Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit

Guy Mendes
by Erik Reece - August/September 2011

Counting songbirds and talking about the land with legendary conservationist, farmer, and writer

>Click here to see five Wendell Berry books you must check out and more photos from this story

It is eight in the morning on the last day of the world. We are standing, six of us, alongside the county road that cuts across Wendell Berry’s farm near the small Kentucky town of Port Royal. To our right, the Kentucky River has retreated back inside its banks after a tempestuous spring. In the lower pasture, a single llama guards Wendell’s sheep against coyotes. Up on the hill to our left stands the Berrys’ traditional white farmhouse as well as several busily occupied martin houses. The birds are what bring us here each May, but radio preacher Harold Camping’s doomsday prediction that the world will end tomorrow, May 21, has lent today a kind of cosmic, I mean comic, significance. “Well,” Wendell says, wearing khaki work pants and a team sweatshirt from one of his granddaughters’ high schools, “if this is our last day, we might as well have as much fun as we can.”

“No better place to do that,” says botanist Bill Martin, and we all nod our agreement. Besides Bill, our coterie consists of wildlife biologists John Cox and Joe Guthrie, me, Wendell, and his retired neighbor, Harold Tipton. Wendell, Bill, and Harold are of one generation; John, Joe, and I are of another. Some semblance of this group has been congregating here for the past eight years. The official nature of our business is to count and identify birds—migratory warblers and summer residents. But our pursuits might better be described in terms of what Wendell calls a “scientific quest for conversation.” As much as anything, we come to hear and to tell stories.

Wendell has been telling the story of this land for nearly five decades. A few hundred yards upstream from where we have gathered stands his writing studio, an approximately sixteen-by-twenty-foot room that overlooks the river and was the subject of an early essay, “The Long-Legged House.” Sitting atop tall stilts, the “camp,” as Wendell calls the studio, slightly resembles a great blue heron standing silently on the riverbank. It has no electricity, but natural light flows in through a large window, over a long desk where Wendell has written more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and in the process has become known as a leading writer on the subjects of conservation and land stewardship. “It is a room as timely as the body,” Wendell wrote in a recent poem,

As frail, to shelter love’s eternal work,
Always unfinished, here at water’s edge,
The work of beauty, faith, and gratitude
Eternally alive in time.

In tumultuous and uncertain times, it is worth being reminded that these fine things—beauty, faith, gratitude—still lurk eternally beneath history’s dark veneer, and that an artist working alone in a room beside a river may catch a glimpse of them and render them into a lyric poem, a short story, or an essay.
Because of that work, President Obama awarded Wendell the National Humanities Medal in March at a White House ceremony. As he was presenting the award, the president told Wendell that reading his poetry had helped improve his own writing. It is an impressive remark, given that Obama is one of the best writers, along with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant, we’ve ever had as president.

For today’s excursion, we load into Wendell’s pickup and drive a few miles to Harold’s farm. A green heron is wading in the creek that runs alongside the road. John and Joe, who are the group’s best birders, identify the songs of thrashers, kingbirds, and waterthrushes as we pass through these lower reaches. Then Wendell’s reluctant truck climbs a nearly washed-out road until we pull into a field in front of a log cabin, hewed out of large oak logs in the 1800s. Wendell’s wife, Tanya, and Harold’s wife, Ida, have sent along lunch for us. Harold stows our provisions inside the cabin, and the six of us, each armed with a pair of binoculars, set off through high grass and occasional ironweed. Phoebes, towhees, and prairie warblers are singing in the trees at the edge of this meadow. Joe records their names in a small notebook. Having no destination, only this will to wander, we move slowly. What’s more, Wendell announces that in response to our culture of instant messaging, he has just founded a new cause, the Slow Communication Movement. Certainly we embody that spirit today, and it feels good. It is a more leisurely, more deliberate form of communication, and it isn’t limited to 140 characters.