Monday I drove to Bristol to hear Wendell Berry speak at King College. Normally I would have taken Chris along, but I was going to be gone for two full days, there is a lot that he needed to be doing around here, and—to be blunt—I am still trying to figure out what Wendell Berry’s place will be in our family universe. I would surely take Chris to hear Joel Salatin or Gene Logsdon. I might take him to hear Neil Postman, may he rest in peace, but more because I think he would enjoy Postman than that he needs to hear what Postman has to say. I would probably not take him to hear Jacques Ellul unless he insisted, although I would travel a long distance to hear Ellul myself. Ellul has taught me many important things about modernity and the Christian life, but to the extent my kids need to know those things (and they don’t need to know them all), they ought to be learning them from me rather than Ellul.
For my own edification, Wendell Berry is important, perhaps even critical. For our progeny, maybe not so much. Even though I’m not much of a fiction guy, I’ll pass on to them my enthusiastic recommendation of his fiction; Berry has mastered a plain yet evocative style, and his fiction easily gets the reader engrossed in and yearning for a sense of place. I can’t see that my kids could ever get too much of that. But in his nonfiction I encounter the same “problem” that I encounter with Postman and Ellul and other social commentators that have changed me—they’ve changed me, after all, and their criticism is frequently aimed at trends and attitudes which, because they’ve persuaded me, I’ve worked hard to eliminate from the life of our family. And so much of the criticism, lively and relevant for me, would be dusty and academic for kids who never held those attitudes in the first place.
All that said, I certainly had a good time in Bristol. I had already planned to go when Dr. Richard Moyer of King College invited me to be on a panel of folks who had been affected by Mr. Berry’s writing enough to make changes in their lives. Agreeing to that not only got me a meal and a place to stay, but Richard was good enough to invite me home for dinner Monday night, which was preceded by a tour of his two acre homestead in town where his family has had startling success in growing much of their own food, with a particular focus on fruit. Richard and I had a lot to talk about, and spent a lot of time doing so. After dinner we drove over to the nearby King campus to hear Berry read a short story and answer some questions.
Wendell Berry is about how I imagined him, except that he seems to have stopped having publicity photos taken around the time his hair started to go. Tall, unassuming, dignified, reserved but with an occasional joking comment accompanied by a broad smile and a chuckle. He read an unpublished short story that night called “Stand by Me,” and another short story Tuesday night called “A Desirable Woman.” His reading was like his writing, plain and unadorned, subdued, evocative, very clear. Both stories involved events that have been covered before in his writing, some multiple times, but from the perspective of different residents of his Port William community. I understood the point of the first story but not of the second; both stories, though, were marvelously detailed studies of agrarian life in the 1940s.
Tuesday morning Mr. Berry read a speech he had given at a scientific conference, which examined our need to submit to limits. It’s a topic he has written on several times in the past few years, and one I’m particularly interested in, so this was my favorite session of the three. During the question and answer session I had a few reminders that, in general, I don’t think most of his fans understand the full import of what he is saying—otherwise they would be more prone to shout him down than to applaud him. Wendell Berry suffers because some of his criticism tend to coincide with complaints that are hot buttons for some political partisans, e.g. environmentalists. They seem to find it easy enough to agree with the “ain’t it awful” part of his message while ignoring his diagnosis and prescription, which would have them sputtering if they could just hear it clearly.
Tuesday afternoon I was part of a panel of farmers who have read Wendell Berry and been motivated by him in some way. One of the invited panelists couldn’t make it, so the panel was just me and Richard Moyer (who certainly qualifies as a farmer), and then we had D.J. Hammond and Kevin Calhoun and Tom Peterson and Mike and Kelly Cumbee in the audience, all of whom could have been up front. We told a bit about what we did and read a few selections from Mr. Berry that seemed important to us. I can’t tell you how it went—I thought I went on too long, and I always think I go on too long—but I enjoyed myself, and there were some thought-provoking questions asked.
If I used categories on this weblog, I suppose I would need a “Wendell Berry” category because we’re not done with him yet. All this concentration on Mr. Berry’s writings has helped me deal with some of my Wendell Berry “problem,” to the point where I’ve decided it’s time to feature his books on our website and in our catalog. So in the next few weeks we will be adding a generous selection of them, and I will start in on the job of writing descriptions, some of which is sure to spill over onto the weblog.