Paying Attention: A Visit with Wendell Berry (and Song of the Day)

guys-and-signAllen Levi, Ben May, and I stood on Wendell Berry‘s front porch as nervous as schoolboys. Allen had prayed aloud as we pulled up to the little Kentucky farmhouse that God would keep the visit from descending into some goofy hero worship, and that we’d remember who we are, that somehow our visit would amount to a blessing to the Berrys even as it would be to us. Basically it was, “Dear God, don’t let us be dummies.”

There was a lot going into the trip. Early this year Ben May wrote Wendell a letter explaining that he and a few of his singer/songwriter friends had been greatly moved by his writings and would be honored to spend a little time with him. Wendell agreed to it, on the condition that we not drive all the way to Kentucky just to see him, saying he didn’t think he was equal to such a responsibility. So we let him know we’d be in Kentucky for concerts in August, and the date was set.

Allen and Ben read and re-read Berry’s books before the trip. I keep a number of Wendell’s books of poetry at arm’s reach and read from them often, but have been too busy this year to dream of re-reading any novels or essays. But just to be responsible I brought Jayber Crow with me on the trip. In my hotel room the night before, I flipped through it and read passages at random, reliving the heartbreaking beauty of the story, and ended up re-reading much of the last chapter–clear to the bittersweet ending that left me sobbing on the floor of my office five years ago. (“Sobbing” isn’t an exaggeration. The book wrecked me.)

Allen and I met for coffee at Heine Bros. Sunday morning before the visit and talked about songwriting and stories for a few hours before we picked Ben May up from the airport. Between that conversation and the previous night’s in-the-round concert with Allen, one of my hopes for the trip was realized. See, meeting Wendell was only part of the point of the trip. From the first time I met Allen I hoped to be grafted into his story in one way or another, so our “goofy rabbit trail” (as Ben referred to it to Wendell later) was an excuse to spend some time in the car with a few kindred spirits. And the nice thing about that was, by the time we picked up Ben, the trip was already a success. My soul already felt healthier just being around those guys. It took the pressure off. Wendell could have been a crotchety old geezer who shooed us from his porch and we still would have driven home happy.

But Wendell and his wife Tanya were anything but crotchety geezers. We approached the porch in silence, each of us thinking of our own favorite stories about the Port William Membership, each of us took a deep breath, and Ben knocked. After a few moments a beautiful, sharp-eyed, white-haired woman answered the door and welcomed us in: Tanya Berry, who, as anyone who gives a hoot about Berry’s writing knows, transcribes Wendell’s hand-written manuscripts with her trusty typewriter–the same Tanya who lived with him many years ago on the banks of the river in the long-legged house. She smiled and offered us seats in the front room. About that time came footsteps from staircase, and Mr. Berry descended, greeted us with a giant smile, and looked each of us in the eye.

I had read that Wendell Berry can intimidate. I assumed that meant he was standoffish or stiff. Quite the opposite was true. The source of any reputation for being intimidating was, in fact, his kindness. He looked me in the eye when he asked my name, and he seemed to actually care about the answer. It wasn’t a formality, and as far as I could tell he wasn’t just being nice. I was a guest in his home and he wanted to know my name, it seemed, in a deeper way than I was used to. I don’t know that I managed to meet that formidable gaze or that enormous grin.

We sat and talked for two hours. When Allen, God bless him, exercised his gift of southern palavering and told Wendell all about his timberland in Georgia, Wendell sat up and started talking. It was a subject that interested him, which was no surprise. In minutes I had learned more than I ever wanted to know about Native American forestry in Wisconsin, which meant I was free to let my eyes roam around the room while Wendell talked. There was, as you might imagine, no television. In the center of the room was a woodburning stove, and on every wall were books, books, books. Virgil. William Blake. Books on Kentucky birds. Shakespeare.

At some point Allen asked Wendell if he wrote every day. He more or less deflected the question, then turned his bright eyes on me. “What about you, Andrew? You’re a writer. Do you write every day?” Again, that intimidating interest. I gulped. I was a possum in headlights. I told him I tried, but it was hard. I have these three kids, and we homeschool, and the demands of a music career make it difficult. I mumbled something about how music uses a different part of my brain than book writing, so it’s hard to move back and forth between the two.

To my great horror, Wendell disagreed. He said kindly, “Now I don’t buy into all that scientific talk about ‘parts of the brain’. I think you have one mind.”

I gulped. “Well, sir, what I mean is that it exercises a different kind of creativity. Surely you, uh, feel differently when you’re writing a poem than when you’re writing an essay or a novel, don’t you?”

“But you can’t think about that while you’re doing it,” he said. “If you think about what you’re doing, then you’ve stopped doing it. If you stop writing your song and think ‘I’m writing a song,’ then you’re no longer writing a song. The bird,” he said, “has flown.”

I gathered my wits. “I guess what I’m saying is just that writing an album is a creatively demanding process and–”

“But are you writing songs or are you writing albums?” asked Tanya from her rocking chair. Her brow was furrowed and she was weighing my every word.

“Uh, well, both, ma’am. It’s not like this for everybody, but a lot of times I’m thinking of the album as a whole while I’m writing the song. I want the album–and I think of it like a photo album–to tell a story, sorta. I gather the songs together and sort out the good ones from the bad ones and the good ones make it to the record–”

“So,” Wendell said, “you write bad ones. How do you judge the good from the bad?”

By now my adrenaline was pumping into my system full-bore. I, the youngest person in the room by nearly fifteen years, was being grilled, more or less. “Well, sir, if I hold two songs up next to each other, usually one will say better than the other what I mean to say. If the song doesn’t say it well, it gets shelved.” I hoped this would satisfy them so he and Allan could get back to their discussion about Chief Milwaukee’s timber wisdom. But no.

“Then it’s about what the song is saying, then,” Tanya said, still watching me with an eyebrow raised. “Not the music?”

“Well, it’s both. The lyric and the music are married,” I said.

“Do you write out the music?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Hmm.”

And then, thank goodness, Allan or Ben chimed in and those spotlight eyes and the intense interest passed on to someone else. I was so relieved I almost crumpled into Wendell Berry’s couch and fainted dead away. For another hour or so the talk meandered, and at one point Wendell turned to Ben with a grin and said, “Well, Mister May, you haven’t hardly said a word. Are these two all that entertaining?” Ben had his minute in the sun, as it were, and offered up to Wendell his gratitude for his hospitality and his work.

A few minutes later I had my chance, too. I took a deep breath, steeled my nerves, and told him how I grew up loathing all things agricultural, and how my parents always impressed on us the beauty of the land and the old ways but I kicked against those goads. I told him how I found myself living in a cookie-cutter subdivision in Nashville as I read the final pages of Jayber Crow, and how I picked myself off the floor, wiped my eyes, and immediately started looking online for land in Kentucky. I wanted to live a richer life, one where I and my wife and children could hear what the land had to say. I told him how his works teach me to care about things that matter, and how his stories have encouraged some of us in Nashville to approach our music more like farmers tilling ancient soil than miners digging for gold.

He nodded. Then he deflected the compliment again. He said, “Well, the only thing I don’t like about that is that you all think it’s me and my ideas. It’s not. I learned all this from many teachers. If you subtracted from my work all that I learned from my teachers there would only be the tiniest bit left. And I don’t want to take credit for their work. I will take credit for the discipline of sitting down and writing it out. But that’s all.”

“You don’t have to take credit, sir. I just wanted to thank you.”

I was a guest in his home, so I didn’t want to be contrary. I appreciated his humility. But if I were a bolder man or a friend of his I would’ve said this: “But Mister Berry, I’m not reading your teachers’ books. I’m reading yours. And besides that, I don’t know another author who can say these things like you can. I don’t know anyone else who walks their woodlands on Sabbath mornings and writes verses like, ‘And now the remnant groves grow bright with praise / They light around me like an old man’s days.’ No other author has used his sage imagination to construct a fictional town like Port William and populated it with characters like Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett, and dear old lonesome Jayber Crow. No other author has so ascribed dignity to the men and women who have chosen to stick around their homes and communities while so many of us abandoned our roots as if they were there to kill us and not to keep us alive. My life is richer because of you. Like it or not, Mister Berry, we have you to thank.”

Wendell and Tanya graciously gave us their Sunday afternoon. And the more I thought about it the more I realized what an honor they paid me and the other guys simply by listening. They didn’t nod and indulge us for a few minutes until we awkwardly excused ourselves (a scenario for which we were fully prepared). No, they turned their bright eyes on us and paid attention. If they didn’t understand what I meant, they said so. If they disagreed, they said so, kindly. If Allen or Ben said something that lit Wendell up, he in turn illuminated us. More than once, he told a funny story that ended in a burst of laughter that warmed my heart. When he grinned his whole body grinned with him. For two hours we engaged in something called “conversation”, in which ideas and opinions are exchanged, challenged, and sometimes–if you’re lucky–agreed with. In that mighty company I was forced to think about what I had to say, because they were listening.

And doesn’t that sound just like the Wendell Berry you’d imagine? To write those kinds of essays, stories, and poems, you have to have a strong mind–one mind, he would argue–and wide-open eyes, and ears to hear. You have to pay attention.

I could not be more thankful for the two hours I spent in that storied room with Allen and Ben and the Berrys. I asked Tanya if she had a CD player, and she did, so I left her with a copy of my new album. I hope she listens to “The Magic Hour”, and hears the nod to Wendell’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things“, and knows that some of us, feebly though we do it, are trying to pay attention too.

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