Category Archives: Wendell Berry

I QUIT Non-Fiction

For me, reading was serious business. Novels were for people who had extra time on their hands. For people who were “literature types”. You know, the ones who graduated with an English degree and could start and finish a book in the same day.

I stuck with the books that I thought were going to make me smart and successful. I read about theology, leadership, character growth, and culture. Usually I would buy the book at Barnes and Noble or order it from Amazon. I liked the way the book looked sitting on my bookshelf, just waiting to increase my intellectual aptitude.

But that’s where the majority of those books stayed—on the shelf. The books that actually did land in my lap usually didn’t stay for long. Off the top of my head, I can think of just a couple that I actually read from cover to cover. Other than that, my “reading” was doing more to drain my bank account than further my personal development regimen. The books on the shelf simply enabled an image that I liked very much: I’m one of those “well-read” types. That’s right, I know a lot.

Finally, through the recommendation of a friend, I picked up and read Garrison Keillor’s Wobegon Boy. It was one of those reads where you just get lost and can’t put the book down. It was relatable and humorous with a unique storyline. A year later (this was a slow metamorphosis) I read Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry. His intimate descriptions of family and a person’s relationship to the land were strikingly beautiful. Things continued to progress and two years ago I finally joined a book club (it was possibly more like a book date, since it was just a buddy and me).

Throughout this time, I started to realize that I had a lot of books on the shelf, left unread. I decided to put a moratorium on new purchases until I had made my way through some of the books I already owned. But I never went back to them. I got hooked on Story. And what’s more, the stories are having a profound impact on me as a person.

Late last year I read Brother to a Dragonfly by Will D. Campbell (which I posted about here). It’s a story about a man being reconciled to his past and finding the freedom and grace to understand people without judgment. This book turned out to be the catalyst for one of the more significant lessons of my adult life. And it all happened in the context of a story.

I’ve spent the past couple years almost exclusively reading fiction and memoirs. I let go of the smart-guy bookshelf and have embraced something that actually was a good fit for me: a powerful narrative. I really believe that if a story is true—not factually true, but true as in virtuous—it has the potential to broaden our perspective and help us see things in a different light, thus letting wisdom grow.

Nowadays I actually read books cover to cover and I get all my books from the library. Reading is no longer about consuming or creating an idealistic image of myself. It’s about being open to another way of seeing, getting lost in another world, and loving a story.

On Earth Day: Song in a Year of Catastrophe

I began to be followed by a voice saying:

“It can’t last. It can’t last.

Harden yourself. Harden yourself.

Be ready. Be ready.”

 

“Go look under the leaves,”

it said, “for what is living there

is long dead in your tongue.”

And it said, “Put your hands

Into the earth. Live close

To the ground. Learn the darkness.

Gather round you all

The things that you love, name

Their names, prepare

To lose them. It will be

As if all you know were turned

Around within your body.”

 

And I went and put my hands

Into the ground, and they took root

And grew into a season’s harvest.

I looked behind the veil

Of the leaves, and heard voices

That I knew had been dead

In my tongue years before my birth.

I learned the dark.

 

And still the voice stayed with me.

Waking in the early mornings,

I could hear it, like a bird

Bemused among the leaves,

A mockingbird idly singing

In the autumn of catastrophe:

 

“Be ready. Be ready.

Harden yourself. Harden yourself.”

 

And I hear the sound

Of a great engine pounding

In the air, and a voice asking:

“Change or slavery?

Hardship or slavery?”

And voices answering:

“Slavery! Slavery!”

And I was afraid, loving

What I knew would be lost.

 

Then the voice following me said:

“You have not yet come close enough.

Come nearer the ground. Learn

From the woodcock in the woods

Whose feathering is a ritual

Of fallen leaves,

And from the nesting quail

Whose speckling her hard to see

In the long grass.

Study the coat of the mole.

For the farmer shall wear

The furrows and greenery

Of his fields, and bear

The long standing of the woods.”

 

And I asked: “You mean death then?”

“Yes,” the voice said. “Die

into what the earth requires of you.”

I let go all holds then, and sank

Like a hopeless swimmer into the earth,

And at last came fully into the ease

And the joy of that place,

All my lost ones returning.

Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of (New York: Counterpoint) 74.

“Long live Gravity!”

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JS favorite Wendell Berry is having some of his poems put on stage! Here’s the story and below is an excerpt from the poem, Some Further Words. Berry’s critique of western progress is staggering. As always, he procures incredible insight with a sort of blunt wisdom that reaches beyond rhetoric and our flimsy presuppositions. 

The world is babbled to pieces after
the divorce of things from their names.
Ceaseless preparation for war
is not peace. Health is not procured
by sale of medication, or purity
by the addition of poison. Science
at the bidding of the corporations
is knowledge reduced to merchandise;
it is a whoredom of the mind,
and so is the art that calls this “progress.”
So is the cowardice that calls it “inevitable.”

 Written decades ago, the poem is incredibly poignant, mystical, and even prophetic:

When I hear the stock market has fallen, 
I say, “Long live gravity! Long live 
stupidity, error and greed in the palaces 
of fantasy capitalism!” I think 
an economy should be based on thrift, 
on taking care of things, not on theft, 
usury, seduction, waste, and ruin. 
My purpose is a language that can make us whole, 
Though mortal, ignorant, and small. 
The world is whole beyond human knowing.

(Painting by Robert Shetterly)

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

 

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,

vacation with pay. Want more

of everything ready-made. Be afraid

to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery

any more. Your mind will be punched in a card

and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something

they will call you. When they want you

to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace

the flag. Hope to live in that free

republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot

understand. Praise ignorance, for what man

has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus

that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion- put your ear

close, and hear the faint chattering

of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap for power,

please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy

a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep

of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head

in her lap. Swear allegiance

to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it. Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go. Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

 

Wendell Berry, Good Poems Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor (New York: Penguin Group, 2002) 274.

To the Holy Spirit

O Thou far off and near, whole and broken,

Who in necessity and bounty wait,

Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken,

By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate

Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (New York: Counterpoint Publishing, 1998), 107.