Tuesday, April 3, 2012

An afternoon with Wendell Berry

I've written about Wendell Berry before. This past Saturday I was able to see him for the first time. There's something rather fascinating about stepping into a small town along the Ohio River, where the community has a yearly book club. Can you imagine walking to get the mail and asking your neighbor, "Have you read the book yet?" Or asking fellow parishioners, the grocery store clerk or the mailman?

So, this is the small town community I traveled to for this particular event -- a book club with the author.

Wendell Berry, with his sparkling blue eyes, incredible wisdom concerning the reality of our world and his dose of hope amidst the craziness of modernity addressed us all in the public library. (If they had more people than the room could hold, arrangements had already been made for all present to walk a few feet to the church, which could accommodate more.) And with his 77 years of experience of living, Mr. Berry proceeded to share some thoughts, many instigated by questions from the audience.

This might seem a bit random, but the thoughts he shared on Saturday might be just the little push you need to pick up "Hannah Coulter" or some other work of Wendell Berry to get a sense of his thought. He's not a Catholic, nor is he explicitly teaching about Theology of the Body or marriage and family, but his ideas implicitly form and educate along the same lines.

So, from Mr. Berry --

  • After World War II, industrialization affected everything -- agriculture, entertainment, health care. Local people stopped telling local stories and instead talked about what they saw on television. That's a profound change. Real culture consists of conversations between old people and young people. Without that, something is really lost.
  • There are two parts to what has happened in our cultural clashes right now. There are people who would like to see communities remade. This often begins with a desire for local food, which turns into something social. People come to the farmer's market and spend the day talking with each other. This is hope-giving. Secondly, there is outside pressure -- fuel costs, long commutes, etc. So, the pressure on the outside and the effort on the inside can end in good together, but are the people on the inside together enough before the pressures on the outside become too great?
  • Leadership from the bottom is people who see something needs doing and just do it.
  • It's getting harder to mature. One reason is that the experience of young people is too uniform (manufactured or media-driven, but not local). We also surround young people with so many alternatives. To say you can be anything you want to be is a horrible lie from the start. I could never be a ballet dancer. In Amish communities, for example, the kids don't have such a scattered mind of who they're going to be. We now have the idea that you have no appointed place to go, no vocation (no calling). We now have a kid cast loose into the economy for just a job.
  • Hope is a virtue, which means it's not optional. You're expected to have it. If you're concerned with the issues I'm concerned with, you're going to come to the limit of your hope and you're going to need some more.
  • The word "inevitable" I hate ... That's a lazy person's word.
  • On the role of education -- My education implied all along that you can't amount to anything from a place like where I came from. I think it is a good idea to leave. I wouldn't want any of my children to stay without leaving first. But if you think to make the people at home in the place where the education is happening, then the education would look a lot different. Instead of departmentalized specializations, it would be a conversation among disciplines. Higher education has been oversold by the higher education institutions. The president is the CEO. Their success is reckoned by the number of buildings they have. Children of farmers can't become farmers after college because they're too in-debt to farm.
Learn more about Wendell Berry here. But Mr. Berry wouldn't learn from the Internet, so be sure to buy one of his books to really learn more.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of attending the talk by Wendell and reporting on some of his observations and thoughts. Very interesting.

    I'm a big fan of Wendell Berry and gave been busy buying and reading his collections of essays over the last half year. I've yet to read any of his fiction but this obviously must be my next step. Your blog on Hannah Coulter certainly makes a compelling case to make this a top of the list read. I've heard very positive reports on Jayber Crow, so it could be a tough decision as to which I invest in first. Any views on the latter book?

  2. Mark, thank you for your comments. I have also read, "Jayber Crow." I enjoyed it, but personally found "Hannah Coulter" more intriguing or perhaps relatable. It's really a matter of personal preference, as both are excellent works. In terms of practicality, "Hannah Coulter" is significantly shorter than "Jayber Crow," so if time is a concern, it might be a better entree it his fiction.

  3. This is a gem. Thank you very much. I found his comments on education especially useful.