I guess we’ve all got a list of writers we know we ought to read but somehow never get round to it. For me, it’s all too often someone I’m slightly frightened to read because I’m a bit afraid I’ll be overwhelmed, and Wendell Berry fell firmly into that category. Some of the most influential books I’ve read came to me accidentally, before I’d been able to think of a reason not to read them. Wendell Berry was one of those slightly terrifying characters who wore dungarees and represented all the stuff I felt most uneasy about in America and so I steered a wide course around him whilst all the while trying to find a way of living that he could have helped me with if only I’d not been so stubborn. And so, aged 71, I’ve finally read a very good collection of his writing over the decades and ….. he’s as scary as I always thought. Often right, but scary because he doesn’t just question the pantomime villains but he questions me. He questions the right-on, the conscensus liberal, the person virtue signalling was invented to describe. He talks up (heterosexual) marriage, quotes the Old Testament quite a bit, and hates the establishment and its bureaucratic apparatus. He is distrustful of the capacity of science to make things better because he regards it as having been corrupted by money and power. He is pessimistic about the future of the earth but doesn’t believe in protests and marches because he thinks they signal the very problem they’re trying to overcome, like bombing for peace. He believes that the only place to change the world is where you are – right now. At times he sounds like a lost Amish soul calling across history.
As I read I began to experience the very uncomfortable feeling that I was understanding something about the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Berry is able to convey so clearly the sense that small farmers must have, battling to survive in a hostile environment. He has his finger on the angry pulse of those from whom everything has been taken. He shares their distrust of the soft words and iron determination of the politicians, and there have been many times over the past two weeks when I’ve had to put the book down because it was so challenging, so out of kilter with our times. And yet …..
If you read the last essay in the Penguin edition called “The world-ending fire” – it’s called “The Rise” – you’ll read a piece of writing that transcends itself. In some of the essays he reminded me of William Cobbett at his scarifying best, but in “The Rise” the anger is for the reader to find. The writing reminded me of Robert Mcfarlane at his most lyrical. I was deeply moved by the ‘simple’ acccount of his canoe trip down six miles of the Kentucky River in flood. There, in a couple of thousand words, is a whole humane philosophy stripped of any attempt to preach or convert, written nearly fifty years before the linked crises of ecological collapse, climate change and economic liberalism all bore their evil fruit in one terrible decade. There’s a Chinese proverb that says : “To teach someone who is not ready is a waste of breath, but not to teach someone who is ready is the waste of a life.” I feel a prayer form in my most cynical places.