Updated: Jan 6
Heading into a new year, and having taken five months away from my blog, I'm here once again. This is the post I've been struggling to get out for, I dunno, months? Years?
I am sad and confused about Wendell Berry's place in America. I don't understand it. I'm confident that Wendell doesn't share my disappointment. For that I'm grateful.
Look, I don't know the man. Unlike many of his other superfans, I never tracked him down, walked his farm with him, sat at his table to talk about his work, his life, his ideas. I don't know what his bad moods look like, or how he fails his own expectations.. I bet he's stubborn as hell, which can be hard on families.
I'm not trying to sanctify him. But what I know -- what we all know, those of us who've studied his life and work, is undebatable.
He has repeatedly stood up for the vulnerable and powerless, including the creatures and features of the earth who have zero political representation.
He has seen through the lies of politicians and corporations and exposed widely their corruption and self-dealing.
He was one of the first, and is still among the best, observers of catastrophic, manmade carnage to our planet.
He has chosen a life of sharing, through his teaching, publishing and yes, welcoming strangers into his home.
He has lived with integrity, forsaking material gain and status to instead take care of his home place and his neighbors-- not just for a spell, but for all of his days.
He has applied his gigantic intelligence to the most difficult problems of our age, including the religion of progress, the fractionalizing of every issue and movement, the hypocracy of christianity, the fetishization of technology, the monstrousness of our economy and, both very early and very late in his career, the damage of American racism.
He has never stopped learning -- reading and writing nonstop -- through the seven decades of his adult life.
His work is ground zero for the local food movement in the US.
Though not a joiner by nature, he has selectively participated in local protests and activistism in his home state of Kentucky. Although (I believe) his thinking is on another level, he appears not to have an elevated view of himself. He responds to fan mail.
He is the co-keeper of a long and successful marriage -- and is a beloved grandfather, father, brother and son. He never allowed his closest relationships to be sacrificed by his prodigious work ethic.
He has proven that the old values -- workmanship, friendship, thrift, simplicity, manual labor, neighborhiness -- though buried in our modern age, can still define a life, and give immense pleasure to it.
He has avoided defeatism and quietism, despite being on the losing side of his long fight with our industrialized and professionalized society.
He has diligently cultivated friendship, art, and humor.
He has held out hope for America, and shown us the most promising of possibilities, in his writing and his example, over and over again.
Despite all of it, he is a marginal figure in this country. Though he has admirers in the hundreds of thousands, he doesn't command the respect that I believe would be his, were he to have lived in another time and place. I don't know enough history to give examples to support that -- but I think of Cincinnatus, the statesman/farmer who chose to return to his farm instead of claiming the absolute power of the Roman emperorship. Not because Wendell ever had designs on political power. But because of the uncommon integrity. And clarity of moral purpose. In point of fact, Wendell has never had, nor sought, any political power. So the comparison isn't great. Maybe that fact has a lot to do with his relative insignificance.
But I suppose (to get very personal about it), my sadness is that such a person as this, who has contributed so much -- conducted on the highest moral and artistic plane, exemplary of so much of what we claim to value in our national and spiritual traditions, accomplished in such a public and well documented way -- that such a person can still be so unseen.
That he almost certainly doesn't feel unseen is one more reason I am fascinated by him, and have so much more to learn from walking with him.