When we previously mentioned him it was without as much background as he deserved. So now, a corrective titled Wendell Berry’s Advice for a Cataclysmic Age, by Dorothy Wickenden. It comes with a set of photographs that motivate you to read on:
Sixty years after renouncing modernity, the writer is still contemplating a better way forward.
Hidden in the woods on a slope above the Kentucky River, just south of the Ohio border, is a twelve-by-sixteen-foot cabin with a long front porch. If not for the concrete pilings that raise the building high off the ground, it would seem almost a living part of the forest. Readers around the world know the “long-legged house” as the place where Wendell Berry, as a twenty-nine-year-old married man with two young children, found his voice. As he explained in his essay by that name, he built the cabin in the summer of 1963—a place where he could write, read, and contemplate the legacies of his forebears, and what inheritance he might leave behind.
The cabin began as a log house built by Berry’s great-great-great-grandfather Ben Perry, one of the area’s first settlers, and it lived on as a multigenerational salvage operation. In the nineteen-twenties, with the original house in disrepair, Wendell’s bachelor great-uncle Curran Mathews painstakingly took apart what remained and used the lumber to make a camp along the Kentucky River, where he could escape “the bounds of the accepted.” Wendell, “a melancholic and rebellious boy,” found peace in the tumbledown camp, even though it flooded every time the river overflowed. Eventually, it became uninhabitable, and he pried off some poplar and walnut boards to use in building his own cabin, on higher ground—a “satisfactory nutshell of a house,” he wrote. Standing on its long legs, it had “a peering, aerial look, as though built under the influence of trees.”
Berry, who is eighty-seven, has written fifty-two books there—essays, poetry, short stories, and novels—most of them while also running a farm, teaching English at the University of Kentucky, and engaging in political protests. This summer, he’ll publish a sprawling nonfiction book, “The Need to Be Whole,” followed by a short-story collection in the fall.
Last October, Berry showed me the camp, asking only that I not say where it is. Although he has laid bare his entire life in print, he tightly guards his privacy. The single room, containing an antique woodstove against the back wall and a neatly made cot in one corner, was dominated by his worktable, set before a forty-paned window—“the eye of the house”—that looks out onto the porch, the woods, and the river below.
The camp has no plumbing or electricity. Half a dozen well-sharpened pencils were lined up on the worktable, alongside small stacks of paper. On top of one stack was a note Berry had made, and crossed out, about Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” Above a small safe, curling photographs were taped to a wall: Wallace Stegner, Ernest Gaines, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, Thomas Merton. Berry pointed out a youthful shot of his wife, Tanya, with cropped, wavy hair, striding along a hillside by their house. He had made a bird feeder and fastened it to the porch railing, so he could watch the comings and goings of chickadees, titmice, juncos, and jays. I remembered a line from “The Long-Legged House”: “One bright warm day in November it was so quiet that I could hear the fallen leaves ticking, like a light rain, as they dried and contracted, scraping their points and edges against each other.”
The place was so inviting, I wondered if anyone had ever broken in—seeking, perhaps, a little food and a furtive night’s rest. “Yes, once,” Berry said. He was pretty sure he knew the culprit. “Someone took out a few panes and tried to get into my safe. I wrote him a note—‘Dear Thief, if you’re in trouble, don’t tear this place up. Come to the house, and I’ll give you what you need.’ ”
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