First and foremost, the main reason I love Wendell Berry is because he is my neighbor, my Christian brother and my fellow human being. I do not personally know Wendell Berry but from what I do know of him through his vast collection of writings, I have a deep respect and honor for his pursuit of what is right, good and true, and his commitment to practice resurrection. I believe Wendell Berry is an incredibly humble human being through whom God’s truth and wisdom abundantly flows, and has flowed for decades.
When I think about Wendell Berry’s influence, it would be hard to find the words to describe what he has meant to creation and to generations of creatures both great and small. I don’t remember exactly how, who, what, when or where I was introduced to Wendell Berry’s writings. But having since read many of his books, I have been more than enlightened by this witness of truth, I have been encouraged, inspired and nourished in the deepest parts of my being.
When I decided to read Wendell Berry’s The Art of Commonplace, I was neck deep in what I will call my Chrysalis Stage. My head hadn’t officially popped off but I was definitely a fine gooey mush. Let’s just say that I was tired of wrestling with God, and I had finally surrendered to his mysterious and divine metamorphosis. Though I might have appeared dead, when my insides were being turned inside out, I was very much alive and I was actively breathing, listening and asking lots and lots of questions. I guess somewhere in the darkness that my relentless cries for wisdom and help were heard and I was gifted with the presence of many amazing guides who had courageously and stubbornly wrestled with the Truth and were transformed. It is here in this very sacred place that I was introduced to Wendell Berry.
I don’t know if you have ever read Wendell Berry or have heard him speak but his voice sounds like a country creek and, at the same time, like a thunder that announces a much needed summer rain. It just so happens that the words ridding on such a voice are not just living water to a thirsty soul, but they feel like a home cooked supper to a very tired and hungry body. Quite frankly, I am not sure what brings me more comfort, his slow and steady voice or his wholesome words. For me, they are beautifully intertwined and they mingle down into the recesses of my being to wash and heal.
When I heard about Wendell Berry, I cannot say that I was wanting to hear what an old southern white man had to say about anything, But somewhere in my cocoon there must have been a crack that allowed this poet’s words to pass through and gift me with truth, and I discovered in Wendell Berry the same weakness, fragility, vulnerability, sensitivity, transparency, desperation and dependency on God that I had recognized in myself and I had found in other holy guides like Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, Robert Capon and Thomas Merton.
However in Wendell Berry I found something a bit more familiar than many of my other favorite truth tellers. Not only were Wendell Berry and I born 1 day and 40 years apart, we were both born to farmers, grew up on farms in very rural communities, and both left our native hills to attend universities in the big city.
Still, the one thing that instantly drew me to Wendell Berry was that he and I had arrived at the same truth and understanding about health, and how it was interconnected, interrelated and interdependent to all things. My earliest recorded quotes from Wendell Berry are truths about health that I was also divinely given and inspired to write about. And though, I have been deeply encouraged to discover Wendell Berry and I hold many things in common besides divine truths, like our rural raisings, tall bodies, the virtue of stubbornness and being confessing contrarians, the glaring differences between us are vast and clear.
Unlike myself, Wendell Berry is an unbelievable writer. In fact, he has lived a life of undeniable humility and integrity with a relentless passion and compassion for God’s handiwork. His writings display an unapologetic seriousness at which he lives out the gospels, cares for the land, loves creation and creature and shares his gift of imagination. And… it is this gift of imagination that has now flowed for many decades through a man who planted his life in the dirt of his childhood. Furthermore, it is this gift of imagination that has made Wendell Berry not just a seer but a resurrector, restorer and redeemer.
Unfortunately, not many people have heard about Wendell Berry. Even in rural America and amongst the people he writes most about and to, Wendell Berry is not well known. Perhaps, the reasons being precisely what I experienced growing up and what Wendell Berry has written about his whole life-the loss of imagination, the loss of affection, the loss of truth, the loss of confessed ignorance, the loss of wisdom and the loss of memory. Due to such a great number of losses, we have become blind, dumb and displaced scavengers searching for pleasures, information, entertainment, power, comfort and control
In this world, when a person wants nothing more than to be spoon-fed mass doses of entertainment and pleasure, they have no place, patience or need for imagination or even an appetite for it. Even more so, they have no need or want for the countless opportunities that Wendell Berry gives us to wash our blind eyes in truth, in order that we can see how and why our lives, relationships, communities and world are being devoured and destroyed by men and women void of truth, love and imagination.
One of the many reasons why people like Wendell Berry will never be best sellers is because the things Wendell Berry thinks and writes about do not have space to land and take root in a world where everything must be heavily processed, artificially flavored, jacked up with heavy and obscene doses of visual stimulation and regurgitated to the most liquified form to ensure an easy, fast, convenient and gluttonous amount of profitable consumption.
It should be no surprise to us that people, who have no need or desire to know the truth, are led by influencers, experts, industries, businesses and by those who can feed our insatiable desires for the perfectly curated consumer lifestyle. So, in wanting our ears tickled by the world, we will not hear truth flowing through men women like Wendell Berry who use the gift of imagination to invite us to “Come and See.”
There is no doubt that most of us have lost the ability to see our lives, communities, relationships, land, farms, waters and even our own bodies for what they have become. We have been so busy “amusing ourselves to death” that we have lost not only the sight of how bad things really are, but we have lost the desire to see how good we could be. As a result, we have lost the ability to deal with our destructive ways and deadly predicament and without the eyes of Truth, we will remain blind to our present reality and we will continue to have no space for imagination to help us see how we can make things new and restore health, vitality, beauty and life.
Yet…if there was ever time that we need to see the truth, then it is now when we have reached epidemic levels of diet-related disease and sickness, addiction, anxiety, disconnection, loneliness, environmental harm and apathy.
Whether we realize it or not, we have built a world that does not need imagination nor does it want it. Likewise, we have no need or want for individuals who use imagination to think, feel, read, ponder, and search for the truth. A world built on, by and for consumerism, only needs consumers who believe that they have the right to consume whatever they want, when they want and how they want, regardless of how it affects their bodies, spirits, hearts, minds, neighbors, communities and world. Consumers do not need imagination to consume, we just need to know how to open our mouths and move our finger around.
But this is precisely the reason why we are eating ourselves to death and why we had rather listen to Kim Kardashian than Wendell Berry or waste the day on Facebook and Tiktok than visit with a friend or read a book. The reason imagination is not valued is because it is not nourished. The reason imagination is not nourished is because it is not valued. But when imagination is not nourished, then we forget who we are and how we naturally designed to be Truth and Love.
When we forget who we are and how we are naturally designed to be, then we forget how we are designed to live and we become consumers who do nothing more than consume. In being, living and moving as consumers, we believe with all our heart, mind, soul and strength that we are entitled to be reviewers, commentators and opinionated. In order to do our consumer duties, we climb on top of our growing pile of consumer garbage with our preferences to offer our expert opinions, showcase our delicate consumer appetites and curate our consumer lifestyles.
It should go without saying that consumers will have a hard time having a conversation if they have done nothing but comment, and it is going to be very difficult for commentating consumers to understand poets, storytellers, innovators, thinkers, writers and people full of imagination like Wendell Berry. Even more so, it’s going to be impossible for them to know themselves as anything but consumers and to know a God, who creates out of imagination, who redeems out of imagination, who resurrects out of imagination, who makes everything new with imagination and who writes the greatest and most imaginative story on earth.
Even though consumerism would lead you to believe that imagination is used in the production, market and sell of shiny trinkets flowing out of the bowels of advertising, imagination is the holiest of gifts given to lift up creatures and creation to see through the eyes of God. Only the men and women who have chosen to be and live out of holy poverty have the desire, design and space for such a divine gift. Imagination is rare gift but it is absolutely necessary to have any hope of resurrecting and restoring a world that we have broken and destroyed due to our lack of imagination. If there is one thing that calls us home, that gives us hope for a better future, heals our wounds and provides a broad place where we can jump to take the leap of faith, then it is the imagination of Truth and Love.
The interesting thing about imagination is that you don’t know that you don’t have it until you do have it. I know what living without imagination feels like, looks like, sounds like, smells like and taste like. I also know how quickly and easily the gift of imagination can be buried when you are told to keep your head down and just do what you are told. I confess that I have lived a large part of my life without imagination and I did what I was told to do, obeyed what I was told to obey, felt how I was told to feel and think how I was told to think. I will also confess, that my lack of imagination was what kept me blind, dumb and disconnected from the Way, the Truth and the Life that someone like Wendell Berry most certainly follows and does his best to imitate.
Even though, like Wendell Berry, I grew up on a farm and in a very rural community- the fundamental difference between us is that I grew up a person void of imagination. Therefore, I grew up not realizing the implications or understanding of how traumatic and superficial a life void of imagination would be and how deeply it had affected me. But looking back, it is easy to see myself growing up lonely, scared, fragmented, disconnected, fearful and very realistic. Without imagination, I lived on a farm but was unable to look past the blood, sweat and tears to see a future for me there. In a real way, I was disconnected from the joys of creation, while living right in the midst of it. I couldn’t imagine a relationship with the visible or invisible or how nature was always there calling for me to come out and play. Without the gift of imagination, I was deaf to nature’s voice, and blind to her beauty, strength, charm and grace.
Unaware of nature and her desperate attempts to get my attention, I was also unaware of my place, position and purpose in my community. Perhaps, it was because I lived in a rural community that I left every day to go to school, attend church, go shopping and visit with friends and family. I may have lived in the country but I did not, on many levels and in many ways, live my life there. Truth is that I didn’t experience and therefore, I couldn’t imagine a place where I not only lived in, but I worked, worshipped and learned from. So as I grew up watching TV and living on a farm, about the only thing that I could imagine was leaving and not coming back. The world television offered me seemed to be a lot more fun and desirable than living in the country.
If a rural community is determined and driven as much by capitalism as the city, then it is easy to find yourself living by the same philosophy and mantras and wanting the same things. I learned rather early from the world that my job was to “dominate or be dominated” and this fit perfectly with capitalism’s mantra “consume or be consumed.” To say that I grew up competing is a gross understatement. Not only was my whole mentality built on competition but my entire being was built on comparing myself to whoever and whatever, and figuring out what it took to win.
Competition combined with my lack of imagination allowed me to judge myself and others very quickly by what I saw. Thus I could never really see past a very superficial level, which means that I could only see the place where I grew up for what it was and not for what it could be, and so I saw myself for what I was and not for who I could be. There was no magic or mystery because I only saw the external. In being a dominate or be dominated/ consume or be consumed person, I had no choice but to leave the people who I grew up with and place where I grew up to head for greener pastures, not knowing that I was desperately trying to fill an infinite need for dreams, hopes, desires, wanting, longings, belonging and imagination.
In 1992, I left the farm with absolutely no plans of coming back and …it wasn’t until 27 years later and only after I was completely undone, my head popped off and I was transformed into this amazing butterfly who now believes that I can create a space to resurrect an understanding and practice of health that brings rest and restoration to creation and it’s creatures, and do it all on my family’s farm. I don’t even know if I would have connected health to agriculture if not for Wendell Berry’s passion for truth and his art of writing and storytelling.
Certainly, it was a risk returning to a place that I had never really known and believe in dreams that seem completely impossible. But I see something that I have never seen before in me and in this place, because I have imagination. I see the responsibility and duty to create a space that helps human beings remember who they are and how they are designed to give and receive the gift of love and truth with imagination. I have to admit that imagination is kind of dangerous. It makes you see, say and do some unimaginable things.
I guess another reason why I love Wendell Berry is because he helped me to remember who I was and how I am naturally designed to be a receiver and giver of life, love, truth and hope, which inspired me to look for ways that I could serve my rural community. I really don’t think it is humanly possible to live in this world, love my neighbor as myself and take up a cross and follow an invisible Jesus without a high, wide, deep and rich imagination and without people who have high, wide, deep and rich imaginations. I know I couldn’t have created the space to receive and open this amazing gift of imagination that I have been divinely given, if not for Wendell Berry.
Without a doubt, someone with a lack of imagination might read this and not get it, just like they might read a couple of Wendell Berry books and not see what only imagination can see. But one thing is clear, imagination is not for the faint of heart but for those who have been broken by life and have been brought to new life by a God-Man with holes in his wrist, who tells us that we must become like children to see what only children can see- a world full of possibility, hope, love, truth, forgiveness, talking dogs, tea parties, rainbows, flowers and really long hugs.
I really do love Wendell Berry, because he is receiver and giver of love and truth and he uses the gift of imagination to give love and truth through poems, stories, essays, friendships, families, his farm, his rural community, his native land and life. I have never met Wendell Berry but I cannot help but imagine meeting him one day having a good laugh, enjoying a cup of tea, giving him a really big hug and sitting together watching the butterflies dance in the beautiful Kentucky sky.