Arts Etc. Life

When we make our art

“When we make our art, we are also making our lives. And I’m sure that the reverse is equally true.”

— Wendell Berry, in the beautiful documentary Look & See. Might have found my new life motto.

Education Politics

Wendell Berry on education in the presence of fear

In a speech given right after September 11, Wendell Berry kept his focus on the long-term concerns of a society and the principles of a proper education:

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.


Folks, I’m Telling You

I don’t remember where I got the idea, but recently I’ve started memorizing poems and posting recordings of me reciting them on Instagram. They’ve been mostly short thus far, 10 to 15 lines. But I aim to take on longer ones as I get more under my belt and feel more adventurous.

Part of this is a memory exercise. I haven’t been obligated to memorize something of value since college (sup, Gray’s “Elegy”), and I know it’s good for the brain to do so. But it’s also because quoting poetry or Shakespeare at opportune moments is a cliche from the movies I think we could use more of in real life. And until now the only poem I could recite was “Advice” by Langston Hughes—a whopping 19 words long.

So far I’ve done “Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About” by Mary Oliver, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, and “Carrying On Like A Crow” by Charles Simic. I found them more or less at random by opening those authors’ poetry collections and paging through until something jumps out. I recommend doing that the next time you’re at the library.

Which reminds me: I gotta find my next poem.

Etc. Life

The Preservation of Tangibility

What started with a web search for Wendell Berry’s mailing address led me to this article by Sandra McCracken about her pilgrimage to visit the Sage of Port Royal—thus combining two of my favorite artists into one webpage. A passage from McCracken’s reflections stood out:

One of my favorite moments was when Wendell said that he is a member of two organizations: 1) The Slow Communication Movement and 2) The Preservation of Tangibility. He noted that anyone can join these and added with a grin, “Actually, I think I founded them.”

I think about tangibility a lot. How the images we look at on a computer screen or smartphone don’t exist, not really, and how if a megavirus wiped out the internet and everything on our computers a huge percentage of our lives—probably too big—would cease to exist. Kinda makes me want to take up woodworking or something.

I’m not so silly to suggest life would be better without intangible technologies. I’m grateful to live in a time when I can choose tangible things like writing by hand or strumming the guitar or dropping the needle on a vinyl as a means of escape—rather than these things simply being the default mode of interacting with the world.

But damned if I wouldn’t take more of those things over staring at the same rectangle of pixels all day, every day, forever.

Books Film

Wendell Berry: Coming Soon to a Screen

Hat-tip to Rod Dreher for spotlighting The Seer, an upcoming documentary on Wendell Berry that counts Nick Offerman, Terrence Malick, and Robert Redford as backers. The filmmaker Laura Dunn has worked for years to bring the film to life, and now has a Kickstarter campaign to fund the remaining post-production costs. It’s due to premiere at SXSW, suddenly making me wish I could be there.

Filmed in and around Henry County, Kentucky, the documentary features original audio interviews with Wendell and on-camera interviews with members of his family and community:

When we first began corresponding about the possibility of a documentary, Wendell made clear that he does not regard screens of any kind and that he has declined to participate in films for decades.

This might have been the end of the matter, but for our team, it prompted reflection. Rather than make a “front lit” portrait of the man, could we use the film medium to subvert biopic conventions and instead immerse you in the world of Wendell Berry? Could we draw a portrait of a man in a way that understands the individual as simply a function of his place and the people around him? Rather than lens the way the world sees Wendell Berry, let us imagine the way Wendell Berry sees the world.

Cannot wait to see this, and to contribute to the Kickstarter. Berry’s “A Homecoming” was read at our wedding, and Hannah Coulter and Life Is A Miracle are in my upper echelon of all-time books. I hope this film gets into theaters, DVD, or VOD as soon as possible.

Books Nature Review

The Shepherd’s Life


Really enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir of a sheep farmer told season by season. I followed his Twitter account for a while and enjoyed the seeming simplicity the stream of sheep pics depicted. Reading this memoir, however, disabused me of any assumptions I’d made about the life of a shepherd.

Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.

But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.

Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.

I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.

Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.

Some Quotes

On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:

This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.

On physical work:

Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.

On the pull of the landscape:

The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

On how city life can shortchange us:

I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.

On functional beauty:

My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.


Photo above from James Rebanks’ Twitter account @herdyshepherd1.

Books Libraries Review

The Meaning of the Library

meaningA few interesting tidbits from The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (ed. Alice Crawford)…

In “The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print” by Andrew Pettegree, we learn the library was not always a hushed, solemn place:

The Renaissance library was a noisy place—a place for conversation and display, rather than for study and contemplation. It was only in the seventeenth century, with these new institutional collections, that the library began its long descent into silence, emerging as that new phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the library as mausoleum, a silent repository of countless unread books, its principal purpose the protection of books from the ravages of human contact.

More from Pettegree on the book as object:

The book survives because it is an object of technological genius, refined through two millennia since the Romans decided that there must be a better way of storing information than on scrolls of papyrus. The invention of printing was a critical moment of evolution, but the shape of the physical artifact was already determined, and remarkably similar to the books we own today.

In “The Library in Fiction”, Marina Warner surveys the landscape of the library in imagination, using the Epic of Gilgamesh as a case study of a cultural vessel that is at once telling a story and a story in itself:

[Gilgamesh] calls attention to itself as a written artifact, set down in stone, as described in [its] first paragraph. This self-reflectiveness reveals a crucial quality in the character of the fictive: it has always aspired, since these beginnings of literature, to monumentality. It has designs on eternity and, in order to achieve them, must turn itself from the verbal into the graphic, from the narrated story told once upon a time by someone who has since died into an object deposited for those who come after to find and read.

The library, then, emerges as a safe harbor,

an archive, enshrining those fugitive, mobile, airy webs of words that make up stories, and its existence—its survival—provides the necessary warranty for the work’s value and its imperishability. Without the library to preserve its creations, the imagination is mortal, like its protagonists.

To this point: Wendell Berry writes about the dichotomy of boomer vs. sticker, terms he borrowed from Wallace Stegner, who wrote that boomers are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street”—whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” Unlike boomers, who are often motivated by greed, stickers, Berry writes, “are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

Your local public library’s great asset is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a sticker. It’s not—or at least shouldn’t be—out to make a buck before getting out of Dodge. (I can’t imagine how that would even be possible given how dependent public libraries are on property taxes and patron usage.) It’s on that corner, that street, always. You just have to use it.

Books Life

The Ballad Of X

“It would be nice if people were to understand that science is a special exercise in perceiving the world without metaphor, and that, powerful though it is, it doesn’t function as a guide to those very large aspects of experience that can’t be perceived except through metaphor.” —Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

“If modern science is a religion, then one of its presiding deities must be Sherlock Holmes. To the modern scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always remediable. The appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of ‘the answer.’ This pursuit, however, is properly scientific only so long as the mystery is empirically or rationally solvable. When a scientist denies or belittles a mystery that cannot be solved, then he or she is no longer within the bounds of science.” —Wendell Berry, Life Is A Miracle

“My father uses a blue highlighter to remind him of the good bits he reads, but it has trouble sticking to sunsets or thunderstorms or the cries of the meadowlark in the spring. His guitar is more helpful.” —N.D. Wilson, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl

Sometimes, solving for x requires writing a song.