Kentucky, Part Two: An Afternoon with Wendell Berry

This past Sunday from three to five, my woman-friend and I sat with Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya, drinking cold water and talking about everything from indie films to biblical scholarship.

It is inherently ironic for me to write about this on a computer, given that my introduction to Wendell Berry (and the piece of writing that inspired me to go on a Wendell-Berry-reading-rampage) was his essay "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." But as Mr. Berry once told me in a letter, we all live with a series of compromises we did not choose. So I will use this computer and this electricity to tell you the story of how I came to meet Wendell Berry, perhaps our nation's greatest creative voice in the conservation movement.

It began, as I have said, with an essay, which was followed by a book. That book was That Distant Land, which I experienced as a beautiful lament for a way of life that we are rapidly losing. It was tragic, but it was also a funny and entertaining, and as with all great books inspired a sense of connection to the author - of love, almost.

So I looked him up on the internet, found the town where he lived, and wrote him a letter.

He wrote back!

Over the next few years I read more of Wendell Berry's books. I read his collected essays, novels, and poetry, and I loved all of it. I wrote more letters, and he wrote more in return. Sometimes, I would send him a piece of my writing. He was very kind and very encouraging to me about my work, and before long, I'd decided I'd like to meet the man.

I'd been planning to visit my old friend JJ up in Lexington, and knew that Mr. Berry lived not far from there. But the timing of my visit didn't work with his availability. After a last minute, regretful phone call from the man himself (What?! "Berry" on my caller ID?!), I went ahead and made my visit to JJ, anyway.

Then a few months ago I started seeing this woman-friend of mine, who told me out of the blue that there was this essay she re-read every year by a guy named Wendell Berry called "Feminism, the Body and the Machine." CRACK! The idea lightninged down out of a cloudless sky. I would take my woman-friend to visit Wendell Berry, and then JJ, to boot.

I wrote, and Mr. Berry agreed. 

We drove up, had our aforementioned visit with JJ and family, and then drove another forty minutes to the Berry farm. Up the grade of a narrow driveway, to park behind a sensible-looking gray Oldsmobile just as Mr. Berry pulled his old, white truck onto the shoulder of the road down below.

My woman-friend and I watched as he started to climb the cracked concrete steps, with a battered briefcase in hand. His border-collie-mix dogs came first and said hello, and then Wendell Berry himself stuck out his hand to me and said, "You must be Josh." He greeted my companion and ushered us to his door, directing us ahead and toward his friendly (and whip-smart) wife, who said there was no way she was going to sit out with us in the mosquitoes. So into the kitchen we went.

The Berrys mentioned almost apologetically that their water was out, and how you never realize how much you need something until it's gone - which was a perfect segue into talking about Mr. Berry's work for the preservation of our waterways.

But we didn't talk about the preservation of our waterways. Not at first.

Instead, Mr. Berry and his wife directed a steady stream of questions at us. They asked about what we were doing and what we were hoping to do, and about where we were from and about our parents.

Eventually, we talked about them a bit more - about Mr. Berry's writings and about his thoughts on the world. We talked and we joked and we laughed, and I am not going to attempt to recreate for you that conversation, because it was just a conversation. It wasn't magical or glowing or perfect. It was four people in a country kitchen, drinking water and sharing their moments.

I will just say that my woman-friend was right, and that Wendell Berry was exactly what you'd expect: an old farmer like every other old farmer you've ever hung out with, except perhaps smarter. His wife was delightful, and they were both kind, generous, and thoughtful.

As our time wound down and I started watching the clock (Mr. Berry wore a watch, but I never once saw him glance at it), they thanked us for coming. Mr. Berry said that he was glad to hear we had friends in the area, and that he wondered whenever people drove a long ways just to see him if maybe they thought he had a trapeze act, or something. We laughed.

We laughed a lot, that visit.

As we got up to leave, I asked if it would be awkward for me to ask for a picture and they said "Yes, it would, but we're used to it." So I pulled out my camera and said that we'd talked about how it was awkward, but we really wanted a memory of my woman-friend with Mr. Berry (Mrs. Berry wasn't interested in being photographed).

He seemed to warm to that idea, and when we'd stepped out onto the porch he said that since she was beautiful and he was not that good-looking, together they'd average the picture out to something fairly attractive.

I took the picture. He told me to take another, to be sure I'd got it.

We bid goodbye to him and then the dogs, and drove away. 

Now, part of me did not want to tell you about our visit. Part of me feels the irony of writing this on a computer as a pin-prick of conscience, and knows that one reason for telling you this story is because of that brush-with-fame mentality that brings us such ugly phenomena as reality TV and People magazine.

But one thing that Wendell Berry said during our conversation that really caught me was that he referred to himself as a "small writer," and I realized that he was right. His books sell, but they are not best-sellers.

They should be.

So I decided to stifle that niggling self-conscious guilt, and encourage you to go to Wendell Berry's Amazon Page and buy a copy of one of his books. If you like novels, buy Jayber Crow. If you like thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, buy Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. If you like poetry, buy a book of his poetry (I did, but haven't finished it yet, because poetry is hard). And my woman-friend (who is reading over my shoulder as I write this) says "Don't forget short stories, because his short stories are fantastic."

Then she added that people should maybe buy my short stories, while they're at it. So, there's that.

Now, I know you may be hoping that I'm going to end this tale with the picture - the one I took of Wendell Berry and my woman-friend on the porch of his home, in the fading light of a Kentucky afternoon. I'm not, because for some reason that feels to me like it cheapens the moment.

Still... you did come all this way. So...


  1. This is just lovely, Josh. And the photo is the perfect (respectful) ending to your recap. You're the one who re-introduced me to Wendell Berry (via a blog post a long time ago with his Peace of Wild Things poem), and I've since read another book of his poetry, and, before commenting tonight, I read his Feminism essay (wow!) and it makes me smile to hear he is every bit as perceptive in person as he comes across in his writing.

    I don't know if you've had a chance to read Richard Beck's blog post today, but in a roundabout way, his thoughts on shaming and success (as defined in American culture) seem like they go hand-in-hand with the Feminism essay.

    I'm glad you had a chance to meet Mr. Berry and really appreciate the write-up.

    1. Thanks so much, Barb.

      I posted the link to the feminism thing because my woman-friend told me I should, because people need to read it. I just read your comment aloud to her, and she seemed pretty happy about it :-)

      Happy to share the love. Cheers.


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