Wendell Berry in Madison

Wendell Berry gave a reading in Madison yesterday. He was the keynote speaker for the Wisconsin Book Festival. Taking his cue from the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s program called “Making it Home,” Berry read his story of the same name. It is the tale of a soldier returning home from World War II and walking the last miles. Berry is a poet, essayist, and writer of fiction who has a great deal to say about the relationship between people and the land. In his introduction to the story, he spoke of the destruction of WWII, and of how in the years following 1945, a parallel destruction took place in the American landscape with the rise of industrialized agriculture and wanton removal of our natural resources.

Berry’s writing is suffused with a sense of the sacred; he has a keen eye for the landscape and for the landscape of the interior self. His language has the cadence and imagery of the biblical text. And occasionally there is a direct or close paraphrase. For example, the last sentences of the story he read are “Honey, run yonder to the house. Tell your granny to set on another plate. For we have our own that was gone and has come again.” That last is of course an allusion to the words of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son

In the question and answer period that followed, Berry stressed again the central themes of his life’s work, the importance of place, of the relationship between the people and the land, and the notion that communities are not virtual or digital, but rather created and maintained in place. That is something of theological import, given the long struggle within Christianity over the nature of community and the idea that the body of Christ transcends the local and particular.

Berry is a profound thinker and a beautiful writer and hearing him read brings the people and the land of the Kentucky hills to life.