NE OF THE REWARDS of being a fairly faithful
reader arrives when you open a new book and realize it's the one you've been reading toward for years. That has been this reader's experience with both of these books by Wendell Berry, Recollected Essays 1965-1980 and The Gift of Good Land. Berry's name was familiar, mostly from his poetry, as it turns out, because this fairly faithful reader had somehow managed to miss all five of the previous collections whose essence went into making Recollected Essays. As a reader, you wonder at the vagaries of self and circumstance that bring about such a loss, when one occurs, but on this occasion, having had that loss filled with whole new worlds, this reader is merely grateful.
These books are the kind that you spend months with, hate to give up, and plan to return to soon and often. There is that much pure pleasure in them, both in the spare and crafted elegance of their prose, and in the breadth and depth of their content. They're reference works of the body and soul, and books of practical reference for anybody who cares about the earth and the quality of his life upon it, which should include us all. Certain pages and even paragraphs have the power to lift you off into hour-long stretches of contemplation and personal reassessment--those periods when a reader seems to be staring out a window but is really watching his interior re-form. Both are that extraordinary; both keep revealing new riches.
Berry's focus is on the land, or agriculture, with equal emphasis on both halves of that word, for he writes not only of land and animal husbandry, but of industrialization and "agribusiness," the youth movement and the family, contemporary education and the lack of it, politics and government, and on into ever-widening realms, which is as it should be. Without the land none of these structures would exist, as Berry makes clear. None of us would. This is an unalterable truth that seems to have got lost in most urban areas, and thus in much of America today. Berry makes us wonder how we imagine we eat, for example, when all consciousness of our dependence on farmers for our existence seems to have been wiped out. This is at the heart of his many concerns.
His approach is the opposite of shrill and slapdash, as anyone who enters the tempered prose of Recollected Essays will soon discover. Berry has begun with himself. Fifteen years ago, after spending nearly a decade as a poet-traveler and academician, he moved with his wife and children to a small acreage in upper Kentucky that had been in his family for several generations. In this area he was born and grew up. He has returned and grown back into it, or as much as this is possible for 20th century man to do, and a discerning and literate one at that, with the distancing medium of language always between, and has put to rest for good that absurd and sentimental supposition that you can't go home again. Where, after all, does one take one's rest, no matter how far one might be from it, in every respect, except at home?
In "The Long-Legged House," one of the first of these re-thought-through essays, and the following "A Native Hill," Berry examines the reasons behind this move. A quiet, purling line of self-evaluation and steady daily work extends from here to the final "The Making of a Marginal Farm," a modern success story of the most humble sort. Only what lies in front of Berry, or affects his life, is spoken of in his low-key and reasoning tones. He would probably be seen by some as one who has "gone back to the land," and referred to by others, with that slight slur toward condescension, as a regionalist. A person who keeps his eyes on the specifics within his vision will receive that title nowadays, rather than the more appropriate one it's been proper to use for centuries: a poet.
Berry makes no claims either way, but is no more local than trees or flowing water, the earth itself, or the imagination is local. Any limits imposed on him might reflect the reader's own flawed tendency toward categorization, that scared, modern pigeonholing that's found its apotheosis in computer circuits. Berry has been called a prophet, and can be seen as one, in his plea from his home territory for a change in people generally. In his refusal to reach beyond what he is and knows, he assumes dimensions that will affect every reader as though the reader is being seen into; by not only remaining still, but retreating, even, into the lives of his ancestors, he's entered into that curious process of growing away from expected intellectual formulations and classifications and the contemporaneousness of his contemporaries, so that smallest areas in him reflect a whole. He speaks with immediacy as if out of the ages, and as a man of wisdom and acumen, and as a writer, stands alone.
Besides pages of specific notes, I've come away from Recollected Essays with a memory of passages that contain some of the most tender and unselfish, and unembarrassing, expressions I've recently read of a husband's love for his wife; a feeling of having had captured, with the rhythms and assonance of language, the fall of a wild stream, or a leisurely walk in the morning through familiar woods; the fresh breath of a sound and searching analysis of the flower generation of the '60s, bracketed by the wonderful title that in itself suggests a solution to the antipathies of that time, "Discipline and Hope"; and some of the best glimpses I've had of the folly of man in his attempts to impose his conception of order on the land, before he's bothered to examine the order inherently in it, being what it is, a creation separate from him--that hubristic attitude in which we see nature as an extension of ourselves, or worse, a dumb woman to be slapped into shape to serve our ends. And through all of this, even when Berry writes about industry and the depredations of a government that creates "leisure-areas" by dismantling or burying great tracts of wilderness, while displacing hundreds and thousands of people who will need more "leisure-areas," he somehow manages never to spill into anger; his prose is always irenic and healing.
If one were to distill the thrust of his thought, it might be, All land is a gift, and all of it is good, if we only had the eyes to see that. Again, making no claims for himself, which brings the reader along, Berry functions not only as our eyes but as an entire body and intelligence responding to the land. It's a response one can hardly return from unmoved. He keeps referring to Sir Albert Howard's premise that in order for man to understand the farm, and the other cleared spaces he's created, he must return to the woods: "His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them--neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them --and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must re-enter the silence and the darkness, and be born again." This is from an essay frst published in 1969, before Jimmy Carter and Charles Colson helped to make that phrase from John 3 the household item it's become, and is calling for the same sort of total transformation, or change of heart. As when, near the end of the same essay, Berry says, "It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are."
He suggests more than once that the only true education we might receive is from the natural world (or "the creation," as he calls it in the earlier essays, and which in the later ones evolves to "Creation") in all of its complex and uncategorizable mystery; and that we won't begin to understand it until we start out with the premise that in its totality it is, indeed, incomprehensible.
Of these two books, Recollected Essays unfolds with the most poetic density, as is natural, since a person of Berry's convictions can make the commitment and move that he's made only once, and keeps thrusting up bright nuggets: "A political speech on television has to be first and last a show, simply because it has no chance to become anything else. The great sin of the medium is not that it presents fiction as truth, as undoubtedly it sometimes does, but that it cannot help presenting the truth as fiction." "Freedom is a personal matter; though we may be enslaved as a group, we can be free only as persons." And "The most destructive of ideas is that extraordinary times justify extraordinary measures. This is the ultimate relativism. . . . Thus the violent have always rationalized their violence." Finally: "Ways of life change only in living. To live by expert advice is to abandon one's life."
The pieces collected in The Gift of Good Land, most of which were first written for magazine publication, are somewhat thinner but in the best pragmatic sense more useful, since they represent accounts of the actual working out of Berry's ideas in specific application to life on the land. It's a way of life that works wondrously well, one learns, in pockets of this country, as with the Amish, who buy up 80 acres of burnt-out soil and in a few years have it supporting an entire family, and on other continents, as it has for centuries. It is life as it was meant to be lived, and was and is lived, still, in spite of experts who say it won't work and are ready with other "advice." Though Berry details, especially in this second book, the different kinds of death and destruction this advice has caused across our land (and which will continue out of its own momentum more than common sense), one comes away from his books with hope, because of his stand, and through becoming acquainted with others who are taking it, or have always so stood; and hope, too, in a larger sense, for this stripped and dammed and befouled planet that in the face of our insults to it continues to sustain the equipoise of life among immeasurable galaxies stretching off from it in different degrees of burning or frigid sterility.
Our hope is here. And here is a human being speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear him.y