When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
Wendell Berry is, by now, something of a folk hero. He’s long been beloved for his many works of fiction, admired for his lovely Frostian verse, and revered for his querulous, poignant essays, but in recent years he has emerged as a cultural luminary: suddenly he’s a big-wig, a dignitary, a celebrity, even. He’s collected prizes from the President of the United States and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a slew of other organizations and universities. He’s received public love from celebrities who play characters that have become folk heros themselves, while notables like Robert Redford and Terrence Malick have referenced his work as key inspirations.
The Seer is a celebration of the people who once upon a time we called “salt of the earth” but who we remember now as “backward” caricatures, and it’s a eulogy for the lives they once lived, the lives upon which our country was built.He’s been called “the prophetic American voice of our day” and the “best essayist now working in America,” and, perhaps most impressively, he’s been compared to Thoreau, one of the quintessential voices in American letters.
But for all that, Berry is no typical celebrity. He rarely appears in public, refuses to interpret or explain his own work, and largely prefers to be defined by the community in which he lives rather than his own individualism. In all of his work, no matter the medium, he is resolute in the expression of his conviction that small places like his hometown of Port Royal, Kentucky—places that are home to people whose own voices have largely been silenced—are worthy of respect and honor. To appropriate a useful cliché, he’s a voice for the people. And it’s this characteristic in which The Seer, a new documentary about Berry, is most interested.
Produced and directed by Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn, and executive produced by Redford and Malick, The Seer is less a biographical study of Berry the man than an illustration of things that he values: the beauty and importance of his place and other places like it, and the people who live in it, care for it, and love it. In fact, the film’s footage is largely made up of video interviews with Berry’s friends and fellow natives of Port Royal, each of whom seems to view Berry as a kind of comrade in arms—a sympathizer—rather than a celebrity. And from early on in the film, it’s clear that Berry loves these people, that he values them. In a sense, the film feels like an elegy to people like them and the places they inhabit, a mournful recognition that we have forgotten them too easily. “The great cultural failure that we have made here in the United States,” he says midway through the film, “is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own character, their own needs and demands in use . . . for nowhere. And of course there’s a penalty for that and of course we’re paying the penalty.”
There’s an ecological cost, to be sure, and Berry specifically mentions soil erosion and polluted rivers and toxicity, each of which he has castigated for decades. But there is also a very real human cost: towns that are dying, farms that are failing, and communities that are fading. This is not a problem unique to Kentucky or to the South or to farming communities. It’s an American problem, and it’s a problem of our own making, Berry argues.
For Berry, our great mistake was to confuse “progress” with goodness. But he’s been arguing this point since the 1970s, when then Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, issued his famous decree that farmers should “adapt or die” because the future of American farming was in commercialization. Butz argued that farmers should “get big or get out,” and in the wake of that claim many small farmers set out to grow big by adapting to the tenets of modern agricultural industrialization. Unfortunately, instead of getting big, as Butz claimed they would, most of our small farms simply died, and the communities that were built around them subsequently faded. Today these towns are very nearly ghost towns, inhabited by the remnants, folks too poor or too old or too stubborn to move.
One of the film’s best moment occurs when it presents footage from a 1977 Berry v. Butz debate about the future of American agrarianism. In his obsession with the utilitarian end of the farm, Berry claims, Butz is arguing about quantities and not values. “A farmer,” Berry insists during the debate, “is not . . . a component of a production machine.” He argues that a traditional farmer is a farmer who is independent, who cares for his land and passes it down to others who will do the same.
The values of the traditional farmer, he tells Butz, are independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, liberty, family, marriage, and neighborliness. And, Berry contends, the more the traditional farmer depends on technologies to be successful, the less these values are protected in the public square. A farm ought to concern itself first with the pleasure, pride, and goodness of the place itself (that is, with his farm), and only after that with profit, which is an inherently urban and industrial value. The more a farming community is concerned with profits, the less it can concern itself with the traditional values. There is just no way they can be equally yoked, Berry insists. And because farming communities depend on those traditional values to survive, the more a community like Port Royal depends on profits, the closer it is to dissolution. Perhaps this is the kind of observation that has led so many smart people to call Berry a prophet.
But The Seer is obviously not the first time this theme has appeared in Berry’s work, and the penalty he references in the film is also found throughout his fiction and essays. I am particularly reminded of Jayber Crow, his beloved 2000 novel about a young man named Jonah Crow who, orphaned and lonely, wanders into the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, where he eventually becomes Jayber, the barber, gravedigger, and neighborhood watcher. As with most of Berry’s fiction, Jayber Crow is an elegy to a now dead way of life. It’s about the advent of Butz’s modern industrialism and what it meant to the many small towns who have since died out. Like of all his work, it’s a story that gives voice to the people who live in them.
One of the book’s central characters is a man named Troy Chatham, who, in a sense, is Jayber’s bête noire. Troy marries the woman Jayber loves and inherits her father’s farm, and he heeds the call to “adapt or die” and to “get big or get out,” only to lose everything. He wastes his resources in pursuit of “big” and at the promise of progress, ultimately finding himself in massive, debilitating debt. And when the story ends, he is on the precipice of disaster. He calls himself an “agribusinessman,” quoting Butz in general conversation with other farmers, and depends on his own ability to leverage more and more land against more and more debt. But in so doing he forgets the principles—those traditional values—upon which centuries of farming have been built, all because
he was under the influence of expert advice, first in the form of magazine articles and leaflets and pamphlets, and then in the person of the writers of the articles and leaflets and pamphlets, who instructed him, gave him their language and point of view . . . and who had simply nothing to say when their recommendations only drew him deeper and deeper into debt. (339)
“Adapt or die” suggests that who you are now is not good enough. If you don’t change, then we’ll leave you behind, it implicitly suggests. And so many farmers like Troy Chatham who adapted in hopes of getting big and getting ahead have been left behind. So many of these “nowhere places” have adapted and adapted and adapted, only to find themselves forgotten by a forward-moving progress impossible to keep up with. The fact is, small town and “get big” don’t work well together.
Troy’s story is supposed to be a success story, the titular character notes in Jayber Crow. Troy was supposed to be the “smart and talented country boy” who “started out with nothing and finally gained a big acreage of land and made something of himself.” But, in reality, he was “gaining nothing.” The more forward he looks, the farther he falls behind. His farm becomes a place consumed above all by utility, no longer a place of “pride and pleasure.” And, in the end, he loses everything good. Exhausted and beaten and forgotten, he becomes a lonely shadow on an abandoned hillside, left only with the lingering flicker of promise. He believed in Butz’s maxim, but he trusted in it not because he believed Butz was prophetic enough to lead him to the Promised Land but because he feared that if he didn’t follow the call to adapt he would die. Like so many others, he heeded a call out of fear rather than hope and in following it he lost everything, including hope.
And that’s the greatest tragedy of our collective belief in Butz’s progress: that men like Troy Chatham and so many others from towns like Middletown, Ohio, and Monneson, Pennsylvania, no longer can find the peace of wild things. The places they went when “despair for the world” grew in them have been ruined. There is no water still enough, no plot of land full of grace enough to rest beside and be free. So it should come as no surprise that they look elsewhere for peace and for hope: drugs and alcohol, which are decimating our rural communities; politicians who claim to speak for their loss; and, yes, even the cities, which swallow them up and leave their old homes empty.
And now they face a new kind of future altogether, where the age-old idea of progress is an abstraction from another time, like the thriving mid-century communities their parents and grandparents (and, indeed, all of us) romanticize in nostalgic rememberings.
We’re seeing the effects of this abstraction play out in our political rallies and our rural back roads, in our clinics and schools and churches. As a nation we couldn’t pay up on promises made, and we have left our nowhere places to fend for themselves. We sold the illusion of true freedom but instead have made slaves, and if we are not careful, we will all be slaves from nowhere, with no place to rest, where the despair rises up in us and we are terrified at the lives our children will have to live.
The Seer is a celebration of the people who once upon a time we called “salt of the earth” but who we remember now as “backward” caricatures, and it’s a eulogy for the lives they once lived, the lives upon which our country was built. The film isn’t as romanticized as that may sound, but in an age when we keep arguing about whose lives matter most, we would do well to remember that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom.