I knew the name, Wendell Berry, long before I had actually read any of his work. It's interesting how people know his work. Some as an essayist (especially as an articulate advocate of sustainable farming, and in defense of community and simplicty ... to over-simplify his work), some as a novelist, some as a poet. I first sought out the poet, after hearing Paul Halley's resurrection anthem, "What Stood Will Stand." In our local public library I found the collection, "A Timbered Choir," some essays (Blessed Are the Peacemakers is surely required reading somewhere?), and novels. Where had I been all this time?
Since then, my Karen and I have enjoyed his fiction. So far as we have read, all his stories center on the fictional community of Port Williams, KY, and its environs. Whether full length novels, or short stories, they all draw from and contribute to a sense of place - geography, history, and interconnected lives. The central figure of one novel (on this vacation, it was Hannah Coulter) will be peripheral in another. This never makes them "throw away" characters in any sense. In fact, the people of Port William become more real with each telling, whether or not they are central to any given book. The characters are many-dimensioned ... just like real people, and in a way we don't understand in real life if we are not fully a part of some community. And just like life, sometimes the little stories - of a single day, of a small event, of an argument - don't fit into a particular narrative, but are an essential part of a life. And that's what the collection, Fidelity, does. Fidelity was fiction book 2 on this vacation.
I always put down a Wendell Berry novel with a longing for community. But this past week, I realized what reading him really does for me ... it makes me long to be a better person.
Sticklers for theology are likely to quibble. Pshaw. The man is a Christian author, certainly, and belongs on the bookshelf of any who read Marilynne Robinson, at least.
A week with Wendell Berry is a fine way to prepare to return to work in the weeks that run up to the holidays. So, for my reflection and yours, we'll let his be the last words today:
Eternity is not infinity.
It is not a long time.
It does not begin at the end of time.
It does not run parallel to time.
In its entirety it always was.
In its entirely it will always be.
It is entirely present always.
Wendell Berry, in Leavings
(c) 2010 Wendell Berry
(Berkely, CA, Counterpoint Press)