I was introduced to the agrarian world of the writer, Wendell Berry, in my intro to philosophy class in college. I have been an avid reader of Berry ever since. His novels, essays, and poetry, have been a rich source of comfort, hope, and rebuke in my life.
There is something to Berry’s writing that I am drawn to. He carries a degree of elusivity that requires constant unpacking. It contains a truthfulness that I am not always able to exhaust. His prose are beautiful and turns of phrase poignant. His characters are rich and their relationships dense.
Last night, I went with my wife and a few friends to watch the film, Look and See, which is a documentary portrait of his life. There were two moments in the film that brought me to tears and put words to unexpressed elements of my attraction to Wendell’s writing. I want to share them quick before I write a longer post reflecting on the film as a whole.
First, there is a recorded interaction between the writer of the documentary and Berry:
“There’s this need to try to find a way to piece things back together,” she says. “So you look to places where there is still a remnant of togetherness, or unity, or community, of connection to the land, and I study those, because I don’t come from a place — I come from divorce …”
Berry interrupts her: “We all come from divorce!” he says. “This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.” (Thanks to an NPR interview for the transcript)
Wendell knows well that our society, our families, and our communities are broken and fragmented. His writing often gets at the underlying factors for this truth in a way that’s poignant and beautiful. We are all children of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. Indeed.
The second moment was the reading of a poem at the end of the film. I’ve come to appreciate Berry’s writing more as I’ve become a father and given significant thought to what it means to belong to people and the demands those relationships place on our lives. Wendell has helped give me visions of the good life in relation to family and community, this is a kindness for which, I am eternally grateful.
Work Song Part II – A Vision (Epilogue)
(FROM “NEW COLLECTED POEMS” BY COUNTERPOINT)
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.
The phrase, “the lives our lives will prepare” is a haunting invitation to parenthood.
What would it look like for my son to belong to a home and a community that grows slowly and wisely like a tree? A place where family sings in the field, and our song turns to sacrament–to the very grace of God delivered to us in the common things of life?
This is a vision of the good life. And a life worth saying to Levi, “Look and See” the Lord is good, this world is a gift, this place is home, and you are loved. This hardship is becoming my reality.