My Restless Year with Wendell Berry

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Photo by Karim Sakhibgareev on Unsplash

I decided to spend a year with Wendell Berry. He spent 33 with me, walking the circuits of his Kentucky River valley farm on a Sunday, sharing the fruit of his Sabbath poems written between 1979 and 2012.

What I’m saying is that it was a slow year. 

I received This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems as a gift and I used it, at last, to get a window on this farmer-thinker-poet-sage whose words have been thrown at me as gospel by so many people I have respected through the years. Brooke Willson, the pastor who had more success helping me fall in love with Annie Dillard, often quotes Wendell. They are very different in temperament, but I believe the Rev. Willson relates to Berry’s contrarian anti-commercialism.

Luddites are guilty of disrespect

to any silliness that is popular,

to any meanness that is profitable.

—Wendell Berry, “As old men often have said”

Winn Collier, another pastor-fan, has built a comfortable, lived-in world of Berry-like characters in his recent book, Love Big, Be Well.: Letters to a Small Town Church. Collier’s alter ego in the book, Jonas McAnn, celebrates the small, the particular, the sustainable, in a voice that could be Berry’s.

The yellow-throated warbler…

My mind became

beautiful by the sight of him. He had the beauty only

of himself alive in the only moment of his life.

He had upon him like a light the whole

beauty of the living world that never dies.

—Wendell Berry, “The yellow-throated warbler, the highest remotest voice”

But I make an uncomfortable Sabbath companion for Berry. Each morning as I read one or two of the poems in this collection, I would watch him amble into the deep history of a feature of the farm, as when he mused about the stream he calls Camp Branch and wonders what the Shawnee called it in times past and what it will be called after our nation, our species pass away:

When our kind has gone

as all things go, and you remain,

your tumbles catching and returning

light to the air as beautifully

as before, will only angels

name you and praise you then?

—Wendell Berry, “Little stream, Camp Branch, flowing”

At other times, and more frequently as he aged through the collection, Wendell would comment on the effects of age and the beauty of his enduring marriage to Tanya, his wife of more than 50 years. As early as 1993 he is noting:

The young man leaps, and lands

on an old man’s legs.

—Wendell Berry, “Now surely, I am getting old”

I find myself meditating on the effects of age more frequently these days, too, but many mornings I chafed at Berry’s slow gait and yielding contentment. In “A man’s desire, overwhelming,” he warns against the insatiable longings that keep us from seeing that “we come,/whichever way we turn, to plenitude”:

And so the mind

grows a big belly, a sack full

of the thought of more, and the whole

structure of enough, of life itself, 

which is never more or less

than enough, falls in pieces.

Like the dog in Stephen Dobyns’ memorable poem about mid-life, “How to Like It,” who tries to snap life back into a man staring at the back of his refrigerator to avoid despair, I want to snap Berry into another tilt at windmills:

The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.

Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.

This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.

—Stephen Dobyns

But Wendell is wise and prudent. He does not reach beyond his grasp. He receives the gifts God and the farm have to offer. He notes the change, but he sleeps well.

I rest in an unasking trust

Like clouds and ponds and stones and trees.

The long-arising Day will break

If I should die before I wake.

—Wendell Berry, “A man with some authentic worries”

This “unasking trust” confounds me. I thirst for all that the Divine Beloved has to give and so keep questing for the road that leads over the hill and out to the open road. Dylan Thomas has it right—“Do not go gentle into that good night.” I churn in the passions and anxieties of the daily and the hoped-for yet-to-come.

While each morning, Berry is still making his circuits. Still meditating on grace and seasons. Still living in a place.

This way you come to know

That something moves in time

That time does not contain.

—Wendell Berry, “The Farm”

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Wendell Berry

I’ll confess that I still love the roller coaster. My heart will always be with those who blaze. But if I can come share a walk with Wendell each Sabbath, perhaps I’ll learn something of his holy advice, surely correct, that

There is a day

When the road neither

Comes nor goes, and the way

Is not a way but a place.

—Wendell Berry, “There is a day”

1 Comment

  1. I really identify with the notion of wrestling with Wendell Berry! I have his book A SMALL PORCH sitting beside my reading chair, and it has been there for over a year. I read a snippet, wish I were more conscious and aware, then leave it for a while. Sigh….

    Liked by 1 person

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