I have been to almost every CiRCE conference. I think I may have missed two. And what I have found over the years is that there is one author who is referred to by participants more than any other, and that is Wendell Berry. If you don’t know of him before you get here, you are sent home thinking that something is missing in your life and that you probably ought to do something about it.
He is here with us tonight. I had heard that Wendell gets a lot of invitations to speak. And I think I asked him one time how he decided which ones to accept. As I recall, he said something like, “The easiest thing is to just say “No.” And I understand that he employs that option liberally. And so I first want to thank him on behalf of the CiRCE Institute for accepting our invitation—and our award.
Secondly, I want to say why it is that I appreciate Wendell Berry. I met Wendell before I had ever read any of his books. He had come to teach a class at Highlands Latin School. I had heard that his books were pretty good. And soon I fell to reading his novels. It was a bit like going through the wardrobe and entering another world.
The world I entered was a world of life, and death, and joy, and sorrow, and peace, and far-off war, and laughter, and weeping, and charity, and violence; it was a world of work, and play, and friendship, and love. There was something striking about this world, and for a long time I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then one day I realized what it was: It was not another world that I had entered. The world that I had entered was this world.
All roads lead to Port William.
I told my wife one time that Wendell Berry’s stories were the one thing I read for no reason whatsoever. They were the only books that I read for no other end than themselves.
His novels and short stories had the great virtue of being not just good, but true. But his essays had another quality that it took me a little while to identify. One of his collections of short stories is titled Fidelity. But any collection of his essays could easily have bourn that title. They were faithful: not only in the sense of being true, and therefore faithful to the world, but in the sense of being faithful to the Word.
There is a sense of integrity that leaps from every line. There is a word that is very seldom used, although examples are everywhere: the word "cant." It means insincere, hypocritical, platitudinous speech. I find myself falling into it on occasion. But I can’t remember ever encountering a word of cant in anything of his I have ever read.
And there’s one more thing.
I was teaching class one day, and—I don’t know how we got on the subject—but Emily, his granddaughter mentioned that on Saturday mornings, “Granddaddy takes us out and teaches us how to to horse farm.” The “us” included her brother Marshall. “And when the weather's bad,” she continued, “he takes us up to the cabin and teaches us how to write. Granddaddy’s got boxes this high with the stuff I’ve written.”
I’ve thought about those remarks from time to time, and I’ve thought about the fact that his son Den farms too, and I’ve seen a few things Mary, his daughter, has written, and how he has devoted so much time to passing on the things that he loves to his children and to his grandchildren.
“Fidelity” is not just the title of one of his books.
Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome Wendell Berry ...