Published in 1990 by the legendary North Point Press, this is a poetic novel of despair, hope, and the redemptive power of work. After losing his hand in an accident, Andy Catlett confronts an agronomist whose surreal vision can see only industrial farming. This vision is powerfully contrasted with that of modest Amish farmers content to live outside the pressures brought by capitalist postindustrial progress, and by working the land to keep “away the three great evils, boredom, vice, and need.”
As Andy's perspective filters through his anger over his loss and the harsh city of San Francisco surrounding him, he begins to remember: the people and places that wait 2,000 miles away in his Kentucky home, the comfort he knew as a farmer, and his symbiotic relationship to the soil. Andy laments the modern shift away from the love of the land, even as he begins to accept his own changed relationship to the world. Wendell Berry's continued fascination with the power of memory continues in this treasured novel set in 1976.
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It is dark. He does not know where he is. And then he sees pale light from the street soaking in above the drawn drapes. It is not a light to see by, but only makes the darkness visible. He has slept, to his surprise, but has wakened in the same unease that kept him sleepless long after he went to bed and that remained with him in dream.
In his dream a great causeway had been built across the creek valley where he lives, the heavy roadbed and its supports a materialized obliviousness to his house and barn that stood belittled nearby, as if great Distance itself had come to occupy that place. Bulldozers pushed and trampled the loosened, disformed, denuded earth, working it like dough toward some new shape entirely human-conceived. The place was already unrecognizable except for the small house and barn destined to be enrubbled with all the rest that had been there. Watching, Andy knew that all the last remnants of old forest, the chief beauty and dignity of that place, were now fallen and gone. The flowers that had bloomed in the shade of the standing groves in the spring were gone. The birds were gone. The fields and their names, the farmsteads and the neighbors were gone; the graveyards and the names of the dead, all gone.
So near to the causeway as to be almost under it stood a concrete building of long, windowless, humming corridors, in which workers were passing. In the depths of the building, in a blank-walled, whitely lighted room, a fat man sat behind a desk, eating the living flesh of his own forearm, all the while making a speech in a tone of pleading reasonableness:
"I have to do this. I am starving. Three meals a day are not enough. To get more, it would be necessary to contract unsavory foreign alliances. I cannot afford to quit. I realize that this is not ideal. But I am not an idealist. I am not a naive dreamer. I am constrained by my circumstances to be a hard-headed realist. Neighbors? I have no neighbors. Friends? I have no friends. This is my independence. This is my victory."
The causeway, the labyrinthine building, the house and barn, all the diminished, naked valley were dim in midday dusk, the dingy light too weak to cast a shadow.
An old terror, learned long ago from his time, returned to Andy now and shook him — not the terror of the end of the world, but of the end, simply, of all he knew and loved, which would then exist only in his knowing, the little creature of his memory, and so he would be forced to collaborate willy-nilly in the dominance of human intention over the world.
But he knew that he was already implicated, already one of the guilty, for as he looked upon that destroyed place, which once had been his home, he realized that even as he mourned it he could not remember it as it was; he could find in his spirit no vision of anything it ever was that it ever might be again. For he himself had been diminished. He himself was disformed and naked, a mere physical quantity, its existence verifiable by an ache. That is what woke him.
* * *
As he lies in bed in the dark room, only his mind is awake, his body feelingless and still. Leaving the dream, as a place to which it may return again, his mind resumes a thoughtless, exhausted wakefulness, dumbly pained. The unhanded, healed stump of his right wrist lies in the dark beside him. For the time, he is refusing to think about it, though that refusal costs him all thought.
But thought comes. His body twitches and stirs on its own, alerts itself to the strangeness of bed and room, and absence lives again at the end of his arm.
The feel of the bed, the smell of the room seem compounded of the strangeness of all the strangers who have slept there: salesmen, company officers, solitary travelers, who have entered, shut the door, set down their bags, and stood, weary and silent, afraid to speak, even to themselves, their own names. A man could go so far from home, he thinks, that his own name would become unspeakable by him, unanswerable by anyone, so that if he dared to speak it, it would escape him utterly, a bird out an open window, leaving him untongued in some boundless amplitude of mere absence.
It is as though his name is now a secret, a small vital organ pulsing its life away. For now he has come to a place where no one knows his name but himself, where nobody but himself knows where he is. He is still going away on the far side of the boundary he crossed when he came up the ramp at the airport and saw the young woman whose name and description he carried in a letter in his pocket. She stood amid the crowd, looking for him this way and that around the heads and shoulders of the unloading passengers who hurried past, dividing around her. She saw him and smiled, anxiety leaving her face. She was from the college where, in two hours, he was to speak.
"Pardon me. Are you Andrew Catlett?"
He looked at her as if surprised to be so accosted, and stepped past.
* * *
He had come to San Francisco from an agriculture conference held that day at a great university of the Midwest. The meeting had taken place in a low building of cast concrete, of which the second story was much wider than the first, as if an architect unable to draw a curve had attempted to design a large mushroom. The walls inside were also of concrete, left unfinished. In contrast to the rude walls, all the appointments of the interior were luxurious: the stair rails of polished mahogany, the draperies richly woven, the carpets so bright and soft that the conferees moving over them made no sound, as if treading on clouds. The second-floor lobby, surrounded by meeting rooms, was furnished with deep-cushioned chairs and sofas; a table with a white cloth bore a coffee urn and an assortment of pastries. The effect of these rich furnishings, the silence of the carpet, and the correspondingly hushed voices of the conferees standing in groups was that of bated anticipation; the room seemed not to have accepted those who were in it, but to remain expectant of someone more important who perhaps was not going to attend.
As the time of the meeting drew near, the conferees moved to the white-clothed table, set down their empty cups, and singly and in groups straggled into the meeting room. Andy, who did not know anyone, took a seat high up in the back. The room was a large theater, with many rows of seats steeply pitched toward a dais at the front. On the dais was a lectern with a microphone in front of a huge blank screen. The room was windowless, lighted with bright, cold light. The fan of a distant air conditioner whispered through the walls.
Having come in just at starting time from the clear warm morning outdoors, Andy felt suddenly submerged, as if he were sitting on the bottom of an aquarium. That his ears were still tightly stopped from his plane flight seemed to corroborate this impression with physical evidence. It was as though he had changed, not only elements, but worlds. Where was he only this morning?
* * *
He got up in the dark, the whole country asleep around him in the stillness at four o'clock. He went to the barn, did the feeding and milking, and returned to the house where Flora had his breakfast waiting. He went in sheepishly, for they had quarreled the night before and he had not succeeded in shedding the blame for it, not even in his own eyes. But she said "Good morning" brightly, and took the milk bucket from him with a smile.
He wanted impulsively to tell her how slow and awkward he still felt, choring with one hand, but he held himself back. He had told her, Heaven knew, often enough, for much of his thought now had to do with the comparison of times, as if he were condemned forever to measure the difference between his life when he was whole and his life now. He told her, instead, "Good morning," and then, reaching toward her as she turned away, "Listen, Flora, I hate to quarrel with you."
She turned back, smiling, determined, he saw, to be superior to the possibility of yet another quarrel. "Then why do you do it?"
He had hoped, vaguely, for some reconciliation between them. And so he did not say as he might have said, not in justice, but to prolong the contest, the contact, "Well, why do you quarrel with me?" There was not time for that, and he felt hollowed out by his anger of the night before. He said, "Wait. Listen. Are the children up?"
"Well, listen. I don't like to leave, feeling the way I do."
She answered him in the lighthearted, practical tone that always infuriated him, as she undoubtedly knew. "When the time comes to leave you have to leave, I suppose, and how you feel doesn't matter. How do you feel?"
Again the anger flashed in him that would leave him burnt and empty in his soul. "You know goddamned well how I feel."
He had the satisfaction of seeing her lips tighten. She was straining the milk, not looking at him.
"Oh," she said. "Well, if you say so. It's lovely that you understand me so well."
"I feel like I'm no account to anybody."
"Well, unfortunately, that's not for you to decide. Have you asked me? Have you asked the children? Have you asked Nathan or Henry or Wheeler or your mother?"
He started to raise his right forearm in a gesture, as if the hand were still attached, and then caught himself and put the hook behind him. "Why should you want to live with me?"
Even in his anger he knew that he was pleading with her, hoping to be surprised by a better reason than he knew.
"Oh, I guess because I'm used to you. Sort of."
She had put the strained milk into the refrigerator and now was at the sink, rinsing the bucket, wiping it out with the dishrag.
"Flora, you don't love me. You never have."
She stood looking at him, holding the dishrag in her hand. And then she flung it hard into his face. He can still feel the lick, as if it is burned onto his skin. Lying in the strange room in the dark, he can feel it. And he can see the look she gave him afterwards, surprised at herself, perhaps, as he certainly had been, but determined too. He saw that he had met finality in her, and he understood it. She was done with him as he had become. There was nothing for him to do but change his clothes and go.
She did not look at him again. She did not leave the kitchen. She did not call out to him any word at all. And he said nothing to her. When he shut the door behind him, the children were not awake.
His anger flickers in him again. She will not have him as he is, and he will not crawl back to her through the needle's eye of her demand.
Now he is outside whatever held them together. He feels the vastness of that exterior, but it does not excite him as he wishes. Would there be in all the boundlessness of it another woman, perhaps more than one other, another kind of life, for such a man as himself?
It does not excite him. It is only where he is.
* * *
A man with somewhat disheveled hair and a worried look came to the rostrum, removed the worried look from his face as if suddenly aware that he stood in public, and smiled warmly at the clock on the back wall of the room.
"We appear at last to have reached the beginning of our conference, "'The Future of the American Food System.'"
He introduced himself as a member of the Department of Agricultural Economics and one of the organizers of the conference. He expressed his deep conviction of the importance of the conference in this our Bicentennial Year, quoting, in support, words of a high agricultural official to the effect that "man can live without petroleum, but not without food." He said that he supposed we had to have some pertroleum in order to produce food but that, anyhow, we could not eat petroleum. He said that he was an old farm boy himself, and understood from firsthand experience the problems of America's food producers and also their indispensable contribution to the economy of our country and indeed of the world.
He then said that he felt highly honored to present the first speaker of the day, the high agricultural official just quoted, in fact, who was an old farm boy who had made good, by becoming, first, a professor of agriculture, and then a great administrator in a great college of agriculture, and then the chairman of the board of a great agribusiness firm, and then an agricultural official, and then a high agricultural official.
The professor sat down. The high official stood and, amid much respectful applause, made his way to the rostrum. His dark suit was as unwrinkled as if made of steel. He was faultlessly groomed. He was a man completely in charge of his face, on which not the slightest smile or frown might appear without his permission. Or he was completely in charge of his face except for his left eye, which, while his right eye looked at his notes or the audience, gazed about on its own.
"Thank you," he said. "I have thought that perhaps it is inappropriate for me to speak at the beginning of this conference, the title of which implies that there may be some question or problem about the future of the American food system, and I can only reassure you: The American food system is going to continue to be, because it is, one of the wonders of the modern world."
Andy, sitting in the back row with Flora's lick angry on his face, shrugged it away in response to pain from another adversary. He took from his jacket pocket a small notebook, opened it, and wrote, "Am Fd Syst. Wndr of mdrn wrld." After months of enforced practice, his left hand was finally learning to write at moderate speed a script that was moderately legible. But it was still a child's script that he wrote, bearing not much resemblance to the work of his late right hand. That had flowed like flight almost, looping and turning without his consciousness, as if by intelligence innate in itself. This goes by rude twists and angles, with unexpected jerks, the hand responding grudgingly to his orders, seized with little fits of reluctance.
"I thank my stars," the high official said, "that I grew up a farm boy, and had the opportunity to work closely with my father. I learned some things then that I have never forgotten, and that have stood me in good stead.
"But let's face it. Those days are gone, and their passing is not to be regretted. A lot of you here are old farm boys, and you know what I mean. You knew what it was to look all day at the north end of a south-bound horse. You knew what it was to walk that outhouse path on a zero night. Your mothers and sisters knew what it was to stand over a hot woodstove when it was a hundred degrees, and no air conditioning.
"I, for one, don't want to go back to those days. I'm glad you can't turn back the clock. I want to live in a changing, growing, dynamic society. I want to go forward with progress into a better future."
Andy wrote, "Lvd wrk. No rtrn. Lvs ftr."
"When I was a boy," the high official said, "forty-five percent of our people were on the farm. Now we have reduced that to about four percent. Millions of people have been released from farmwork to make automobiles and TV sets and plumbing fixtures — in other words, to make this the greatest industrial nation the world has ever seen. Millions of people have been freed from groveling in the earth so that they can now pursue the finer things of life.
"And the four percent left on the farm live better than the forty-five percent ever hoped to live. This four percent we may think of as the permanent staff of this great food production machine that is the farms and fields of America. These people have adapted to the fact that American agriculture is big business. They are as savvy financially as bankers. And they are enjoying the amenities of life — color TV, automobiles, indoor toilets, vacations in Florida or Arizona.
"Oh, I know there are some trade-offs involved in this. There is some breakdown in the old family unit we used to have. The communities are not what they were. I see some small businesses closing down. Farmers have fewer neighbors than they used to have. We have some problems with soil erosion and water shortages and chemical pollution. But that's the price of progress.
"Let me tell you something. This is economics we're talking about. And the basic law of economics is: Adapt or die. Get big or get out. Sure, not everybody is going to make it. But then, not everybody is supposed to make it. This is the way a dynamic free-market economy works. This is the American system.
"I'm telling you one of the greatest success stories you have ever listened to. The American farmer is now feeding himself and seventy other people. And he can feed the world. He has put in the hands of our government the most powerful weapon it has ever held. I am talking about food."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Remembering"
Copyright © 2008 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
..."that an argument was losing did not mean that it should not be made."Wendell Berry's novels haunt me. Although somewhat choppy, his style has a simple eloquence. I do not necessarily agree with all of his premises or conclusions, but he does make me think. Berry's arguments do seem to be losing in our day and age, but I for one am glad that he is making them.Most of all, I am intrigued by his emphasis on place, because I was born and raised among those who valued place in a similar way. There are times when I think he puts too much stock in the concept of place as it relates to this world, since I am fully persuaded that home and place can never be fully realized in this world - the very longing for it points us to another world.But in this novel he does reveal a bit more of his "theology" of place, particularly at the end, which is reminiscent of Lewis' real Narnia within Narnia, and which even more importantly ties into the types and shadows with which this world overflows. The longing and reverence for home - for a place in this world - is strong; properly viewed and prioritized, it is an important tie which binds us to our covenant community as Christians (which has similarities what Berry calls "the membership" of the farming community in Port William).I am grateful for the boundary lines fallen in pleasant places which the Lord has graciously given in my life, with their attendant love and commitment to home, family, and community. My community now is miles removed from the community where I grew up, but it is not altogether different, and for that I am also grateful. The world Berry portrays is one which I have glimpsed in the lives of grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins...and I realize that my children have little context for that world. I think I will ask them to read some of Berry's Port William canon to give a better idea of what has gone into the making of me, and consequently, the making of them.
Great Read. Poetic and moving. At points the writing seemed to be a bit choppy, but enjoyable none-the-less.
This book is lyrical and haunting. It's a bit difficult to read at first, but well worth the effort. It resonates with hope and with the awareness of an eternity that exists alongside our time-bound life.
Although this short novel can stand on its own, it gains richness from Mr. Berry's other novels. Beautifully crafted and a pleasure to experience. If you've read some of Mr. Berry and enjoyed it, I'm sure this is an additional pearl for you. Wonderful images on nearly every page from a master storyteller.