and places and characters. So the fact that I think the first person narrative fails doesn’t mean that I dislike the book, or Jayber. It just means that I wish Berry would stick to the third person narrative, and let his characters have the freedom to become whoever they are.

A Place On Earth, Berry’s second novel but his first expansive, delighted populating of Port William, is similar to Jayber Crow in the way it depicts the life of a whole community. But the point of view is third-person, and it works better. We have all the pleasures and benefits of Berry’s perspective shaping and coloring the story, but it leaves the characters to just be themselves. I can think of a few others — Nathan Coulter, and A World Lost — that are in the first person, and that seem to work. Perhaps it’s because they are more limited in scope.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel more than the second, maybe because it seemed to get more heavy-handed as it went on. One of its main concerns is tracing the fall of agriculture through the second world war, the war in Vietnam, and the disastrous term of Earl Butz as secretary of agriculture in the 1970’s. It was in response to Butz’s relentless pushing of farmers to “get big or get out” that Berry wrote The Unsettling of America, his agricultural manifesto. I’m in agreement with Berry’s interpretation of our agricultural evolution as “ruinous.” But after awhile the novel felt less like Jayber’s life story than a morality tale about agribusiness in the person of Troy Chatham, the novel’s antagonist.

Berry prefaces this novel with a Mark Twainesque warning against subjecting it to literary analysis. But some of it makes no sense without reading it as symbolic. I’m thinking of the love triangle: Mattie Keith, child of an old-school farmer with a rich inheritance of knowledge about the best way to make a farm thrive; Troy Chatham, her husband and a one-dimensional agribusinesss fanatic who rapes and plunders the land, cheats on his wife, plunges deeply into debt, and alienates everyone; and Jayber Crow, ostensibly a barber, but also something of a priest and prophet who loves Mattie and is redeemed by being faithful to her from afar. It’s hard not to see Mattie as representative of the earth, Troy as the destructive new order (or disorder), and Jayber as the faithful figure who ultimately cannot prevent the destruction wrought against the earth by the likes of Troy Chatham. He resembles Christ in some ways, but he also resembles the ideal husbandman — even though he’s not a farmer in vocation. Berry, like Liberty Hyde Bailey before him, sees the farmer as the one who deals in mysteries in his interchange with what Bailey called “the holy earth.” There is something of this quasi-religious attitude toward the earth, and toward Mattie, about Jayber.

I have a hard time making sense of all this without seeing it as symbolic. I understand the power of attraction, and I understand that even married people can struggle with it. But faithfulness to your spouse means that you “forsake all others” — that you fight and overcome attractions to anyone else. I understand that Jayber isn’t married, and he never tells Mattie of his vow to be her “husband in spirit.” But she is still another man’s wife, and pledging secret marriage to her in his heart isn’t something I can exactly admire or feel comfortable with. The fact that we’re supposed to see it as admirable suggests that it’s important for its symbolism more than as typical human behavior.

This is already long, but there is another layer of the novel to think about: Jayber’s long spiritual quest, and the accompanying wealth of biblical stories and imagery. His name is Jonah, for starters, and he is running away from what he initially understands as his call to be a preacher. He hides for years before returning to Port William through a flood and telling people who he is. Like Jonah, he is a prophet with a message for the modern world, and he lies awake at night thinking of all the evil being done. Like Jonah, he has to learn to love and forgive, and it takes him a long time. When he finally is able to overcome his dislike for Troy, he goes to sleep in the belly not of a whale, but of a forest being felled of trees that look to him like beached whales, explaining, “I wanted to get as low as I could, as I thought I would want to do had I been at the top of a windblown tree or in a little boat in a storm.”

The Old Testament prophets all foreshadow Jesus in some way, and Jayber too becomes gradually more Christlike and self-sacrificing. We get the sense that his spiritual struggles are never really a matter of getting across the gap from unbelief to belief; they’re more a matter of dropping resistance to a deeply held and cherished belief in a God whose ways he doesn’t always understand. The beauty and mystery of the earth He has made, and the love with which He sustains it and suffers its mistreatment in the hands of people whom He’s left free, have won Jayber’s heart. His is a journey into love for others, despite their faults and abuses — much like his biblical namesake.

There is so much more to mull in Jayber’s journey through this “vale of soul-making” (to quote Keats, not Berry). But I won’t mull any further here. What I’m left with is a novel that made me struggle and think and that left me a little baffled in spots. But that only sends me back into thought, because it shows me how moved I can be by an imperfect work of art — how challenged, how grieved, how delighted, and how deeply satisfied I can be after reading it. Jayber says more than once that his tale is about Heaven, and he could have gone on for a good many more pages without my minding. In another ten years I’ll probably read it again.

Praying with Jayber

I’ve been rereading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. I’m bearing down on the end, but I wanted to quote this passage here (though it’s long) because it seems important and is indisputably beautiful.

It concerns prayer, and Jayber’s ongoing effort to understand what happens in prayer. It expresses some questions and feelings that probably all of us who pray have felt at one time or another.

What answer can human intelligence make to God’s love for the world? What answer, for that matter, can it make to our own love for the world? If a person loved the world — really loved it and forgave its wrongs and so might have his wrongs forgiven — what would be next?

And so how was a human to pray? I didn’t know, and yet I prayed. I prayed the terrible prayer: “Thy will be done.” Having so prayed, I prayed for strength. That seemed reasonable and right enough. As did praying for forgiveness and the grace to forgive. I prayed unreasonably, foolishly, hopelessly, that everybody in Port William might be blessed and happy — the ones I loved and the ones I did not. I prayed my gratitude.

The results, perhaps, were no more than expectable. I found, as I had always found, that I had strength, but never quite as much as I needed — or, anyhow, wanted. I felt that I might be partly forgiven, as I was partly forgiving; Port William continued to be partly blessed and happy, as before, and partly not; I was as grateful as I said I was. And so perhaps my prayers were partly answered; some perhaps were answered entirely. Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world. How would a person know? How could divine intervention happen, if it happens, without looking like a coincidence or luck? Does the world continue by chance (since it can hardly do so by justice) or by the forgiveness and mercy that some people have continued to pray for?

But why ask? It was not just a matter of cause and effect. Prayers were not tools or money…

Heron on the Kentucky River

Jayber is so tentative here, so full of questions. Yet he has committed himself to pray and to love — the two are so closely related as to seem like flip sides of the same coin — and from this point on he gives himself to the effort. Despite the unsureness he expresses about how measurably God answers, he is himself changed.

A little later, Jayber continues,

Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at a shut door.

But sometimes a prayer comes to you that you have not thought to pray, yet suddenly there it is and you pray it. Sometimes you just trustfully and easily pass into the other world of sleep. Sometimes the bird finds that what looks like an opening is an opening, and it flies away. Sometimes the shut door opens and you go through it into the same world you were in before, in which you belong as you did not before.

I find myself wishing for a little more assurance in what Jayber says. He doesn’t express any certainty that God answers his prayers. Yet in a way that’s what makes the passage appealing. I think it’s true to experience in this way. Answered prayer can’t be “proven” — it isn’t “tools or money.” If Jayber didn’t believe in its efficacy, he wouldn’t find himself drawn into a life of prayer. And throughout the flow of requests and agonies and offerings in prayer, Jayber is changed. He becomes increasingly taken up by the effort to love, and to “know in his heart” God’s love for the world. This prayer God surely answers; we can see it as we read.

I hope and believe this is true for all of us who pray.

Revisiting “The Long-Legged House”

I’ve been rereading one of Wendell Berry’s early works, the title essay of his first published collection The Long-Legged House. He describes a camp on the riverbank, built by his great-uncle, and its significance to him over the course of his life. Eventually, Berry rebuilds (partially recycles, using walls and materials from the original house) the camp further up the bank and it comes to be his writing place.

Among other things. Over the course of his life, the camp is a solitary retreat, a place where a confused adolescent gains a sense of stability, a place where he does some of his most important reading, a place where he and his wife spend the first three months of their marriage, a place where he awakens to his sense of calling and purpose, as writer and as human being.

The last time I read this, I was a graduate student. It was different this time, reading it as a wife and mother and home schooler. I noticed different things, and I’m ashamed to say I felt something like envy at Berry’s good fortune in having such a place, and so many opportunities for quiet reflection. But I also felt the sense of kinship that first drew me to his writings.

The importance of Berry’s voice in my life started with the first book I read, The Memory of Old Jack, and the recognition I felt when I saw in Jack Beechum some of my own feelings and values. With “The Long-Legged House,” I felt even more strongly this time that sense of recognition. It’s in this camp beside the river that the desire to know his place is kindled in Berry. He becomes aware that the earth is not simply an “inert surface that man lives upon and uses,” but a whole interrelated network of relationships that he lives more within than upon. “We are the belongings of the world, not its owners,” he realizes. As he reads and writes and thinks there, he looks out at the natural surroundings and begins to notice things he’s never really paid concentrated attention to before.

Carolina wren

It was thrilling to recognize so many of the very things I’m noticing this year too, as our family has embarked on our nature study journey: a squirrel building its nest, who never carries its mouthful of leaves up the tree but takes a complicated route involving many blind leaps instead; the Carolina wren, who belts out his song “as though he could not bear to live except in the atmosphere of his own music”; titmice and chickadees scolding an owl, letting loose “a great backlog of invective” as they seem to dare one another to get ever closer to the owl’s sleeping place; the discovery of the warblers. He learns the names of trees and flowers and birds. He gets a pair of binoculars that “enlarge and intensify” his awareness in much the same way the camera has begun to do for me this year.

One of Berry’s great predecessors in the nature writing genre is Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac laid out the case for what he called a “land ethic” in terms compelling enough that many acknowledge him as the father of conservation. In “The Long-Legged House,” Berry is writing about the emerging relationship between himself and his place. But he is modelling something I see happening in my family, too. One of the things I have wanted to give my daughters is a few places to love, a few places where we are coming to know what Berry would call “the nonhuman life” of the place. We don’t have a large plot of land or a camp by the river, but we have some preserves we’re so grateful we can visit and explore, and we’ve found within them some favorite niches. That love is the beginning of a land ethic. (Is love the beginning of all ethics?)

Nesting squirrel

Berry has written many essays over the years, but these early ones are my favorites. They have all the exuberance and deep conviction of discovery. Reading them, I feel affirmed and inspired in some of my own much more fumbling attempts to guide my children toward a richer comprehension of the world and their own lives. Berry was a young man when he wrote these essays; I’m in my forties. But I can relate to the delight and sense of gathering momentum that seem to emanate from the pages of “The Long-Legged House.” It’s the delight of awakening to a goodness in the world, goodness under threat and unobtrusive, but still available to anyone who will notice. Somehow, in some way I don’t understand yet, I feel that venturing out into that world is a part of what Berry calls “a journey from the sound of public voices to the sound of a private quiet voice rising falteringly out of the roots of my mind.”

I’m grateful for the hours Wendell Berry spent before his 40-paned window beside the river, writing about what was unfolding before his eyes and within his character. It confirms me as I sit at my kitchen table, taking in the activity in the brush out back and letting my eye wander to the hills across the Susquehanna a few miles away. Sometimes it’s our most deeply held ideals that seem to emerge most falteringly in our lives. (Why is that?) We need authors who breathe life into them by going before us and putting them into words more eloquent than any we could come up with ourselves, and taking them farther than we can currently see. Berry reminds me that something as simple as looking out the window can become a vehicle for the gathering¬† and clarifying of a life.

Mystery Bird

I woke this morning thinking of a birdsong, heard way back in July. Maybe it’s because I’ve read references to the warblers in two different books lately. Or maybe it’s because it was cold and windy today with light snow, and I went to a sunny, green place in my mind.

In any case, this is a warbler I heard in the Adirondacks. We were on the trail into Ferd’s Bog, a primeval place full of pitcher plants. I heard this incredibly complicated song in the same vicinity both going in and coming out. Though I aimed the camera at the treetops, I never did see the bird, and I still don’t know what it is. But oh, what a song.

Maybe it’s the Muse of Ferd’s Bog.

Recent reading on the mystique of the warblers:

Birds were dripping from the trees, little birds, singing and flying and pouring over the limbs.
“This must be the warbler migration,” I said, and I laughed because there were so many birds. I had never seen so many. My big voice rolled through the woods, and their little voices seemed to rise and answer me. (Jean Craighead George, My Side of the Mountain)

At a distance these little birds usually look drab, and the species are hardly distinguishable, but the binoculars show them to be beautifully colored and marked, and wonderfully various in their kinds. There is always something deeply enticing and pleasing to me in the sight of them. Perhaps because I was only dimly aware of them for so long, I always see them at first with a certain unexpectedness, and with the sense of gratitude that one feels for any goodness unearned and almost missed. In their secretive worlds of treetop and undergrowth, they seem among the most remote of the wild creatures. They see little of us, and we see even less of them. I think of them as being aloof somehow from common life. Certain of the most beautiful of them, I am sure, have lived and died for generations in some of our woods without being recognized by a human being. (Wendell Berry, “The Long-Legged House”)

Lovely, dark and deep

Actually, the woods my daughters and I walked through yesterday were anything but dark. The sun was so bright I could hardly even see this robin in the trees above, much less determine what kind of bird it was.

When we reached this point in the trail, my youngest exclaimed, “I want to go into that tree tunnel!”

We paused beside a stream…

and thought…

…and the girls waded…

…and we listened. We “came into the presence of still water,” as Wendell Berry says:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The rest of “The Peace of Wild Things” is here.

When we started out, I despaired of seeing any critters because of the noise my two small companions made (and the often louder noise I made with my piercing “SHHH!!”). But the quietness of the woods seemed to seep inwards and we all came under the spell. We heard a woodpecker drumming and calling, songbirds letting loose as they got used to our being there, chipmunks scurrying in the undergrowth. I’m not sure how long we were there, but it was long enough to satisfy. Truly.

Then we went home.

Poetry Friday is at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup today. Enjoy the poetry feast over there!

The Boundary

“The Boundary” is one of the short stories in Wendell Berry’s The Wild Birds. I reread it this week and found it as extraordinarily powerful as I did the first time over 15 years ago. It’s about Mat Feltner, a figure well-known to those familiar with the Port William community of Berry’s fiction. In this story, Mat is 80 years old and physically weak. One day Mat goes to check on a fenceline he’s worried may not be in good repair.

That boundary turns out to be in good shape, solid and well maintained by Nathan Coulter, who has shouldered much of the hard labor of the Feltner farm in Mat’s declining health. But the other boundaries Mat encounters on his afternoon walk into the woods are more permeable: the boundaries between past and present, between time and eternity, between life and death. His pleasant walk down the creek, and the labor to return, turn into a life and death struggle.

One of the themes of the tale is the presentness of the past. It’s a recurring idea in Berry’s writing, and here it’s manifest through Mat’s journey through a woods populated with ghosts, people who have worked with him along the creek and left their memory and their mark on the land. The effect is to collapse all times together, and the suggestion of an eternity released from linear time becomes even more significant when Mat thinks, time and again, “I could stay here.” But what keeps him going in the effort to get back home is his love for Margaret, waiting and worrying, he knows, at home.

I always marvel at the prescience with which Berry writes about old age. He is someone who has listened, like Andy Catlett in The Memory of Old Jack, to the stories of the elderly, and he’s learned well the paths they travel from past to present and back again. Part of the power of this story is in Berry’s ability to bring the reader into the same experience of empathy. I have the sense when I read that this tale is a commemoration of stories Berry has listened to, whether in the exact details or simply in the perfect recreation of the mind of someone inhabiting that boundary between present and past.

Revisiting Wendell Berry’s “Fidelity”

Yesterday, we buried my daughter’s hamster. She was injured a week ago, then endured a trip to the vet and a week of pain medication before quietly slipping away.

Did she die of her injuries — or of starvation because the medications so drugged her that she couldn’t eat? Did we help her feel more comfortable, as we so longed to do — or did we increase her pain? Did the trip to the vet help or hurt? Bad enough that she was injured. Worse still if in the longing to help, we were complicit in further injury.

I don’t mean to trivialize the many large tragedies of the world, but the truth is there are no small deaths. Death, especially where any degree of love is involved, always brings us face to face with difficulties and mysteries.

For the Christian, this is a week when the questions of suffering and death and mystery are in the air anyway. I wish I could say that my reading of the Bible has been enough, but this year my threadbare imagination has needed help weaving together the different strands that trouble my mind and heart with the familiar yet enduring mystery of the gospel story. I remembered that Wendell Berry’s short story “Fidelity,” from the collection of the same title, dealt with some of the things I’m thinking about, so I returned to it yesterday.

There will be spoilers here, so, fair warning.

“Fidelity” concerns the last days of Burley Coulter, a beloved member of the Port William community of Berry’s fiction. He is 82 years old and failing, and all those who love him are troubled with the feeling that they need to do something to help. So they take him to a doctor, who checks him into a hospital. Before long Burley is an unrecognizable wraith on a hospital bed, hooked up to needles and tubes under the glare of the institutional lights. How truly Berry writes the response of Burley’s friends and family:

When they returned on yet another visit and found the old body still as it had been, a mere passive addition to the complicated machines that kept it minimally alive, they saw finally that in their attempt to help they had not helped but only complicated his disease beyond their power to help. And they thought with regret of the time when the thing that had been wrong with him had been simply unknown, and there had been only it and him and him and them in the place they had known together. Loving him, wanting to help him, they had given him over to “the best of modern medical care” — which meant, as they now saw, that they had abandoned him.

So Danny Branch, Burley’s son, stages a rescue. I’m not sure why they don’t simply check him out of the hospital, but within the fictional situation Berry creates they are completely powerless. Danny goes to the hospital in the dead of night and takes Burley away with him to a place he knows, and the two spend his final hours together. Meanwhile, a detective questions Danny’s wife Lyda, lawyers Wheeler and Henry Catlett, and eventually the whole Port William membership as they gather in the Catlett offices — a conversation that lays bare the contrasts between the world of technology and organization and institution, and the world of Port William.

The plot borrows some of the ingredients of the Easter story, but made more immanent and less theological. There are several allusions, such as when the janitors at the hospital, watching as Danny wheels Burley away on a gurney, are “as stupefied, apparently, as the soldiers at the Tomb.” There are also two resurrections. Danny, who has hidden the unconscious Burley in a barn while he prepares to dig his grave, returns to check on Burley and is startled to find him awake, eyes open, looking at him. The second resurrection takes place just after Burley dies. As Danny goes back to digging the grave,

Burley returned to his mind, and he knew him again as he had been when his life was full. He saw again the stance and demeanor of the man, the amused eyes, the lips pressed together while speech waited upon thought, an almost inviolable patience in the set of his shoulders. It was as though Burley stood in full view nearby, at ease and well at home — as though Danny could see him, but only on condition that he not look.

One other notable reminder to me of the story’s resonance with Easter is the way Burley’s friends come together in Wheeler’s offices. It’s an upper room experience like those of the disciples after Jesus’ death, first when the Lord himself appears to them, then when the Holy Spirit comes. In this story, it’s Danny who comes into the assembly, bringing with him a spirit of peace: “The room was all ashimmer now with its quiet.” (This scene is beautiful for its contrast to the funeral scene in The Memory of Old Jack too. But I can’t write about everything…)

I love so many things about this story. I love the way Berry weaves his tale in with this larger one. I love the way he works out themes about the right purposes of law and medicine and technology (a theme that’s always percolating in my own thoughts). I love the characters he draws with such exact detail and affection.

Most of all I love the tenderness with which he writes of death and loss and love. Somehow at Easter we can get so focused on the theological import of what Christ has done that we miss the very human story of death and loss and love and confusion. “Fidelity” comforted me without tearing the veil from any of the mysteries, affirming the essential goodness of my longings for understanding and fellowship and meaning. It underlines not only the bewilderments and sorrows of our earthly experience, but the joys. It manages to weave together the strands of so many things I struggle with and hope for.

Sometimes we need the coherence that only poetry can provide. “Fidelity,” as well as the other stories in this collection, lends us the eyes of a poet who can glimpse an underlying unity, and capture in words those shimmers of meaning that go far beyond words.