Thursday, April 26, 2012


Wendell Berry

I've watched Wendell Berry's NEH speech (linked below, go for it). He's not a great speaker, too dry, a bit feeble (don't blame him, it's hard work having a conscience), lacking a humor that is important to start into and thread a long speech, though a few in the audience admit to their opening moments of nervous laughter.

Of course the speech has a great theme: affection, and written well by the farmer/poet who has shown the same in many of his best poems.

I note almost all the past NEH speakers are from safe ground: no Gary Snyder, no Noam Chomsky, no Susan Sontag, no Studs Terkel, no Amiri Baraka. We continue to die a slow death.

I have to say a color guard at the start of the program, and two holding rifles (loaded?), doesn't make me feel comfortable for anyone in the audience. Its choreography looked clumsy indoors, even a parody. Recent blitzed minds holding US service rifles and what they have done with them is inches from one day one of these militants turning it on the audience. Or the speaker.

The aura of the pre-speech felt like faded glory. A much younger writer should have been chosen to read the Berry poem ( we are talking here of sustainability, right? ). I know they have young and authentic Kentucky poets and writers all over the blue grass state. Our moderator had to make sure the speech afterwards was thoroughly rinsed with bleach by saying it didn't reflect the opinions of the US government (to say the least!). Somehow it is lost on those in power that a poet, teacher, farmer, neighbor, essayist like Berry — who has made a lifetime of books (and readers) to fill whole shelves and with the potential of being stocked in every library around the world — is the voice of the citizen, and so the greater voice of any government.

Of the writers Wendell Berry bravely learned and quoted from: Wallace Stegner, Wes Jackson, Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold and even E.M. Forster — except in their regional roosts (Leopold/Wisconsin etc) just go try to find these authors' books in your local bookstore. You say you no longer have a local bookstore? Ah, yes, more of the problem.

Wendell Berry is hardly a modern Henry David Thoreau, as he's often described. That distinction might better be served by his friend the late Harlan Hubbard. Get out there and beat the bushes for Hubbard's "Walden" of a sort — his masterpiece volume Payne Hollow.

It's long been known Berry doesn't use a computer. I'm far but a good example for one using modern conveniences — though it could be argued that one, like Berry, who calls himself an environmentalist and is often championed as one — is, in fact, out of touch with the current environment without a computer. Before your backwoods brains boil over, think about it. In this case, a computer as tool. As accessibility. As electronic pathway and still keeping all the trees. As canoe. Some computer users have the agility to glide.

For this speech Thoreau would have definitely shown up open collared, quoted John Brown, Walt Whitman and perhaps passages from the Gita, and told the authorities there would be no speech until they get rid of the armed soldiers who have nothing to arm at such a speech. He would have made some people unhappy. Some of those unhappy would then make their own stormy speeches and articles how Thoreau once almost burned down his town with a got-away grass fire. All true, he was an adventurous young man. Balanced and sustained everything he touched with an exploratory and inventive way. To this day he has no one, like John Muir in the west, who can rival his hardscrabbled and persistent methods. A whole other era, a whole other heaven — a time of foot-to-mind powers. Both fellows were hikers, dreamers, doers, travelers, mystics, working authors, field hands, respectful trespassers.

Wendell Berry is a farmer in the truest sense, with a long family heritage. I can close my eyes and imagine this speech being said on a milking stool, late in the day, dim lights in all the barn windows, and everything in the barn, including the pesky swallows that nest, falling peacefully asleep.

photo: guy mendes