In an earlier post, I wrote about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and my long wait to actually get and so enjoy that lovely book. What Are People For? by Wendell Berry was both the catalyst for my finally embracing Dillard and a wonderful complement to that read. This collection of essays was a watershed moment in my intellectual and spiritual growth.
I came to this book in my early 30s—which is to say at an opportune time. I’d graduated from a liberal arts institution where I learned to be skeptical. I’d done an intensive two-year stint as a pastoral assistant where I learned that skepticism must be anchored in some bedrock truth lest my thoughts sink into despair. And I’d left the moral comfort of church employ for the diverse often confounding ethic of the marketplace.
A decade into what I’d call adult life—which I take to mean life under my own authority (in as much as I had free choice as to which authority I ought to submit)—I had a robust set of suspicions and convictions. I was suspicious of power (thanks, liberal arts college), and especially the economic sort. The trickery of money, the prostration before the mercy seat of the marketplace, the ways in which people distance themselves physically and psychically from one another in order to compete with the supposedly necessary ferocity of the ‘free’ market with a clear conscience, or at least a conscience sufficiently numbed. This knit together with my growing conviction that all problems, deep enough down, are broken-hearted-human problems (thanks, theological training), which, in order to live a good life, I ought to know about the roots of those sorts of problems in myself and others in order to advocate for their resolution. Thinking through my convictions and suspicions, much less articulating them in ordinary speech, would be a lot of work. Wendell Berry has been hard at work.
What Are People For? was my introduction to the fruits of his labor and immediately I was almost spooked to read wonderfully clarified and usually upgraded versions of my own uneasy thoughts. I had found something of a mentor almost as an act of providence. I had barely even a vague idea of Wendell Berry’s writing and to find in this book a map to my own angst was to have found a treasure, and a shocking one considering its age.
I would read an essay such as the brilliant “An Argument For Diversity”, deep in the context of my own modern world, and come to the end to find that Berry had written in 1988. Almost 20 years ago. That Berry’s observation and reflection still read as deeply vital in my technologically transfigured time speaks to both the subcutaneous depth with which he spoke of human living and to his clairvoyant ability to point downstream from his time and lay out the matured consequences of seemingly small actions. Truly this man knows how seeds work.
If I had to boil this book down to one point (which is impossible), I could at least say that the theme which kept jumping out to me was that in daily life we all steward the land, the created world, and our own human dignity is bound to that stewardship. Any shortcut around wise care is a fool’s bargain that ultimately and literally costs the seller his own self. Convenience is a viper that strikes us while we wrestle its tail.
So Berry advocates a kind of human slowness. He challenges me to use more of my own energy to reduce the demands I place on my world and ultimately on others. My own energy calls for patience and close observation while adjusting to a healthier threshold for contentment. And somewhere in that slowness I found the key to engaging Annie Dillard: once you stand still and take something as it is, it will reveal itself to you.
It so happens that these two books harmonize well. In one duet, Dillard’s chapter in Tinker Creek called “Fecundity” set ringing my recollection of Berry’s essay “Economy and Pleasure”. She captured my imagination and hunger for the wonder of creation and he reminded me that I am inseparable from that world by any means, and creation will ultimately afford me reciprocal dignity.
I owe Wendell Berry a debt. For affirming that I am free in all my thoughts with the same pencil that reminded me that only some of my thoughts are good and sustaining. For helping establish a way of thinking by which I can weigh my freedom and measure it out with some integrity. And also for re-teaching me how to write. In a brief explanation of why he writes by hand and not with a computer, Wendell Berry redirected my own creative process sight unseen. Where fancy software didn’t help unstick my mind, a simple reminder of the bodily act of writing shook things loose. I drafted these responses to Dillard and Berry by hand and while I can’t speak to their quality, I can speak to how un-frustrated I felt writing them.
Wendell Berry is always looking beyond the horizon, so much so that some have criticized him for being too idealistic. But I wonder if he looks even beyond the horizon of death and into a new world. Certainly his view of human beings in communion with one another and with their particular place is so exact and so beautiful, and so fundamentally at odds with our current state and trajectory, that at times I had to think of heaven while reading to keep from having my heart broken at the present impossibility of such a way. But Berry never ceases to aim at practical daily living. If he glimpses heaven, he does so only to advocate for that kingdom to come, that will to be done on earth. So I am deeply challenged in this life. And I hope to God I get to be a farmer in heaven.