wendell berry

Envisioning a 50-Year Future

Paladin12 / Shutterstock
Paladin12 / Shutterstock

WE LURCH FROM ecological crisis to crisis, all of them real: So far this year we’ve seen the sickening collapse of much of the Pacific’s coral in a 10-month blitz of hot ocean water; we’ve watched a city of 90,000 evacuated ahead of a forest fire so big it was creating its own weather; and we’ve witnessed the earliest onset of widespread Arctic melting ever recorded. And so on.

All of these need urgent responses—the fire company has to report for duty. So it’s been sweet to see activists doing civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale around the world and increasingly putting the fossil fuel industry on the defensive. We’ve got to turn the tide soon.

But “soon” and “urgent” and “emergency” are words that can blind us as well—keep us from seeing the deep roots of problems and solutions. So it is a very good thing that we have some folks who don’t scare easily. I’m thinking in particular of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, who keep patiently pushing the most deeply (and literally) rooted piece of legislation I know of, the 50-year Farm Bill.

The Kansas geneticist and farmer, and the Kentucky writer and farmer, begin with the premise that roots are important. Our industrial agriculture has plowed up the perennial crops that once covered the continent (and the planet) and replaced them with high-yielding annuals. All that wheat and corn feed us cheaply—and lead to dead, eroding soils that, among other things, can’t soak up much in the way of carbon. So Jackson, at his Land Institute, has spent the last decades crossing annual and perennial crops. The goal is nothing less than grains you don’t need to replant every year—grains that will grow deep, tangled roots into the prairie soil, feeding us and restoring a desperately needed balance.

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Poet Wendell Berry Bequeaths Farming Legacy to Small Catholic College

Wendell Berry. Image via RNS

The Berry family has lived in these parts for nine generations. While pursuing a prolific writing career, Berry never stopped caring for the land of his ancestors. Now, the 81-year-old writer wants to pass on his family’s farming legacy to a new generation. He decided against teaming up with a large university agricultural program, and instead selected a small Catholic liberal arts college about an hour’s drive from Louisville, run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

Weekly Wrap 12.4.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Pray, Yes. But Then Act.

“We can’t just blame it on the brokenness of the world, pray for peace, and move on, worried that anything more will be seen as politicizing tragedy. What is tragic is that those who have the ability to DO something about this crisis refuse to offer more than simplistic sentiments on Twitter before getting caught in a circular argument about our rights as Americans. It’s time for people of faith to respond.”

2. The 20-Year-Old Ban That Silenced Research on Gun Violence

Because: NRA. “Researchers from federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have largely been mum on the public health issue of gun violence — not by choice, but because of a 20-year-old congressional ban on federally funded gun violence research.”

3. Emanuel: Chicago City Officials to Release Ronald Johnson Shooting Video

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday that the city would release dashcam footage of a Chicago police officer shooting 25-year-old Ronald Johnson III in the back. The shooting happened eight days before officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

4. People Think ‘The Wiz Live’ Is Racist. Twitter Says, ‘Huh?’

Actual tweet: "I just learned there is a Black version of 'The Wizard of Oz' called 'The Wiz.' How is this not racist?" Oy.

The Mundane Resurrection

New growth, Phonlawat_778 / Shutterstock.com
New growth, Phonlawat_778 / Shutterstock.com

It was five years ago now. I had recently finished a few week stay in the ICU, more than two months in the hospital, and more than one conversation between my parents and doctors about whether I would pull through. Still, I had made it, and after several months of regular home nurse visits, fentanyl patches, dilaudid pills, and 12 hours a day on an IV for liquid and nutrition, I was stable but still far from recovered.

The Saturday before Easter was sunny and unseasonably but appropriately warm. My mother and I took a walk outside, over a mile, the furthest I had gone in nearly five months.

“Wouldn’t it be poetic,” I asked, “If suddenly this whole illness, everything that went wrong in the hospital, all made sense tomorrow on Easter?”

“Hunny,” my mom responded kindly, “I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on the pastor. Don’t you?”

The next day was seasonably and appropriately repetitious. I heard nothing new. The same Easter story that had been read for centuries on centuries was read again. I received no specialized message from the divine about my own pain and struggle. That morning, I realized that might be the point.

Jesus came to make resurrection mundane.

The View from Africa

Photo courtesy Jim Wallis
Photo courtesy Jim Wallis

“There is nothing quite like the African bush to sooth and rejuvenate.” That experience was conveyed to me by a South African church leader who has been helping plan the speaking tour I just arrived for here in this beloved country.

My wife, Joy, and I decided to use this wonderful speaking invitation to South Africa as an opportunity to take our annual August family vacation here. We arrived for a week of rest before the tour began and spent a few beautiful days on the lovely beaches of the Indian Ocean, still warm even for this end-of-winter period. But then the last two days, our Washington, D.C.-based family did something we have never done before — visited the game park and wetland reserve to see some of God’s most extraordinary creatures. Of course we’ve seen these animals in zoos before, but we now had the opportunity to see them roam freely in their natural habitat. For a bunch of city kids like us, it was truly amazing.

In Hluhluwe Game Reserve, beautiful zebras slowly grazed with a South African sunset behind them over the mountains. There are no more graceful creatures than giraffes, elegantly tasting the leaves on the tallest trees as they wander together at peace. Buffalos with great horns shared the terrain with antelopes that showed us their speed when they decided to run. And hyenas really do laugh off in the distance.

AUDIO: Sabbath Poetry Reading

The author of more than 50 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Wendell Berry is not only a prolific writer but also a farmer and an environmental activist who holds a deep reverence for all of life and creation. In “The Harvest of Fidelity” (Sojourners, April 2014), Rose Marie Berger reviews Berry’s latest work, This Day—a collection of Sabbath poems that speak “in defense of precious things.”

Listen to Berger—Sojourners’ poetry editor—recite one of Berry’s Sabbath poems.

 

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The Harvest of Fidelity

THE STILL, ATTENTIVE, affectionate, at times lamenting, always sagacious, well-defined, occasional poems in This Day, Wendell Berry’s most recent collection, are a magnificent gift to American letters.

For nearly 35 years Berry has kept the Sabbath holy. His practice is either unorthodox or so deeply orthodox that professional religionists may not recognize it. On Sundays Berry walks his Kentucky “home place,” the roughly 125 acres of bottom land in the region his family has farmed for more than 200 years. From the seventh-day silence, solitude, and natural world, Berry has crafted his Sabbath poems.

“Occasional poems” commemorate public events, but here Berry lays quiet markers to remember personal days in the life of one man. He writes in the preface: “though I am happy to think that poetry may be reclaiming its public life, I am equally happy to insist that poetry also has a private life that is more important to it and more necessary to us.”

Berry’s first collection of Sabbath poems appeared in A Timbered Choir, uniting work from 1979 (“I go among trees and sit still”) to 1997 (“There is a day / when the road neither / comes nor goes ...”). This Day includes this previous material plus dozens more written through 2013. It opens with “Preface: From Sabbaths 2013” and places Berry in his human landscape:

This is a poet of the river lands
a lowdown man of the deepest
depths of the valley, where gravity gathers
the waters, the poisons, the trash,
where light comes late and leaves early.

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The Evolution of Southern Baptist Ethicist Russell Moore

Photo courtesy RNS.
Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Photo courtesy RNS.

Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf, and Merle Haggard on his iPod.

His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.

The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.

Cultivating a Better America

Wendell Berry, photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

WENDELL BERRY was on stage being interviewed by Bill Moyers when the old Baptist minister (Moyers) asked the unchurched Christian (Berry) about his faith. “The world is maintained every day by the force that created it,” Berry intoned solemnly. In the Old Testament, he noted, “Elihu says to Job, if God gathers his breath, all creatures fail. All creatures live,” Berry emphasized, “by breathing God’s breath, breathing his spirit. It’s all holy—the whole shooting match.”

At 78, Wendell Berry shows no sign of failing, either in his breath or his spirit. But the Kentucky writer-activist-farmer is already enjoying a sort of immortality as the namesake of a degree program in ecological agrarianism at St. Catharine College. In April, that small Catholic institution in Springfield, Ky., hosted a conference titled “From Unsettling to Resettling: What Will It Take to Resettle America?” in honor of the 35th anniversary of Berry’s landmark book, The Unsettling of America. The interview with Moyers was part of the conference program.

Drastically oversimplified, the thesis of The Unsettling of America held that two types of Europeans came to America. Elsewhere, citing his teacher Wallace Stegner, Berry has called them the “boomers” and the “stickers.” The boomers were the unsettlers. They moved into the New World, cut down the trees, extracted the minerals, used up the land, and then moved on in search of new places to despoil. The stickers, however, settled into a place and made it their own. They cooperated with the land and the local resources to make a life and a livelihood that could be sustained over generations. Our problem, Berry contended, is that in America the boomers, backed by the power of money, have for too long set the agenda and won most of the fights.

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Paved with Good Intentions

From "God Loves Uganda"

I’VE WINCED often at the portrayal of religion in recent documentaries—partly out of embarrassed identification with some of the apparently crazy things I’ve witnessed in real life, and partly because some documentarians seem to think that there’s nothing to religion other than those crazy things. God Loves Uganda, a new documentary about the role played by U.S. missionaries in nurturing that country’s homophobic culture and legislation, manages to avoid the mistake of confusing bad religion with all religion.

The concern for the Ugandan people manifested by fundamentalist charismatic Christians is suggested to be far less than the sum of its parts as they become participants in the nurturing of a social structure that aims to eradicate gay people. But the film avoids easy stereotyping of Christian mission work, particularly in the person of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a smiling radical in the mold of Desmond Tutu. His is a face of Ugandan Christianity that is open, generous, alive, courageous, and kind—a prophetic African voice for human rights.

Wendell Berry recently suggested that the expression of anti-LGBTQ sentiment may evoke a kind of subconscious reaction in the proponent akin to autoerotic pleasure. Delighting in the pain of others is a kind of sadism rooted in the insecurities harbored by the person who has decided it’s their job to be the moral police, despite how kind they may think they are being. The fear stirred by psuedo-Dominionist movements may have given the U.S. missionaries in God Loves Uganda a sincere desire to change the world. But their lack of self-reflection leads them to export some of the worst of American cultural imperialism: prejudice, the conflation of sentimentality and cultural ignorance with love, the denial of the gift that the other has for us.

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