Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place is mostly a book about the lives of writers, including his own. Reading it recently, I was reminded of the visit I paid to him and his wife, Tanya, on their farm in Kentucky nearly two dozen years ago, when the relationship of writers to their place in the world was much on my mind. Here is my story of that visit, published first in Sierra magazine, November/December 1990.
Wendell Berry lives in a part of Kentucky that does not appear to change. Narrow lanes wind through quiet valleys; hawks light on roadside trees. Cars seldom pass the white-gabled houses. To my casual eye, it all looked pretty much as it did 18 years ago when I last visited Lanes Landing Farm near the town of Port Royal.
Since that first visit, I have taught in half a dozen universities and lived in half a dozen places. Berry, steady as the land around him, has stayed on with his wife, Tanya, in his steep-roofed house overlooking the Kentucky River, farming, writing essays, fiction, and poetry, and making occasional forays elsewhere to teach, lecture, or read from his work.
He has remained there not by chance, or because he had nothing better to do, but because 25 years ago he made a deliberate choice. He wrote about that decision in one of his early essays, “The Long-Legged House,” the first piece I ever read by him.
The long-legged house was a two-room cabin built by his grandmother’s bachelor brother back in the 1920s. As a young man, Berry often visited the house by the river.
“Clumsy in body and mind, I knew no place I could go to and feel certain I ought to be there,” he wrote. But at the long-legged house he came upon days when he was “at peace, and happy. And those days that gave me peace suggested to me the possibility of a greater, more substantial peace – a decent, open, generous relation between a man’s life and the world – that I have never achieved; but it must have begun to be then, and it has come more and more consciously to be, the hope and the ruling idea of my life.”
He and Tanya married in May 1957, and spent the summer at the long-legged house. “In the life we lived that summer we represented to ourselves what we wanted – and it was not the headlong pilgrimage after money and comfort and prestige. We were spared that stress from the beginning. And there at the Camp we had around us the elemental world of water and light and earth and air. We felt the presences of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly empty, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.”
Still, they left the house on the river. Berry studied with author Wallace Stegner at Stanford, sojourned in Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship, and taught at New York University. Not until 1964, when he was 30 years old, did he and Tanya and their two children return to Kentucky with the idea, this time, of staying. Teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, he spent four days every week writing at the long-legged house.
When the nearby Lanes Landing property was put up for sale, Wendell and Tanya bought it as a summer place. But as they visited the house on weekends and walked the land, they “began to see possibilities” they could not resist.
“Our life began to offer itself to us in a new way, in the terms of that place, and we could not escape it or satisfy it by anything partial or temporary. We made up our minds to live there.”
That commitment to a scrap of land in Henry County changed Wendell Berry as a writer. He has recalled for me what happened. “I was assuming that I was going to lead a literary life when I got back here,” he said. But he found that his relationship with the place he had chosen could not be merely literary.
“When you live in your subject,” he explained to me, “you can no longer think of it as raw material unless you’re a monster. You don’t think of your place as your subject any more than you think of your wife or children as your subject.”
His sense of obligation to the region led him to write essays, thoughtful explorations of the world around him. “I began not just to see, but to ask why some things were here that were here, and why some things were not here that I felt needed to be here.”
Why, he asked himself, had so many small family farms disappeared from the rural scene? He thought the question out to its economic, cultural, intellectual, and moral roots. The result was The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, published in 1977 by Sierra Club Books. Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, near Salina, Kansas, says the book “launched the modern movement for sustainable agriculture.”
To agriculture specialists, the fact that one American farmer can feed 80 people may be a solution; to Wendell Berry it is a problem. We would be better off, he believes, if more than 3 percent of America’s people farmed the land, using fewer chemicals and machines.
Why have we turned our land over to industrialists? Sheer arrogance, Berry replied in The Unsettling of America. Lured by “an almost occult yearning for the future,” he wrote, we have given ourselves up to technological fantasy. “The great convenience of the future as a context of behavior is that nobody knows anything about it. No rational person can see how using up the topsoil or the fossil fuels as quickly as possible can provide greater security for the future, but if enough wealth and power can conjure up the audacity to say that it can, then sheer fantasy is given the force of truth.”
Berry speaks in this book with the voice that has set him apart from most contemporary writers and intellectuals. He is no timid postmodernist offering long halls of mirrors, illusions and guesses, ironies and double meanings. Berry sounds as certain of the truth – the hardrock, basic truth – as if God had given it to him.
When I visited him this year, settling in for a morning’s talk near the wood stove of his living room, I found Berry as fierce as ever. His manner was kind, as down-home and companionable as the chairs and book-laden tables around us, but his thoughts were unflinching.
Folding his tall frame into a worn living-room chair, his feet warmed by sock moccasins, he told me I was wrong to imagine that things hadn’t changed in Henry County. Things have changed, he said: “I see a number of things that make me seriously afraid.”
When he digs post holes, in some spots he can dig five feet down through topsoil the whole way; in others he’s in subsoil from the beginning. Ill-use and careless ways have worn down the land, “so you have to conclude that the country we’re living in now is literally not the country that our ancestors inhabited.”
America has turned its countryside into a Third World colony, he said. “The larger economy, the national economy that is really run for the benefit of a very few people, is preying upon and slowly destroying local communities everywhere.
“Everything we produce in rural America makes more money for other people than it does for those who produce it. They want our products as cheaply as they can be bought. They want to sell us their products as expensively as we can bear to pay for them. And they want our young people. And all this is working amazingly well. We’re destroying rural America.”
I thought of my own family: Just about everyone in my grandparents’ generation lived on Kentucky farms, and none of their descendants do now.
Berry himself might easily have broken his family’s long rural residency (they’ve been in this part of Kentucky since 1803); instead, he committed himself to a way of life that most educated folk of his generation rejected. And that commitment involved more than just living in the country and writing about it: He imagined his way deep into local culture.
In his fiction, Berry spins a web of country life as intricate and lovely as a spider’s on a barbed-wire fence. In The Memory of Old Jack, The Wild Birds, Nathan Coulter, and other novels and stories, generations intertwine as parts of a community Berry calls a “membership.” They live in one another’s minds, rely on one another, care for one another, learn from one another how they best can live.
There is in these books an affection for country life so intense it resembles romanticism. Driving up through the country, I had been flooded by memories of great-aunts and uncles who had lived country lives that, to my recollection, had been lonely and hard. They didn’t seem anything like the lives in Berry’s fiction.
“The fiction is imaginary, and it isn’t a record,” he said, reminding me that he’d straightened me out on this point once before. “When I talk about community I’m not talking about something I know out of the past. I know some things out of the past that seem to confirm the idea of community. But the idea of community was never comprehensive enough. It excluded certain people, such as blacks, or Indians, and it excluded the things of nature.”
Berry has confronted those exclusions in his book The Hidden Wound, a meditation on his family’s slave-holding past and his own boyhood experience with blacks on his grandfather’s farm. Trying to come to personal terms with racism, the “hidden wound” that all American whites bear, he found a relationship between the exploitation of human beings and the exploitation of nature. By enslaving blacks, he observed, whites cut their own ties to the land. By assigning hard “hand labor” first to slaves, later to machines, whites avoided intimacy with nature. Disconnected, whites no longer cared, and what they no longer cared for, they destroyed.
“The white race in America has marketed and destroyed more of the fertility of the earth in less time than any other race that ever lived,” he wrote.
Our culture’s destructive flight from the physical is still very much on his mind. When we talked Sunday morning, stew and apples simmering on the stove, Berry complained, “The roadsides are littered with trash because people are eating more fast food, because nobody’s giving time to food preparation.”
As he explains in “The Pleasures of Eating,” an essay in his newest collection, What Are People For?, the most natural of processes has become so industrialized that people have little idea of just what they are putting on their tables. They don’t know where their food comes from or what’s been added to or taken away from it. The food industry “will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.” Like industrial sex, Berry writes, industrial eating is “a degraded, poor, and paltry thing.”
Certainly, dinner with the Berrys was just what you’d imagine an authentic country dinner would be: a variety of tastes, all seeming to come straight from the food itself, and the pleasure of company besides.
Tanya had come home from church by mealtime, bringing with her the Berrys’ two granddaughters. We ate together at a big round table in the kitchen. The girls ate quietly, then climbed into Tanya’s and Wendell’s laps and listened to our conversation, occasionally trading places.
One of the remedies Wendell offers for our current cultural mess is a shift to more regional economies – cities buying food and dealing with their garbage within their region.
“We’ve got to scale our economy down,” he said. “We’ve got to have a more decentralized, locally adapted kind of economy.” In “The Pleasures of Eating” he suggests things city-dwellers could do to help halt the decline of rural life: grow and prepare their own food so they know what it’s all about, buy close to home, buy directly from farmers.
Is this enough? Of course not, and Berry knows it. “The capacity of people in the cities to do things directly for themselves is extremely limited,” he told me. “They can’t produce food. They can’t produce building materials or the materials needed for clothing. They’re so cut off from the natural sources of their livelihood and so far cut off from fundamental skills, most of them, that they can’t directly do much of anything.”
If rural America is to be saved, it will have to be saved by those who live there, Berry believes. “People who are left in the country are going to have to start helping each other again in practical and economic ways,” he said. In his own community, he has been trying to start a small-loan program, and has been to the state capital to protest other states’ dumping their garbage in Kentucky.
In his work, Berry says again and again that we cannot save the land without saving the community that holds the knowledge of how we should care for the land, and why. In “The Work of Local Culture” (from What Are People For?), Berry discusses an old galvanized bucket that for 50 years has hung from a post on what was once his grandfather’s farm. Every time he goes by that bucket, he looks in at the black humus forming from fallen leaves, animal droppings, and other natural debris. A good human community would be like that bucket, he says – it “holds local soil and local memory in place.”
To some readers, Berry’s preoccupation with the country renders him simply an ignorant Luddite, out of tune with his times. He stirred up a hornet’s nest when Harper’s Magazine reprinted a brief essay in which he explained why he does not use and will not buy a computer.
According to my reading of the essay, Berry uses pen and paper because he regards computer manufacturers as a conniving bunch who try to get people who don’t need computers – like farmers and students – to spend significant sums of money on them. Moreover, computers depend on electricity, and he tries to use as little of that as he can. Finally, he likes his working relationship with Tanya, who types his work on an old Royal Standard and makes editorial suggestions in the margins.
Reader response was sharp-tongued. Reading Berry, said one letter-writer, was like “reading about the belief systems of unfamiliar tribal cultures.” He suggested Berry try a quill pen.
Another (as Berry should have expected) took exception to his use of his wife as a typist: “Drop a pile of handwritten notes on Wife and you get back a finished manuscript . . . what computer can do that?”
The storm raged again earlier this year when Utne Reader reprinted the piece. Again, readers attacked Berry for maligning both computers and women. A friend who knew I was going to see him called me up and said, “You’ve got to tell Wendell to quit letting people reprint that article. It’s going to ruin his reputation.”
I was surprised, though, by the emotion in his own response to his critics. The intensity of readers’ reactions, Berry wrote back in Harper’s, suggested that he had obviously “scratched the skin of a technological fundamentalism that . . . cannot tolerate the smallest difference of opinion.”
Two of the letter-writers, he wrote, had stereotyped and insulted his wife, “a woman they do not know,” implying that she is “subservient, characterless, and stupid.” Berry returned an insult of his own: these letter-writers “are audacious and irresponsible gossips.” (I understood the strength of Barry’s response a little better when Tanya told me there had been such an outpouring of anger that for a while they hated to get their mail.)
Berry is not accustomed to a negative response. His readers are usually respectful, even reverential. That reverence disturbs him, according to his friend Gene Logsdon, a writer-editor with a small farm in Ohio. Berry doesn’t like being referred to as a prophet or put on a pedestal. “Wendell’s got too much humor” for that. Besides, Logsdon told me, “Prophets usually tell you something you don’t want to hear, But Wendell spoke my innermost thoughts.”
Logsdon was working at Farm Journal when he read “The Long-Legged House.” He interviewed Berry and found his example so powerful that he wound up quitting his job and going back to his homeland to farm and write.
Berry’s old friend Ed McClanahan remembers mailing him the manuscript of a novella set in farm country. McClanahan had grown up in a small Kentucky town, but he didn’t know much about farming, and he’d made a lot of mistakes. “Wendell went through the 120-page manuscript and made a conscientious list of all those errors,” said McClanahan. “It was a great kindness.”
McClanahan, Logsdon, Wes Jackson, and several others are part of a network of writers Berry talks to or corresponds with regularly. They seemed to me to make up a community of people trying to preserve small-scale farming and farm communities. But Berry was quick to correct me. The group, mostly separated by many miles, can only be a “network,” he said, not a community. “The people in your network are not going to put your livestock in when they get out in the road.”
The members of this network do, however, send each other manuscripts and books, which they sometimes dedicate to each other. Fellow writers, friends, and family are, Berry says, “constant sources of help, instruction, and inspiration to me. As a writer, I’m a sort of assembly or committee.”
Others in the network are quick to credit Berry for his contributions. Wes Jackson calls him “our most profound spokesman. He’s a constant source for me. We talk probably every week. I’m writing a speech right now, and I was thinking that much of what I have to say had its origins with Wendell.”
Logsdon says, “He’s clearly the beacon, the lighthouse, to whom everybody turns for the real, pure idealism of the movement.” But to Logsdon, as to others, Berry is also a friend, “a really good companion, a man to ride the river with who thinks the way I do. Everyone who gets to know him realizes he’s not just air. He really lives and believes what he says he lives and believes. That’s to me a surpassing marvel.”
Berry’s front window looks straight out across the river valley to a ridge of hills. Before I said goodbye, we studied the tranquil scene together.
In the center of the frame, in the valley on the other side of the river, stood an abandoned tenant house. I wondered why people didn’t tear down those tattered, empty buildings; Berry wondered why people didn’t still live in them.
For Berry, a commitment to a place is like marriage. “When you talk about marriage to a place,” he said, you’re talking about final commitment. You’re not going to leave. You’re going to give up that other-so-lucrative motive of the industrial world: the idea that you’d be better off somewhere else or with somebody else.
“If you live in the presence of your history, it’s harder to be arrogant. If you are not living in the presence of what you’ve done, which will always include some damage, it’s too easy to be arrogant or silly. That’s why some kind of social stability is necessary so that people aren’t, all the time, escaping from their own history and the damage they’ve done.
“I live in this commitment all the time, knowing very well how attractive mobility is. I’d really like to be loved by somebody who doesn’t know me, who would be susceptible to my charm.” His eyes twinkled, as they often do; at 56 he is an attractive man, capable of taking pleasure in his own delightfulness. “I appreciate, exquisitely, how fine that would be. But I know it wouldn’t last, and that I couldn’t disguise myself for more than, oh, maybe 48 hours.” His big laugh poured out.
“And I know it would be really nice, as I’ve said to Tanya, to go and get on the fifth floor of some damn apartment house and quit this getting up at night with the sheep.”
That reminded him his ewes needed seeing to, so he went off for a while. Not long after, I drove down the wandering road, imagining what it would be like to pick a place on Earth and stay there, and take care of it.
Photo by Guy Mendes, courtesy of Indiana University.