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The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry - Selected and Introduced by Paul Kingsnorth

Sat, 04/29/2017 - 4:03pm by ballybeg

Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbors. Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less. Enjoy it more. (from the introduction)

Two of my all-time favorite authors have collaborated to produce what one, Paul Kingsnorth, considers a selection of the best of the other, Wendell Berry, into one volume, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. It is necessarily limited, containing none of Berry’s poetry or fiction and only 31 of his hundreds of essays. Kingsnorth hoped to represent the best of Berry’s writing and thinking over the last five decades, as an introduction to his work and an impetus to read more of it and, to that end, I believe the book succeeds. Berry is the venerable man of letters, with an earthy wisdom, unashamed traditionalism, incisive intelligence, and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth. If you have never read Wendell Berry, or have only read selectively, and don’t anticipate reading through all of his work, this collection is a splendid representation of the scope of his talent and profound understanding of the world. Paul Kingsnorth says, “I recommend reading him now. It would be the equivalent of reading Thoreau or Emerson when they were still alive and writing.”

Now in his eighties, Berry still lives and farms in the Kentucky hill country he moved back to in the 1960s, five miles from where he, his parents, and grandparents were born and raised. He left behind a promising career in NYC to return home. All his stories, poetry, and essays, all of his deep and insightful thinking about the land and how to preserve it, have been cultivated by his devotion to this place. He writes:

When I have thought of the welfare of the earth, the problems of its health and preservation, the care of its life, I have had this place before me, the part representing the whole more vividly and accurately, making clearer and more pressing demands, than any idea of the whole. When I have thought of kindness or cruelty, weariness or exuberance, devotion or betrayal, carelessness or care, doggedness or awkwardness or grace, I have had in my mind’s eye the men and women of this place, their faces and gestures and movements. p.3

Berry defies categorization in simple terms, challenges traditional labels, and embodies contradictions. He is deeply immersed in the old ways of the pre-industrial, agrarian tradition of the South, but trained in prestigious, urban universities around the world. He is extremely prolific and productive, while taking the time to plow with horses and to write with a pencil and pad of paper. He lives quietly and simply on a rural hillside, while challenging the political, economic and cultural trends of our times. He is religiously committed to his family and farm, but has risked arrest in numerous protests of strip-mining in Kentucky. He sides repeatedly with the people who have no power and the land which has no voice, yet is never maudlin or sentimental. Wendell Berry speaks truth to power, and truth to complacency, like no one else today.

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