When anxiety is running high, when the news cycle can’t get any louder, when it seems like the world is an irredeemable mess – then is a good time to crack open some Wendell Berry. Fortunately for us, Berry, who turned 88 this year, is a prolific writer, so there are many different volumes up for grabs. There isn’t really a wrong direction to go – his essays, his fiction, and his poetry all offer pithy diamonds of wisdom and joy. Berry has been gently but firmly pushing against the status quo for decades. Industrialization, education, politics – in all those areas where civilized debate is essentially nonexistent at the moment, he speaks like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. Even in disagreeing, you can’t help but be moved by the graciousness of his ardency. In his poem “Some Further Words,” Berry outlines an autobiographical sketch of sorts:
"Let me be plain with you, dear reader.
I am an old-fashioned man. I like
the world of nature despite its mortal
dangers. I like the domestic world
of humans, so long as it pays its debts
to the natural world, and keeps its bounds.
I like the promise of Heaven. My purpose
is a language that can pay just thanks
and honor for those gifts, a tongue
set free from fashionable lies."
I recently checked out Given, a collection of poetry published in 2005, and absorbed it in an evening. There are a lot of emotions here, ponderings that those of us who make stuff with our hands (and in so doing, seek connection with those who came before) can really grab hold of. Berry’s poem, “A Stone Jug,” is one such example. Berry describes the local discovery (by a bulldozer) of two stoneware jugs buried four feet deep. He ponders who it was that placed them there, whose hands last touched them:
“Those who have come and gone
are gone. How lost to us
they are whose lives passed here
in the sun’s beauty and sorrow!”
Anyone who uses a hundred-year-old fore plane or backsaw has likely experienced similar thoughts, placing a hand on the same burnished tote as several generations of woodworkers before us. Who were these people? What did they think about?
Berry wasn’t only about deep thoughts. Throughout his works, he offered practical, tongue-in-cheek advice (“Don't own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire”), droll self-reflection ("Well, anyhow, I am not going to die young"), and astute observations about anonymous political leaders (“Head like a big watermelon, frequently thumped and still not ripe”). But I will leave you with something worthy of contemplation, a reflection from Home Economics about the appropriate place of technology.
“Once we grant the possibility of a proper human scale, we see that we have made a radical change of assumptions and values. We realize that we are less interested in technological “breakthroughs” than in technological elegance. Of a new tool or method we will no longer ask: Is it fast? Is it powerful? Is it a labor saver? How many workers will it replace? We will ask instead: Can we (and our children) afford it? Is it fitting to our real needs? Is it becoming to us? Is it unhealthy or ugly? And though we may keep a certain interest in innovation and in what we may become, we will renew our interest in what we have been, realizing that conservationists must necessarily conserve both inheritances, the natural and the cultural.”