Spring Arbor, MI

Wendell Berry’s appearance at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) last weekend in Atlanta is just the latest indication of his increasing profile in the academy. There were at least 13 presentations on Berry, including a talk on Jayber Crow’s critique of agribusiness by a professor from South Korea and a personal narrative from a former high school English teacher who quit her job and started a CSA. So despite his criticisms of the university, Berry’s writings are appearing in many college classrooms.

Berry spoke at two sessions during the conference. At the first he read excerpts from a forthcoming essay, “Our Deserted Country,” and his recently published short story “The Branch Way.” At the second, Chad Wriglesworth, Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo and the editor of Distant Neighbors, interviewed Berry about a wide range of topics. Both sessions included time for questions from the audience. Rather than trying to cover everything Berry talked about, I’ll discuss some of the recurring themes and then briefly contrast Berry’s vision with that of the other keynote speaker at the conference, Ursula Heise.

Berry began his presentation to a room full of humanities teachers by dedicating the talk to his Milton professor, Thomas B. Stroup. “He gave me much kindness, and a lot of trouble,” Berry said, and then recalled several stories from his days as a student in Professor Stroup’s classroom. “He never accepted a paper from me the first time. . . Sometimes he wouldn’t accept my second try.” Instead, he would return Berry’s inadequate efforts telling him to rewrite the essay. Berry went on to recount the time Professor Stroup kicked him out of class for not having his Milton text. Apparently, the book was too heavy, and Berry didn’t want to carry it around all day. His teacher didn’t think that was a good enough excuse.

These introductory remarks served several purposes. Besides giving him an opportunity to honor one of his own teachers, they also served as Berry’s encouragement to current teachers to maintain high standards and push their students. Who knows, maybe the student they send home from class for not having their text with them may be motivated to work harder, read more closely, and write a novel like Jayber Crow. In addition, Berry’s anecdotes announced the theme for his talk and indeed for much of his work: the sustainability of human culture depends on maintaining exacting standards.

The conference theme was “Sustainability and the Humanities,” so Berry addressed this topic before giving his reading. “Sustainability is a word we’re stuck with because we don’t know much about it,” he remarked. While wilderness preservation and pollution continue to attract much of our attention, Berry recommended turning our focus to the arts of sustainable living like forestry and farming. The more visible, flashy problems arise because of our failure to practice these humble arts of sustainability at a high level.

“Our Deserted Country,” the same essay from which Berry read at the Front Porch Republic conference in Louisville this September, seeks to articulate some of the intangible qualities that make human economies and cultures sustainable. Our economy only recognizes material, quantifiable values, but Berry argues that many cultural practices—imagination, affection, sympathy, neighborliness, rightness of scale, even religious faith—have economic value. The story about the Branch economy that Berry then read depicts a family that embodies such a sustainable culture. The Branches manage to live according to a thrifty, caring economy by rejecting the assumptions of the market. As Danny Branch’s list of principles begins, “Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better.”

Following his reading, Berry answered questions on a range of topics, including the legacy of the Southern Agrarians and the future of urbanites returning to the country to farm. One attendee asked whether new digital technologies might actually foster sustainable cultures of care. Berry replied that he wouldn’t know since he avoids screens: “I try to do without screens because I want to live where I live.” He went on to say that the people who create consumer electronics “don’t have a vision for the health of the land.” “I remember when TV was going to make us all intellectuals,” Berry quipped. When another audience member asked if he ever tired of being a contrarian, Berry responded “No. I’m not a contrarian. I affirm things.” It’s easy to be a contrarian, and “it’s easy to get a reputation for being a contrarian,” but the hard work to which Berry has addressed himself is “to lay down a reasonably solid foundation for hope.”

The next morning Berry sat across from Chad Wriglesworth for a wide-ranging, engaging conversation. They began by discussing the features of the Burley Tobacco Program that had enabled it to protect small farmers, and Berry pointed to its combination of price supports and production controls as a model other programs should adopt. He quoted his father, who helped start the program, as saying, “If you want people to love their country, let them own a piece of it.”

In response to a question about the role of memory in his life and his novels, Berry spoke about the way living in one place has shaped his memory: “Everyday I’m walking in the tracks of people who are in the graveyard. But they’re in the present that I live.” He knew when he and Tanya returned to Kentucky they would bury a lot of people who couldn’t be replaced, and they have done so, but remembering their good lives is Berry’s way of honoring them. Recalling one particular man, a blacksmith who also owned the town gas station, Berry told about one early morning when he had to stop for gas. At this time, he was teaching at the University of Kentucky two days a week, but he tried to keep it secret from most of his neighbors, and this man in particular. On this morning, however, his empty gas tank forced him to stop, and the man came out to help, asking, “You going up to the university, boy?” When Berry admitted that he was, the man continued, “How often do you go up there, boy?” Upon hearing he only went two days a week, the man replied, “That ain’t what I call a job, boy, it’s what I call a position.”

Their discussion of the rich, exacting language spoken in a rural community led Chad to ask Berry about his efforts to renew biblical language. Berry lamented the way scientific materialism has led our culture to be ashamed of our traditional words for human experience. For instance, we praise “creativity” in almost every subject, but we no longer mean it in its original sense. Referring to Liberty Hyde Bailey’s book, The Holy Earth, Berry noted that no dean of agriculture at Cornell could talk about the earth in that language now, with its religious sense of the earth’s wholeness: “If the humanities are going to apply themselves to sustainability, they must have a language that can contact our experiences that aren’t material.” Sympathy and imagination and affection can’t be quantified or put into a vial, “but they’re real things.”

Chad thanked Berry for his work in his fiction and poetry to find language for these values, but Berry replied that he thinks he has handled these matters “only clumsily.” Berry went on to express hope, however, that our culture will continue to find language to articulate the unique value of each creature. In the context of medicine, for instance, Berry pointed to the doctors, many of them serious Christians, who are trying to confront the failure of industrial medicine and find ways to foster a culture that allows them to practice love for the person they are treating.

When Chad opened their conversation up to the audience, Berry fielded questions on hope, death, education, and contemporary writers. In response to a question about what educators should do, Berry recommended starting locally. He explained that asking questions about your place would break down disciplinary boundaries and open up a richer conversation among members of the university community. When someone asked about our culture’s death-avoidance, Berry observed, “Mobility keeps us from dealing with [death].” We can avoid the funeral home if we don’t stay in any one place. But, Berry remarked, “I’m old enough now to understand death as a problem solver.” Perhaps death is the only adequate excuse to stop doing good work where we are. In other words, Berry is still practicing the lesson he learned from his Milton professor; he’s still seeking the terms of a culture exacting enough to be sustainable.

The conference’s other keynote speaker, Ursula Heise, could not have stood in greater contrast to Berry. A professor at UCLA, Heise is fascinated with the contested claim that we now live in the anthropocene, and she drew on science fiction to imagine how humans and nature might interact in the future. Her perspective focused on the future; at one point, she said science fiction is about how the future is already present, whereas Berry cited Faulkner’s claim that the past isn’t past. Her perspective values breadth; she surveyed dozens of texts whereas Berry models a deeper engagement with fewer texts. Her perspective celebrates technology; she explored the potential for bioengineering and terraforming whereas Berry advocates a humility that respects natural limits. Her perspective is cosmopolitan and planetary; she discussed space travel whereas Berry dwells deeply in one place. The contrast between Heise and Berry may depict the choice we face now: will we continue to believe in the future, which as Berry observes is malleable precisely because it doesn’t exist, or will we draw on the best of our traditions to practice a sustainable culture, one that meets the standards of our place?

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  1. Risking coming off like the total jerk I probably am, Jayber Crow was a far from perfect novel. It had passages that were brilliant, but the structure and narrative sprawled badly, and there were some exceedingly dull stretches. It needed a stronger editor, IMO.

    Berry’s essays on the other hand… in that discipline I consider him without peer. Many of those felt “perfect”.

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