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Wendell Berry on his farm
Port Royal, Kentucky 1970
Photograph by Jonathan Williams


CULTIVATING A SMALL FIELD

Before cogitating about Wendell Berry’s sobering new collection of essays, Citizenship Papers, I need to tell you about what I am looking at out of the window: our meadow filled with Joe-Pye Weed at its zenith. In the hazy morning sunshine, this is a sight to see. The books tell us that Joe Pye was a Yankee herb doctor in Colonial times. He is said to have made a tonic from the roots of Eupatorium purpureum which folks used to stem diarrhea. This bit of information somehow doesn’t quite harmonize with my image of the living plant with its great clusters of purple flowers. Here in the mountains some of the local people also call it Queen of the Meadow... Wendell Berry looks at Joe-Pye as well. It is a fine part of the countryman’s life down South, with Wendell on his farm in the grandiosely christened hamlet of Port Royal on the Kentucky River, not far from its confluence with the Ohio.

In order to take on Wendell’s 20 essays I went into the library to check a few sources. In Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture I found a staggering sentence by Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” That’s enough to put you to bed for a week. But, back to the office. Decided, first, to open a letter from Guy Davenport. In it he quotes a doom-laden sentence from Marcel Proust: “People think the love of literature, painting, and music has become extremely wide-spread, whereas there isn’t a single person who knows anything about them.” Want a little more? Berman estimates only 5,000,000 Americans are truly “literate.” Two percent of Americans buy books; two percent listen to classical music; three percent listen to jazz. Cyberia has managed the moronization of America in no time at all. The audience for Citizenship Papers is maybe 5,000 readers in the whole country.

In the last essay in the book, Wendell Berry say that he is a man “mostly ignorant of the things that are most important to me.” He says he wrote these essays because he was afraid. “I write essays to see what I can find in myself with which to answer the terrifying fact of the human destructiveness of good things. And I write as a would-be free person, trying to fight shy of the official, the commercial, and the fashionable.” One Agrarian on a mission against the Industrial Mind-- which is just about all of us, if we sit down and think about it.

For me the most stringent texts are “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” “Two Minds,” “The Prejudice Against Country People,” and “The Whole Horse.” There are many earnest and important things being said: “We cannot hope to be secure when our government has declared, by its announced readiness ‘to act alone,’ its willingness to be everybody’s enemy.” And: “But all our military strength, all our police, all our technologies and strategies of suspicion and surveillance cannot make us secure if we lose our ability to farm, or if we squander our forests, or if we exhaust or poison our water sources.” And: “How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we be free, affluent, and (supposedly) ‘at peace’.” And: “If we have any sense, we forget the fashionable determinisms, and we tell our children, ‘Be good. Be careful. Mind your manners. Be kind.’”

There is a new secular monasticism in America. I’ve retreated to a woody mountainside near Scaly Mountain, NC. I seldom leave the place to get into all the noise and traffic, even here in the highest and most remote plateau in the Southern Appalachians. All our vegetables are grown by local farmers. Our gaspacho is as good as in France and the Basque Country. Eric Gill, the Enghish stonecarver and artist, spoke of creating “cells of good living.” There have been a lot in Kentucky, where Wendell Berry lives. I went there in 1960 to find Ralph Eugene Meatyard, photographer, and Victor Hammer, Renaissance printer and artist. Tucked away in their cells of good living and almost invisible to the global economy are Guy Davenport, our leading man of letters; Jonathan Greene, poet and publisher, Dobree Adams, weaver, at Riverbend Farm; Guy Mendes, photographer; Ed McClanahan. novelist-- there are many many more. Kentucky produces home-grown eccentrics: Henry Faulkner, Sweet Evening Breeze, Bradley Harrison Pickelsimer come to mind. And lots of country artists: the great wood carvers Edgar Tolson and Carl McKenzie; Minnie Black, who made critters out of gourds until she was nearly 100. And who knows what goes on in the little towns like Sugartit, Decay, Viper, Chicken Bristle, Red Hot, Hippo, Shoulder Blade, Nada, Crum, Bugtussle, Ruin, Awe, Stop, and Monkeys Eyebrow? Maybe Kentucky is too strange for the industrial/military complex?

Meantime, Wendell Berry has a lot to say to those who need to hear it. His stand is surely an heroic one. There’s a haiku by Basho:

Journeying through the world
To and fro, to and fro
Cultivating a small field


Jonathan Williams

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