Gary Lehmann - Author

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Authenic Voice of Wendell Berry

Immediately after the American Revolution, it occurred to people that a new country had been founded and a new concept of what it means to be an American was required. On the one hand, Thomas Jefferson offered a vision of an agrarian America. The land is fertile and he saw life on the farm as a healthy, self-sufficient lifestyle suitable for a newly free people. On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton, born into a mercantile family, saw the future of America in industry. Ample natural resources and water power made America the ideal place to develop the industrial revolution without all the hindrances of Old World conventions.

Of course, as it turned out, the country went in both directions – at least until recently when big government has regulated family farming almost out of existence. Land lies fallow. People founder in their rootless urban environments, and America has, for the first time in its history, begun to be a net importer of almost everything.

The poet and farmer, Wendell Berry has taken up where Jefferson left off and offers in his writings a call for Americans to return to agriculture and self-sufficiency as a cure for our modern woes. Some see this as unrealistic, but others call it visionary, an authentic call for clarity and harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth.

Wendell Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky in 1934 in tobacco country. He went to the University of Kentucky where he obtained a Masters Degree and met and married his wife, Tanya who has become has lifelong companion and first reader. After studying writing at Sanford University, he took his family to Europe for 5 years on a Guggenheim Fellowship.

When he returned to Kentucky, he settled down on a small family farm in Port Royal, near where the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers meet. "It is a real farm,” he has been quoted as saying, “not a writer-professor's country estate. Its chores include milking cows and currying horses, and mucking out stalls and mending fences and mowing hay and all other time-consuming sometimes back-breaking, labor that family agriculture requires"

He had seen what the world has to offer in all its modernity, and he has come back home to chose the land and the life of a farmer. Even as he taught at the University of Kentucky, he simultaneously farmed the land with a team of horses and a plow, natural fertilizers and herbicides. Even as he wrote and published 30 books, he maintained a simple lifestyle at home, no indoor plumbing, limited use of electricity, and lots of hard work and fresh air.

He has been remarkably productive as an author having written 25 books of poetry, 16 volumes of essays, 11 novels and short story collections.

He does his writing by a window during daytime when he does not require electricity. "It is best, for me when I can write every day, from breakfast until noon. That's about as long at a stretch as I can hope to write well." He works with a pencil. Then his wife transcribes each page and types out a draft copy which she reviews with him. He has resisted the almost universal tendency to write on a computer, because it will make his writing no better and will disrupt the creative harmony that he has had for so many years with his wife.

"I write in longhand, with a pencil, and make many changes and erasures as I go along. Every morning, before I begin, I read over and correct the work of the morning before. When I have finished a chapter or a story or essay, I read it aloud to Tanya, my wife, and make the corrections that this reading suggests to her and to me. Before she types it, I read it again and make further changes. Between typescript and publication many more changes may be made."

Despite this somewhat isolated existence, Berry writes about modern life. In a 1999 essay entitled “The Failure of War” he asks, ”How many deaths of other people’s children are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer: None . . . Don’t kill any children for my benefit.”

In his essay entitled “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” he asks some crucial questions about the underlying causes of the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Would it have been necessary if we had adopted a more civilized idea of global economy? How is public education being used to create a predatory society? What would we have to do to become peacekeepers in the world?

“The serious question is whether you're going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people.”

In The Art of the Commonplace, he offers an agrarian alternative to modern urban culture. He feels that environmentalists have been sidetracked into a focus on wild lands when they should be looking at the overall benefits of small-scale agriculture.

In his poetry book, Given, his “Sabbath Poems” transcribe poetry that arose from his long–time habit of taking Sunday morning walks of meditation and observation.

The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”

In his book The Long-Legged House, he sums up his whole writing philosophy in just nine words. “What I stand for is what I stand on.” For more than 40 years now, Wendell Berry has produced poetry and other writing that reflects a life centered on the land and the life of the farmer. His work is spiritual without being religious, authentic without being corny, honest without being unrealistic.

Still, you can’t please everyone. Currently on, one of Berry’s books of poetry is reviewed by an anonymous reader who says, “I thought this book was one of the most boaring [sic] books I have ever read. If you ask me I thought they should of selcted [sic] different poems by Wendell Berry. None of them were good. I don't reccomend [sic] this book to anyone!” This review features 3 spelling errors in just 4 sentences. I suspect that Berry would see this review as symptomatic of what he has been trying to say his whole life.

1072 words


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