Rock Island, IL
Well into a pretty good book (and—Christos Anesti!—a gin martini) I look up and see that it is ten o’clock on Tuesday evening. Tuesday, 10:00 p.m.: that grim moment each week when the black-clad deadline bangs the brass knocker regardless of whether I have anything to say. And, let’s face it: usually I don’t. I walk down the basement steps waiting for an opening line or a governing image to present itself. And, as expected, the muse proves once again to be a niggardly female dog.
But soft you now! Recently I was rifling through an old file, looking for an orphaned paragraph that perhaps I could find a home for in another project, when I ran across an interview that was used as part of the press-release package for a modest little volume of essays on Wendell Berry that I compiled and edited a few years ago. Back then the interview seemed so little-used, so narrowly circulated. And, well, tonight I find what I’m reading to be at least as interesting as place, limits, and liberty—and a helluva lot less work.
Would the millions of FPR readers consider it lazy and self-serving of me to reproduce the interview? (Do the juniper berry and I believe they would?) The edited volume, which features several Front Porchers (Kauffman, Beer, Carlson, Dalton, Deneen, and of course Yours Unruly), has sold pretty well, thanks to someone else’s name on the cover. But, now that it’s available in paper, even more people can afford it—and might, indeed, find their lives unimaginably changed by it. And I do have little ones to feed. Yea, verily: the children must be fed. (Won’t someone please think of the children?)
So, at the risk of being thought lazy or shameless or both, I reproduce an interview with someone I know to be hardworking and humble (not to mention sincere, self-effacing, and charming as all-get-out). Those disappointed by the effort should take heart: they might find recompense some Wednesday morning at 12:01 (CST) when, quite unexpectedly, an interview with his alter ego, the Bar Jester, hits the aether.
And then! Oh, the traffic! The internet fires! The computer freezes! The death of a cave-dwelling terrorist will seem like a royal wedding by comparison!
A Conversation with Jason Peters
University Press of Kentucky (Used Without Permission)
How did you first come to know and appreciate the work of Wendell Berry?
By copyright infringement, I guess you could say. A friend of mine, whom I mention in the acknowledgements of the edited volume, sent me a photocopy of Berry’s companion essays, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and “Feminism, The Body, and The Machine.” This was shortly after What are People For? had come out. I read the two essays and found in them a sanity that, as near as I could tell, wasn’t available anywhere else. (It helped that I was in grad school at the time and reading trainloads of nonsense.) I read almost all of Berry’s essays before I paid any attention to the fiction or poetry, which delighted me as much as the essays had. Thus began one of the most important and rewarding literary excursions of my life.
What inspired you to compile Wendell Berry: Life and Work?
Several years ago I was part of a symposium on Berry. Well, we had a grand time talking about Berry’s work in the company of many dissenters. One participant, an economist who might be eating his words about now, called Berry “Chicken Little”; another flummoxed a few of us by saying Berry’s work leads directly to the Khmer Rouge. But I was struck by the range of people interested in Berry, though this shouldn’t have surprised me, since he writes so intelligently on many of the disciplines into which we academics have carved up the world. I hadn’t really met Berry yet—that was a few months off, I think. After the symposium I asked a few of the participants whether they’d be interested in contributing to a collection of essays that would look at Berry’s work from as many perspectives as possible. No one I talked to thought it was a bad idea, I can tell you that. Next thing I knew I had a book that was pretty close to being too big.
Your essay takes a critical look at the ways in which our educational system often separates the practical and bodily self from the abstract and academic self, removing the product of that system from any type of place consciousness. Given that many of your contributors are part of the academic system, what hope do you have for a shifting of academic values towards increased place consciousness?
I once heard a colleague ask a job candidate, “Why do you want to come here? There’s nothing but corn fields.” You’ll always hear this sort of blather in colleges and universities, because they will always have bad people in them—PhDs who like to eat but who have no gratitude toward the people and sources that sustain them. But, as Berry tells us, hope is a virtue. I think there’s reason to be hopeful—as distinct from optimistic—about professors. Academics are by and large itinerant vandals. They’ll follow their egos and the funding that inflates them anywhere. But the truth is that more of us are catching on. Social geographers, philosophers, theologians, biologists, over-educated navel-gazers in all corners of the university, even in the English departments, are beginning to see the importance of loyalty to and love for a place. Even the academic elite are beginning to show signs of intelligence.
Berry is one of Kentucky’s most beloved figures, yet his influence extends both across the Unites States and the rest of the world. What do you think rockets Berry’s work from regional appeal to national and global discourse, given that so much of his work is grounded in the idea of one’s relationship to place?
This must be because the industrial experience is so similar the world over: every individual place that the extractive economy touches is threatened with becoming a wasteland. People can see that paradise has been lost, and they want it back. Berry is one of those who point the way. He says that for too long we’ve been telling places what to do; it’s time we let the places tell us what to do. We have to heed some old advice and consult the genius of the individual place. And this advice is, in a manner of speaking, the one thing that is legitimately placeless: it is transferable from place to place—from Kentucky to Kiev.
With the increased popularity of hybrid vehicles and organic foods, our society seems interested in a move towards sustainability. What do you think is stemming this interest?
Berry is one of the writers driving this. His name is on a lot of lips these days. But I think more and more people are scared now. They see that the natural capital is low, that we’ve been writing checks without making any deposits. The prospect of bankruptcy can sometimes make even an American cut up a credit card.
Many of the chapters cite Berry’s inclinations toward the real and concrete. How does your collection allow readers to see the “real” Wendell Berry?
One thing I hope this book will do is correct some misconceptions about Berry. Many readers of his essays peg him as a severe old grump. There’s plenty of grumpiness in him, to be sure. That’s one of his most endearing characteristics, in my opinion. But he’s also a very kind and gracious man. He’s funnier than hell, too. I’ve been known to get into a few joke-telling matches over drinks, and Berry can keep pace, let me tell you. My guess is that the personal essays here are going to be the favorites. But the “real” Wendell Berry? Well, each of us is a great mystery.
What are the most important lessons society can glean from Berry’s writings on nature and the land?
I go back to a line from What Are People For? “We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do.” I’m always trying to get students to ponder this sentence. The lesson is that we can’t go through life chomping away. We can’t grant ourselves easy permission to be incompetent in the basic tasks and ignorant of the fundamental processes. We can’t continue to be moral simpletons.
Wendell Berry’s work covers a spectrum of literary styles and subject matters. Is there a particular piece you would recommend to people looking for their first foray into Berry’s writing?
I’m very fond of “Discipline and Hope” and “The Work of Local Culture.” “Imagination and Place,” a more recent essay, is a thing of beauty. If the first foray must be fiction, I’d suggest Jayber Crow or A World Lost.