Thursday, February 12, 2015

Port William

When I was a child, I enjoyed imaginary cartography and would invent countries, designing maps with political, topographic, economic and social themes.

With the temperament of an Aries, I never doggedly plugged away at one invented place (as C.S. Lewis did) nor did my imagined landscapes ever become accompanied with story, as I was a typical factual male, but I remember, even yet, the joy of systematic invention, creating a cohering whole.

I was reminded by this on discovering (and correcting an oversight) that the American author, Wendell Berry, (in 2013) published a further twenty stories of the Port William membership (that I immediately ordered).

I first encountered Berry at the first Temenos conference at Dartington Hall, encountered literally, for having bought a book of his essays the day before, I found him, and his wife, Tanya, across from me at the breakfast table! I wish I had known what to say then, as it haunts me as a lost opportunity, but merely managed courteous pleasantries. I do remember feeling he was like a tree - gracious, tall and rooted.

I did not know then what I now know that with that book of essays, I was being ushered into a mental landscape that was both utterly rooted in a place and totally universal in scope.

The place was Kentucky, actual as Berry is a farmer, imagined, as Berry is one of the most gifted living writers, who has made of his place a lodestone of contemporary ills, of communal responses and potential, graced futures.

His is prolific - essays, novels, short stories, poems (and plants and animals on the farm) - but it is his fiction that I realise I most love as it explores a particular place - Port William - its society and geography - in a celebration of the possibilities of community and in a lament for what the disruptions of an ill considered modernity have made of it.

The prospect of a further twenty stories is an unalloyed joy.

What I consider most powerful in Berry is his ability to make of the fabric of normal life a heightened witness to its potential for meaning. This is where we find it, in the ordinary unfolding of a life lived well or badly.

He taught me how to recognise that one's parents never step out of the fear of parenthood, and the care of it. He has showed me the contours of grief borne and lived and honoured. He has demonstrated for the grace of dying as oneself, full in one's integrity, without trying to artificially postpone it in medical processes extended beyond their legitimacy. He has shown what love and care might mean for oneself, for others and for the land one lives within.

There is a moment in his novel, 'The Memory of Old Jack' that I think of as the most perfect in all literature. Jack has a hired hand and they fall to conflict and in their wrestling comes a moment of decisive recognition of what is required of Jack as a farmer, as a custodian of a place, and why neither he nor his protagonist yet measure up and why they must part company for Jack knows this deficiency and hears it as a call, a vocation, and his hand neither does nor possibly ever will. It is not something that can be 'explained' but requires a certain kind of dedicated attention, and love, to see and is endlessly difficult to enact. It is beautiful.

I remember once mentioning my love of his work and my American interlocutor interceded with the thought that he was 'a conservative' (obviously a 'bad thing') and I responded that I thought of him as 'conserving', of sifting everything against the measure of the health of a community (human and ecological) and if this was 'conservative' then I must be too (though it leads one in counter-intuitive directions including coruscating accountings against racism and war).

In short, like many complex and gifted writers and thinkers, he eludes our comfortable categorisations for the truth always slips beyond them.




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