Tag Archives: wendell berry

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.