Review: Watch With Me

Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the YetRemembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2018 (originally published 1994).

Summary: Six short stories and the title novella centered around the Port William resident, Tol Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie and their life on a rural farm, part of the membership of a rural community.

This one had me at the title, both for its length, and the “yet-remembered” part. For Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot was a memorable man–a big man of 300 pounds who seemed to be a-bursting out of his clothes, which looked disheveled within minutes of him donning them. He carefully farmed 98 acres, just enough and not two acres more. He was a good judge of horses and all livestock, as well as a good judge of people. Miss Minnie Quinch Proudfoot was as diminutive as Tol was large, but just as impressive. This book of short stories and a novella trace their life together and the lives they touched from the time they began to court until a few years before death parted them.

The first story introduces both of them and tells how Miss Minnie, who had had eyes for him as he for her, consented to let Tol see her home after the Harvest Festival. “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” renders the amusing story of how Miss Minnie, a local temperance movement leader, got pie-eyed drunk on some Old Darling whiskey Tol had bought for his new calves. “The Lost Bet” recounts the time Tol had the last laugh with a store owner who belittled him. Tol was great with livestock and could drive a horse with aplomb, but struggled mightily with his new Model A. “Nearly to the Fair” recounts their attempt to be driven by Elton Penn to the state fair, never quite getting there.

Tol and Miss Minnie never had children and the hospitality they showed to a homeless father and son during the height of the Depression showed the unspoken heartache between them. As the father and son are leaving, Tol half-jokingly says to the man, “We could use a boy like that.” After they left “Tol put on a clean shirt and his jacket, and cap and gloves. Miss Minnie began to clear the table. For the rest of that day, they did not look at one another.” With an economy of words, Berry expresses the bond between them, the diligence of their daily lives, and the unspoken ache they both felt. The last of the short stories recalls a riotous incident from childhood when the family was gathered at Old Ant’ny Proudfoot’s and the boys managed to dump both a cat and a dog down the chimney resulting in all hell breaking loose with the company. Told a few years before his passing with tears of laughter running down his face, “It was Tol’s benediction, as I grew to know, on that expectancy of good and surprising things that had kept Lester’s eyes, and Tol’s too, wide open for so long.”

“Watch With Me,” the final novella is another incident, from 1916, of those “good and surprising things.” Thacker “Nightlife” Hample was prone to spells. Prevented from preaching at the revival at Goforth Church, he comes by Tol’s place, spies an old shotgun that had been loaded to kill a snake, takes it and walks deliberately away, mouthing threats to kill himself. Tol and his nephew Sam and several others follow as a distance, as Nightlife walks on, oblivious of them while they are far from oblivious to the danger of the shotgun. They follow a day and a night, losing him in the woods only to have him come to the fire where they had fallen asleep, uttering Jesus’ words “Couldn’t you stay awake? Couldn’t you stay awake?” He then leaves, taking them in a big circle back to Tol’s workshop. It’s a fine story of human fidelity and frailty–of friends who drop their work to watch their “teched” community member, not sure what they can do, but realizing they needed to be there, even at risk to themselves. That’s what it was to be a “member” of this community.

This is a wonderful collection I never knew existed, introducing me to an older member of Port William. The fine writing says just enough to suggest the things Berry wants us to see–the wonder of marital fidelity with all its flaws, the attentive care to land and crops, and animals, and people that makes for a healthy place, and the laughable incongruities of life. We witness the gentle respect people show for one another’s fallibilities, where people are protected from the worst versions of themselves, offering them space for redemption and growth. Berry makes us long for what was in this fictional town, and what could be in ours. He gently poses the question of us of what it may be to be the Tol, the Miss Minnie to others. We miss what Berry is saying if we only long for the world around us to be like these people and fail to hear the invitation to be like them ourselves.

Review: The Hidden Wound

The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988).

Summary: An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work.

Wendell Berry wrote words that would be exceptional for most whites today. These were written in 1968 by a white man of the South, making them all the more exceptional:

“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….

Berry begins by acknowledging the story of his family as a slaveholding family, one that sold as well as acquired slaves. He acknowledges a family that went to church with its slaves but inured itself to the teachings about moral obligations that would have unraveled slavery.

He then turns to a childhood memory of Nick, a Black man who worked for his grandfather. He spoke of the racist structures that assigned Nick a place of being a worker and tenant and the dignity with which Nick accepted these but also the dignity of Nick’s work–his careful study of saddle horses, of the requirements of the land. Nick took Berry under his wing and taught him about the work of the farm. But the wound was there, evident in Nick not being able to accept the invitation to Berry’s birthday party, and Berry deciding that the only decent thing to do was to sit with Nick outside.

Berry recognizes in both what he learned from Nick in all his dignity and the underlying social divisions between them a picture of the deformities of our American society that defined success as distancing oneself from the physical labor of the farm and that used knowledge and status to make money off of the labors of others. So we have diminished ourselves, even as we had to diminish the personhood of Blacks to enslave them, something we have done since 1619. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from good work and from the land upon which our lives depend. We have considered that work to be “n***** work” (Berry’s terminology, objectionable today but reflecting the demeaning character of its historical usage). By this we have not only demeaned persons but also lost our connection to the pleasures of good physical work and the land where this work is done.

Berry’s argument isn’t for legislation or structural change (and I believe this may be a weakness in ignoring the goods that can be done by addressing unjust structures). He argues that we need one another to heal the wounds racism has inflicted. Just as Nick taught Berry the wisdom of the farm and good work while Berry bridged the divide by sitting with Nick rather than staying with the white folks during his birthday, Berry argues that the task is not so much for whites to “free” Blacks but rather to “recognize the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity” and that “they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain.”

In his Afterword, written twenty years later, Berry addresses the displacement of racism from rural to urban settings and the decline of family farms, including Black farms. What has happened is simply a shift of the deformed ideas of work from the farm to the city with high paid executives and others who do “menial” work. Overcoming racism means no longer perpetuating these destructive ideas of work but paying just wages for all good and necessary work. Berry, drawing on his deep values of community also argues that integration without the restoration of the fabric of community is inadequate.

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Review: Remembering

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RememberingWendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008 (originally published 1988).

Summary: Following the loss of a hand, a grieving Andy Catlett struggles with both his loss and his anger with agribusiness, that he believes is destroying a way of life, and gropes his way toward healing.

Andy Catlett is suffering from two losses, and struggles with anger from both. While harvesting crops with a neighbor, his right hand is mangled in a machine, resulting in the loss of the hand. One of the remarkable qualities of this narrative is how Berry explores the inner struggle of a capable man who struggles to write, to dress himself, and not make a nuisance of himself while doing farm chores. He is angry with himself, and quarreling incessantly with his wife, who sees through it all and Andy’s inability to forgive himself.

He has been angry with American agribusiness for a long period of time, how it has destroyed a way of life in the name of efficiency which underwrites equipment manufacturers, fuel and fertilizer interests, and banks at the expense of the few remaining farmers in perpetual debt. He saw its effects as a journalist, and sees them in the erosion of a way of life in the town to which he returned to farm, Port William. He is not an easy person to live with.

Catlett’s twin angers reach a crisis point when he leaves home, amid alienating arguments with his wife that seem to have no resolution, to speak at an agricultural conference. He sets aside his planned speech to excoriate the assembled experts, whose mathematical models do not touch the pain experienced by all those who have left farms. He tells the stories of his ancestors and friends from Port William, and how they have suffered under the ideas of the experts and ends with damning the enterprise.

The book is framed by two dreams, one in his hotel in San Francisco after speaking, the other in the woods near his Kentucky home, a beatific vision of a transformed Port William. In between, Catlett travels a journey of remembering, as he walks the streets of San Francisco to the bay, and then on his flight home. He recalls the speech, his arguments with Flora, his wife, the accident, his sense of being unmanned, cut off from his hand, as it were.

Perhaps the most effective portion was remembering his time as a journalist, and two interviews, one planned and one not. He visits the Meikelberger farm, the symbol of modern agriculture, with its huge grain bins, monstrous equipment, and 2,000 acres planted in nothing but corn as far as the eye can see. It is an impressive operation but beneath the impressive appearance is a man with an ulcer, incessant worry over perpetual debt, all built atop old farmsteads that have disappeared. He detours, enroute to Pittsburgh, through Amish country in eastern Ohio, stops to watch a farmer plowing his field with a team of three beautiful horses. He sees a well-kept farmstead, and nearby farms.  He is offered a chance to plow with the team, bringing back childhood memories. As he questions Yoder, he learns the farm has no debt, and Yoder, who is older than Meikelberger looks ten years younger. If he needs help, there are nearby neighbors to pitch in.

It’s what led Catlett back to farming, restoring an old abandoned property he and friends had long talked about. Flora and Andy make a go of it, becoming part of the membership of Port William. And then the accident….The question remains of whether Andy will find healing and a new kind of wholeness as he journeys home.

In this work, Berry weaves his own convictions about the destruction of an agricultural way of life, of communities, and the land with an perceptive exploration of what the loss of a hand can mean, and whether Andy will suffer destruction of his self, his marriage, and his way of life. There are achingly beautiful passages and deeply troubling ones as we plumb the depths of Andy’s turmoil. Berry invites us to consider both the healing of deeply wounded people, as well as deeply wounded lands and communities.

 

Review: Our Only World

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.

Summary: Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable.

In reading this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, some transcriptions of addresses, written between 2010 and 2014, I felt like I had read much of this material before. In some sense, I have. Berry continues to ring the changes of themes that recur in his works: local membership, sustainable land practices, the character of good work, our violent relationship with our world.

There was the sense of someone who has been saying these things for a long time, and perhaps coming toward the end of his work. As I write this, Berry has recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Both his earlier essay collections and earlier novels are longer. For all that, it seems to me that we have both a summing up and a carrying forward into our current context of the things Wendell Berry has been saying to us for fifty years.

The essays range widely covering everything from our tendency to dissect life into parts rather than see wholes (his “Paragraphs from a Notebook”), our violent treatment both of the creation and our fellow human beings (“The Commerce of Violence” and “On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes”), and sustainable practices centered around right-sized land management and appropriate technology (“A Forest Conversation,” “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” “Less Energy, More Life,” “Our Deserted Country,” and “For the 50-Year Farm Bill”). Two address wider concerns in our society (“Caught in the Middle” in which Berry sets forth his views on abortion and gay marriage and “On Being Asked for a ‘Narrative for the Future”).

There were several that stood out for me. One was “A Forest Conversation.” Much of this essay describes the practices of forest owner Troy Firth, who owns a maple sugar operation and also logs his forest with sustainable practices in his choices of trees to cut, and in how he removes them to minimize damage to the forest floor (horses!). “Our Deserted Country” chronicles the movement of people from country to city and the use of industrial technology as a substitute for an appropriate ratio of “eyes to acres” that human-scaled land care involved. He ranges widely in this essay, discussing impacts on the land, the disappearance of a country culture of fishing, hunting, and foraging, and the decline of local streams, including the loss of his favorite willows that no one can explain or had noticed.

In “Caught in the Middle,” Berry voices what many of us feel, that neither of the major political parties represent his views. He ventures into the contentious space of abortion and gay marriage. He opposes abortion as the taking of life, and yet concedes there are circumstances he would help someone obtain an abortion. He acknowledges the conflict in these statements but also contends there should be no laws for or against abortion. He argues this is a personal matter that should not be subject to law, and argues similarly with regard to gay marriage. He questions whether “rights” are bestowed by government, including the “right” to marry. He would go further in saying that neither does the church, but that a “marriage” is made by two individuals who vow and live those vows until death. I suspect this is one of those essays that has subjected him to fire from all sides, the danger of being “caught in the middle.” But Wendell Berry has never shrunk from controversy!

His concluding essay speaks a good word to all our prognostications about the future. He writes:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good–good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places–by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future.

It may well be that this is the theme that under-girds all these essays. His urging that we turn away from our energy-intensive economy is not first for the environment, but because it is not a good way to live. His arguments limiting the power of big government and reliance on national politics is centered in the goodness of the local community, and the ability of local people to best care for their land. Good work, rather than jobs, is what people were made for, but is also good for the world.

Agree with Berry or not (and probably no one will on all he writes), his contrarian voice comes from a different place from much of our public discourse. It comes from a place that is close to land from a life of tending a farm and the surrounding land, and to local people, a “membership.” He offers us the chance to examine the way of living and the way of governing a society that we have assumed. In the end, his concern is not to change the world, or Washington, but to invite each of us to consider what it means to pursue the good in the place we are. Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the best we can do in “our only world.”

Review: A World Lost

a world lost

A World Lost, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. (no publisher’s webpage available)

Summary: Young Andy Catlett’s life is forever changed the day his namesake Uncle Andrew is murdered, an event he spends a lifetime trying to understand.

Andy Catlett is nine years old on the summer day when his adored Uncle Andrew refused to take him on a job salvaging material from an old building. Otherwise it is a perfect day with a satisfying dinner with grandparents, meandering across farm fields, quenching his thirst at a cold spring, watching insects and a world alive, and swimming in a pond to cool off, even though it was forbidden. He arrives home that evening in 1944 to be told by his father that Uncle Andrew had been shot twice by the ill-tempered Carp Harmon. Shortly after he dies.

It is like a long swath of fabric being torn out of a favorite shirt for all of them, never to be repaired. He tells of being with his grandparents and father one night, all of them in tears as they think of what they’ve lost. And shortly after, grandfather dies. Andy’s father no longer plays songs on their piano. We learn how close his disciplined, responsible father came to savage revenge. Something had been snatched out of their world that left it irreparably changed. As the title states, a world lost.

But who was the beloved uncle, brother, son, and why did Carp Harmon kill him? Andy spends the rest of his life trying to understand these things and this novel is his narrative of both discovery and lingering questions. Uncle Andrew was the strong, handsome ladies man who married into the town’s elite, only to live in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife and demanding mother-in-law. He struggled financially, drank too much, and was trying to put his life back together with his brother’s help. This complicated man was the uncle Andy adored.

He interviews witnesses to the murder, reads news stories, and trial records. None of it fully makes sense and often seems contradictory. Even the accounts of whether Uncle Andrew had done anything to provoke the murder conflict. Letters in his father’s effects, shed little more light. It was senseless, as all murder is senseless. He wonders sometimes if things would have been any different had he been with Uncle Andrew that day.

This is the narrative of any family who has suddenly lost someone by violent means. Life may go on but it can never be the same. We discover the complicated mystery of the one we have loved and lost, the shades of light and dark that comprise the portrait of a life, and the ambiguities that fail to resolve. We wrestle with making sense of the senseless–and fail. We carry our own private grief, guilt, perplexity, and trauma, hidden to the world but never far from mind.

Wendell Berry, in his measured way, unfolds this exploration of a world lost in the context of the Port William membership we’ve met in other novels. We have the familiar backdrop of the web of relations and the care of the family farms and the work that must be done that reminds us of the tension of darkness and life within which we live. Berry captures that tension in the narrator’s concluding reflections:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

“That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.”

 

“In Defense of Precious Things”

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“All of my writing is either in the defense of precious things or giving thanks for precious things.”  This was one of many striking statements in Bill Moyer’s recent interview with farmer-writer Wendell Berry.  Earlier, he states that “the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.”

Berry has long been one of my favorite writers and I think this interview helped clarify for me why that is.  He sees the precious things of our lives–our soil, our animals, our food, our rivers, our marriages, and our communities as conditional gifts.  Either we give close attention to these fundamental matters of our lives or we lose the gift, and with that some form of our lives.

What deeply troubles me at the present time is that it seems we either take these precious things for granted or we in fact trivialize, mock, abuse, and pollute them.  We neither defend them nor give thanks for them, and thus acknowledge their precious character and conditional nature. Berry’s challenge to us is to pay close attention to our immediate context, to learn from our land, our people, our communities and to love them.

What I wonder is that while this seems just to stand to reason, it is so hard for us to really do.  Why is that?

What is a University For?

The Ohio State University is in the midst of a search for a new president after the departure of the illustrious Gordon Gee.  This has been the occasion for much discussion around the university of what the university is for.  It seems to me that this is in fact a good thing.  Yet many of the faculty I listen to are troubled.  All universities are increasingly facing pressures to effectively and efficiently graduate students able to obtain good jobs that advance our economy.  Many bemoan the fact that it seems that the university is being turned into a job training school.

What seems more difficult is defining what a university is for beyond providing the training and credentials to obtain a decent job.  One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, has long opined on the university–from his essay on “The Loss of the University” in Home Economics to his recent withdrawal of his papers from the University of Kentucky because he feels they have strayed from the purpose set forth in establishing this institution by the Morrill Act. Berry believes this mandates a purpose of the university that continues to study the care of the land and people of the state of Kentucky–a mandate he believed had been sold out to “big coal”.

Ohio State is also a land grant university.  And it least a part of the focus of our governor and others is to address how the public universities in Ohio are contributing to the welfare of the state.  On its face, this seems consistent with the Morrill Act and the university’s original purpose.  But Berry also raises the question of a university caring for the land, the places, the character of the state.  This calls for far more than looking at jobs, wages, unemployment, and business development.  It means asking how well universities are training students for citizenship and stewardship–creating just and livable communities and tending the land and the resources that those communities depend upon, for now and for future generations.

This brings me to another venerable contributor to the discussion of universities:  John Henry Newman.  During the 1850s he gave a series of lectures collected into The Idea of a University.  Our Dead Theologians Society reading group has just begun reading Newman’s work.  He sees these as places that teach “universal knowledge” that refines the intellect and shapes the character of students.  Newman would contend that religious knowledge, theology if you will, is central to this and without this, the other subjects of the university fragment into a myriad of unconnected pieces–sounding much like today’s “multiversity”.

Other than at some private religious colleges, it seems that by and large university’s have given up on addressing the larger issues of life, character virtues, and ethics, aside from the obligatory ethics courses in professional education.  True, many emphasize service but by and large are averse to considering some of these classic aspects of university purposes, and this at a time when some studies indicate student hunger for addressing questions of spirituality and not just job training.

What are your thoughts about “what a university is for”.  What books have you found influential in thinking about the purpose of a university?