The main character of Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth, as in many of his novels, is the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. While Berry is a masterful storyteller, the narrative is less important than the relationships that the characters have with each other, with the town and surrounding farmland they inhabit, and with the land itself.
Berry continually returns to the question of what effect a character has on the people, town, and land around him. When a character is introduced, Berry will often describe the condition of the person’s farm, home, or workplace. For example, Berry contrasts the relatively wealthy Roger Merchant with Roger’s tenant Gideon Crop. Roger inherited a large, profitable farm from his father, but has allowed it to fall into disuse; even Roger’s rental income is handled mostly by his lawyer. Gideon, meanwhile, inherited almost nothing from his father except a tenant relationship with Roger. What little Gideon has, however, is well-maintained and attended to. In Berry’s vision of the world, your stewardship of your home and workplace is a moral dimension of your character. It’s not the complete judgment, but it’s important.
Relationships are also part of this stewardship. One of Roger’s few friends â€” perhaps his only friend â€” is Mat Feltner, one of the heroes of Berry’s universe. Mat describes his friendship with Roger as “perplexing,” because Roger regularly calls on Mat for his counsel, keeps Mat engaged in long, rambling, over-complicated discussions of minor issues, and never takes Mat’s advice. Despite this frustrating pattern, Mat still invests time and care in his relationship with Roger. Mat’s attitude toward Roger, in many ways, mirrors his attitude towards farming: care, hard work, and good stewardship are their own rewards, regardless of the outcome.
Campus as a Place on Earth
As I have been reading A Place on Earth, two comparisons have come to mind. The first is the campus as a place made up of a combination of land, people, and relationships. In Berry’s novels, the history of an individual or a family is never far from the surface, and he will often interrupt the narrative with a back story that gives deeper meaning to the immediate situation. Isn’t it so often the case on campus that we can’t understand what’s happening without knowing the history that has led up to this moment? [Read more…] about Stewardship, Membership, and Voting: Reflections on Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth