Wendell Berry’s Mother

To My Mother

by Wendell Berry

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I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed. 

~     ~     ~

I received a keeper Mother’s Day card in the mail yesterday.  Here’s one sentence from it:

I honor you for the hard work, blood, sweat and tears

that you poured into me as a child and want you to know

that these have been small seeds planted in my life;

but they have reaped a bounty of blessings on me.

This same son wrote a Mother’s Day note when we had been reading Milton.  It began

To my precious,

I love you more than false Unas

or a damnéd sprite

a sentiment that made me laugh (you have to read the Faerie Queen to get it) and rejoice both.

Buying the Farm

The Christian doctrine
of the communion of the saints
is simple, really.
All it says is
that once you buy the farm
you still live on the farm.
All it says is
that those who have gone before us
are still with us.
All it says is
that past generations
still count
and must be taken into account.
In other words,
we’re all in this together.
All of us.

~ Mitch Finley
Whispers of Love

The Second World War in Color


photo credit: Imperial War Museum
my favorite photo:  a RAF pilot reading
John Buchan’s Greenmantle while getting a haircut
(I see the book, my son sees the Spitfire!)

Sniffing around our public library, I found The Second World War in Color a companion book to a documentary by the same name.  Initially, I thought I’d just flip through the book and return it to the library.  The pictures, however, were compelling.  Respect demanded more than a flip-through.  Then the diary entries hooked me; soon I started on the title page and read through the book. 

As in this blog entry, the photographs and the diary entries in the book have no relation to one another.

The diary entries and official announcements come from combatants and civilians from most of the nations involved in WWII.  A Russian surgeon writes:

Even those who disliked and dread Stalin have learned to trust him.  Propaganda?  Yes and No.  He has succeeded in transforming the country, though often by savage methods.

A British pilot, killed on his first flight:

The most terrible aspects of Nazism is its system of education, of driving in instead of leading out, and putting the state about all things spiritual.  And so I have been fighting.

The notes of Theodor Morell (condensed here), Adolf Hitler’s personal physician on 20.7.44, the day of the explosion set by Lt. Col. von Stauffenberg which killed four officers, interested me so soon after watching the movie Valkyrie.  Hitler went on the radio later explaning that his survival was ‘a confirmation of my assignment from Providence to carry on my life’s goal as I have done hitherto’. 

Blood pressure [evening after explosion] 165-170
Blister, burns, contusions, open flesh wounds 

Photo credit show me a man reading and I’m smitten

Ivor Rowberry’s letter to his mother, written in the event of his death, won the Best Letter Written by a Member of the Armed Forces during the Second World War contest.  Oh. My. Heart.  Yet the wry humor about grammatical tenses! It begins:

Dear Mom,
   Usually when I write a letter it is very much overdue, and I make every effort to get it away quickly.  This letter, however, is different.  It is a letter that I hoped you would never recieve, as it is verification of that terse, black-edged card which you received some time ago, and which has caused you so much grief.  It is because of this grief that I wrote this letter, and by the time you have finished reading it I hope that it has done some good, and that I have not written it in vain.  It is very difficult to write now of future things in the past tense, so I am returning to the present.

Photo credit British soldier and Italian women doing wash

I particularly liked the glimpse of community (perhaps membership, à la Wendell Berry…in microcosm?) between British liberator and the liberated people of Belgium in this letter dated 9-29-1944

All these people had only a few rationed, foul cigarettes and had not seen chocolate for more than 4 years.  How pleased they are when we give them a bar!  They give us all they can, we give them all we can, there is no mention of money at all, and it is all quite a Christian affair.  For four months now, money has just not meant a thing to me; I rather like it.

Because of this book, I learned of the Imperial War Museum Collections, another place to visit if I ever make it to London.

Membership and Sudoku

I have been loving the discussion and good fun, while dipping my oar in over at The Hannah Coulter Book Club.

The current entry at the HC Book Club is about membership.  Some people are put off by that term and prefer community.  How does “membership” work in modern life?  Thoughts have been careening around in my head as I’ve worked this afternoon.   

Now it is evening; I’m a bit lost since I finished my Christmas Sudoku book last night.  I love, love, love to puzzle out a difficult Sudoku before I sleep. 

The key, I found, to finishing difficult puzzles is to put the numbers together in a “community.”  When I first played Sudoku, I would try to find all the twos until I could go no further.  Looking for groups of numbers changed my approach.  For example, if you have a box (or row…or column) with four numbers in it, figure out the five numbers missing.  Say: 1,3,4,6,9.  Looking for that combination of numbers in every cell gets better results in a shorter time that looking for single ones, single threes, single fours, single sixes and single nines. 

There’s a lesson lurking underneath the surface.

When we are alone it is harder to find each other, harder to see where we fit in. 

Or perhaps it is just time to turn off the light and go to sleep!

Alert! New Wendell Berry!!

I just ordered a brand new book – a children’s book – by Wendell Berry: Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World because the opening paragraph was just too wonderful.

Her name was Peromyscus leucopus, but she did not know it. I think it had been a long time since the mice around Port William spoke English, let alone Latin.  Her language was a dialect of Mouse, a tongue for which we humans have never developed a vocabulary or a grammar.  Because I don’t know her name in Mouse, I will call her Whitefoot. 

Isn’t it just….delicious?  I have been a “serial clicker” this morning – clicking Suprise Me! in the Amazon Reader to see more, no matter the random order.

One more paragraph! 

Her name fits because her four small feet and all the underside of her were a pure, clean white.  Her coat, above, was a reddish brindly tan.  She had a graceful tail, a set of long, elegant whiskers, perfect ever-listening ears, a fastidious nose, and black profound eyes shining with sight. She took a small, feminine pleasure in being beautiful.

Contented sigh….

I. Love. Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry’s Remembering

 

Do you ever think about how your own, personal context affects your response to a book you have read? 

A book which didn’t interest you ten years ago, before you experienced that particular loss, may completely engage you today.  Conversely, a book which kidnapped you twenty years ago, rendering you incapacitated for all but the most necessary life functions until you finished the book, may produce yawns of indifference if you were to pick it up today.

My context in reading Wendell Berry includes many conversations with friends and family about an agrarian lifestyle and end-of-life medical issues. It most definitely includes The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book which has had an impact on our family’s thinking.  My point is that I’m in step with some of the messages Berry is delivering, which makes him that more dear to me.

Also, I am so grateful for the order in which I’ve read Wendell Berry’s fiction.  I believe it has made a difference.  I started with That Distant Land: The Collected Stories, which introduced me to the primary residents in Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky.  I learned the back story of so many families. Reading this first provided the context into which all the other books fit.    

Remembering follows the course of one day in Andy Catlett’s life.  There’s not much action: he takes a walk, he gives a speech, he gets on a plane and comes home.  Interspersed in the narrative are remembrances of the people who formed and molded Andy, contemplations on the twists and turns his life has taken.  As in most everything Berry writes, there is a focus not on what we have gained with technology, but what we have lost.  Farming methods are especially important.

What I love about Wendell Berry’s fiction:

1.  Sense of community.  Berry loves the word “membership” as a sense of people belonging to one another.  No one is done harvesting until everyone’s harvest is in.  Working, joking, relaxing, eating are all communal activities.  There is a connectedness that is often missing in other fiction.  “How long have you been here?” “Seventy-four years.” “But you’re not seventy-four?” “No,” Isaac said, and laughed, “my father is seventy-four.  We came here the year he was born.”  [I think that We is profound.]

2.  Realistic characters.  Berry’s protagonists–strong, masculine men and stalwart women–are never perfect.  Nathan Coulter is a tireless worker, but he is impatient.  Loveable Burley Coulter will charm you, but avoids making commitments.

3.  Descriptions of sex.  Got your attention, eh?  When Wendell Berry writes about sex, it is appropriate, achingly beautiful and sparse.  My single friend pointed this out to me.  “But to know you love somebody, and to feel his desire falling over you like a warm rain, touching you everywhere, is to have a kind of light.”  “He would come to me as my guest, and I would be his welcomer.” “His hand knew her as a man knows his homeland.”  

4. Biblical concepts naturally integrated into prose.  As a pastor’s daughter, I grew up reading and listening to stories which had an obligatory gospel message tacked on to the last chapter.  That is where I stopped reading.  Not because I hated the gospel, but because it was artless.  Berry’s biblical allusions abound, but they are often so subtle I don’t catch them until the second or third reading. “I thought of all the times I’d worked in that field, hurrying to get through, to get to a better place, and it had been there all the time.  I can’t say I’ve always lived by what I learned that day-I wish I had-but I’ve never forgot.” “What?” Andy says.  “That it was there all the time.” “What?” “Redemption,” Mat says, and laughs. “A little flowing stream.”  

5. A sense of place.   This is what most reviewers mention first.  Respect for the land, ties to the land, geography all matter very much to Mr. Berry.  ” In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.  We all know what that beautiful shore is.  It is Port William with all its loved ones come home alive.”

6. Turns of phrase.  Wendell Berry is a master wordsmith.  When Andy met his wife to be: “He can see nothing wrong with her.  She has closed entirely the little assayer’s office that he runs in his mind.” “…observing scrupulously the etiquette of strangers”  An airplane engine: “a ludicrous hooferaw of noise and fire”

More of my thoughts on Wendell Berry.

Re-member

This was our membership.  Burley called it that.  He loved to call it that. […]  The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given.  There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up.  What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing.  Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come.  In the long, anxious work of the tobacco harvest none of us considered that we were finished until everybody was finished.

The membership includes the dead.  […]

What will be remembered, Andy Catlett, when we are gone?  What will finally become of this lineage of people who have been members one of another?  I don’t know.  And yet their names and their faces, what they did and said, are not gone, are not “the past,” but still are present to me, and I give thanks.

 Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

When we are members of one another, remembering involves re-membering.

When one of us is cut down, it’s as if we have been dis-membered. 

Remember.

Literally, Be mindful again.

100 Species Challenge

Quote from Homeschooling the Doctorate:

Someone I was recently reading (I cannot remember who–Berry? Wirzba?)
lamented the decline of local knowledge among modern westerners. “Most
people,” whoever-it-was said, “cannot recognize even a hundred plant
species within a mile of their home.”

Can you recognize a hundred plant species that are living within a mile of your home?  Sarah has designed The 100 Species Challenge and it has got my juices going.  As I said in her comments section, I am tired of responding to inquiries about plants with, “I don’t know…I’m just not any good at remembering names of plants.”  This is a great way to grow in knowledge of my locality. 

And since I have a plant specialist living one mile away (my daughter-in-law) I have no excuse.  I love the pace Sarah is planning: two new species a week.  Oh, people, I am getting EXCITED! 

Here are the rules:

The 100-Species Challenge

1. Participants should include a copy of these rules and a link to this entry in their initial blog post about the challenge. I [Sarah] will make a sidebar list of anyone who notifies me that they are participating in the Challenge.

2. Participants
should keep a list of all plant species they can name, either by common
or scientific name, that are living within walking distance of the
participant’s home. The list should be numbered, and should appear in
every blog entry about the challenge, or in a sidebar.

3. Participants
are encouraged to give detailed information about the plants they can
name in the first post in which that plant appears.
My [Sarah’s] format
will be as follows: the numbered list, with plants making their first
appearance on the list in bold; each plant making its first appearance
will then have a photograph taken by me, where possible, a list of
information I already knew about the plant, and a list of information I
learned subsequent to starting this challenge, and a list of
information I’d like to know. (See below for an example.) This format
is not obligatory, however, and participants can adapt this portion of
the challenge to their needs and desires.

4. Participants are encouraged to make it possible for visitors to their blog to find easily all 100-Species-Challenge blog posts.
This can be done either by tagging these posts, by ending every post on
the challenge with a link to your previous post on the challenge, or by
some method which surpasses my technological ability and creativity.

5. Participants
may post pictures of plants they are unable to identify, or are unable
to identify with precision. They should not include these plants in the
numbered list until they are able to identify it with relative
precision. Each participant shall determine the level of precision that
is acceptable to her; however, being able to distinguish between plants
that have different common names should be a bare minimum.

6. Different
varieties of the same species shall not count as different entries
(e.g., Celebrity Tomato and Roma Tomato should not be separate
entries); however, different species which share a common name be
separate if the participant is able to distinguish between them (e.g.,
camillia japonica and camillia sassanqua if the participant can distinguish the two–“camillia” if not).

7. Participants may take as long as they like to complete the challenge.  You
can make it as quick or as detailed a project as you like.  I’m
planning to blog a minimum of two plants per week, complete with
pictures and descriptions as below, which could take me up to a year. 
But you can do it in whatever level of detail you like.

I know it is wicked of me to bring a plant topic around to books, but those of you that have stuck around MagistraMater know how big a fan I am of Wendell Berry.  And you can guess how delighted I am to be reminded of Norman Wirzba.  His book on the Sabbath is on my wish list at PBS. 

You know, don’t let the number 100 frighten you.  Can you name twenty species?  Wouldn’t ten be a good start?

Oh, yay! 

**Addendum**

In another of those lovely intersections of interest, I read “The Life of Trees” in the current online edition of Books and Culture.  Alan Jacobs cites Garrison Keillor: “he came to see that his ignorance of trees was emblematic of  his difficulties [in writing a novel]”.  GK’s characters “leaned against vague vegetation.”   Ayup.

In this short essay on books about trees are some fascinating new discoveries by scientists at Humboldt State (my husband’s alma mater) who have climbed to the top of the redwoods to study the ecosystem of the canopies.  I learned three forms of arbor  (arboreal, arboriphile and arboriphobic) and was introduced to a froe (a tool for cleaving wood by splitting it along the grain).   I recommend this article.

How To Be a Poet

I found this poem at the Poetry Foundation site. 

How To Be A Poet
by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

i

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill–more of each
than you have–inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity.  Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

ii

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

iii

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Hannah Coulter

When I received Hannah Coulter a few weeks ago, I determined to read it slowly. I limited myself to one chapter at a time, but often skimmed the previous highlights, just for the pure pleasure. 

As I read, I kept thinking “the folks would love this”, [fill in thirty names] will want to read this.  This is a perfect book to read aloud to Curt and Collin during our long Sunday drives to church.  At 186 pages it is a small enough book to give to readers who would be intimidated by an epic tome.

Hannah Coulter is the quiet telling of a woman’s tale, a tale of sorrow, goodness, love, hurt, work, holding and letting go.  It is Ecclesiastes 3 manifested in one woman from Kentucky.  “This is my story, my giving of thanks.”   Wendell Berry gives her a voice which is modulated in a pleasing tone.  She speaks of her pains and her joys with honesty, clarity, and wisdom. 

Here is a necklace of sentences from the book.

And so I learned about grief, and about the absence and emptiness that for a long time make grief unforgettable.

“It [Hannah’s beauty] could get you an early start on a miserable life.”

When he came to work in the morning, Wheeler was like a drawn bow–lean and tense and entirely aimed at whatever he had to do.

Books were a dependable pleasure.

The days were separate and suspended, like plants in hanging pots.

Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad.

We had made it past hard changes, and all of us were changed, but we were together.

What could be more heavenly than to have desire and satisfaction in the same room?

“Hannah, my old girl, we’re going to live right on.”

“Margaret, my good Margaret, we’re going to live right on.”

He said it only when he knew that living right on was going to be hard.

The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. 

We sat down to it [Thanksgiving dinner], the four of us, like stray pieces of several puzzles.

There we were at a great crisis in our lives, and it had to be, it could only be, dealt with as an ordinary thing.

After she left, the house slowly filled up with silence.  

Hannah Coulter.