VIRTUES OF RENEWAL: WENDELL BERRY’S SUSTAINABLE FORMS
By David George Moore
Wonderful News!: I asked the author to encourage his publisher, The University of Kentucky Press, to consider giving a deep discount on his book. I had the temerity to suggest 50%. It is expensive at $65, but not as expensive as many books from academic presses. I am happy to report that there will be a discount of 50% until the end of March. This will be one of my books of the year. It is wonderfully written and full of terrific insights. Highly recommended! Use Code: FBILB and order here: https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=5494#.XHCsEPZFxMt
Jeff Bilbro is associate professor of English at Spring Arbor University. He is the author of several other books such as Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (co-authored with Jack Baker). This book is also available at a 50% until the end of March. Use the same code as the one above.
The following interview revolves around Jeff’s latest book, Virtues of Renewal.
Moore: For those who are not familiar with Berry, please give a quick biography of him, and why he is worth reading.
Bilbro: Wendell Berry was born in 1934 and grew up in Port Royal, Kentucky, where he still lives. He left Kentucky to attend graduate school and spent some time in Europe and New York before he and his wife Tanya returned home and bought a farm. His father was active in agricultural policy, and Berry inherited a concern for the economic and cultural health of small farms. But Berry is not only an agrarian; he is also a literary craftsman who earned an M.F.A. at Stanford and taught English for many years at the University of Kentucky. So he’s both a member of a particular farming community and a literary figure who has won many awards for his novels and poetry.
Moore: What sparked your initial interest in Berry?
Bilbro: I grew up in Washington State and enjoyed backpacking in the Cascades. So I was drawn to nature writers like Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder. But as much as I enjoyed reading such authors, I wanted someone who could provide a richer theology of Creation and a more developed account of how humans should live from and work with God’s Creation. When a college professor suggested I might enjoy reading Wendell Berry, I picked up A Place on Earth to read over the Christmas holiday. I vividly remember the experience of reading that book and feeling my intellectual and emotional landscape being rearranged.
Moore: Much has been written about Berry, and he’s still alive! How does your book make a unique contribution?
Bilbro: The initial question I had was why does Berry write in three different genres (poetry, essays, and fiction)? As I tried to articulate how these different genres allowed Berry to express different facets of his vision, I realized that studying his literary forms provides an excellent education in the “formal intelligence” that recognizes and tends healthy patterns. Berry claims that “the chief criterion of thought . . . must be propriety—fittingness to our place in the world, in the order of things, and to our relations of dependence and responsibility with other creatures—which would enable humility, restoration, the practice of the virtues.” Attending to his literary forms can, I think, train us to imitate these forms in our own lives and communities. So my book offers both close readings of his poetry, essays, and fiction and a kind of defense of the humanities. We can’t engineer our way to a healthy culture; we have to live differently. And Berry’s writings can help us imagine what these more healthy, virtuous ways of living might look like.
Moore: You mention that Berry becomes more explicit later in life about his commitment to the Christian faith. Why is that the case? Also, would you provide a few examples of this from his later writings?
Bilbro: I’ve argued elsewhere that 1979 marks Berry’s transition from advocating for a more vague, nature-based spirituality to relying on specifically Christian theology. For instance, it was in 1979 that Berry began writing his Sabbath poems and that he started drafting Remembering, a deeply Christian novel. In a 1970 essay, Berry called for a “new speech” that would articulate the connection between the material world and the sacred, and he commended several contemporary poets for “the sense of the presence of mystery or divinity in the world” that he found in their poems. But ten years later, he was defending a particularly Christian, sacramental account of Creation in letters to Gary Snyder and in essays like “The Gift of Good Land.” In speaking to a group of seminary students, Berry proposed a Biblical definition of Creation as “the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God.” This understanding of Creation informs his later poetry, essays, and fiction, and it even contributes to the choices he made in determining which poems to revise for—or exclude entirely from—his Collected Poems.
Bilbro: Reading Berry should change our relationship to food, but if we just change our consumption habits, if we just eat organic produce or shop at a farmer’s market, we haven’t taken Berry’s vision seriously enough. Our consumeristic culture is so dominant that it can co-opt even Berry’s prophetic voice. By focusing on the virtues that his literary forms model—virtues like attention, gratitude, humility, hope, memory, fidelity, and convocation—I aim to show how the writings of this agrarian can teach all of us how to lead more sustaining lives. As long as we imagine ourselves as autonomous, isolated subjects who are free to manipulate our environments to maximize our happiness, we will continue to destroy both our soil and our souls. So the work of building sustainable cultures requires us to go much deeper than merely slapping a “local food” bumper sticker on our cars; we have to reimagine ourselves as responsible members (see I Corinthians 12!) rather than independent selves and then work out the consequences of this identity in our daily lives.
Moore: It seems that death and resurrection are big themes for Berry. If that is so, would you unpack a bit why that is so?
Bilbro: Well, since we’re all going to die, that seems an important reality to reckon with! And you’re right that Berry spends a lot of time pondering these mysteries. In particular, the pattern of death and resurrection forms the key thread that Berry uses to weave together agrarianism and Christianity. In The Unsettling of America, he writes about soil fertility—in which death and decay serve new life—as an almost religious mystery. These principles are “as new and common as biology, as old and exalted as the Bible: ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’” And in one of his poems he declares that “Christmas / night and Easter morning are this soil’s only laws.” Hence Berry urges us to reject the lie that biology and theology are separate disciplines that have nothing to say to one another, and he thinks that the virtues enjoined by the church are the same virtues that will help us adapt our human cultures to natural limits. So Berry develops a rich theology of death and resurrection, but his understanding of these mysteries also remains grounded and practical.
Moore: What are two or three things you would like your readers to take from your book on Berry?
Bilbro: We can’t solve big problems like climate change or the decay of American communities with technological fixes. In our industrial culture, a culture given new purchase by Silicon Valley, we’re primed to respond to challenges by looking to experts who will engineer some data-driven fix. An industrial culture promises to make virtues obsolete by replacing them with techniques and machines; it tells us that we can buy gadgets, life hacks, and apps to solve our problems. Berry prophetically reminds us that there is no technological solution to our cultural and ecological problems. To live sustainably, we’ll need to regain the virtues and virtuosities required to be good neighbors, good members of our places.