First and foremost, the main reason I love Wendell Berry is because he’s my neighbor and fellow human being. I do not personally know Wendell Berry but from what I do know of him, through his vast collection of writings, the depth of respect and honor that he shows for what is right, good and true, and his commitment to practice resurrection, I do believe that 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 write words that are high, deep or wide enough 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, as 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 all of that and in the midst of the relentless cries for wisdom and help, I was gifted with the presence of many amazing guides who had courageously and stubbornly wrestled with the Truth and dared to ask similar questions. 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 at this point, his rumbling voice or his wholesome words. For me, they are one and they mingle down into the recesses of my being to wash and heal.
I cannot pretend when I heard about Wendell Berry 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. I discovered in Wendell Berry the same weakness, fragility, vulnerability, sensitivity, transparency, desperation and dependency on God, that I knew in myself and I had found in other holy guides like Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, Robert Capon and Thomas Merton. In addition, Wendell Berry and I shared a very formative experience. We were both born to farmers, grew up on farms in very rural communities, and both left our places to attend universities in the big city.
Still, the one thing that connected me most deeply 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 led to and had written about. However despite the few things that we have in common, the one glaring difference between Wendell Berry and myself, besides the fact that he is an unbelievable writer, he has lived a life of undeniable humility and integrity, the relentless passion and compassion he has for God’s handiwork, the seriousness at which he lives out the gospels, his duty to the land, his love for creation and creature and his amazing wit…is his undeniable 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, and 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, 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 ignorance and the loss of wisdom. It is a world and a person that lives with such loss, who are so busy distracting themselves from feeling these losses, that they will never make people like Wendell Berry best sellers. Because the things Wendell Berry thinks and writes about, doesn’t 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 easy, fast and gluttonous amounts of consumerism.
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 for the countless opportunities that Wendell Berry has given us to wash our blind eyes in truth, in order that we might do something other than lazily watch our lives, relationships, communities and world be devoured and destroyed from living without truth and imagination.
It should be no surprise to us that people, who have no need or desire to know the truth, are led like sheeple by influencers, industries, businesses and by those who can feed our insatiable desires for the perfectly curated consumer lifestyle. And since we had rather have our ears tickled by the world, instead of listen to men and women like Wendell Berry, we have exchanged truth for a lie and completely missed imagination’s invitation 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 and thus, we cannot see what the could be. We have been so busy “amusing ourselves to death” that we have lost not only the awareness of how bad things really are, but we have lost the desire to know the truth. Consequently, we have lost the ability to deal with our destructive ways and deadly predicament. But without truth, we remain blind to our present reality and as a result, we 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 when the elephant in the room seems to have demanded to be acknowledged, then it is now.
Because 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 have any desire for it. Likewise, we have no need or desire 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’s not valued. But when imagination is not nourished, then we forget who we are and how we naturally designed to be creators. When we forget who we are and how we are naturally designed to be creators, then 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, holders of opinion and commentators. To fill our consumer duties, we climb on top of our huge pile of consumer garbage with our preferences to offer our expert opinions, and showcase our delicate consumer appetites.
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 some easily purchased trinket found in the bowels of marketing and advertising, it 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 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 imagination.
The interesting thing about imagination is that you don’t even know that you don’t have it, until you 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 my 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.
Like Wendell Berry, I grew up on a farm and in a very rural community full of rules, requirements, competition, hard work, sports, religion, sacrifice, suffering and poverty. However, the fundamental difference between Wendell Berry 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 she was always there calling for me to come and see. 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 and in. 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 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, it’s 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 purpose was to “dominate or be dominated”, which strangely enough fit perfectly with capitalism 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 categorize 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, 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. Well…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 unapologetic passion for truth and his art of writing and storytelling.
I took a big risk returning to a place that I never felt apart of and believing 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 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 imagination. I have to admit that imagination is kind of dangerous. It makes you see, say and do some unimaginable things. I guess that’s another reason I love Wendell Berry, because he helped me see who I was and knowing I am a receiver and giver of life, love, truth and hope inspired me to look for ways that I could serve my rural community. I really don’t think its humanly possible to live in this world, love my neighbor as myself and take up a cross and follow an invisible Jesus without a rich and deep imagination or without people like Wendell Berry. 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.
I get it, 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 can’t help but imagine meeting him one day having a good laugh, enjoying a cup of tea, giving him a really big hug and watching a rainbow fill up the Kentucky sky.