Wendell Berry’s advice for a cataclysmic age

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Hidden in the woods on a slope above the Kentucky River, just south of the Ohio border, is a twelve-by-sixteen-foot cabin with a long porch. Without the concrete piles that raise the building off the ground, it would almost seem like a living part of the forest. Readers around the world know the “long-legged house” as the place where Wendell Berry, as a twenty-nine-year-old married man with two young children, found his voice. As he explained in his essay by that name, he built the cabin in the summer of 1963 – a place where he could write, read and contemplate the legacy of his ancestors and what legacy he might leave behind.

The cabin began as a log home built by Berry’s great-great-great-grandfather, Ben Perry, one of the area’s first settlers, and lived on as a multi-generational salvage operation. In the 1920s, when the original house was in disrepair, Wendell’s bachelor great-uncle Curran Mathews painstakingly dismantled what was left and used the wood to build a camp along the Kentucky River, where he could escape the “limits of the accepted”. Wendell, “a melancholy, rebellious boy”, found peace in the ruined camp, even though it flooded every time the river overflowed. Eventually it became uninhabitable, and he removed poplar and walnut planks to build his own cabin, on higher ground – a “satisfactory summary of a home”, he wrote. Standing on its long legs, it had “a searching and airy gaze, as if it had been built under the influence of trees”.

Berry, who is eighty-seven, wrote fifty-two books there – essays, poetry, short stories and novels – most while managing a farm, teaching English at the University of Kentucky and studying engaging in political protests. This summer, he’ll publish a sprawling nonfiction book, “The Need to Be Whole,” followed by a collection of short stories in the fall.

Last October, Berry showed me the camp, only asking me not to say where it is. Although he bared his entire life in print, he closely guards his privacy. The single room, containing an antique wood-burning stove against the far wall and a neatly made cot in one corner, was dominated by his work table, placed in front of a forty-paned window – “the eye of the house” – which overlooked the porch, the woods and the river below.

The camp has no plumbing or electricity. Half a dozen well-sharpened pencils were lined up on the work table, next to small stacks of paper. At the top of a pile was a note Berry had written and crossed out about Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” Above a small safe, curling photographs were pasted on a wall: Wallace Stegner, Ernest Gaines, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, Thomas Merton. Berry pointed to a young photo of his wife, Tanya, with cropped, wavy hair, walking along a hill near their home. He had made a bird feeder and fixed it to the porch railing, so he could watch the comings and goings of chickadees, chickadees, juncos and jays. I remembered a line from “The Long-Legged House”: “One warm, bright November day, it was so still that I could hear the fallen leaves ticking, like light rain, as they dried and contracted, scraping their tips and edges against Each other.”

The place was so inviting that I wondered if anyone had ever broken in, perhaps looking for some food and a stealthy night’s sleep. “Yeah, once,” Berry said. He was pretty sure he knew the culprit. “Someone took out some windows and tried to break into my safe. I wrote him a note: ‘Dear thief, if you’re in trouble, don’t destroy this place. Come home and I’ll I’ll give you what you need.”

In the “long-legged house”, an isolated cabin with no plumbing or electricity, Berry wrote fifty-two books, during breaks from farm work and teaching.Photograph by James Baker Hall

From this vanishing slice of America, Berry cultivates the old-fashioned virtues of good neighborliness and compassion. He divides his time between writing and farming, pursuing his calling as a champion of sustainable agriculture in a country fueled by industrial behemoths, while striving to ensure that rural Americans – a mocked minority, despised and constantly diminishing – do not completely perish. Each time the country grapples with a new man-made emergency, Berry is rediscovered. A Twitter thread called @WendellDaily recently ran one of his maxims: “Rats and cockroaches live on competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

Berry’s admirers call him an Isaiah-like prophet. Michael Pollan and Alice Waters say he changed their lives in five words: “Eating is an agricultural act”. Pollan has become a scourge of the meat industry, genetically modified foods and factory farms; Waters started the farm-to-table movement. Cultural critic Bell Hooks, another Kentuckian, began reading Berry in college, finding his work “fundamentally radical and eclectic.” Decades later, she visited him on his farm to talk about the importance of home and community and the complexities of the racial divide in America.

Berry’s critics see him as a utopian or an eccentric, a Luddite who never encountered a technological innovation he admired. In “Why I Won’t Buy a Computer,” an infamous 1987 essay that appeared in Harper’s, he announced, “I don’t see computers bringing us closer to everything that matters to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work. When outraged readers sent a blizzard of letters to the editor, Berry noted in response that a man, who called him “a fool” and “doubly a fool”, had “fortunately misspelled my name, leaving me a speck of hope that I’m not the “Wendell Barry” he was talking about.

I first heard of Wendell Berry when I was ten. One evening in 1964, my father, Dan Wickenden, came home from his editorial office in Harcourt Brace, midtown Manhattan, and described his new author: a gangly young man of thirty, sitting with his elbows on his knees, talking slowly. Kentucky cadence and gestures with large expressive hands. An image lodged in my mind – busy men in dark suits, their secretaries typing and taking dictation, while Berry told funny stories in bluejeans and scuffed shoes. (Tanya corrected me from this part of memory: “Kakis, maybe. Not bluejeans.”)

I remembered this encounter not so long ago when I pulled from a shelf “A Continuous Harmony”, a collection of essays by Berry that my father edited in 1971. With his simple brown jacket and its yellowed pages, it looked its age, but it spoke urgently to our current deepening crises. One of the plays, “Think Little”, announced: “Almost every one of us, almost every day of our lives, contributes directly to the ruin of this planet. Berry went on to say that he was “shamed and deeply distressed that the United States government has become the primary cause of disillusionment with American principles.”

I was curious about Berry’s development from a self-proclaimed “little writer” to an internationally renowned man of letters. After my father died, my mother photocopied his correspondence with Berry and gave it to me – a stack of letters that covered the years they worked together, from 1964 to 1977. The two matched well. My family lived rather austere in what Dan called “exurban” Connecticut, where he chopped wood for our fireplace and tended an organic vegetable garden. Her father, Leonard Wickenden, a chemist, had written for decades about the dangers of fertilizers and pesticides. Dan and Wendell shared a love of the land, a funny spirit, and a picky commitment to proper use. Dan wrote to Wendell about a load of horse manure that had just been delivered for his garden. Wendell taught Dan the mating habits of toads: “Sometimes the male is still clinging to the dead female who has perished in his embrace.”

There were moments of tension, as there always are between writer and editor. In July 1966, as Berry entered his seventh year of trying to tame his unwieldy novel “A Place on Earth”, my father presented him with “extensive suggestions” of female circumcision, informing him that, “to unless additional and fairly drastic cuts are made”. , the printed book will have some 672 close-up pages. Wendell replied, “Let me be perfectly clear. I highly doubt I’ll cut anything like a hundred more pages out of this book. Yet, he added, “if I continue to find so much agreement with your complaints, I would have to retrieve the MS and rewrite it from cover to cover”.

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