Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Ashley Woodiwiss, who has taught and written widely about Berry’s work.
“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?
We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Ashley Woodiwiss’s reflection.
A Bittersweet Journey Home
By Ashley Woodiwiss
It was 1980 and Mary and I had been married but a few months. In a moment of harmonic (Christians might prefer providential) convergence, the name Wendell Berry came to our attention, from left, right and all around. It was as though Wendell Berry was being thrust upon us: tolle lege.
Mary and I have now journeyed with Wendell for close to 30 years. We have read much (but certainly not all) of his work. I have taught him to my college students. I have published reviews of his work. Mary has attended a conference on The Unsettling of America (and was the recipient of a Wendell gift of a good hug). Our children have had his fiction and essays read to them, they know of him, and the older children are now beginning to return to him. Though he is unaware of the fact, Berry has been an important part of our story.
To re-read “The Gift of Good Land” is thus a sort of homecoming. But like all homecomings, re-reading “Gift” is a poignant and emotionally fraught experience. It is not only to see again those words that first moved and stirred the soul. It is also to re-live memories of another time and another place. It is to remember a much simpler life. Now 30 years on, these words ring with a melancholy sobriety. Yes, he saw it then and all so clearly. I am even more convinced of that now. But having ears, we have not heard; having eyes, we have not seen.
On America’s tombstone, let it be written, “They knew not the good gift they had until they lost it.” And may each of us, by God’s grace, find shelter from the storm.
After teaching for 18 years at Wheaton College (IL.), Woodiwiss is now the Grady Patterson Chair of Politics and directs the Drummond Center for Statesmanship at Erskine College in Due West, SC. He and his wife, Mary, have just celebrated their 30th anniversary. They have seven children, with but two now under their roof.