What a wonderful privilege to hear Wendell Berry at this year’s American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL)! For me, it was the best of the best. Here are the ten things I found most inspiring:
10. His humility – Wendell Berry has received many awards, including this year’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion. When he received a standing ovation at this year’s AAR/SBL, he gently and humourously chided the gathering known for its critical scholarship, “Now this is overdone. This place should be more critical.”
9. His poetry – He’s a prolific writer of novels, short stories, poems, and essays, but I know him mainly for his poems. One of my favourites is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, even though I’m not mad and not a farmer.
8. His confessional approach – He describes his poetry “not trying to call anyone [else], but trying to make the terms of my own peace.”
7. His sense of home – “Stop somewhere with the intention of staying there and dealing with it.” “A life will attach you to a place and a people, and they will disappoint you by not agreeing with you, you’re going to be confronted with opposition, with your own mistakes, and you will learn a lot.”
6. His cultural critique – “This is the age of divorce–not only in marriage–but the divorce of everything from everything.” “There’s a difference between a career and a life.”
5. His compassion both for the world and our place in it – “The scale of what’s wrong [with the world] is so incomprehensible . . . we are so flawed . . . so implicated . . . there is a danger of despair, being cynical, just letting it go.” We can’t do everything, but maybe we can make it “a little bit better.”
4. His active approach – which for him takes the form of working on a land use bill that would mean “more eyes per acre” (i.e., sympathetic attention, knowing attention of what’s happening to the land). “You can’t save the integrity of the natural world in wilderness preserves. If you can’t do it in the landscapes we’re using, we don’t have a hope.”
3. His practical approach – “Love has to wear a face–even if it’s your neighbour you don’t like. You have to get better at ‘hypocrisy’ and act as if you love your neighbour.”
2. His ability to continue to grow as a writer, to change his mind, and even to disagree with himself – After reading his poem, The Peace of Wild Things, he said that he would now object to the term “wild things,” because the wood drake and the heron might well “see us as wild. They’re right–we’ve shaken off our limits and are out of control, have given up our compassion,” so we are really the wild things.
1. His reading of Poem VI from Leavings, a great prayer/poem of longing that moved me and everyone, even Wendell Berry himself. He said he might not be able to read this one in public again.