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Filtering by Tag: Wendell Berry

Book Review: Wendell Berry and the Given Life

Guest Blogger

Conventional wisdom suggests that reading to your children benefits them in myriad ways: it stimulates language and learning centers of the brain, creates a bond between parents and children, and emphasizes the value of books and reading. I recently learned that this practice is beneficial from birth, even before the infant can truly discriminate sounds. Further, it doesn't matter so much what you read, because just the act of reading aloud works on the areas of bonding and stimulates brain development. Given this, I made an unconventional choice while reading to my three-week old son, choosing portions of Wendell Berry and the Given Life, the recent book by Ragan Sutterfield. Choosing to read aloud forced me, as one might expect, to go a little slower, but I'm not sure that Berry (or Sutterfield) would recommend anything less.

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Space for Affection

Christina Lee

7140209563_cb9bc71f5e_z I’m armed with 409 and paper towels, wiping down the desks in my classroom. A few have accumulated clandestine graffiti, the kind made by etching the top layer of wood laminate with the metal tip of a mechanical pencil.

It’s very polite graffiti. So far, I’ve found and excised the following: “I love me.” “Tim is fat.” “The end.” “Andrew + ---” (the name is scratched out).

As I scrub, I remember the students who’ve filled these desks—growing so fast, full of so much, trying their best (usually) to pay attention to my lessons while also trying to make sense of their emotions and their bodies and their world.

(I worry for whoever carved “The End.” It seems so ominous. But who knows? Maybe it’s a ska band.)

Near the back of the room, I find another one: a heart tucked into a desk’s inner edge. This one is deeper, more visible. It must have taken weeks to carve. I know I should be annoyed, but as I wipe out the graphite, I feel an overwhelming sense of affection for my students.

In 2001, Wendell Berry gave an NEA lecture called “It Turns on Affection.” In his own quiet, thoughtful way, Berry wages war on “the industrialization of everything” and on corporations seeking “the highest possible profit, ignoring the side effects,” devastating the land and the farming industry.

Instead of simply seeking profit, he argues, we must cultivate affection for the land and those who farm it. Affection, in his mind, is a powerful tool, one we discount too quickly.  “Affection can teach us,” he writes, “if we grant appropriate standing to affection.”

I’m not a farmer (in fact, I’m shocked my grocery-store basil plant has made it through the week), but as a teacher, Berry’s words resonate with me.

My first day back at school, our staff is trained to use a program that promises to produce “data-driven lessons.”

We’re told that after we administer a two-hour, web-based assessment, we’ll be able to generate dozens of reports displaying our students’ deficiencies. Our trainer suggests—straight faced— that if we’re not happy with a student’s performance, we should tell our junior highers, “I just don’t think your data is reflective of your ability.”

As Berry says, “Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time.”

Berry’s lecture calls attention to the great harm done when “people of land economies are reduced to statistical numerals,” and I see the same danger in our schools, which often default to a corporate model, merely dubbing “test scores” over the word “profit.”

Remember “No Child Left Behind,” the law mandating that 100% of students score grade-level-proficient on state tests by 2014—even students with learning disabilities, even non-English-speaking students, even students grappling with severe trauma or family dysfunction? Schools were told that if they didn’t reach that 100% mark, they’d face restructuring and loss of funding.

What a perfect illustration of Berry’s words: “They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”

Even after NCLB failed, data is still revered in school settings. It’s universally understood that data finishes conversations, and data definitely trumps affection. Go against this norm and you’ll only embarrass yourself.

It’s right after our data-driven training that I end up cleaning the desks. After I’m done, I sit down to rest in the one marked “The End.” I try to imagine who will fill this seat tomorrow and how that student is feeling about school right now. I try to remember how I felt starting junior high.

"By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members…with whom we share our place," says Berry. "By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection."

I know it’s necessary to assess my students’ skill levels. And I know I will work very hard every day this year to ensure that my students reach their data-driven goals.

But to have any real impact on my students’ lives (measurable or otherwise), I must leave space beside the data for “informed, practical, and practiced affection.” As Berry says, “It is by imagination that knowledge is carried to the heart.” 

Through the Window - Part 2: The Open Portal and the Call to Prayer

Rebecca Spears


Read Part I

- Great trees, outspreading and upright, apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars they build in air tier after tier a timbered choir . . . Wendell Berry, “The Timbered Choir”

Writers and artists often use windows as a source of inspiration. Georgia O’Keeffe has a series of brilliant paintings that offer unique views of New York City from her perch in the Shelton building, where she lived with Alfred Stieglitz for twelve years in the 1920s and 1930s.

While a window can visually frame a scene, it can also frame sounds, letting us hear them in ways we hadn’t heard before. Wendell Berry’s window poems are a result of his placing a writing desk in front of a huge forty-paned window. For him, the great trees not only inspired him visually in their “weightless grace,” but also for their song, which left “a blessing on this place.”

On Easter morning two years ago, the bells of St. Sebastian’s Church in Salzburg rang and rang at sunrise, startling me from sleep. Briskly stirred to consciousness, I checked my watch. It was only six a.m. when an entire chorus of bells called me to the open casement window of my room at the Hotel Amadeus. All over the city, bells pealed from many churches, some tolling a loud bass, others chiming the middle tones, and some reaching the high, clear notes, closer to a soprano voice. What sounded like discord at first, soon shaped itself into celebratory clanging.

In the sprawling metropolis that I call home, I don’t ever recall hearing so many bells at once. My place in the Houston Heights is near a small Episcopal chapel, and occasionally, I will hear its bells on a Sunday morning, if I’m outdoors. Because Houston is the most air-conditioned city in the country, we keep our windows closed for many months of the year. I suspect that while I’m in my home, I miss a lot of curious sounds because of the air-conditioning—snippets of conversations from people walking by, sirens, soft rains, barking dogs, freeway traffic.

The call to celebrate Easter two years ago in Salzburg is one I won’t soon forget; it was entirely extraordinary. While Salzburgers are accustomed to hearing the bells all year long, at six a.m., noon, and six p.m., I was a visitor brought to the open windows, portals that animated me and gladdened my heart. The call to prayer felt like something that I had been missing all my life. I can still summon the bells in my imagination, and they still hearten me.

Art Matters. Let’s Save Ruminate.

Daniel Bowman, Jr.

Ruminate photo for Oct 20  

Here at Relief, we are ever thankful for the art-and-faith community that sustains us: that large but loosely affiliated group of people around the world who value excellence in writing and the arts, and who also are followers of Christ. This is our tribe, and together we’re shaping the landscapes of literature and belief.

We plan our attendance at the Festival of Faith and Writing or the Glen Workshop a year or more in advance. We zealously await new books by Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Kathleen Norris, or others whose works are the cornerstones of our reading lives.

And we read, publish in, blog for, work at, or otherwise engage art-and-faith journals such as Image, Books & Culture, Rock & Sling, Saint Katherine Review…and of course the beautiful Ruminate. Here is where emerging voices—are own among them—find homes alongside award-winning writers.

Some of these journals are housed at universities, or are part of organizations that can help financially sustain their work. Others are run independently, operating entirely on the goodwill of savvy and passionate volunteers.

*                *                *

Ruminate has been independent since its founding. Its staff have day jobs and often do their work at the journal on nights and weekends, between family and professional commitments. These dear friends and colleagues have found that this model is no longer sustainable.

That’s where we come in. We can provide balance to numbers that are dramatically skewed.

Did you know that Ruminate receives and carefully reads over 5,000 submissions a year? How many of those submitters offer any support in return? Well, the journal has around 500 subscribers, a number of which are libraries, along with four monthly donors and about fifteen one-time donors per year.

It’s clear that the vast majority who send to Ruminate—who expect and receive excellent attention to our work—are not doing our part in the relationship. Now is our chance to change that trend.

They’ve launched a fundraising campaign, and they need every one of us in the art-and-faith community to give something. A one-time gift of $30 or $60 is doable for most of us, even if it requires a bit of sacrifice. If you can give a little more, please consider doing it. They’ve already raised over $13,000.00 but still have a long way to go. If they cannot meet this financial goal, Ruminate will be forced to close its doors in 2016.

We’re all in this together. If one art-and-faith journal goes out, we’re all much worse for it. Ruminate knows how badly our world needs the comfort and challenge of excellent faith-infused art. Let’s show them how much we love what they do.

Please take a moment to read this note from Ruminate’s Editor-in-Chief Brianna Van Dyke.

Then click here to do your part.

Please spread the word in your own art-and-faith circles by sharing these links. Thank you!

Wendell Berry and the Prophetic Voice

Rebecca Spears

26 Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.  “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

 One thing I am passionate about is reducing my carbon footprint in the world, and I want not only other individuals to reduce their footprints, but I also want our society to change its course before we irreparably harm the earth. Many voices are urging us to do so. One voice in particular belongs to Wendell Berry, whom Bill McKibben and others have called a prophet. In a 2013 interview, Bill Moyers named Berry a visionary, who is “calling for immediate action to end industrial farming and return to the sustainable farming methods of years past.” But more than this, Berry audaciously tells us we need to return to an agrarian society, not only for environmental reasons, but also for social, moral, and spiritual reasons. I am with him on this.

Historically, we don’t treat our prophets well, especially the ones we don’t want to hear. Yet sometimes with all the bickering that goes on in the public sphere, it’s a monumental task to figure out whom we should trust in the first place. Even among the ancients, prophets’ words often went unheeded and the people suffered for it. It’s a bad habit we have.

When we hear prophet, the first thing most of us imagine is someone divinely inspired, who reveals God’s intentions to the people. We’re stuck on that definition, and we’re afraid to call anyone else a prophet because the bar appears too high. Often we don’t designate a person “prophetic” until after a great calamity—then we realize we should have listened to the prophet, and we should have taken action. Remember the individuals who tried to show us that we were headed toward the 9/11 tragedy or toward the recent collapse of our financial institutions? We didn’t recognize these voices until after the fact. Could we think of prophet in another way, as a person with extraordinary insight, an inspired person? Would we be more apt to listen to a prophet then, or more willing to act?

Early prophets of environmental stewardship, including Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, tried to tell us about the cost of industrial, quick-fix solutions to our problems. Wendell Berry, I think, speaks with the clearest voice today of one who understands not only the physical, but the spiritual cost of earth’s demise. He has said that it is important for people like him, “who have no power,” to speak about the madness of our industrial lifestyles because most politicians and highly positioned officials cannot and will not speak so plainly. He calls his way “leadership from the bottom,” and he is passionate that all of us start doing what is right for our earth: “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?” Quite simply, if we see a problem, we need to start doing something about it. That is all Berry asks of us, in the same way that other prophets have asked us to change our ways.