In honor of his birthday today, some treasures from Wendell Berry, whose words seem always timely. Every year on his birthday, I stop and give thanks for good, wise, kind, sane men. Long may they live.
From Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, written in response to September 11th:
“What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.”
From the essay, In Distrust of Movements (both of these essays are found in In the Presence of Fear):
“I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements - even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us - when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally with effects rather than causes….Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. “
One thing that makes Berry a voice to listen to is his fidelity to the ideas he espouses. His life is local, committed to community, land, and family and the good of others. His wife Tanya is a big part of making that life possible. There’s a nice essay about her in YES! Magazine:
Here’s my portrait of Tanya Berry: This white-haired 81-year-old is a fiercely independent thinker who embraces interdependence. Someone with a deep humility who gives others credit reflexively, and a self-confidence that makes her comfortable telling you what she believes she’s good at. A kind person who doesn’t hesitate to offer blunt advice. A woman who kept records of her prodigious canning in the kitchen while also serving as discerning first editor of every novel and short story written by her prolific husband.
“My mother,” daughter Mary Berry says, “is a complicated woman.”
Tanya also complicates assumptions people might make—not only about her relationship to her husband’s work, but about homemaking, farm life, small towns, and a Baptist church.
Wendell has pointed out that it’s difficult to make a public defense of one’s private life, but he asks to weigh in (the only time he does in the four days I’m there). “I want to give you a little of my testimony,” he says. Tanya’s role in his writing starts long before he reads that first draft to her, because as he writes he is thinking about her reaction. Knowing he will read it aloud to her—“to somebody I care about and am trying to impress and cause her to love me”—is especially intimidating, he says.
“I haven’t worked alone in any sense,” he says. “I’ve been by myself a lot, but I haven’t been alone. I’ve been accompanied by her, and I think our companionship has left me very willing to accept the companionship and criticism of other people.”
Wendell says his wife’s lack of interest in literary reputations also has been beneficial. He recounts a story that sounds often-told but authentic: “I brought in a review, somebody praising my work, and I said, ‘Look at that.’ Tanya said, ‘It’s not going to change a thing around here.’”
The full article can be found here.
And a link to one of his poems here.