Wendell Berry is known to many as an intellectual guru/essayist of the back-to-the-land movement. But he is known as well for his poetry and his earthy novels
and was the recipient of a National Humanities medal in early 2011. Professor of
English at Virginia Tech Fritz Oehlschlaeger explicates here the value of Berry’s thinking to future generations by intensively mining his copious literary output. Berry, the author states, is convinced that
"we must change our lives if we are to have some part of that world that sustains us." Hope is ever our duty, greed our enemy.
We are told that Berry “wants us to see how to conceive farming as peace rather than war” and keeps before us the archetype of the “agrarian pilgrim”—a force for change, yes, but a force that tends toward harmony and creativity, not disruption and chaos. Berry sought reform in many areas of his life including the university system, where he identified and decried the rapidly growing emphasis on mechanistic “career preparation” and asked instead for a holistic approach that had as its goal of “good citizenship.”
Oehlschlaeger has trawled laboriously through all of Berry’s writings, looking at the meanings as well as the flavor of his novels, stories and poems. Berry’s fiction deals with complex human relations and with themes such as inner rebirth (Remembering) and inner realization: one can only do one’s best and that is, in the end, sufficient (The Memory of Old Jack). The author explores Berry’s longest works (A Place on Earth,
Hannah Coulter, etc.) in which embedded themes include love versus war and the practice of peacefulness.
Berry, now in his late seventies, is first a farmer, and his writing often reflects the rural/idyllic in contrast to the industrial/chaotic. He has been an activist, a proponent of clean energy, and an opponent of the death penalty. But he also maintains a staunch religionist view of the world, advocating in his writing a sort of personal purity that recognizes in its own way that all life is unique and sacred. He lives in hope of a heaven that is accessed by a ladder standing in the earth. In his poetic collection “Sabbath,” he expresses the wish that “after him, God willing, another / will follow in that membership / that craves the wholeness of the world / despite all human loss and blame.”
That membership is, presumably, a spiritual body of planet-healing, peaceful “agrarian pilgrims” like Berry himself.
Berry—professor, writer, essayist, protester, farmer, poet—has set the example.
In this book, we are invited to understand his model, and follow “in that membership.”