Wendell Berry Studies I: Mother Nature’s Son

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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8 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Beautiful piece J.L.

    As a fellow Kentuckian I am not as familiar with Berry as I should be. His brand of localism has always seemed just a bit too strict for me. This part of your post strikes me the most:

    “To the religious-minded, that is, Nature, while not God, becomes the only means of accessing God. “

    This is certainly how I have felt for nearly two decades. Nature is my church. It seems to me to be the very expression of God in physical form. A quote from John McCain (who would have thought?) that I have always loved is, “I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”

    I am also intrigued by this:

    “…what I really mean is that I have affection for this woods, this stream, or this hill that I have repeatedly, unintentionally damaged and then striven to lovingly repair. I have and can only have affection for a part of nature: for a place.”

    Of course this is true, although I have never conciously thought it myself. I have great affection for parts of nature. The hills and woods of our native state. I don’t really have any affection, say, for the Southwest. Deserts and cactus don’t particularly inspire me.

    Your line about unintentionally damaging also intrigues me because I have ben re-reading Robert Morgan’s wonderful Boone: A Biography. He talks about Boone’s later years where he realizes that by helping to settle Kentucky he has brought about its transformation into something he no longer loves. The woods and wild animals give way to fields and cattle. He feels out of place and longs to find some other Wild Place he can explore and eventually leaves in search of new opportunities. It’s the ultimate irony.Report

    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      That part about Boone sounds similar to some of what Berry has written, yes — reminds me of this remarkable paragraph in “A Native Hill”:

      “It occurs to me that it is no longer possible to imagine how this country looked in the beginning, before the white people drove their plows into it. It is not possible to know what was the shape of the land here in this hollow when it was first cleared. Too much of it is gone, loosened by the plows and washed away by the rain. I am walking the route of the departure of the soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the firstcomers saw. The original surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first what man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.”

      (That essay may well be Berry’s finest.)

      What I said about the accidental damage to a hill is, in fact, a recurring theme in Berry’s writing — it shows up in the Jefferson lecture, where he talks about his grandfather trying to squeeze too much out of the land and spending the latter part of his life trying to repair it; but it’s also what he apparently did when he first came back to Kentucky in the late 60s — he nearly ruined his farm because he was too confident. The first section of his collection WHAT ARE PEOPLE FOR? consists of two essays/prose-poems called “Damage” and “Healing” that don’t lend themselves to quoting but were what I had in mind by accidental damage.

      And Kentucky is a wonderful place to have a kind of religious experience with nature. I spent plenty of time in college sitting out on the rocks in front of Lake Michigan, but it wasn’t the same — I make sure to get an afternoon of trudging around through/near creeks or the parks (Louisville spoiled me when it comes to park systems — apparently, some so-called “civilized” cities think that a block or two of concrete and a manicured lawn is a proper “park”) whenever I’m back visiting. But the problem with that is that I inevitably wind up trying too hard. My great-uncle, whose four kids have lived in a variety of gorgeous places across the country, takes every opportunity to let people know that he wouldn’t trade Louisville for anywhere in the country; it’s too beautiful for him to give up. An inordinate number of people tell me that they’ve only driven through Kentucky, but that it was a far sight prettier than whichever state they’d just passed through.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        As a (former) archaeologist I would suggest that Bery exaggerates the way the land has changed to a degree. Of course, he is writing mostly about agircultural areas that have indeed been forced to submit to the will of man.

        “My great-uncle, whose four kids have lived in a variety of gorgeous places across the country, takes every opportunity to let people know that he wouldn’t trade Louisville for anywhere in the country; it’s too beautiful for him to give up.”

        That’s my opinion too. I’ve traveled all over and I haven’t seen anything that makes me want to leave. My family has been in this city since 1842 so that seems like the best endorsement I can offer.Report

  2. J.L., I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this piece, and I’m looking forward to the next one.Report

  3. Avatar gaffer says:

    To me Chesterton got it absolutely right when he succinctly delineated Christian understanding of nature:

    “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

    It naturally follows that a particular place resembles a particular man, especially the uniqueness and pride, sometimes even unconscious effort to be treated as a center of God’s universe, which it’s only a single, yet crucial part.Report

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