A voice from ourselves

Paul Greenberg

March 26, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

AN OLD friend who has shown me many a kindness recently sent over a small book of essays by Wendell Berry, who is (a) unknown, (b) unrealistic or (c) one of the still-small voices of our time that call us back to ourselves.

The answer depends on whether you've read what he writes and on how you react to it. Like George Orwell, Wendell Berry has become a cult figure while being the last person in the world who would want such a distinction. As is the case with Orwell, what you think of the writer may say more about you than about him.

From his scrap of land in Henry County, Ky., Wendell Berry writes things like this:

"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."

The throwaway society offends Wendell Berry. The frontier ethic -- use it and move on -- alarms him. In that sense, he is deeply un-American. Mobility, whether social or geographic or moral, does not appeal to him. Indeed, it is the enemy. In a prose poem entitled "Damage," he tells the story of his decision to build a pond on his place -- a bad decision, as it turned out. He concludes: " . . . a man with a machine and inadequate culture -- such as I was when I made that pond -- is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold."

Continuity attracts Wendell Berry. In that sense, he is deeply American. Stability might be a better word for what he seeks, and for what he mourns in American society. His grief may be stoic or bellicose, but it is always eloquent. Unlike angry words from others, his are calming. Maybe that is because he deals in personal insights rather than the store-bought theories that go under the name of ideology. He is a defender of rural life as opposed to agribusiness, of community as opposed to centralization, and of economy as opposed to economics.

Wendell Berry was clearly out of it in the America of the '80s, and would be in any America where bigger is better. He thinks small but deep. While he writes in the main of farm life, it is easy, it is natural, it is irresistible for those of us who cherish small towns to identify with his concerns, and be both aroused and assured. There are so few voices left that carry such unclamoring conviction. Maybe it's living in the country that does it.

Sitting at a computer terminal an editor can call forth the italicized, capitalized and merchandised detritus of the world known and revered as news. It's all there waiting to be summoned at a touch: war and disintegration, gigantic take-overs and defaults, Lifestyle and Sports, Opinion and Analysis . . . and then Wendell Berry's voice cuts through both the glitter and grime alike, the industrial grease and the cotton candy, like an unarguable call that brings you back to certain essentials. "If you're 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."

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