Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter is a book about a person, but moreover it must be considered as a book about a place. All of Berry’s fiction focuses on a fictional town in western Kentucky called Port William. The town is a mirror image of Port Royal, Kentucky, the riverside town that Berry grew up in and returned to. Through Port William, Berry presents a vision of community that seems entirely distant from the solitude of our current American society, highly individualized, even within families. He presents a community not only tied by blood, but tied by what may come to be a more lasting bond: a place. So though this book is told from Hannah’s perspective, it is the story of Port William as much as it is Hannah’s story. Indeed the very vision of life that Hannah speaks through is refreshing. For she sees the people around her as a part of something much larger than individual lives, each darting in their own directions, momentarily intersecting. There is woven in her words a stronger web. It is unlike the vision of our culture today, and to that end it is inspiring.

Reading a novel by Wendell Berry is different from reading one of his essays, but in a way it is also very similar. His thoughts on agriculture, community, and nature that he presents so refreshingly in his essays are present also in his fiction and his poetry. But they develop with a different tone. While many of Berry’s essays read with a tone of urgency and caution, his poetry has a meditative rhythm and his fiction reflects on similar themes from a position of peace. I imagine that if Berry’s essays represent his concerns and convictions about the use of land and the purposes of people, his fiction represents his love and gratitude for these things.

I feel a little scattered in my thoughts here because I have not been sure why this book felt so different from others. But nevertheless I would recommend it through and through both as pleasant and through provoking!

Advertisements

Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, Part 1

I drove from Nashville to Cincinnati today, and on the way I stopped to meet the author Wendell Berry. I got stuck in a big traffic jam on I-65 around Mammoth Cave that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours! I called Wendell to tell him what happened and he said, “I’m sorry, don’t fret, we’ll have time for a visit. I’ll be here when you arrive, with any luck.” I drove on through the jam and went flying fast as I could.

I pulled off the highway a bit past 5PM and started paying close attention. I had always imagined Wendell Berry’s farm land looking like the rolling hills of Kentucky I had biked up and down with my father 3 years ago, but the exit I pulled of on was a different landscape. There were still hulls, but here were far more drastic, jagged, and covered in dark green forest. It was raining a grey misty rain just as it was the night before, and the scene felt altogether cold, but also more intense. I was looking very intensely, trying to match this land with the descriptions from Berry’s novels and autobiographical works. I rode 6 miles up and down a winding two lane road running alongside the Kentucky River. The river was on my left through the trees, and in between it and my road were what I took to be the lowlands. In contrast with the continuous hills, there were 100 yards of flat, green land from the bank of the river to the road. I suppose this is what floods when the rains raise the river.

I pulled up the Berry’s driveway on the right side of the road. The way ran parallel to the main road but also climbed the hill. To my left, the hill between the roads was in tall grass, fenced in. It held two grazing sheep, lolling in the drizzling rain. They seemed to acknowledge someone driving their way. On the hill to my right were three more sheep and a donkey (Wendell said he also has a llama but I did not see it). The driveway simply dead-ended into their sidewalk. I parked behind a car, got out, and gathered my things while the Berry’s friendly dog, Maggie, jumped up to meet me. She then returned to the porch making my way clear. I brought with me a poster, program, and recording from my senior recital.

Tanya Berry, a small, sharp, white-haired woman with glasses and a quick wit, welcomed me in and offered me a glass of water. The living room was cozy after driving in the rain. There was an upright piano, a slanted letter-writing dest, and a bookshelf covering the back wall, filled from corner to corner. We walked on through into the kitchen and dining room, which also held a ceiling-high bookshelf, also full. It is worth noting the ease which this situation took on.  I did not feel nervous and most everything around me encouraged me to feel at home. Wendell was upstairs fixing to come down when his great-nephew in the fourth grade called with an important request. Wendell came downstairs and took the call while I talked with Tanya about music and graduating from college.

Meeting Wendell Berry, after he got off the phone, felt very casual. Perhaps being numbed by hours of traffic along with some conscious effort to interact adeptly, I felt more casual than I wished I had. I am so grateful for the experience and everything it meant, but I fear now while recording it that I may have been less mentally present than I would have wished to be. But here is a paradox: to have taken the time at Wendell’s house to mentally process the state of “being at Wendell’s house” would have taken me mentally away from the conversation presently at hand. Thus I can say the greatest sign that I was mentally present at Wendell’s house is that I don’t remember being so.

The three of us sat down at the kitchen table and talked about countless things. There is no way I can unravel the entirety, so here I present a list of things we talked about. If you care to know more details, ask about one of these as a starting point, perhaps. We spoke about composing, electronic music, music notation, how to write for a performer, the recital, songwriting, English programs, Lipscomb, the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, the difference between the two, Alexander Campbell, spiritual dualism, its consequences on man’s treatment of the physical world, the church’s perpetuation of this dualism, the church’s responsibility and possibility for enacting change in this perspective, the nature-oriented language of scripture, conservation and exploitation, farming this summer, farming terminology, balancing animals and plants on a farm, land use, closing the market at Reeger’s, farmers markets, the growing season, the weather, living by the river, why I am going to farm, what I will do with music now that I have graduated, my expectations for the summer, his animals (the llama included), a reading list he gave me, The Land Institute, perennial and annual crops, and much more, including his new solar panels and his skepticism as to how precisely the power company is measuring their input.

(Stayed tuned for part 2)

(I realize there is little about Wendell’s persona here, but this picture will do for now)

Wendell on his porch