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Tilling Word and Land
April 10, 2008 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Wendell Berry is an agrarian writer, poet, and Mad Farmer. Perhaps most famous for his decision not to buy a computer, which stirred some controversy, Berry is an anti-war, anti-state, anti-capitalist, conservationist conservative.

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear: A post-Sept. 11 manifesto for environmentalists
A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy
Many more links, essays, and poems here.
posted by anotherpanacea (34 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy is the first essay in Citizenship Papers, which is one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Berry's tone in so much of his work is basically: Oh man, can you believe how fucked up things are? Well, let's get to work! and is insanely hopeful considering how well he analyzes the incredibly deep hopes the American way of life has dug.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:17 AM on April 10, 2008


Thanks for the great post!
posted by sciurus at 7:24 AM on April 10, 2008


Also, from the not to buy a computer link:
But this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience. The guilty are always other people, and the wrong is always somewhere else.
This.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:30 AM on April 10, 2008


He's an enormous poet - a Robert Frost in our time, not as popular, but as challenging and complicated and moving.

Great post. The choice of links rounds out one's sense of him as a poet.

I wonder if he'd revise his outlook on computers - that essay was from 1987. I agree with him about some of what they've brought us - environmental damage, increased energy usage, consumerist BS. But where he says
I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.
I deeply disagree. The internet certainly allows people to connect in lateral ways that defy official strictures - connectivity helps activism and fosters change as the free circulation of ideas increases and brings millions more individuals into the dialogue about ways of living on earth. It builds community in some important ways (undermines it in others, but still, not so much more than other mass media). It improves accountability for public figures, and, at least some times, improves family relationships rather than damaging them (my reserved dad and I communicate more frequently and perhaps better by email than in person). I wonder if he would consider revising his condemnation of computers, or at least weighing the positive outcomes of interpersonal networking and two-way communication that they've aided in bringing about.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on April 10, 2008


Water

I was born in a drought year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul. Fear
of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:39 AM on April 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


... insanely hopeful considering how well he analyzes the incredibly deep hopes the American way of life has dug.

You meant holes, right?
posted by blacklite at 7:42 AM on April 10, 2008


He can be and think and write what he wants.So long as he pays his taxes like the rest of us.
posted by Postroad at 7:44 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post about a fascinating, admirable, and often annoying man. I had forgotten how sexist the computer essay is:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with it.

I am pleased that the web page reproduces some of the letters in response to Berry's essay, and Berry's replies, which address just this point.
posted by LarryC at 7:49 AM on April 10, 2008


It soon becomes obvious that Wendell Berry is a man prepared to stand firmly upon his well thought out principles. Would he ask, to further stand upon those principles, that we boycott the reading of his thoughts on our computers via the internet?
posted by Daddy-O at 7:53 AM on April 10, 2008


You meant holes, right?

Oops.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:54 AM on April 10, 2008


I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computcr with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.

I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used Chinese to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of Chinese, then I will speak of Chinese with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not learn it

I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used movable type to publish work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of movable type, then I will speak of movable type with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not use it.
posted by pyramid termite at 7:59 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't see anything sexist about the teamwork described in his computer essay. She types it for him. She catches his errors and critiques his thoughts. Sounds like healthy collaboration in a loving relationship to me.

And if he wants to stand on his principles as an earnest luddite, that's his right. I agree with his thoughts on war and strip mining though.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:01 AM on April 10, 2008


I read his essays in "A Continuous Harmony" while in high school and was strongly influenced by his writing. I love his Jeffersonian feelings on an agrarian nation, with such lines as "Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato." One of his creeds that has stuck with me, roughly paraphrased, is that a man dependent on others to provide everything from food to clothing was no longer independent and no longer could call himself a free man.

At the time, though, I was startled by how many of his ideas, particularly the one above about freedom and other statements that are "anti-state" and "anti-tech," were roughly given a different face by the so-called Montana & Idaho militamen in my neck of the woods. So as much as I love his writing and agree with him deeply on certain things, my unease with him has always reminded me that his best followed tenet is to think for myself; there is a line between being just radical and too radical with your philosophy.

Postroad: He can be and think and write what he wants.So long as he pays his taxes like the rest of us.

ha!
posted by barchan at 8:04 AM on April 10, 2008


The officiant at my wedding read a Wendell Berry poem at the ceremony. I wasn't expecting it (and did not know anything about him).

It was a singularly perfect moment, and I was moved--not to tears, but to sobs. The ceremony had to be stopped so that I could compose myself.

My relationship with my wife is going through a really rough patch right now, and I find myself frequently thinking back to that happy, perfect day. Berry will always have a direct line to my soul on account of that sublime moment when his words said everything that my heart could ever have hoped to say.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


Recently I read a discussion of academic work that brought up the "loving collaboration" issue. It pointed out that during a large part of the history of academia, male faculty quite often had the help of such an amanuensis - proofreading, editing, organizing notes, filing, assisting with the development of arguments, and so on. And in the case of the sciences, lab assistance. Much of the great academic work of the university era was collaborative in this way, though the name appearing on the research is usually just the male's.

I'm not defending it or condemning it - just pointing out that his arrangment is not uncommon in either academic or literary history. Recently, I was fortunate enough to see some manuscript copies of Herman Melville's works. After each round of writing, his wife and daughter would sit with his pages and painstakingly read, editing in pencil (you can recognize the different hands). The edited pages were returned to him to work on some more. He'd cover them with strikethroughs and overwriting, and insert and re-arrange passages. They would then cut the pages apart and pin them together with straight pins in the right order. After that phase passed, they would write out, in toto, a fair copy of the entire work, only to give it another pass-through of rereading, editing, and rearranging before sending a final fair copy to the editor. It was enough work to constitute a full-time job.

In fact, just the sheer fact of producing written work without a computer demands a great deal of paper management - think of the armies of secretaries in nearly every business until the advent of business computing. The difficulty in producing form letters, researching and building mailing lists, keeping up with simple correspondence, filing the paper trail for every transaction and agreement, taking and circulating minutes. So, outside of an office environment, often the unpaid labor of women took the place of professional assistance.

I see no problem with such arrangements even today as long as both parties are mutually fulfilled by it. I can think of some really interesting partnered research 'teams' and complementary relationships, though today it is more likely that each publishes under his or her own name. At the same time, it's important to recognize the role women have had in the literary, scientific, and academic achievements of this world.
posted by Miko at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


Neat post, thanks. In Distrust of Movements will always be one of my favorite political essays. And Miko's right about his poetry - it's an amazing body of work that deserves to be much more widely appreciated.
posted by mediareport at 8:25 AM on April 10, 2008


And if he wants to stand on his principles as an earnest luddite, that's his right.

I don't read him as a luddite. It's possible this is because I'm being selective and not paying attention to the parts I don't like.

The Amish get much of the same label, perhaps not unfairly. But I'm given to understand that they are apparently not so much against technology per se as they are for another set of values about their communities, and very carefully and conservatively evaluate the impact of technology against what they value before they adopt it.

I think this is really the angle that Berry comes from. His main theme and effort centers on expressing the value of a community of people and place and land. We don't necessarily need to make the same decisions as the Amish do, but we really need to be able to weigh this kind of valuable community against other things, and measure the impact of our political, economic, and technological decisions against that.
posted by weston at 9:06 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wendell Berry is one of the people I point to as someone whose views of Christianity I enjoy even though I'm not an adherent to his particular religious views. The idea that some concept of "the divine" exists and is knowable within nature is the closest thing to religion that I have. From the "conservative" link.
I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a hypaethral book, such as Thoreau talked about--a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. That is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the fuming of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is fumed into grapes.
His ideas of peace -- that we need peace within our governments, within our economy, within our relationships, within our relationship to nature and other people -- are also ones that I try to take to heart.

I remember reading his feminism essay around the time it came out, when people were giving him a hard time for his wife's typing and editing. And I found that his response -- you don't know about our marriage -- was a little simplistic. While I think what Miko says upthread is definitely true, people have had amanuenses in various forms, often wives or sisters or secretaries or helpmates, his categorizing this criticism as a "feminist attack" is also telling. The ultimate point -- that it's only technological progress that causes us to have to put a name on an article, a name on a check, an assignment of value to some works and not to others, and therefore makes the work that she does on his essays subsumed under his work -- is a good one.

I love Wendell Berry's words and messages, but I worry sometimes that it's too easy to be an anti-capitalist when you're privileged enough to be able to earn a living without, say, buying a computer.
It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. If you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have—a pencil, say—why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging? If you don’t have a problem, why pay for a solution? If you love the freedom and elegance of simple tools, why encumber yourself with something complicated?
Berry not having a computer is fine if you're Berry, but someone, somewhere upstream, has to have one so that we can read what he has to say.
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on April 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


Oh and thanks for this post!
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on April 10, 2008


I worry sometimes that it's too easy to be an anti-capitalist when you're privileged enough to be able to earn a living without, say, buying a computer.

This is undoubtedly the problem with the gentleman agrarian model: he says it''s more important for people to belong to the land than exactly to whom the land belongs, but that's a convenient thing for a man to say when he owns 125 acres and has a writing and teaching career that cushions him against the shocks of weather and market price, and his kids nearby can support themselves on wine with his imprimatur. Still, Berry does capture the wonder of the local in a way that I find refreshing and useful for illustrating basic communitarian and environmental concerns. Otherwise, these positions are quickly assigned to misogynists, militias, and wild-eyed mountain men in our quest to transform every conversation about modes of life and hopes for the future into a partisan sporting event.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Great post, thanks. Been meaning to read Berry forever because all these great people I read cite Dream of the Earth as one of the most influential things they've read. This gives me an easy online place to start, thanks.
posted by salvia at 9:50 AM on April 10, 2008


In honor of this thread I pulled The Requirement, his short story from the March 2007 issue of Harper's, out from behind our paywall.

PepsiBlueBerry: Berry's piece Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits appears in the arriving-in-newsstands May issue and is awesome. Just shilling saying.
posted by ftrain at 9:51 AM on April 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


Also, the anti-computer stuff reminds me of these essays.
posted by salvia at 9:52 AM on April 10, 2008


I don't read him as a luddite. It's possible this is because I'm being selective and not paying attention to the parts I don't like.

Berry has pointed out that he does not advocate "returning to an earlier time" - pointing out that at no time has America done a perfect job of valuing people and places. Berry certainly is not averse to innovation - he's involved with Wes Jackson and the Land Institute. Briefly, The Land Institute is trying to develop grains that mimic characteristics of prairie grass.

Berry's checklist on what he requires from a new tool made me really think about my approach in adopting new technology. Dismissing what he says as simply "anti-technology" is misguided; as has been stated before, his priorities are just different.
posted by dubold at 9:52 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Argh. Arriving ON newsstands. That's where it arrives. In the next week. That's when.
posted by ftrain at 9:53 AM on April 10, 2008


Cool, thanks for un-paywalling it, ftrain! (And while we're talking Harpers, Harpers also printed one of those Curtis White essays in the thread I linked to above. Even though the Mefi thread links to Orion, I first read one in Harpers.)
posted by salvia at 9:57 AM on April 10, 2008


I've been reading and following Berry's writings for more than 20 years now. I can remember his poetry readings on the Prairie Home Companion, and also, IIRC, on the "Good Evening" (not sure if that is the right name) show that Noah Adams did for a few years when Garrison Keillor stopped doing PHC for a while. I fondly remember Berry's collection of stories and music about box elder bugs. As every upper-midwesterner knows, box-elder bugs are the ubiquitous, swarming bug with the "peace" sign on their backs that collect en masse on foundations every fall. Berry pointed that feature out in one of his readings and it's stuck with me ever since.

Box elder bugs don't bite or sting and they don't leave messes; they just like to get warm in the sun. Good lesson for all of us.

Berry is a national treasure.
posted by webhund at 10:17 AM on April 10, 2008


Wendell Berry is one of the people I point to as someone whose views of Christianity I enjoy even though I'm not an adherent to his particular religious views.

Berry is at once claimed by every part of Christianity as kin and at the same time denied by every part of Christianity like Peter denying Jesus.

I'm not kidding.

Evangelicals read his poetry but wring their hands over his pointing out the failures of the Church General concerning peacemaking, environmentalism, etc.

Liberal Christians love his talk of peacemaking and environmentalism, but they really wish he'd stop talking about Jesus and God so much.

Fundies find common cause with his conservatism, but he is not in any way one of them.

He offends every Christian, because he tells the truth, big T and little t. And I think the Christian church is afraid of him because everyone wants to see faith as, in Flannery O'Connor's words, a "big electric blanket."

But we need people like Wendell Berry, people who are willing to call bullshit what it is and not dress it up with the perfumes of pablum or a nice side salad of politics, prosperity, and oversimplification.

At least Christians take comfort in knowing that he makes everyone else uncomfortable deep down.
posted by dw at 10:34 AM on April 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


Thanks very much for this post. It's been a while since I've spent any time reading Berry, but I'm a big fan. As a few people have pointed out, his position is not without it's problems, but I've always been a fan of his writing.

Berry first came to my attention in the late 80s, when I started reading the books Jack Shoemaker put out at his North Point Press. He published translations of Jean Giono, whose agrarian sensibility is very like Berry's. I first read Harvest in that great North Point paperback edition with the slipcover, and it basically damned me to a decade's worth of agrarian dreaming. I read Berry soon after that. Shoemaker went on to continue to publish and reprint Berry at Counterpoint Press before he sold that, too, and then at Shoemaker and Hoard. I mention the publishing history because I think Jack Shoemaker should get credit for keeping Berry in print during the 80s and early 90s. He also kept MFK Fisher in print before food writing got cool, James Salter, Jean Giono, Evan S. Connell, Gina Berriault, Gary Nabhan, Dino Buzzati, Guy Davenport, Hermann Broch, Gilbert Sorrentino, Leslie Scalapino, etc. He's a hero of American publishing.
posted by OmieWise at 10:41 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


This post actually wendells. Finally.
posted by Eideteker at 11:48 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Several years ago I was honored to encounter Wendell Berry outside the SF Book Festival and shake his hand. Never having been a groupie of any sort I was amazed by how moving this encounter was for me. Around that time I had given my husband a North Point Press broadside of an excerpt of Berry's 1983 "Standing by Words" on the subject of love. An anniversary present.

"Because love is not abstract, it does not lead to trends or percentages or general behaviors. It leads, on the contrary, to the perception that there is no such thing as general behavior. There is no abstract action. Love proposes the work of settled households and communities, whose innovations come about in response to immediate needs and immediate conditions, as opposed to the work of governments and corporations, whose innovations are produced out of the implicitly limitless desire for future power or profit."

This is my first comment on this site, as I am a bit of a Luddite myself.
But my middle name is Meta, so please be nice.
posted by emhutchinson at 12:55 PM on April 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


Heh. Welcome, emhutchinson.
posted by cortex at 2:19 PM on April 10, 2008


Omiewise- You should do an FPP on that stuff; it sounds pretty rich and interesting!
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:25 PM on April 10, 2008


Berry is at once claimed by every part of Christianity as kin and at the same time denied by every part of Christianity like Peter denying Jesus. [various self-important objections to Berry enumerated]

Yep. I take this to mean he is not far from the Kingdom of God.
posted by eritain at 7:28 PM on April 10, 2008


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