Berry, with an insistence that defies despair, is still carrying out his calling. He notes the discouraging odds his kind has faced not just now but in the past. Imperial presence in whatever its forms has long imperiled the agrarian ideal.
Berry connects these major themes from The Hidden Wound to other themes from his many works—work, agrarianism, industrialization, citizenship, affection, and place. In so doing, he offers his readers a fuller-orbed view of his thinking than maybe he has ever done previously. In the end, at least after my first close reading of the volume, I think this work of integration is the most valuable contribution of The Need to Be Whole.
These are not compassionate times—not in the public square, and not in all too much of our increasingly chaotic private life, though I think many people are trying. Mr. Berry knows this very well. And so about halfway through the book, he takes a few pages to acknowledge he was told, more than once, that his reputation would be marred by showing any sympathy to the life or plight of any Confederate.
If I attempt to follow Berry’s underwater route too closely, I’m afraid I will drown. Rather than try to summarize it, then, I will instead distill from it a set of guidelines for improving the quality of our language. The shouters who dominate our public discourse are unlikely to heed Berry’s advice, but those of us who are weary of shrill denunciations have much to learn from Berry’s sanity.
No one can be whole alone; no one can be free alone. Rather, Berry holds that “[t]o be whole and free is…to be at home in a place and in a community where one knows and is known,” and where its boundaries include soils, waters, plants, and animals.
Lying on a bed at 2:00 AM idly flipping through a book while texting a friend isn’t likely to be a transformative experience. Treating education as a hoop to jump through to secure a job, make money, and consume leads to practices serving that end. The authors in this book will challenge our perceptions about what learning is for.
What is being outlined here is fundamentally a Wendell Berry conservatism: our solutions are not global in nature. They might not even be national in nature. It asks individuals to get involved at the lowest possible scale, in church and on school boards, to be productive in the home and show up in a community as ways to build an emergent virtuous and meaningful life now.
The summer, its heat and its flowers, has finally been put to death. But the dust remains. George Wilson is covered in it, alive and dead, and as Nick told us at the beginning of the novel, the empty space around Gatsby’s dream is made up of that same dust, those same ashes.
Beyond writing about craftmanship and antique furniture, M&T explores ideas about human work in a technological age, work in the context of community, and the relationship between craft and tradition. Regardless of your interest in the nuances of woodworking, many Porchers would find reading M&T to be worthwhile.