On a bright morning in November, a group of students and professors at Indiana University, Bloomington convened in the Maple Room at the Indiana Memorial Union. They’d been brought together by the poet and IU Professor of Creative Writing, Maurice Manning, to talk with one of Manning’s own former teachers, Wendell Berry.
Born in 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky, Wendell Berry first came to literary notice in the 1960s. Since then, he’s published fourteen books of fiction, twenty-three books of poetry, and twenty-eight books of nonfiction. A leading voice in the climate change movement, Berry is an avid advocate for environmental stewardship. He comes to Indiana University via the fall 2010 themester, “sustain.ability: Thriving on a Small Planet.”
‘They Gave Me A New Way Of Looking At Life In This World.’
Maurice Manning opened the conversation by asking Wendell Berry about his friend and inspiration, Harlan Hubbard. Hubbard, who died in 1988, was a painter, musician and avid reader whom Berry knew well. Berry described the years Hubbard lived with his wife, Anna, on the Mississippi River.
“They read together and played music together every day,” he said. They ate food they grew themselves, painted, made music, and existed together, simply and lovingly.”They gave me a new way of looking at life in this world,” he said. “Anna was the elegant one. Harlan was rough around the edges; but he struck deep.”
Now Hubbard’s paintings are in the collections of museums around the nation, but Berry said they’re hard to keep track of. “He traded them for sacks of flour,” he said. “He sold one for five dollars to a postman.” Hubbard’s belief in “the art of living,” as Berry put it, made his an exemplary life.
“After he died, in 1988, I decided I’d spend a year thinking about him.” That year became defined by extensive research, including investigation into a bank vault where Hubbard had stored stacks of watercolors and thousands of typed journal entries which provided insight into moods that varied from deep depression to exultation over beauty such everyday beauty as a patch of ripening blackberries. Through the process of becoming closer to Hubbard after his death, Berry said, Hubbard became “one of my ancestors. He is everpresent to me.”
The Mad Farmer: Apprehending Reality
Despite his extensive body of work in fiction and nonfiction, Berry is perhaps best known as a poet. A member of the group in the Maple Room, Professor Emeritus Scott Russell Sanders (with whom Berry would be speaking later that day), asked Berry about his “Mad Farmer Poems.” The Mad Farmer, Berry explained, is a character who embodies rebelliousness and impulsiveness. The Mad Farmer gets drunk on communion wine. The Mad Farmer plows up a golf course in California. The Mad Farmer impregnates the minister’s wife.
Only in recent years, though, has Berry begun to see any sort of continuity in his work. “Mine has been a life guided by inspiration,” he said. He recalled a friend of his parents’ who once told him, “You’ve chosen to be an oddity.” Perhaps, Berry reflected, the Mad Farmer was a way to accommodate that. “William Carlos Williams said, ‘Only the imagination is real.’ By that I think he means: We apprehend reality.”
On Climate Change
At last the moment came to discuss the problem of climate change. “I think ‘climate change’ is the wrong name for the problem,” Berry said, forever a master of words. “The problem is reall two problems: waste and greed.” In Berry’s opinion, the issue of ecological conservation has more to do with appreciating the world “as it is, and as it will never be again.”
“Somewhere at the heart of this problem is the business of being present,” he said. He practices ‘being present’ when he writes. “The way I do it is, I don’t look at screens. I don’t think your pupils ought to change in diameter when you look up from your work.”
Berry described his own relationship to nature. He goes outdoors every day: Winters, he writes in the morning, when it’s coldest, and works outdoors in the afternoons. Summers he works outdoors in the mornings, before it gets hot, and writes in the afternoons. “Last summer, I spent all summer thinking about butterflies. Here’s this extraordinary beauty. It’s everywhere. And it’s life-saving. To unplug your ears and hear an oriole? It’s life-saving. And I’m talking about practicality. This extraordinary lustre is commonplace.”
- Find out more about Indiana University’s fall 2010 themester, “sustain.ability: Thriving on a Small Planet.“
- Take a look at Berry’s book of nonfiction, Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work, and at his well-known Mad Farmer Poems.
Wendell Berry reads from his work on Tuesday, November 9 and Thursday, November 11. Both lectures take place in Rawles Hall, Room 100 at 7:30 p.m. As part of the Fall 2010 Themester speaker and panel series, Berry converses with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, moderated by Scott Russell Sanders, on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. in Ballantine 013 on the Bloomington campus.
Additionally, the semi-staged version of Hymnody of Earth, a song cycle written in 1991 with music by Malcolm Dalglish and text by Wendell Berry, is performed by members of the Bloomington community with Berry on Friday, Nov. 12 at 8:00 p.m. at the Buskirk Chumley Theater.