(Front page feature image by Guy Mendes, found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_New_Harvest,_with_Wendell_Berry,_Henry_County,_KY,_2011_-_photograph_by_Guy_Mendes.jpg)
Wendell Berry is one of a very few authors whose works I compulsively hoard, mostly unread, even though I love those of their works that I have read more than almost anyone else’s. Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Edward Abbey, Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain (M.) Banks, Ian MacDonald, bell hooks, John McPhee, and Wendell Berry.1 It’s not really a good thing or a bad thing, this hoarding, just a bulwark against the realities of time and the limits of auctorial prolificity and how much I think I may someday need not just any book, but one of THAT particular author’s books, in a case where absolutely nothing else will do. Very different from vaguely – or intensely! – meaning to get around to reading more of someone someday. It is, to my mind, an august company.
Berry is unique among that list for having landed on it mostly for his poetry… others of them write poetry (Le Guin foremost) – and I like his nonfiction as much as anyone else’s (high praise when placed next to hooks, Abbey and McPhee) – but when I think of poets who sing to me, Wendell Berry’s name is always first on my tongue.
Were I to have a personal motto, I’d lift it wholesale from one of his poems, a few lines that I’ve thought about making into my next tattoo more than once:
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
(The whole poem can be read yonder, and should be. I was sorely tempted to quote it in its entirety here, and not include any of my own blather, but a) copyright law, and b) no politics and no religion in an MD post.)
Another couplet from that same poem is also in the running for my next tattoo:
though you have considered all the facts.
I didn’t need to look either of those personal mottoes up – I’ve had them memorized for 30 years or more.
As a child, I sometimes was blessed with a couple of days refuge at my aunt and uncle’s beautiful farmhouse out in the country. They were both quiet people, who never fought in front of me, who built things and grew things and tended creatures and loved their lives. Children of the Northeast coastline, albeit on opposite sides of what was then a much more permeable border, they met at university in Hawaii, and then moved back to the Island after college was done. They were my first and best models of practical idealism. My aunt was a home economist in those years, eldest child following in the footsteps of my grandmother the activist2 home economics professor, and my uncle worked in the then-novel field of livestock artificial insemination. Hands on, meaningful, hard work, tied to the land they loved, to the plants they grew in their year-round greenhouse porch and enormous summer vegetable patch, to the neighbors’ cows they helped raise and helped slaughter. And work they could do 20 hours a week, sometimes less – work that left them enough time to grow those plants, to help those neighbours, to cross-country ski in the moonlight (mostly my aunt, often my uncle), to ride an old Scout motorcycle along the endlessly winding byways of our home province (always my uncle, never my aunt), to raise kittens and puppies and eventually to own a pair of astonishingly beautiful, retired, grey-dappled draft horses whose only service to the family was mowing the lawns3. It left them enough time to read, to write, to listen to the CBC, to visit with friends and family, to go to the occasional country dance, ceilidh, or kitchen party, to by-god think every bit as much as they felt the need to. And to always have one or the other of their 19 nieces and nephews in the house for the weekend, never more than one at a time, never for more than a couple of days. We all spent time there, so none of us ever got to be there as often as we wished to be, but I loved being there even more than any of my siblings or cousins did, so I was invited more often than the rest.
I loved the pot-bellied wood stove, the slippery hand-cut and carved steps (my uncle had once been a carpenter), the brass bed I slept in, tucked up under the roof’s slant, the hand-made barrel-shaped deep and magical bathtub (see above, carpentry), the process of helping them construct additions to the house, helping them compost our dinner scraps, helping them pull up potatoes in the fall or can peaches in the summer, a million tiny gifts that I can taste or smell or see or hear as brightly now as I did then … and I loved that they didn’t really know what a child was meant to be like.
They never altered the movies they watched because I was visiting, even at 5 or 6 or 7, and I was free to watch or not watch them as I wanted. I played the games they liked to play with each other, Mastermind and Go and an endless slew of card games, good for keeping the hands busy while the conversation flowed. I rode on the back of my uncle’s Scout, helmetless, from the minute I was big enough to hold on to him securely until the minute several years later when my mom found out and put a stop to it. I climbed any tree, walked through any bull’s field, went to any tractor pull, worked the dubious, clanky, and spider-infested solar shower on my own, took miles-long hikes into the woods, snowshoed alone over 10-foot drifts. I did many of the things I did at home, domestically speaking: chopped vegetables, lit fires, scrubbed countertops, hammered nails, weeded gardens, even cleaned a sink or two… but I also had space, and time, for contemplation.
The glass-fronted lawyer bookcase in the living room was full of books and legal pads and pencils and pens and felt-tip markers – not a child’s drawing tools, but the motley collection of two adults who valued stillness and self-expression. And from the beginning, I was expected – really, welcomed – to be able to sit quietly and read or write or draw just as the adults did. Not required to do so, and often enough I ran off to the barn to woo the kitten who eventually became a sedate momma-cat who let me find her kitten-nests… or went fence-walking with the border collie who felt more like a cousin than a pet. But I was encouraged. Welcomed, as I said. And there weren’t any books in that tall and mystery-laden bookcase that I wasn’t allowed to read. Sometimes with warnings attached, or explanations about how people had some really great ideas in the past but also some really horrible ones… but mostly not even that. They were just there, and of course I could read them, and as long as I kept reasonably quiet except for questions about the books I was reading or practical needs I was too short to solve for myself, my aunt and uncle were happy to treat me as a companion, a favored friend, in the pursuit of their own thoughts, rather than as a child. A salve and a blessing to a kid who never knew how to be one, but who sometimes got very very tired of being a parent. And something that was as true in front of the bookcase as it was in the kitchen or the barn.
That’s where I discovered Wendell Berry. Curled up on the old blanket-strewn couch with the dog, listening to the crackle of the little stove that kept a whole big farmhouse warm enough, with no expectation or preconceptions about what he would have to say and only barely enough understanding, at 8 years old, to hear it. Unlike the other poets I’d already been taught to love, Yeats, Lear, Keats, Tennyson, he talked about people who were like the people I knew – mad farmers and Vietnam vets and hippies and straightforward country folk. He used plain language but he wasn’t afraid of big words when a big word was the only one that would do. He knew how to play – his rhythms danced across the page – but he also knew when to be serious. I didn’t yet know the word numinous, at 8 years old, or the word sublime, but I knew the experiences of the Divine to which those words apply, and he knew how to talk about them like no one else I’d read. But then he could also write a fierce, loving, intellectually astounding piece of prose that sounded just like my (other) favorite uncle, full of learning and heart and science, not afraid at all to be thought a fool. I could tell he was a Good Man, Mr. Wendell Berry, and I had already developed a habit of collecting those, to balance out the times when my father’s goodness suddenly winked out of view.
As I grew older, I fell in love with his style, his compassion, his self-ruthlessness when it came to never using more than the exactly right words. I never grew tired of reading or rereading his poems or his essays. Even when he said things I was sure were wrong, he never hurt me with them. I could trust him, as a writer, to be the decentest person he could manage to be, and I could trust him, as a thinker, to seek truth, not power.
Even after 20 years of reading and rereading his work, I’ve still never read a novel of his, or a short story. My aunt and uncle didn’t own any of his fiction books, and somehow I developed the habit of not reading them either. I guess he was actually the very first person whose books I learned to hoard. Maybe this will be the year I let their vistas open up to me as well.
So……………….. what have you been reading, listening to, or watching this week? Or maybe some week 30-plus years ago, that you still remember even now?
- I’d add Jo Walton to the list but I never actually manage to hoard hers for long, as I will go on a giant binge and catch up on all of them any time I get more than 1 or 2 behind. [↩]
- in the same sense as people say “activist judge”, only admiringly – definitely not in the protests and leaflets sense of the word [↩]
- I hear some people use goats for that [↩]