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.