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!

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Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, part 3

 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:26

I have saved my favorite parts of the visit for this last installment.  I gave a short synopsis of our talking subjects earlier, but there were a couple of things that stuck out that are worth telling in full.

Before I begin recounting some of these let me explain how I have quoted the Berry’s. When I wrote down this story, the evening was fresh on my mind and I could remember many exact words that were spoken. However, I did not record the visit or write anything down immediately so please understand, when I quote either one of them, I am simply recreating what they said from memory. I am not a journalist so I don’t know how couth or uncouth this is, but it is what I am doing and now you know. Many of these quotes and the ones from previous posts are probably over 50 percent accurate, but I had to take some liberties due to my memory. I think I have still represented what was said well.

Now that we are out of the red tape, here are some specific thoughts from the evening:

On farming this summer

I remember clearly telling the Berry’s how I came to decide to learn how to grow food this summer. I have recently read and learned a great deal about the importance of small farms in the conservation of nature. On an intellectual level I have come to undertand that, as Wendell himself says, “there is no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people.” The prevailing farming and food production practices in America today have not aimed to balance to health of the earth with the health of the people. Though such an imbalance may continue for some time, eventually the scales will begin to shift and the fate of humanity will begin to closely follow the fate of the land. We can see these shifts today in the massive amounts of soil lost every year due to the over-working and unsettling of farm land. Acknowledging these problems we have the chance to change our farming practices now while food is still growing. Sadly, it appears industrial farming practices are more likely to wait until the land has been lost entirely before enacting change.

Taking this new insight as encouragement, I have come to Indiana, Pennsylvania to learn how to grow food through a model of conservation instead of a model of manipulation. As I told the Berry’s, I understand the importance in my mind, but I don’t know if I will actually like doing the work. Wendell nodded, seeming to understand the place I was in. He told me to let the knowledge guide my work and give it value. His tone then became more direct and he said, “now, there will be some days you will wake up and you won’t want to do it, but (he paused and his eyes brightened) once you being, you will be glad you did.”

I take that with me now. Today I woke up at 6:30 for breakfast and started out towards the asparagus patch at 9 to begin this work. It was not one of my earlier days, but it was my first. I feel very cautious, today held a lot of weight for me. I don’t need it to decide everything, though. I feel I am in a strange position of wanting to like the work so much that I might be let down no matter what. I can’t let it weigh heavy though, I have to keep light.

On studying English in college and graduate school


Wendell told me that so long as I had the ability to read, I should not need to be concerned with studying literature in school. He didn’t seem to think it made much of a difference whether I was a major or a minor or anything at all. Literacy was his sole criteria for studying literature. I am appreciative of the simplicity of this, though I must say I have learned some great things in English classrooms!

Spiritual Dualism

I must also mention for those theologically oriented readers, Wendell shared a beautiful denial of dualism. He told me he swore off using the body/spirit dichotomy about 20 years ago. “Nobody has ever seen a soul. You can’t see the soul. I’m interested in physical things,” Berry said. He explained the path that dualism can lead us upon. “If you begin by separating a person into a spiritual self and a physical self, you will eventually come to consider one of more value than the other. So then we end up with ‘you must hate the body and live by the spirit,’ and that kind of thought is what has lead mankind to treat the earth without respect, to treat their own world so poorly.” Here Wendell gives us an example of allowing a lofty philosophical thought to work its way down to one’s practical action and daily living. But Wendell explained his approach differently. “I work from the bottom up. I live by what I see physically work.” Here is where I think Berry finds it helpful to live with “Nature as Measure.” By using our land in ways that imitate nature, we have the possibility to participate in a miraculous cycle. To work, instead, first by imposing human principles upon nature removes us from the cycle; it breaks the cycle. This is working from the top down.

Tanya on scripture

Tanya shared a beautiful thought on how scripture uses these natural themes in its teachings. She told, “At church this morning the preacher taught about the grape vine and the branches. You know, ‘I am the vine’ and all that. But as he was preaching I though, ‘I don’t think he really knows how a vineyard works!’ Afterwards I asked him if I could see the sermon because I had some questions. He said yes; he always likes to share about that stuff. But anyways, he was trying to teach about the vine and branches and the pruning, but he didn’t know how it worked! How can you preach that if you’ve never known how a vineyard works? It’s just like Wendell has said, you can’t really understand the 23rd Psalm if you don’t know what it is to be a shepherd.”

Wendell on William Blake on how to truly help others

Wendell and I spoke some about the difficulty of trying to solve problems on a large scale. I was sharing about a book I am reading called Seeing Like a State which deals with how large scale schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Wendell understood the difficulties of being too general with charity as well. He offered this quote from English poet William Blake:

He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars.

I looked up the quote later and Blake continues:

General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minute organized particulars.

Finally, thanks to everyone who read before and scored me almost 100 views in one day! From here on out the posts will have significantly less interaction with famous agrarian authors, but hopefully they will continue to be filled with adventure, creativity, and, if we are lucky, pictures!

Wendell and Zac

Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, Part 2

I will continue my retelling of the visit, but first a word or two on meeting Wendell Berry himself:

Wendell is a tall man. His white hair covers only the sides of his head and when he puts on his glasses the upper rim is so high above his eyes that it appears his eyebrows are perpetually raised, and he seems sternly attentive. His eyes themselves are intense. They do not always actively look alive, but in their bright grey-blue they seem to hold careful thought always stirring, turning slowly.

It is always strange to meet someone you have known about or of whose work you have spent a lot of time studying. Even if you can know a lot of a person’s thought through what they write, you must know them personally if you are to truly know them at all. Now, I wouldn’t say that after spending two hours with Wendell Berry at his home that I know him personally, but I have at least seen his personality. His personality is certainly surprising if you have only read his books before, especially if you have read mostly his essays and little of his poetry and fiction. He is deeply kind. He was welcoming, accepting. To the degree that I did not think about whether I was comfortable or not, he and is wife made me feel at home.

I am sure many people have wondered how someone who writes so strongly against the shortsightedness and shortcomings of industrialism actually lives in 2012. From what I saw at his house, he lives a lot like most everyone. There are marked differences and they are significant, but on the whole, most of Berry’s house looks like my grandfather’s. There is no TV in the Berry’s house, but they have electricity and a modern kitchen. They have plumbing and a fridge. While I was explaining how I compose, we spoke for a good while about music notation programs, like Finale I use on my computer, like Finale. I can assure you I was not snarled or scoffed at or turned away. Best I can say it: I was not greeted by a principled Wendell Berry essay. I was greeted by Wendell Berry. And to describe simple who that was. I met a thoughtful old man much like anyone’s grandfather, made wise and humble by years of living. Though I certainly felt self-conscious, a bit like an intrusion, it is my fault, not his. I wasn’t made to feel “You are entering my house, and I know that you know how smart I am. Your time is limited so hurry in and out and don’t talk foolishness.” That was only the voice in my head. Like I mentioned in part 1, the dominant feeling was simple, casual, natural. Strange as it was, very calm: normal.

Now to continue:

As we spoke, Tanya got up and started getting things out of the fridge. She said they don’t usually eat large dinners because farmers are used to big lunches. It is worth reflecting that I was originally scheduled to visit from 3-5 before the traffic jam occurred. When I arrived at the Berry’s, it was already 5:30. After talking for an hour or so, it was indeed getting close to mealtime. The days misfortunes were now balancing with unexpected blessing! Tanya brought out potato salad, olives, crackers, a huge block of cheddar cheese, some bread, and a curious avocado dip, curious because she said it wasn’t guacamole. And it wasn’t guacamole; it was better! Avocados chopped up with tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, and cilantro fresh from the garden. Delicious to spread on bread, especially with the cheddar! The dessert is a story all on its own:

Wendell Berry’s colleague and friend Wes Jackson has been doing research with The Land Institute for several years now in Salina, Kansas. The Land Institute is working to develop perennial wheat that will produce as much grain as annual wheat. A note: perennial plants last for several years after being planted, lasting through the winter and growing again in the spring. Annual plants last only through the growing season and must be replanted every year. Modern agriculture of all kinds, organic to industrial, depends virtually entirely upon annual crops. Much soil loss is due to the annual breaking of ground to replant. The aim is to grow pastures that remain in place, strengthening the soil year after year, instead of re-planting and breaking the soil every growing season. Over seasons The Land Institute has been developing a breed of perennial grain called Kernza with which they are aiming to replace the soil-depleting annual grains, developing a soil-enriching permanent ecosystem, while still producing ample food. All this goes to say that Tanya had baked cookies using oats and Kernza flour that Wes Jackson gave them. This may seem kind of silly, but I think its incredible! Tasty cookies too!

(tomorrow we will close this 3 part blog with some final thoughts and recollections. Stay tuned!)

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