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Episode #110: An Agrarian Poet

As I write this, I am surrounded by stacks of books on my dining room table, because I want to introduce you to one of my favorite books in the whole world and one of my favorite authors.

The author's name is Wendell Berry. He is a prolific writer and has been a poet since he was a young man. He is in his mid to late eighties, I believe.

He lives in his hometown in Kentucky, and it serves as the model for the town he has created in his works of fiction, both novels and short stories. He and his wife, Tanya, had a good sized family, and they are now great grandparents!

Wendell Berry has been given every prestigious award there is. He has been honored greatly within his lifetime. But he has really been a non-conformist, walking to the beat of his own drum, which is probably why I like him so much.

As I mentioned, he is the author of one of my favorite books of all time: Hannah Coulter.

I'm going to share a description of Wendell Berry's life of writing and what he has done from the cover of a Library of America on the Port William novels and stories:

For more than fifty years, in eight novels and forty-two short stories, Wendell Berry (b. 1934) has created an indelible portrait of rural America through the lens of Port William, Kentucky, one of the most fully imagined places in American literature. The river town and its environs are home to generations of Coulters, Catletts, Feltners, and other families collectively known as the Membership, women and men whose stories evoke the earthbound pleasures and spiritual richness of what Berry has called the three-dimensional life, a time before industrial agriculture, pervasive technology, and unrestrained consumerism began to unravel the deep bonds of community that once sustained small-town America.

Wendell Berry is considered an agrarian poet. He, of course, is very known as a poet, but he also creates a love and an admiration, an embracing of the agrarian life. When other people are trying to get away from it all, he embraces it.

In Hannah Coulter, I wanted to share what Berry says through Hannah as she is talking to her husband. She talks about how their kids went away to college, and they really lost them from being a part of the farm community. She says this,

"We both wanted to send them to college because we felt we owed it to them. It just never occurred to either of us that we would lose them that way. The way of education leads away from home. That is what we learned from our children's education. The big idea of education is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up you have got to move on. I didn't see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn't. I didn't want it to be true."

Her husband said, "Don't complain. Don't complain."

And she said, "In the same way he used to tell the boys, 'Don't cuss the weather.' Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it. Nathan understood this better than I did. Like several of his one sentence conversations, this one stuck in my head and finally changed it. The change came too late maybe but it turned my mind inside out like a sock."

He is such a brilliant writer! Sometimes when I am reading his books, I just gasp because you think how could someone write this well? Other than Jane Austen! How could someone write this well?

They go on to talk about how to raise your children and how to create contentment.

Some of you have heard me talk about Gene Stratton Porter and her books. She talks about this very same thing. About this idea of not raising children who have been raised in an agrarian place with this idea that the excitement and wonders are in the big cities but to raise them with the understanding that where they live is heaven. Even making it a little bit of heaven. Putting in beauty and improvements, creating a home they want to be. One that is efficient and well run and beautifully kept.

Hannah goes on as they're talking: "You mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks. I'm not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions."

Hannah Coulter is my personal favorite of all the Wendell Berry books I've read. I am certainly not an expert on him, but I have read quite a few. He is kind of like eating potato chips: you can't eat just one!

But as you read about this town and this area and all the interpersonal relationships that these people have which one of the gentlemen termed "The Membership".

I love that idea, because "The Membership" to me is really what the Body of Christ was meant to be where we watch over each other and take care of each other. We do life together. That is what Wendell Berry weaves into his imaginary stories of this imaginary place of Port William, Kentucky.

You just fall in love with these people. Uncle Burley is one of my favorite characters in his writings. Then there are generations. Andy Catlett who later writes down a lot of the stores from some of the older people. They tell him the stories and he records them. Just the love and the fun that was in the community, but also the pain and the hardship that was in the community, because farming and living in a rural community is tough. It is doing hard things a lot.

It is very important for our children to know of this world and possibly to want to join this type of a community which is rarely featured.

I remember when I was growing up and meeting someone who was from Kansas and saying, "Oh, like Dorothy who was in the Wizard of Oz?" I actually repent of saying that! I wasn't a Christian, and I was an ignoramus. But the point is that when you are raised in an urban culture, you don't always have an understanding of the beauty and the simplicity of the rural lifestyle.

And Wendell Berry is the agrarian poet as I said. He has been awarded by so many agrarian organizations and societies.

I was actually interested to find out that he worked as an editor for Rodale Press, but then he got fired because he thought he wasn't just for organic farmers but for all small farmers. He said, "I never made a good employee." Which I totally get that! He is such an independent person who thinks deeply.

He has been a college professor pretty much all of his life until he became quite old. He taught at the University of Kentucky and places like Stanford and filled in at other schools. He has done poet in residence at prestigious schools. But his heart is in farming.

He and his wife have been raising sheep for the majority of their adult lives. They've lived in the country on the family farm then buying other land that it bordered so that he has built a really beautiful farm life in Kentucky.

I wanted to read something adorable! There is a book that has been published, "The Port William Stories Volume 1" which spans from the Civil War to World War II. There are a bunch of short stories, and it contains Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, A World Lost, A Place on Earth, and a bunch of short stories.

One of the short stories I love is called "A Consent." It's about Ptolemy Proudfoot. He was a farmer, a huge, huge guy. Then there was a school teacher, Miss Minnie. It is the darling story of their courtship and marriage.

I love this description of Miss Minnie:

"When she was hardly more than a girl, Miss Minnie had gone away to a teacher's college and prepared herself to teach by learning many cunning methods which she never afterward used. For Miss Minnie loved children and she loved books and she taught merely by introducing the one to the other."

I love that! "She taught by introducing the one to the other." The children and the books.

Which is exactly what Charlotte Mason said as well. Get yourself out of the way! The teacher should exert no undue influence in a child's life, but she should leave the child alone with books. Which is basically to say don't make school out of books. Just make your children lovers of books just by reading to them and making them readers.

So I will not belabor this. I will probably do more podcasts about his books, but I cannot commend them enough to you!

Reach your arm out, and get yourself a Wendell Berry book! I can't stop reading him. I read him over and over again. The beauty, the craftsmanship, the kindness, the loving touch he gives to each of his characters and the place he creates in our minds and hearts that make you want to live there yourself and create that kingdom in your life!

In years past, Jan Karon would go on book tours, and people would say to her, "We want to live in Mitford! We want to live where you live!" And she would say, "Mitford is where you make it. You create your community where you are."

That is one of Wendell Berry's messages: the love of the agrarian culture, the love of community and fellowship. He will influence you. He will change your life. I know he has changed mine.

Books mentioned in this episode:

  1. Hannah Coulter

  2. Jayber Crow

  3. That Distant Land

  4. A Place in Time

  5. A Place on Earth

  6. Nathan Coulter

  7. Andy Catlett: Early Travels

  8. A World Lost

I have a request, would you send a Homeschool Made Simple episode to a friend? When you help me get the word out about what I'm doing here, I appreciate it so much.

Until next time, remember: Jesus' commandments are not burdensome; what He calls you to do, He will enable you to do.


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