Posts Tagged ‘Wendell Berry’


If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament.  The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light.  This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

“Work Song, Part 2: A Vision” – Wendell Berry


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I’m reading Wendell Berry: Life and Work, because I like Wendell Berry and wanted to learn more about his life and work. All right, and the book was deeply discounted when a local Barnes & Noble closed. It contains an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, “The Art of Buying Nothing.” In it she gives the best description of writing I believe I have ever read. But we’ll get to that in a minute. This is about the journey, as well as the destination, and there is plenty of nice scenery along the way.

Our journey begins, in fact, 25 years ago when Berry wrote a piece, published in Harper’s, in which he declared that he would never buy a computer (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer”). His reasons were plainly enumerated in a list of questions he asked himself before any purchase. In a tightly packed nutshell, these include: Can another tool do the same job, be more easily repaired, and consume less electricity? Berry wrote, “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal,” and vowed to continue writing with a pencil for everyday use, and a 1956 Royal standard typewriter for dress-up.

Kingsolver’s essay was written not as a response, exactly, but as a celebration of Berry’s attitude. She writes that she works hard to use Berry’s buying guidelines as her own, since she wishes to avoid acquiring the unnecessary things that are paraded before her in gleaming home-delivered catalogs, on television, etc.

I consider it no small part of my daily work to sort out the differences between want and need. I’m helped along the way by my friend Wendell, without his ever knowing it. He advises me to ask, in the first place, whether I wish to purchase a solution to a problem I don’t have. Down through the ages we’ve been threatened with these: ring around the collar, waxy yellow buildup, and iron-poor tired blood were all the products of a fairly unsophisticated advertising industry, and still they sent consumers running for the cure. Now the advertisers are psychologists; they are wizards. They convince us we must zip around and dazzle all who see us…. The siren song of needless want inflicts internal damage on people of every class. Buying new things accosts our stability, our satisfaction with ourselves and one another as we already were.  …

I have such respect for the art of buying nothing. It is honorable work to be happy just as we are.

Kingsolver is well aware of the societal pressures against buying nothing, and she relies upon Berry’s essay to keep her on the straight and narrow path. Happily, he accomplishes this in part by making her laugh. Here she quotes Berry describing his pro-consumerism critics:

[T]hey repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright, lively, centralized, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better.

Then Barbara Kingsolver lays it out there: Much as she esteems Wendell Berry and strives to follow his doctrine of buying less, she writes on a computer.  This being so, she understands that her work had better be good to make it worth the price of the energy it costs to produce:

“When somebody has used a computer to write a work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s,” Wendell declares, and when the computer is proven to be the secret of that success, then he says he’ll speak of computers with a more respectful tone (though he still will not buy one). Lord have mercy, but I’m not even entering that race. I am just aiming each day for a draft that’s demonstrably better than the gobbledygook I wrote yesterday….

And now, finally, here it comes—listen!

To save my life I can’t write a book from beginning to end. I seem to write them from the inside out, twisting them around like a dog trying to put on a pair of pajamas, panting and craning my neck until I’ve finally gotten the thing buttoned up, face forward, right side out. For that organizing miracle I need the help of strip-mined coal and a computer.

I’m pretty sure that this post has gotten twisted around, backside front. And that’s in spite of the use of a computer run on coal-powered energy.  What in the world would Wendell say?  Something sharp, I expect.

I loved her description of writing so much that I went to visit Barbara Kingsolver’s Web site in search of more good stuff. I found this beauty:

Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn – you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end.  Revision is where fine art begins.  It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there. … I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth.

With the right sort of cloth, you can make a spectacular pair of pajamas for a dog.


“The Art of Buying Nothing” in Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters. University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2007.

Image source:  Whippet Snippets (http://www.whippetsnippets.com/2009/06/merch-of-the-penguins.html)

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