Symposium Introduction

In these days of resurgent nationalism and violent xenophobia in the West, it is common to feel anxiety, if not outright despair, over the future of pluralistic democratic societies. The possibility of a fruitful human sociality depends on our capacity to face up to the world in its complexity, to the nuances of other lives. This capacity feels especially at risk today, when populist leaders capably mask fear of difference as a strength, dismissing complexity (e.g., immigrants, protesters) with a satisfying aggression. The resultant feeling of power threatens to make our fear invulnerable to rational correction. What are we to do when we find ourselves in its grip?

One of the primary reasons to be grateful for Joseph Wiebe’s The Place of Imagination is that it helps us think about moral re-formation in nonideological ways. Wiebe argues that healthy community depends on incarnate human affections, awakened via the imagination. Wiebe’s book in this sense is an argument for reading fiction, in that “fiction portrays an imagined world in a way that capacitates recognition of a deeper meaning of social circumstances than what political rhetoric offers” (155). If we have read a good novel we know this to be true. Someone whose political affiliations make him an incorrigible moron in my eyes on Twitter can be rendered visible in a much fuller way in a novel. And if I am reading that novel earnestly, the act of doing so may expand my perception of the actual persons in my life. “Imagination,” Wiebe writes, “arouses the somnambulist kept asleep by the formalities of national idioms and cultural identity” (26). No one would accuse a contemporary populist rally of being soporific, but in truth such political phenomena demonstrate a refusal to awaken to nuance, to “irrepressible and unclassifiable particularity” (25).

Ideological rhetorics try to assuage our fear of difference, of complexity, of the unclassifiable in each person and the particularities of place, but they do so only through reductionism. Fiction, by contrast, is an indirect form of communication that has the capacity to let characters remain persons, with all the mystery that entails. Wiebe argues that Wendell Berry’s fiction, at its best, allows onto the page “what is not easily explained, rationally accounted for, or understood but nevertheless remains an unrelenting fact of existence” (7). In this respect, Wiebe shows, Berry emulates the nonreductive attention to singularity that characterizes William Carlos Williams’s poetry. Williams’s language dwells humbly with the fact that it cannot capture life, given “the flux and diversity of [its] subject” (21). Such language treats life’s complexity and excess with reverence instead of fear, and invites readers to do so as well.

In this manner, Williams’s poetry and Berry’s fiction both incarnate the “poetics” of healthy human adaptation to reality. Berry is a vocal advocate of local adaptation, which implies the kind of attunement to place in its true and irrepressible particularity that reductive logics don’t allow. “As an example of the struggle of local adaptation, [Berry’s fiction] shows that to be human is to live as a creature in creation,” Wiebe writes (32). To be a creature in creation means to live in a world that exceeds your authorship, recognizing its excess without fear or rivalry. In religious terms, it means recognizing that the author of life transcends your own power, that you are not God. In Berry’s terms, it means taking wilderness seriously. Wilderness, Wiebe explains, “is the part of life that is neither arbitrarily willed nor conscripted into a human enterprise. . . . In short, wilderness is uniquely unconquered space” (49). This is not to say that it is bounded off from other spaces; in every place, wilderness names life’s beyondness of our control. With wilderness, Berry alerts his readers to “a reality before his thoughts and desires, before his commitments and advocacy, the character of which is offered in his description of wilderness as dispossessed of human self-interest” (50).

I think it is fair to say that Wiebe’s book asks readers to reckon with the wilderness of the real, on an existential level. On the one hand, this is inevitably humbling—to admit one’s limits, one’s ultimate dependence and mortality. In Berry’s Port William novel, Nathan Coulter, Wiebe shows how Nathan must wrestle with a multigenerational history of attempted self-assertion in the face of contingency, an inherited desire for self-authored permanence. “The chief attribute of the Coulter patrimony is a resolute individualism that denies bequeathing property and authority gracefully to the next generation” (62). Nathan struggles to admit that there is an inevitable futility in human efforts to order permanently what is never guaranteed—the future. But without this admission there is no hope of adaptation to the facts of creaturely life.

On the other hand, Wiebe shows that the excess of the real can be uplifting and motivating. In Jayber Crow, Jayber recognizes that if the world were constrained by necessity, then it could not measure up to his love. Thus his work is to prove “that Mattie’s mistaken (at least to his mind) marriage with Troy was not inevitable—a truth that cannot be proved but only experienced” (109). In other words, for Jayber, life’s complexity offers hope that it didn’t have to be this way; but he can only be confident of this when his own life becomes “the embodiment of [another] possibility” (109). Jayber’s work of love is fruitful in that it allows him to imagine “the world as it is as more than what can be seen or shown in time” (111). Here life’s transcendence of human understanding becomes a consolation, enlivening Jayber’s capacious affection for persons and place.

In Wiebe’s analysis, then, we might say that genuine community is a child of wilderness, of an honest confrontation with our limits and with the generative mystery of the world. Wiebe gives readers the gift of an occasion to examine what can “turn people around, away from hubris and narcissistic ambition, toward a self-reflection that opens them to the depth of creation” (156). The Place of Imagination is a book about how to practice this shift, from being fearful pawns of the status quo to being enfleshed and attuned creatures on this earth, in communion with the fullness of its mystery and divinity. It uses Berry’s fiction to reveal particularities of character and place as the manifestation of creation’s plenitude, allowing us to see ideological reductionism as a gesture of fear rather than strength. Unsurprisingly, the book has generated a vital and fascinating conversation between our panelists.

The following symposium brings together experts in ethics, theology, sustainability, and poetry, to dwell with the provocations of Wiebe’s book. It is a vibrant discussion, full of appreciation and challenge. Emily Dumler-Winckler opens the conversation with an essay that highlights Wiebe’s integration of individual moral psychology with questions of systemic justice. She commends Wiebe for his textured account of the development of virtues in broken places and communities, for articulating the challenges and uncertainties that present obstacles to the cultivation of faith, hope, and love. More critically, Dumler-Winckler wonders whether Wiebe draws unwarranted distinctions between mind, body, and soul in his analysis of Berry’s fiction, and highlights a problematically gendered assignment of parts of the soul to some of Berry’s characters. Most significantly, she asks if Wiebe’s emphasis on the uncertainties of life risks occluding the virtues of Berry’s characters, questioning in particular whether Jayber’s magnanimity must be understood as despairing, or Hannah’s patience as hopeless.

Christiana Zenner’s essay begins by noting her suspicion of Berry as “the settled white male,” while agreeing with Wiebe’s (and Berry’s) sense that moral discernment is not reducible to rational argument and must be pursued as a poetics. On this score, Zenner highlights for praise Wiebe’s refusal to turn Berry’s work into a triumphalist ideology. Though she appreciates Wiebe’s expert use of Berry’s corpus, Zenner also criticizes the relative lack of clarity about “theories and methods of interpretation” that underlie Wiebe’s exegesis at times, especially when he draws from multiple authors and genres of literature situated in various historical contexts.

Joelle Hathaway’s essay focuses on Wiebe’s argument that Berry’s fiction should be read as “parables,” and from there develops an account of the variety of Berry’s writing—essays, fiction, poetry—and its relation to local adaptation. Hathaway emphasizes in particular Berry’s poetry, both in its formal characteristics and in the habits of attention that ground it, as necessary for the development of worlds of integrity in his fiction. She highlights how the characters of Port William spill over into Berry’s poetry, as if what is revealed by their lives cannot be revealed only through fiction.

Paul Schutz contributes an essay that highlights possible conversations between Wiebe’s analysis and figures in the theological tradition ranging from Thomas Aquinas to James Cone. He too notes the value of Wiebe’s approach to parables, especially for theologians in their interpretations of the Bible. According to Schutz, Wiebe’s analysis makes it possible to understand reading Scripture as a formative practice because it provokes thought and reflection, rather than simply because it contains instructions. Ultimately, Schutz raises some critical questions about Wiebe’s use of the lost sheep parable as a way of describing Berry’s method of fiction writing, and asks for further elaboration on some key points in part 2 of The Place of Imagination.

In the final essay of our symposium, Matthew Whelan explores Wiebe’s comment that imagination “does not imitate or plagiarize nature” (26). Initially, Whelan illuminates the significance of this claim for art, taking it to mean that in order to be authentic, artistic creation must not proceed as if it were ex nihilo. Instead, the artist must create in light of nature’s priority of being, and its consequent authority. Human making cannot dismiss the given, the preexistence of nature, the judgment of wilderness. Artistic labor is not creation per se, but co-creation, and involves attending to and perceiving natural processes that exceed the artist’s authorship. Whelan develops Wiebe’s insights in this direction in order to go further, extending Wiebe’s idea of creativity to the field of agriculture. Whelan’s exploration will leave readers with a broadening sense of the significance of Wiebe’s argument, its applicability far and wide, to all manner of human making and doing.

Emily Dumler-Winckler


For Love of the Little Platoon

Joseph Wiebe keenly observes that Wendell Berry’s fictional works “are not just lessons about moral imagination but also lessons in it,” lessons meant to transform the moral imagination of the reader (151). The same can be said of his own book The Place of Imagination. By drawing his readers into these fictive journeys, Wiebe too invites them to imagine “what it means to live well in wounded communities and broken places” (10). From the outset, Wiebe recognizes a major challenge in writing on Berry’s fiction, namely, “to give an account of the Port William community that is neither sentimental nor quaint” (1). In his interpretation, the places and the people who inhabit them do not provide ideal models for us to imitate in any straightforward sense. They, like we, are complicated and less than perfect. Nonetheless, he thinks, they exhibit certain virtues that we might emulate, virtues that rectify a vitiated social imaginary marked by racial violence and prejudice, segregation, isolation, waste, war, and exploitation (153–54). There is much to commend about this book. I will begin with a word about the various literatures and conversations that it engages (or might engage), and then pose a couple of questions—first, about moral psychology, virtue, and hope, and second, about the role of agrarianism in the formation of the moral imagination—and conclude with a reflection on reading as an ethical practice.

Through the central themes of this book—making a home of a broken world, suffering, race, place, imagination, affection, virtues, incarnational love, community, and identity (to name a few)—Wiebe fruitfully brings into conversation scholarly literatures that do not always or often speak with one another. Alongside such texts as Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination (2010), The Place of Imagination contributes to recent literature on race, place, and moral and theological imagination, which probe the wounds of racial violence that mark the communities we inhabit. At the same time, the book might be seen as a contribution to what Willis Jenkins in The Future of Ethics (2013) has described as a turn to virtue in environmental ethics, as well as what some see as a return to religious communities, values, and ideals, as the way forward. So too, the book adds to emergent literature on Berry’s work, while connecting it to conversations in literature and religion. Berry’s fiction is best read, Wiebe argues, as a poetics and as parables. Likewise, narrative theologians interested in the role that stories, characters, virtue, imitation, and innovation play in moral formation will find much that resonates. The book does not explicitly engage biblical scholarship. Nonetheless, one could make fruitful connections with, for instance, Walter Brueggemann’s work on the prophetic imagination, war, and agrarianism—the prophetic injunction to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This reader was hoping that Wiebe would add to this impressive range his reflections on gender in Berry’s work. Of those who have taken up this theme in Berry, few have focused on his fiction. Wiebe devotes the second chapter, “Affection: Community, Race, and Place,” to considerations of race. I would have welcomed a similar chapter on gender or a greater attention to gender and race in Berry’s fiction throughout the subsequent chapters. That said, this text is a fertile seedbed for further engagement in these areas.

Our moral imagination and affections are rooted in the communities and places we inhabit and are shaped, for better and for worse, by their legacies. This is one of the key insights that Wiebe examines in Berry’s fiction. At points in the text, the imagination itself appears to be a panacea for the social ills that plague modern societies. But Wiebe knows that the theological, moral, and social imagination can be vitiated or salutary, corrupt or salubrious. The virtues are needed to refine and rectify our affection, perception, and imagination. Whereas part 1, “Moral Imagination and Community,” treats the “Imagination” (chapter 1), “Affection” (2), and “Style” (3) in Berry’s work broadly, part 2, “Biographies of Belonging,” focuses on three characters featured in three of Berry’s fictional works and the virtues that shape them: “Jack’s Mind: Regret and the Virtue of Knowing” (chapter 4), “Jayber’s Soul: The Psychology of Magnanimous Despair” (5), and “Hannah’s Body: Grief and the Space of Hopeless Patience” (6). In conclusion Wiebe writes: “Jack’s mind shows how wisdom and regret shape the intellect of affectionate perception. Jayber’s soul shows how magnanimity and despair shape the psychology of affectionate perception; Hannah’s body shows how patience and grief shape the spatial reality of affectionate perception” (151).

Given the sense of holism throughout the book—the sense that imagination, reason, affection, body, place, and ecosystems are intimately bound up with one another—I wonder why Wiebe decides to parse the moral psychology of each of these characters and their respective virtues in precisely this way. Ancient debates about the interrelations among mind, body, and soul, as well as the names, number, and connection of the virtues that perfect different parts of each are alive and well among virtue epistemologists and ethicists today. Wiebe does not directly engage those debates, ancient or modern, except to insist on Berry’s holism—his non-dualistic understanding of the role that body and spirit play in the spiritual journey. Still, the questions remain: why Jack’s mind, Jayber’s soul, and Hannah’s body? And why this traditionally gendered assigning of mind and soul to male characters and body to the female character? These characters cultivate the virtues of wisdom, magnanimity, and patience, in the face of regret, despair, and grief, through an elaborate dance of body, mind, and soul. I wonder whether Berry’s narrative resists such clear parsing? Is the mind, body, soul distinction as clear in Berry’s fiction as it appears in Wiebe’s analysis? Berry’s warning, as Wiebe knows, is severe: “Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company of only other explainers” (by order of Author, JC). But Wiebe hazards the risk. What is gained or lost in this investigation? At least this: we gain Wiebe’s insights about moral formation, while those less familiar with Berry’s work might lose some of his holism. What follows is a fuller response to this question.

The chapter titles reveal one insight that is woven through the chapters in part 2: that virtue is always cultivated in the face of dangers, toils, and snares and enables its possessor to respond well to such difficulties. The virtues shape our affective response to people and events such that we experience regret, grief, anger, sadness, and joy that is fitting to the situation. But they also cultivate our response to these emotions, what we do with our regret, grief, anger, etc. So too, Wiebe like Berry rightly resists the false binary between personal virtue and structural change (36). Virtue is not just a matter of personal righteousness as though such a thing could be set apart from just relations with neighbor, community, and land in the midst of systemic injustices. The virtuous recognize institutional and systemic sociopolitical ills—domination, exploitation, discrimination—and find creative ways to reimagine and reform these institutions and systems for the better. Wiebe’s is an important contribution to conversations that seek to move beyond false binaries of individual virtues and participation in sociopolitical structures.

As for the particular virtues Wiebe names, I could not shake a couple of questions about hope and despair. The first question is interpretive; the second is normative. Hopefully it goes without saying that readers should err on the side of trusting Wiebe’s interpretations of Berry over my own. That said, I wonder whether Jayber and Hannah are quite so hopeless, quite so despairing as Wiebe portrays: this is the first question. If so, my second question is whether I want to follow Wiebe in endorsing “magnanimous despair” and “hopeless patience” as virtues.

As for the first, Wiebe argues that “the primary virtue of Jayber Crow is not his hope but his despair” and admits that “it remains to be seen how these virtues might fit within the Christian tradition” in which faith, hope, and love have been central theological virtues (217n12). It’s true, as he notes, that Berry uses a line from Andrew Marvell’s poem as the epigraph for the book: “Magnanimous despair alone could show me so divine a thing.” Wiebe argues that Berry uses this poetic notion of magnanimous despair to demonstrate God’s love for the world through Jayber’s imagined marriage to Mattie, the woman he loves (108). Jayber’s despair is magnanimous, he claims, only to the extent that it is a condition of having his soul oriented properly in love. The “divine thing” about a soul able to love in this way is its openness to suffering and “partiality in the form of the crucifixion . . . it’s the work of love to become like Christ in love” (111).

To be sure, Jayber has moments of hopelessness and despair: “But there were times too when I lived in a desert . . . then I lived by faith alone, faith without hope” (Jayber Crow, 247). Indeed, he describes “Hell itself . . . [as] unrelieved by any light or hope” (248). But in the next breath adds, “But love sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit” (JC, 248). Love inspires hope and resists despair. Again “Hell is described as a place with no hope. . . . But the earth speaks to us of Heaven” (JC, 354). In the final chapter of the book, Berry has Jayber share a final self-reflection: “I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, ‘Good-good-good-good-good!’ like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith” (JC, 356). As a man of faith, he goes on to describe a friend “(imagined, but also real) I call the Man in the Well” (JC, 356). The central question for the “Man in the Well” is whether he will despair or hope. “Does he despair, give up, and drown?” (JC, 357). Jayber’s conclusion seems clear: “Listen. There is a light than includes our darkness, a day that shines down even in the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe this easily or without pain but be believes it” (JC, 357). If the first chapter of the Gospel of John is not already ringing in your ears, Berry goes on to proclaim that none are lost from the “lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, [to] those who pray ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’” (JC, 357). The latter is Jesus’ final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1). Wiebe thinks that we have two options: “Accept that the only thing that gives his story hope is an infantile conception of God or else pity Jayber’s waste of love” (127). But if we might understand Jayber as the man in the well a third option appears: hope born of love—perhaps child-like, but not childish or “infantile.”

The second question follows closely on the first. Even if we grant that Wiebe is right, that Jayber and Hannah are despairing and hopeless, should we endorse “magnanimous despair” and “hopeless patience” as virtues? Despair and hopelessness: there’s the rub. For Aquinas, the virtue of hope resists the vices of presumption on the one hand and of despair on the other. Presumption is one danger: overconfidence in our abilities to make our own way, or unwillingness to see the grim and menacing realities of the situation. Despair and hopelessness present other troubles: failures of imagination and of will to hope beyond hope, to trust God, our communities, or ourselves to (as womanist scholars say) “make a way out of no way.” Hope is closely bound to faith and love, not only in these classical and womanist thinkers, but also in Berry’s work. Jack is a character whose magnanimity has been shaped by loss, pain, regret, and even at times, despair. But in the end, faith, hope, and love remain. So too with Hannah. Perhaps my question is, why insist on despair as part and parcel of virtue rather than as a temptation the virtuous surely must face but resist? My hunch is that Wiebe wants to accentuate the fact that virtues are only ever formed in the midst of broken communities and lives. This, of course, is true. But the virtues have always been formed under these constraints and are necessary precisely to overcome the temptations of presumption and despair in the midst of such difficulties.

My final question, for the sake of this conversation, pertains to the necessity and centrality of Berry’s agrarianism for the rehabilitation of the moral imagination and whether or not it can be extended to non-agrarian landscapes and lifestyles. Can a person cultivate these virtues of wisdom, magnanimity, and patience among others without being rooted in an agrarian community, or reading about those so rooted? Wiebe seems to think so. As he notes, “One can reflect on and embody the poetics Berry invokes in scenarios different from those in his novels. It is how one can be agrarian in the city, in the university, and so on” (154). As if to demonstrate this point, the conclusion opens with a vignette from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy about Avery Jenkins, a man on death row in Alabama and a prison guard who was transformed by hearing and sympathizing with his life story. Wiebe suggests that “Stevenson’s narrative about Jenkins and the officer exemplifies Wendell Berry’s moral imagination”—his sense that our perceptions and the norms of an exploitative culture and extractive economy can be transformed by encountering the stories of others (150). Like Stevenson’s nonfiction, Berry’s fiction is meant to shape our moral imagination. Yet, as Wiebe notes, for Berry, transformation comes by way of “fidelity to place . . . this rehabilitation is Berry’s agrarianism, what he calls a way of thought based on land” (151). A tension seems to arise at this point between the transformation that may come by fidelity to place—whether city, university, or prison—and the transformation that depends on a way of thought based on land.

If this way of thought “based on land” is central to Berry’s agrarianism, to the practices, habits, and virtues cultivated in intimate connection to not only any place or neighborhood but specifically to land, I wonder whether Berry’s agrarianism can be extended in the ways Wiebe hopes. Here, the contrast between Stevenson and Wiebe, on the one hand, and Berry, on the other, seems stark. Jenkins is obviously barred from agrarian rehabilitation. Perhaps that’s the point—mass incarceration is designed to obliterate such attachments in guards and prisoners alike. But the officer’s rehabilitation (and presumably that of the reader’s as well) does not come either by fidelity to place or by a way of thought based on land. It comes through identification with Jenkin’s story. The gift of this transformative encounter comes in spite of hostilities, prejudices, and racism. But for Berry, as Wiebe demonstrates, the place and the land with its trees, rivers, farms, and woods matter. How central then is Berry’s agrarianism to moral rehabilitation? Presumably “fidelity to place” can be cultivated anywhere, moral transformation can happen anywhere, but I am not convinced that the same can be said for Berry’s agrarianism. Nonetheless, I share Wiebe’s hope that a place-based identity, wherever that may be, might hold the same promises as Berry’s agrarian vision. This vision requires an attention to neighbors and land or the lack of connection to either as well as the desire to overcome the routines of an exploitative culture and extractive economies by recognizing our complicity in them.

A final word on reading as an ethical practice: by helping us to read Berry well, Wiebe helps us to become good readers—readers of fiction, history, communities, land, one another, and the world around us. In the end, Berry’s work, and his fiction specifically, does not offer a prescriptive program or principle for redressing our social ills and neither does Wiebe. Instead it provides parables and what Wiebe calls the poetics of community. There’s no cheap or quick fix. The kinds of transformation of imagination, self, and community, to which Berry and Wiebe invite readers cannot be prescribed. Indeed, transformation requires good attentive readers, readers attached to their own places and communities. In his essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson imagines an interlocutor asking, “Where’s the fruit? . . . Why not realize your world?” Like Emerson, Berry and Wiebe suggest that the “transformation of genius into practical power” is never quite so simple. It demands virtuous, imaginative, loving attention to place, land, animals, books, neighbors, communities, enemies, economies, and ecosystems. Making a home of the world begins . . . well, at home. As Edmund Burke suggests, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Given the systemic nature of social ills and our complicity in them, personal and sociopolitical reform is an endless task. Nonetheless, we must begin somewhere. Wiebe suggests we might begin with the ethical practice of reading well.

  • Joseph Wiebe

    Joseph Wiebe


    Response to Emily Dumler-Winckler

    Emily Dumler-Winckler’s response hits me the hardest personally. Given that there’s already a lacuna of gender analysis in Berry’s interpreters, what’s the deal with letting men get the roles of mind and soul while the woman is, yet again, stuck with body? My interpretation reflects Berry’s presentation by reinscribing the problematic mapping of his gendered anthropology. Dumler-Winckler is absolutely right; my bad. If I were to give a more adequate response to this question it would be a thorough investigation of how mind, soul, and body are intertwined throughout Berry’s literature and of women’s presence (and absence) and roles throughout these narratives. Flora, for example, is only present in Andy’s mind in Remembering and is central to, yet effectively body-less in, Andy’s embodied journey to become re-membered. Elsewhere, in “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” Miss Minnie gets drunk on her husband’s whiskey in an act of magnanimous thrift and self-sacrifice. There are examples that raise generative tension to my presentation of Hannah that both merit attention and form the basis for a critical engagement of my argument.

    The reason why this first observation is so acute for me is because I knew it was a problem yet didn’t address it. When I was coming up with a structure for the second part of the book that would give a rationale for the three novels, the tripartite anthropology resonated with my interpretation of Berry and offered the section coherence. As I was editing the revisions, I became increasingly uncomfortable that I wasn’t addressing the problematic history and assumptions of writing on Hannah’s body—but I went ahead with publishing it anyway. It was my first year at a tenure-track job, which was my only year with course releases to finish the revisions and publish the manuscript before taking on a full teaching load. I remember staring at an unadorned wall in my office among boxes of files unsorted and shelves of books randomly placed feeling the urgent desperation to make hay while the sun shines. As I contemplated how to address the lacuna, I added up the time it would take to do it right. After the accounting I instead wrote remarks in a footnote about the problem and the shortcomings of not dealing with it. I accept the responsibility, but I want to also point out that the academic structure in which we all live—especially as pre-tenured faculty—make these errors very tempting to risk. Our universities don’t incentivize careful, thorough scholarship as much as they do swift; only academics who publish a lot and fast are seen as “productive.”

    The further problem the book’s structure causes, as Dumler-Winckler notes, is that what is lost in the tripartite organization is Berry’s holism that at least complicates if not resists my account of the form and function of virtues in Berry and their appeal for a theological environmental ethics. Specifically, what is lost is a relationship between the virtues and despair wherein love and hope are shaped by, yet in the process overcome or at least linger beyond, despair. Is Jayber as hopeless as I suggest, and if he is, is that really a virtue?

    It’s a matter of interpretation, of course, and Dumler-Winckler is overly generous to suggest readers should trust me; my approach to writing is that it’s better to be wrong than boring. So, I’m going to double-down on the suggestion that despair is “part and parcel of virtue” and defend it as something environmentalists in general and Christian ethicists in particular should learn from Berry. Why?

    As a grad student I took a seminar on Deleuze with Ken Surin in which we had a conversation on belief and ethics that has stuck with me. Deleuze writes, “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part” (Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 173). Another student fawned over this idea, that Deleuze offered a defense of belief that not only might make a tragic figure like Antonin Artaud laugh but reorganize the world in a way that such artists are not critical exceptions but help constitute the world itself. Surin demurred. The problem is not about belief; we have too many beliefs as it is. Artaud will laugh, he said, and went on to suggest that the real ethic we need is one that makes the greedy slickster in the white coat cry.

    I agree with Surin’s critique of beliefs and the targeted despair, though most readers of Berry, I think, would suggest that any ethic derived from Berry’s work should instead be based on the belief that faith, hope, and love remain. Jayber’s love of Mattie is foolish. Shouldn’t we believe that the world as it is created includes his foolishness even if our culture of hypersexuality doesn’t? An ethic of love that could make Jayber happy, his love redeemed not only in spite of but through his despair, is one I think a lot of environmentalists and Christian ethicists would find satisfying; yes, things seem hopeless but our ecological attachments and environmentally friendly behavior are fulfilling and we remain hopeful that because we’re working with the grain of the universe it will be redeemed. I’ve sat through multiple conference papers presented by Berry interpreters and religion and ecology scholars who emphasize the beliefs central to changing our industrial economy and putting things right. Arguments against idealism or sentimentality focus on the difficulty of gardening—pests, weeds, and the fickle nature of planting rotation teach us that good work animated by the right beliefs isn’t easy and help us reflect on the struggle of connecting with the world.

    To which I want to say, “gag me.” I’m sorry, but I find the positivity of most environmentalists nauseating and the accounts of difficulty cosmetic. Surin says we have too many beliefs, to which I want to add we have too much positivity. Too many movies have happy endings. Too many songs are sung in major keys about dancing, empowerment, hooking-up, fast cars, and cute animals. Dumler-Winckler draws on the imagery of the man in the well and its antecedents in the Gospel of John, which is exegetically correct. But that tune will be sung by JT telling us to dance, dance, dance or Taylor Swift reminding us that everything will be all right if we just keep dancing like we’re twenty-two. Deleuze might say the tune should be Monty Python ironically insisting that we always look on the bright side of life—which always makes fools (like myself) laugh. But I sing Jayber’s Man in the Well to the tune of Alice in Chains: “Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave.” A minor key ballad driven by a harmonized wail that grows in substance and intensity but ends in melodic strain. It’s a love song of despair; the anguish is the form of affection, its essential aspect.

    The connection between despair and love as I see it in Jayber Crow and Alice in Chains is a truth communicated in music and fiction. In Berry’s essays, he argues that hope and love are better action-guiding virtues than fear, anger, guilt. This argument resonates with many instructors and activists who say it’s hard to get people motivated to work on environmental initiatives when the problem appears so vast that they despair at their ineffectiveness and therefore do nothing. Fair enough. But why is it that we experience presence and love when we’re at our most vulnerable? Whether it’s the ennui of a privileged academic in late-capitalist modernity or an expression of a profound existential crisis that reflects broader cultural problems, there is an opening that happens at our lowest moments. If this opening forms the basis of an argument against the virtue of despair, I take the point; however, I don’t want to narrate it as a temptation to face but nevertheless resist because it’s only when the darkness is irresistible—either by condition (read Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason) or attraction (my preference for Alice in Chains over Justin Timberlake)—that there is an experience of the divine that is transformative, energizing, freeing.

    For Berry, this experience consists in his agrarianism and is communicated through fiction. Dumler-Winckler’s provocative account of the dis-analogies between me and Stevenson and the role of agrarianism for moral imagination certainly got me thinking. I’ll end this response with the question, can Berry’s insights be both agrarian and pertain to urban contexts? If so, is the condition of possibility that they have to be separable from land? The main reason why I maintain that agrarianism’s cultural logics produce stories the moral significance of which do not require rural or remote locations is to refocus readers’ attention on the dynamics of affection in Berry’s fiction without making the mistake that the mind is its own place—that these dynamics can be analyzed separate from where they occur and ramify. Of course, agrarianism in particular and fidelity to place in general are not necessary for all moral formation. Jenkins’s rehabilitation was not animated by agrarianism; however, its meaning should be understood with respect to place and the attachments made there. The significance of both the experience of identification with Avery’s story and its effects are connected to places—the court, the prison. Jenkins, the “reader” in this analogy, did indeed have his thinking based on land (the prison, the cotton field) albeit in highly problematic and dehumanizing ways. And it was precisely his change in relationship to place that was altered through identification with the story; he could no longer work there, at the prison, because of how it determined his connection with others. It is fair to say with Dumler-Winckler that this account of Jenkins doesn’t map precisely onto my reading of Berry, but I emphasize the point because the work that I’m trying to do is expand the range of meaning, our imagination, of what constitutes and is involved in “ways of thought based on land.”

    • Emily Dumler-Winckler

      Emily Dumler-Winckler


      A Response to Wiebe’s Response: mostly on hope and despair

      As with the book, I am grateful for Wiebe’s response and for his generosity throughout. It seems somewhat rare that we academics admit the shortcomings of our own work or the limitations that constrain our efforts. Wiebe shies away from neither. In response to my concerns about gender he says “my bad.” He recognized certain dangers and limitations prior to publication. But academic timelines, he notes, prize efficiency over due diligence, getting it done over getting it right. I keep hearing this mantra among junior colleagues and share Wiebe’s discontent. I find it troubling for the future of the field.

      At the same time, I want to extend the conversation and clarify my points about despair and hope. Wiebe is kind to note that I my interpretation of Berry’s story about a man in the well and its antecedents in the Gospel of John is “exegetically correct.” There I noted that Jaber’s conclusion seems clear: “Listen. There is a light than includes our darkness” (JC, 357). And Berry likens this to Jesus’ final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1). A divine address, according to the Apostle’s Creed, on his descent into hell and out again. But Wiebe fears that this same tune—to the incarnational melody “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” will be “sung by JT telling us to dance, dance, dance or Taylor Swift reminding us that everything will be all right if we just keep dancing like we’re twenty-two.” I must admit that I am not quite sure what analogy is being drawn here. If it is one of blind optimism, unthinking positivity, naïve idealism, or distractions of popular entertainment this is not at all what I have in mind by suggesting that hope in the midst of the blackest of nights is a virtue, and one that resists the temptations of despair. I think that perhaps Wiebe and I are much closer on this point, than his response suggests.

      He turns to music—a fitting medium for thinking about, expressing, and experiencing despair, lamentation, hope, and love. Whereas he seems to think that I sing the popular tunes of Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift, he prefers to sing “Jayber’s Man in the Well to the tune of Alice in Chains: ‘Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave.’” This is a “love song of despair; the anguish is the form of affection, its essential aspect.” When I teach James Cone’s text The Cross and the Lynching Tree to undergraduate students, and particularly the first chapter “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” I have student’s listen to Paul Robeson’s version of the spiritual. The chorus vacillates between “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow” and “… Nobody knows but Jesus.” In both cases the same refrain breaks in—as an unexpected, unexplainable, excess–“Glory Halleluiah.” Another love song, one of hope born in face of, in resistance to, despair.

      This is how I imagine the man in the well. “Glory Halleluiah” doesn’t get him out; it doesn’t change his circumstances or lessen the sorrow; it’s not a fix all; neither is it pie-in-the-sky optimism or naïve idealism. It’s hope that light can pierce the darkest darkness. It’s hope in the midst of that darkness, not an escape from it. This hope entails not detachment from or domination over the dangers and perils of the world we inhabit, but rather the ability to live well and die well in their midst. Hope as I understand it resists the temptation of despair, even if it is born in the face of that temptation. After all, decorating one’s own grave, and calling others to witness the death and ornamentation, appears to me an act of hopeful resistance in its own right.

Joelle Hathaway


Parables and Poetry

Imaginative Formations of a Locally Adapted Imagination

Berry believes that “a work of art says what it says in the only way it can be said.”1 Fiction and poetry create meaning through not only what they say, but also how they say what they say. In light of Berry’s understanding that the form of a work is intrinsic to its meaning, I find it fascinating that Berry writes poetry and fiction in addition to his nonfiction essays. It suggests that it is not enough for Berry to write nonfiction essays only. It is not enough for Berry to write just poetry. It is not enough for him to write only novels and stories. The very fact that Berry is compelled to write fiction in addition to essays and poetry, even if the themes overlap with his other works, means he believes that there is something to be revealed that can be revealed or experienced only through that particular form of writing.

Though Berry often remarks that he doesn’t have a comprehensive program for agrarian, economic, or ecological reform, his use of multiple forms of writing highlight the “wrap around” nature of imaginative formation. In his book The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity, Joseph Wiebe has offered readers insight into the place and function of narrative in Berry’s overarching goal of local adaption. In my brief engagement with this book, I would like to focus on Wiebe’s astute argument that Berry’s novels and short stories should be read as parables to be imaginatively experienced, not templates to be followed. Then I will consider the relationship between Berry’s poetry and his fiction, concluding with how understanding Berry’s fiction as parables may also help us read his poetry.

As Wiebe writes, for Berry “imagination is not just a shift in perspective but also a change in character,” which is to say that imagining is a “relational activity” (13; 22). This change in character comes through the ability to imagine a place in all its integrity—the complicated wholeness of its interdependencies, memberships, and patterns. Respecting a place’s integrity requires that a person begin to aim for local adaptation. Local adaptation involves an ongoing process of learning affection for one’s place, perceiving its holiness, and continually interrogating how one fits within the existing membership. It is the imagination that makes the life and irreducible details of a place present to the perceiver.

Imagination is thus a faculty of perception. Berry writes, “To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with ‘the mind’s eye.’ It is to see actively, with the force of vision and even with visionary force.”2 The imagination is cultivated through embodied, tangible connections with persons, places, and communities. As a faculty of perception, imagination can enable persons to “see” a place more clearly. This expansive vision is important for Berry because as limited beings, knowledge is fragmentary and experience incomplete. To tell the whole story and understand a place “as it is” or as it could be, one must become able to imagine beyond what one knows or even what one is able to know. A defining characteristic of a placed or locally adapted imagination is that it has been submitted to and investigates a real place with real needs, problems, and limits, and that it recognizes the irreducible richness of these details. The quality of one’s local adaptation is judged by the fidelity to, sympathy for, and harmony with the membership among which one is living.

William Carlos Williams is Berry’s paradigmatic poet of local adaptation. Williams, by submitting his poetic imagery and poetic language so neatly to the details of his place, offered Berry an approach and method that was able to help frame Berry’s relationship with his own place. Wiebe notes that Berry’s fiction, as well as his poetry, is part of Berry’s attempt to participate in the life of his place. And, as Wiebe argues, it is Williams’s understanding of how the imagination can support practices of local adaptation that provides a foundation for understanding Berry’s stories of Port William as parables, an example of his imaginative engagement with his world (15). His fiction and his poetry are ways in which Berry incarnates his love for his place and shares in God’s love and delight by echoing the rhythms of his creation.

Wiebe laments how many readers miss this imaginative submission and instead assume that Berry’s stories are either somehow outside of history or intended to preserve memories of the past and therefore do not contribute to present experience. He writes, “Unsympathetic readers use this assumption to repudiate Berry’s literature as altogether uninformative; sympathetic readers bestow on it a relevance that is exterior to the text itself—on some other reference point beyond literature and imagination” (4). Instead Wiebe is insistent that neither kind of reader is actually doing justice to Berry’s stories as stories; to read Berry’s stories of Port William as an illustration of Berry’s ideals of community is to approach them not as narratives but as tracts, as “political and religious ideas easy to read, easy to spread” and “templates meant for imitation” (5). Though Berry’s characters may be aware of their membership in the community and the significance of their relations, particularly their friendships, they are not stand-ins for logical precepts or saints with lives to be copied.

To read Berry’s stories as parables is to recognize Berry’s commitment and fidelity to his place. His fiction is an attempt “to pierce the shallow culture and exploitative economy that cloak his native land so that its genius can be revealed and clarified” (29). If “Berry’s imagined characters are useful,” it is “not as ideals for how to be in the world but as clarifying the constitutive experiences and qualities of an imagination in place” (7). The central characters in Berry’s novels are characters of resistance and affection, those who participate in practices that are intended to be faithful to the Port William membership. The truth that fiction offers its readers is found “in the integrity of its characters,” not in some truth beyond the text (30). In Berry’s case, his characters explore and clarify what it means to have (or not have) a place-based identity, an imagination that is fully adapted.

Interestingly, Wiebe writes that “though Berry focuses on Williams’ poetry, much of his indebtedness can be seen in Berry’s fiction. The Port William stories manifest a poetic, embodied imagination” (32). With the latter comment I don’t disagree—Wiebe has shown this masterfully in his analyses of The Memory of Old Jack, Jayber Crow, and Hannah Coulter later in his book. What I find strange is how this claim seems to—though perhaps Wiebe did not intend to—disregard Berry’s indebtedness to Williams’s poetry in Berry’s poetry or the relationship between Berry’s poetry and his fiction.

To take Berry’s understanding of how art works seriously is to recognize that “a work of art says what it says in the only way it can be said.”3 A work of the arts means what it says through how it says what it says; its witness to the truth of reality can be revealed in no other form. Wiebe notes, “Berry’s narrative technique is a meandering, wandering method without end or terminus. . . . This indeterminacy is what gives Berry’s novels their emotional weight. Readers are attracted to the truth Berry’s style admits because it is a mystery left intact” (8). Similarly, his Sabbath poetry aims to reveal and reflect on the mysterious holiness of all things, to draw our attention to the wholeness of God’s creation. The fact that he writes poetry—and has for most of his life—tells us that this form of writing, too, is critical to his imaginative practice of becoming locally adapted. Both Berry’s fiction and his poetry are indebted to Williams, though they embody it in different ways—Wiebe focuses on Berry’s fiction and I think his arguments can be extended to included his poetry as well.

Poetry and fiction, then, are interdependent literary pursuits that work in tandem to form Berry’s imagination and help him belong to his place. Truth in Berry’s fiction is found by living with and through the complicated lives, emotions, and actions of his characters, while truth in his poetry is found in its attention to particulars, its memorable, metaphor-rich images, its rhythm, and its suggestion of the poetic quality of human life. For Berry, like Williams, a poem’s “meaning is incarnate.”4 Poetry is a way of committing to and confronting the limits and particulars of place, and of finding a place for himself and his farm within the complex pattern of creation.

Berry is clear in his essays that he is both a farmer and a writer, a farmer-poet or a poet-farmer. Not one and then the other, but both together. The two vocations cannot be separated and remain “resistant to any kind of simplification. It is an experience of what I will go ahead and call complexification.”5 As a farmer-poet he has accepted the limit and particularity of his land as an influence for his farming practices and his writing practices. Each form of creative engagement attends to the world in a different way and all four—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and farming—are necessary for Berry to fully imagine and become locally adapted to his place. This is because adaptation requires the practice of imagination in relation to the irreducible details of a place. Poetry is a form particularly sensitive to such irreducibility, and is a crucial means by which Berry explores and imagines his place.

In Sabbath poem VII, 1994, Berry reflects as a whole on his vocation as a writer. The first half of the poem reads as follows:

I would not have been a poet

except that I have been in love

alive in this mortal world,

or an essayist except that I

have been bewildered and afraid,

or a storyteller had I not heard

stories passing to me through the air,

or a writer at all except

I have been wakeful at night

And words have come to me

Out of their deep caves,

Needing to be remembered.6

As a writer, Berry writes of things he feels need to be and are worthy of being remembered. He is a poet out of love, an essayist out of confusion, and a novelist out of gift. This poem ends with the affirmation that these three roles—poet, essayist, novelist—have been his way of serving his marriage, his work on his farm, and his local woods—which is his way of serving all of God’s creation through serving his local place. All three engage and serve creation in their own distinct ways, yet all are part of the same imaginative formation.

Additionally, Berry’s novels and poems are not completely distinct because he has written poems from the perspective of his Port William characters. Four of these poems appear in the Sabbath collection—as Andy Catlett in VI, 1989, Burley Coulter in VI, 2000, and as “old man” Jayber Crow in IV, 2004 and II, 2006—and at least one appears in his non-Sabbath poems, “Burley Coulter’s Song for Kate Helen Branch” from his 2005 Given collection. What Wiebe identifies as Jayber’s “magnanimity” and affection—for the entire Port William membership and not only Mattie—is on display in Sabbath poem IV, 2004:

To think of gathering all

the sorrows of Port William

into myself, and so

sparing others:

What freedom! What joy!

This meditation by Jayber supports Wiebe’s observation that Jayber’s transformation is “from despairing at the world as it is as all there is, to imagining the world as it is as more than what can be seen or shown in time” (111). Similarly, “Old Man” Jayber Crow in Sabbath poem II, 2006, also reflects Wiebe’s statement that Jayber’s story is about “a broken heart that allows Jayber to see the love of Christ” in the broken and lowly (111).

Many I loved as man and boy

Are gone beyond all that I know,

Fallen leaves under falling rain,

Except Christ raise them up again.

I know my blessings by their cost,

Thus it is the pride of man made low.

To ease the sorry of my thoughts,

Though I’m too weary now and slow,

I’d need to dance all night for joy.

It is interesting that Jayber Crow does not exhaust what Jayber Crow has to say, even though he is rarely mentioned in later novels. Berry takes this character beyond the pages of his novel and places him in the pages of his own spiritual practice of writing Sabbath poetry.

Though these brief poems may not change what we “know” about Jayber’s story, this example shows how intimately Berry’s novels and poetry exist in his imagination. These two poems say something through Jayber’s voice that could only be said in poetic form, not the prose form of a novel or even in Berry’s own poetic voice. Most importantly, these two poems in Jayber’s voice are located within Berry’s forty-plus-year practice of taking a Sunday walk in the woods and cultivating affection for and attention to his place. Berry understands his Sabbath poems to participate in the peace of the Sabbath and represent a practice of contemplation that enables Berry to imagine how practically to orient his whole life and work toward the goal of Sabbath rest.

Wiebe’s insight that Berry’s novels must be read as parables and not paradigms also gives us insight into how his poetry should be read. In the same way that Berry did not imitate William Carlos Williams’s style of poetry but his imaginative process of local adaptation, so too Berry’s fiction and poetry offer us an imaginative orientation to imitate. In Berry’s poetry you will find that he addresses nearly every topic that he addresses in his nonfiction essays—everything from damnations of the consumer-industrial economy to praises of fidelity in marriage. Berry’s poetry, stories, and essays all assist his personal process of local adaption in their own unique way and all three are necessarily interconnected. In particular, Berry’s poetic practice of attention assists the imaginative formation necessary to create a world of integrity in his fiction.

  1. Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 117.

  2. Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2012), 14.

  3. Berry, Life Is a Miracle, 117.

  4. Wendell Berry, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011), 119.

  5. Wendell Berry, “Imagination in Place,” in Imagination in Place (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 12.

  6. Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2013), 154.

  • Joseph Wiebe

    Joseph Wiebe


    Response to Joelle Hathaway

    I deeply appreciate Joelle Hathaway’s extension of my interpretation to Berry’s poetry. I didn’t feel capable of doing Berry’s poetry justice and Hathaway shows how much better that analysis is in her capable hands. I want to focus on Hathaway’s articulation that Berry offers an “orientation to imitate.” One that can be seen in both fiction and poetry in complementary yet analytically distinct ways.

    My main goal in the book was to provide a convincing case that Berry’s work is more complicated than is often acknowledged. As Hathaway points out, the farm has been Berry’s form and standard for writing. Because Berry’s farming and writing are inextricably linked, the particularizing work of agriculture demands particularizing language in literature. His plain prose gives the appearance of simplicity; writing that is easy to absorb gives the experience of being easy to understand. That experience breeds familiarity, which engenders something far worse than contempt for academics: disregard. We all want to be condescended to, to be hated, because it requires that our work is taken seriously. But Berry is both famous and glossed over so that his name has become synonymous with quaint, nostalgic, rural agrarian community life and all its trappings. In some sense Berry is to environmental ethics what Plato is to philosophy: read to see, rather than get beyond, the caricatures. Berry the nostalgic; Plato the idealist. In both cases the text is rarely engaged to see what’s actually there rather than to find what they already think is known about it. And then the reader is supposed to move on to something more complex—Gary Snyder, Aristotle. My interpretation of Berry’s fiction is based on the realization that Berry is as much of a nostalgic as Plato is an idealist, i.e., both caricatures are wrong.

    The comparison to Plato is perhaps as odd as it is distracting, but I’ll risk it because, for me, learning to read Plato was indispensable to learning to read Berry. One of the most informative seminars I took as a grad student at McMaster was reading The Odyssey and Plato with Zdravko Planinc. In short, Zdravko showed us how Plato used Homer in his dialogues, to refigure ancient spiritual and political tropes in his own contemporary context as social criticism. This connection to The Odyssey is lost on most because interpreters today repeat the “old quarrel between philosophy and poetry” to which Socrates refers at the end of the Republic—namely, that the distinction between them is basic: rational and irrational, logical and metaphorical, what can be said and meaning beyond words. To the extent that Plato uses the imagery of a line, the sun, and a cave it breaches this boundary and thus this imagery must be read as ideals—outside philosophical discourse on politics, society, and religion.

    So too, it dawned on me, that Berry’s interpreters do the same with ethics and fiction. Berry advocates sustainable farming practices in healthy communities and his fiction is about members of a healthy community who practice sustainable farming; therefore his fiction is the beautiful city, as it were, that we need to emulate—or so the thinking goes. There’s no room in ethical thinking—construed either as developing decision-making processes or character formation—for beautiful lies, except perhaps as illustration, ideal, or allegory. To the extent that Berry writes poetry and fiction he is dismissed as didactic because of the assumption that his literature is trying to change the world.

    The point in changing how we read Berry is to change how we understand the relationship between art and ethics. Make Berry strange, I thought, to get people to go back to the text and see what’s actually there. Turning back to Hathaway, the relationship has everything to do with the way place shapes fiction and poetry. Berry’s fiction isn’t tied to place insofar as it produces memories for consumption or ideals for imitation; it’s tied to place because, for Berry, the urge to write is experientially equivalent to the urge to farm. It all turns on affection. Hathaway’s reminder that Berry writes poetry out of love and fiction out of gift refocuses attention on the integrity of the art as it is crafted rather than on its function. Art is tied to truth and beauty but doesn’t aim for either; Berry is just trying to write well. The extent to which his craft’s achievements reveal and participate in underlying structures of the world—divine imagination and creativity—is a result of the place’s genius being made known to the reader. The particularity of the place is tied to the particularity of Berry’s language, but the meaning isn’t isomorphic. Berry’s literature doesn’t provide unmediated access to either himself or his place so they shouldn’t be read as if they’re communicating Berry’s ideas or exhausting the meaning of his specific landscape. Instead, they should be read as acts of love and gratitude, which form the basis for the connection between art and ethics.

    The orientation that Hathaway highlights is in both Plato and Berry, which is that there are some things that are only known through love: the features of a landscape on which one’s family has lived for generations; the good beyond being. What is revealed is difficult if not impossible to say directly so both figures write literature—dialogues and fictional communities in speech. Neither are straightforwardly political, neither give the reader something to implement. Both express a love that isn’t communicated in propositions but experiences of conversation moving toward a good end. Neither Berry nor Plato want the reader to get caught up in the images but the love that produced those images. Such is the basis for being a philosopher or an agrarian, for justice, and for being at home in the world.

Paul Schutz


On Thinking the Particularity of Place

Review Essay: The Place of Imagination, by Joseph Wiebe

As a Catholic theologian working at the intersection of religion and ecology, I’ve long been inspired by Wendell Berry’s writings. In fact, Berry’s influence on me has been so great that I’ve often quipped that I’m “more Wendell Berry than Thomas Berry” to position myself within the scholarly conversation.

Yet like many readers, I’ve worked primarily with Berry’s essays and poems; my exposure to his fiction is limited to Hannah Coulter and a few stories. So, I begin my response to The Place of Imagination with gratitude for Joseph Wiebe’s close, careful study of how Berry’s place-based imagination operates in his fiction. At the same time, I’m aware that my ability to comprehend the depth of Wiebe’s analysis is limited by my lack of exposure to Berry’s fictional works. With that in mind, this essay discusses three insights and poses a few critical questions that arose as I read this book. These insights and questions aim, respectively, to lift up theological insights that emerged from Wiebe’s analysis and to promote productive conversation on the valuable work he has done.

First, Wiebe demonstrates beautifully how Berry’s place-based imagination operates both as an intellectual faculty and as an apparatus for holistic decision-making that takes seriously the full range of factors at play in a creature’s socioecological context. Imagination and affection are not unbounded; they are “finite” and “particular,” situated within networks that “are bound to the community’s exercise and arrangement of power and social structures” (2). Wiebe likewise illuminates Berry’s profound ecological vision, which places humanity within a great oikos—a socioecological household—within which creatures of all types and stripes strive to flourish amid the exploitative pressures of what Laudato Si’ names the “technocratic paradigm.”1 In so doing, Wiebe offers theology an invaluable resource for seeing how an imagination rooted in place understands the social, ecological, and structural as inextricably entwined; to consider one in isolation from another is to miss a fundamental truth about how reality is constituted. Chapter 2’s analysis of race and land in The Hidden Wound makes this point very clear. In this way, too, Wiebe demonstrates the practical power of Berry’s fiction; imagination challenges creatures to become mindful of the ways they are situated within and constituted by the concrete networks of relations they inhabit. Just as Berry’s characters interact with a given “now,” so Berry challenges readers to become mindful of their respective “nows.” Such a vision seems vital if theology is to foster a new consciousness oriented away from exploitation and toward the “finite particularity of love” (2).

Second, Wiebe clearly demonstrates how, like all good parables, Berry’s Port William stories disrupt entrenched systems of power, privilege, and domination, not to prescribe a particular outcome (at least not one beyond the finite particularity of love) but to promote deep reflection. On this point, Wiebe offers theologians much to consider. For, it seems to me that one of the greatest weaknesses of Christianity’s interpretation of biblical texts lies in the impulse to read the Bible as people have read Berry’s stories: as a guidebook or moral manual that contains self-evident truths about reality and right belief, offering “a program by which his argument can be institutionalized or legitimated per se” (157). Yet, Wiebe shows, Berry’s fiction resists such systematization. In doing so, it offers a hermeneutical resource that counters any impulse to reduce the destabilizing and disruptive power of Jesus’ parables to pithy claims on how to “be good.” In other words, parables turn the status quo of the imagined world order upside down, not by offering an alternative social program but by provoking thought. As such, Wiebe explains, Berry envisions “the moral of the story” not as lesson but as “formation,” which strips away preconceived notions, challenges systems of oppression and injustice, and fosters “sympathy, affection, interrogation, [and] self-awareness” (151). In this sense, Berry’s fiction and gospel parables are more like Zen kōans, which trouble the clear-cut resolution our consciousness seeks in the interest of deepening mindful reflection on the interrelatedness of all things. Wiebe makes the point well: “Becoming aware of the farmer’s dignity does not elicit the question, how shall I farm? but rather, what does the worth of that dignity reveal to me?” (25)

This second point raises an issue that I’ve thought a great deal about. Though theologians have begun to reflect conceptually on ecology and the present crisis facing our planet, I wonder whether we have made a full perceptual turn that imagines humans within rather than alongside or above socioecosystems. Wiebe’s discussion of Jack and Ruth in chapter 4 is instructive here. Both characters are cut from the cloth of their mothers and fathers and formed to imagine their “place” in a particular way, bound as they are by ambitions and desires that operate silently within their comings and goings, such that “neither can see the actual person present” (88). As Wiebe makes clear, there is an implicit diagnosis of the present situation in Berry’s stories—a diagnosis that touches every aspect of life. In light of this reality, Berry’s “meandering, wandering” technique reflects the meanderings of everyday life and so challenges people and communities to reimagine creaturely life and—like Jack—to “stand where we stand” (103). In Wiebe’s words, to do so is to see “the earth and its human and natural history reverently” (159), suffused with the life-giving love of the living God.

Third, I (my inner theology geek) was delighted to discover through Wiebe’s analysis how Berry’s fiction seems to embody major themes of the Christian theological tradition—from Thomas Aquinas to James Cone—in powerful ways. In discussing these links, I do not intend to remake Berry in the image of Christian theology (that would surely be blasphemous!). I intend these connections only as conversation-starters, whatever their worth might be.

I found Wiebe’s interpretation of the imago Dei as joyous participation in the Creator’s creativity wonderfully consonant with Aquinas’s idea of creaturely flourishing according to each creature’s own “kind.”2 If, for humans, to be is to be creative, then Berry’s imagination raises the question of how human creativity is to be expressed. If God is in all things, as Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, and Berry would have it, what does this mean for discernment and ethical action? (Lonergan’s movement from reflection to judgment, decision, and action operates in Port William, as well.) Here, the premium Wiebe places on communal and individual discernment is crucial, as it honors the particularity and diversity of creaturely experience within concrete social and ecological contexts, countering top-down assertions of truth and meaning that all too often lead to domination with an openness to discernment and self-discovery.

Chapter 2’s treatment of white supremacy, the myth of upward mobility, and white pity—which demonstrates how “race and environment are coextensive constructions of the interconnections between identity, imagination, and place” (35)—is instructive on this point, particularly as it echoes James Cone’s observation that

the logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and Apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature. It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of their contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy.3

In contrast to this logic of domination, Wiebe writes, “Imagination . . . perceives a dimension of the world that all things share” (21) and “blurs conventional boundaries of perception and divisions of mind and objects” (27) toward the realization of a communion of flourishing creatures.

Likewise, Wiebe’s vision of place-based imagination as a mediator of memory offers an excellent conversation partner for the theologies of Karl Rahner and Johann Baptist Metz. In some sense, Berry’s fiction illustrates Rahner’s account of how transcendence is mediated in “categorical” (worldly) realities. As Berry explains, “It is not just from the canonical Scriptures that the news of eternity comes. It can come from anywhere, anytime. . . . It’s important to me to understand that there are heavenly things that are present here, in time, in flesh, wood, rock, water and all the rest of it” (160). Yet this vision of God’s presence in the world is not unfiltered or ideal. Quite the contrary, Berry’s fiction shows that even divine presence is subject to the finitude and strife of the world. “Being at home in the world happens in the struggle, not as a result or in spite of it” (34). The connection with Metz’s categories of memory, narrative, and solidarity emerges here. For it is precisely in narratives of suffering and struggle—in “the memory of African American lives” (56) or the life of Hannah Coulter—that imagination runs up against limits. The memory of enslaved and exploited black bodies surely serves as an example of Metz’s “dangerous memory,” which like the memory of Christ on the cross destabilizes structures of oppression and promotes action in solidarity with the oppressed.4 In this way, too, Berry’s fiction challenges creatures to stand where they stand alongside those like Nathan Coulter, whose transformed perception leads him to “see the country for what it is . . .” (63) and to reimagine what it is and what it may become.

These are some of the connections I discovered in Wiebe’s insightful treatment of Berry’s fiction. I would love to hear more about how Wiebe sees any or all of these points, especially as they might inform theological discourse.

Having offered these reflections, I’d like to raise a few concerns aimed at clarifying and advancing aspects of Wiebe’s work. My principal concern first arose when Wiebe introduced the parable of the lost sheep in chapter 3. Despite his consistent reference to the parable, I’m not sure Wiebe makes its connection to Berry’s fiction entirely clear. I don’t doubt that a connection exists, but I had trouble detecting how the parable functions in his analysis of Berry’s work. This concern came into clearest focus in his treatment of “Watch with Me,” wherein he names and describes the parabolic connection but does not, in my reading, unpack its significance. This concern grew as I read chapters 4–6. With the exception of the passages cited above and a few others, including Wiebe’s excellent treatment of the conversion that follows Andy’s acceptance of impermanence in A World Lost, I often felt a bit “lost in the weeds” of Wiebe’s analysis. To be clear, the analysis is strong, but explicit discussion of the concrete significance of Berry’s place-based imagination seemed to fade a bit in the “case studies” of the book’s later chapters. For example, in his treatment of Jayber Crow, Wiebe focuses attention on the ways in which divine love is mediated through “magnanimous despair” to transform the imagination. But in light of Jayber’s story, I found myself wondering what Wiebe thinks it might look like to enact the love of Christ in the concrete circumstances of everyday life. How might Berry’s stories answer such a question, recognizing that the answer will always be context-dependent?

More pointedly, if Berry’s fiction challenges the myth that we can “think about ourselves in abstraction from the land” (40) with the reality of our rootedness in socioecological contexts, I wonder whether Wiebe adequately engages the role that the particularity of land and ecology play in Berry’s fiction, given their centrality in his broader work. Put another way, if Berry’s place-based imagination is “a way of thought based on land” (151), how does the particularity of place shape the perceptions of Berry’s fictional characters, and how might greater emphasis on place transform the imaginations of real persons and communities today?

On some level, I suspect these concerns stem from Wiebe’s adherence to Berry’s stated claim that his writings do not provide a program to be implemented—to which I’m sympathetic. But at times the focus on imagination-as-process seemed a bit too open-ended, and I found myself wanting more of Wiebe’s voice, explaining the “so what?” significance of his analysis for life in today’s world. I likewise wondered whether bringing in Berry’s essays as a conversation partner might provide a bit more concrete material to balance the parabolic nature of Berry’s fiction—but doing so may well be contrary to Wiebe’s intention. That said, I still wish to ask, “What does a place-based imagination look like in practice? What concrete challenge does Berry’s imagination pose to structures of oppression and socioecological exploitation? What does Wiebe see as the concrete significance of such an imagination for the world today?”

More elaboration on these points would enhance my understanding of Wiebe’s text and demonstrate even more clearly the significance of Berry’s fiction for contemporary discourse. Of course, none of these concerns trumps the positive contributions Wiebe makes in The Place of Imagination. I only hope to advance the conversation about Berry by raising them, and I look forward to hearing more about this text as we imagine and reimagine our experience of this book in the conversation to come.

  1. See Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, esp. ch. 3.

  2. See, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 3.16–17; 3.58–59.

  3. James Cone, “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?,” Cross Currents 50.1–2 (2000) 36.

  4. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Herder & Herder, 2007).

  • Joseph Wiebe

    Joseph Wiebe


    Response to Paul Schutz

    The initial round of questioning at my dissertation defense began with the external examiner, whose opening line was, “Your dissertation theologically over-promises and theoretically under-delivers.” And here I was wondering whether the examiners would tell me what they really thought. So, I appreciate Schutz’s reflection on the theological resonances in the heavily-revised published version. Because many theologians and Christian ethicists read Berry to find similarities to or examples of Christian tropes, my hermeneutical approach was the opposite: what can theologians and Christian ethicists learn from Berry? And yet certain theologians formed my approach. It would be disingenuous of me to suggest my inquiry was neutral, even if I wasn’t consciously aware of it while writing.

    Schutz’s theological reflections prompt me to think about the Catholic theologians in particular whose work helped me notice things in Berry I might not have otherwise. James Alison’s work on mimetic desire as not just pernicious but also developmental helped me think about the benefits of Berry’s education of affections. Herbert McCabe’s great line about the Eucharist—“The reason why it is hard for me to envisage a Coke and a frankfurter becoming the body of Christ is that I have difficulty in imagining them as food in the first place” (God Matters, 128)—helped me think about the limits of imagination in relation to the role and importance of substances in a sacramental vision. Berry’s particular account of the affections and significance of place for imagination shapes these thoughts and poses questions worth reflecting on, as Schutz points out. Theologians have yet to exhaust the full range and implications of Berry’s work for Christian environmental ethics.

    To this end I appreciate Schutz’s critical questioning about the concrete significance of a place-based imagination. The purview of the book itself was to articulate what a place-based imagination consisted in and how Berry’s fiction communicates it to the reader. There’s a sense in which one could argue, as Schutz intimates, that looking at Berry’s essays—or perhaps even more, his policy proposals and The Berry Center that has institutionalized his thought—would provide some glimpses at least of what a place-based imagination has meant practically, concretely for Berry. I’m fine with that as far as it goes; however, it doesn’t help with the point that it will be context-dependent. We can read King Lear to gain insight into what humanity’s crawl toward death means but the role that concept will play in the reader’s life will depend on all kinds of things outside the text—and knowing the role it played for Shakespeare is equally unhelpful for concretizing its meaning. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to push how place-based imagination and concepts like fidelity to place impact theological identity and practices.

    For this ethicist, the challenge Berry’s imagination poses to “structures of oppression and socioeconomic exploitation” today aims at settler colonialism. Immediately following the completion of the dissertation, and in the back of my mind while I was writing the revisions for the book manuscript, was: how does this play out historically? More specifically, as a Mennonite whose great-great grandfather immigrated from Russia to Canadian land promised to Métis families, I wanted to know what Mennonite fidelity to place means for both its ethnoreligious identity and its particular theological practices? Mennonites are known for embodying their theology in material things like baking, farming, clothing, transportation, and décor; they are also known for being a distinct community as a visible witness to a way of life alternative to dominant society or power politics. So how does their fidelity to place, being the “quiet in the land,” animate and challenge Mennonite self-articulation? Mennonite participation in settler colonialism implicates their ecclesiology and community ethic in structures of oppression and socioeconomic exploitation. Yet the very thing that implicates them—land—is also what provides the possibility for decolonial theology and reconciliation with current and dispossessed Indigenous neighbors.

    Settler colonialism illuminates the generative possibility of magnanimous despair as a virtue, or way of mediating Christ’s love. I’ve said a bit about this already in my response to Dumler-Winckler, but I’ll say a bit more about how I think it works here. I’ve had conversations and presentations in Mennonite contexts where the response to my argument that a place-based imagination should form the basis for how Mennonites engage their theological understanding of farming and community has been mixed. On the one hand, I’ve heard Mennonites old and not-as-old-as-you’d think defend Mennonite history on the basis of their work ethic. The response goes something like this: we came to North America and worked hard in arduous circumstances to root our communities in ways that enabled the perseverance of our people and way of life. Yeah, it was part of mass land grabs and development that state programs used to dispossess and neutralize Indigenous political threats, but Mennonites didn’t intentionally participate in these programs and their work ethic absolves them from having the narrative of settler colonialism determine the interpretation of their history on the land. On the other hand, Mennonites young and not-as-young-as-you’d-think lament at their involvement in settler colonialism and work with Indigenous communities toward reparation and reconciliation. In these latter cases I’d see what I understood to be the magnanimous despair I see in Jayber Crow. What do you do with land bought from a speculator that was promised to an Indigenous community for which there was almost no hope at finding to whom it should’ve gone? How do you accept responsibility for an error you benefited from but did not commit—that was committed generations ago? There are no simple answers or programs but the animating affection has been rooted in despair—exasperation at the hopelessness of doing something that makes a noticeable difference yet something is done anyway, even haltingly, awkwardly, and sometimes embarrassingly out of love of the land, its original possessors, and the tradition to which one belongs. The particularity of place shapes the perception of these Mennonites in ways that affect behavior from a position of great-souled despair. This formation is ethical insofar as it develops their character and changes habits of mind and body; yet it does not hope for a particular outcome because such a state of affairs is beyond what the perpetuators of settler colonialism can establish without meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities.

    This is just one example that I’ve been working on. My hope is that conversations around Berry and on his work engender different ways people have lived with the concepts and parables he delineates in his fiction. To be sure, it stretches the imagination: how does place-based identity work? What implications does it have on local structures of social, political, and cultural manifestations of dispossessive powers? What does it look like to live with these concepts in relationships with the dispossessed? These and other questions press upon Berry’s readers and I’d love to hear how others think through and live with them.

Matthew Philipp Whelan


Imagination, Agriculture, and the Plagiarization of Nature

One of the central claims Joseph Wiebe makes in his excellent and insightful book, The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity, is that Berry’s fictional Port William must not be understood—as it often is—as the mirror of an actual location. While its genesis lay in a literal place, Port William is not the imitation of it; “Berry’s writing,” Wiebe explains, “facilitates awareness beyond convention by depicting the creativity he sees animating his place [in Kentucky]. . . . Port William ‘originates in part in actual experience of an actual place’ but is not a mirror of his home. Imagination does not imitate or plagiarize nature.”1

This evocative passage suggests what Wiebe takes his own task to be as an interpreter of Berry: to help us to see how Berry’s fiction is not driven by an agenda but by a place, imaginative fidelity to which discloses the creativity animating not only Berry’s place in the world, but ours as well. In other words, what Berry’s fiction discloses is a depth to the actual experience of actual places, the reality of which is inexhaustibly mysterious. There is no formula for this, Wiebe helpfully insists again and again, no “theory, map, blueprint, recipe, DIY manual.”2 The relationship between Port William and the place that inspired it is not one of template and imitation but parable and world. In this way, Port William is a vehicle of disclosure about Berry’s literal place, while at the same time opening up possibilities for all the literal places in which we live.

Imagination for Berry is precisely the means of this disclosure, the faculty of perception that enables the revelation of that which, in Wiebe’s words, “the routines of an exploitative culture and extractive economy hide.”3 The cultivation of this imagination is therefore indispensable, not only for the revelation and perception of the depth and mystery at the heart of being itself, but also for beginning to understand the claims our places have on us, as well as our own deep and systematic entanglement in routines of exploitation and extraction. The three central characters Wiebe treats—Jack (chapter 4), Jayber (chapter 5), and Hannah (chapter 6)—exemplify as they display Berry’s moral imagination and its placement in the world. As Wiebe contends, each of them, in different ways, help us as readers of Berry’s fiction cultivate the imaginative capacities to go and do likewise.

As Wiebe also insists throughout The Place of Imagination, there is no process of idealization at work here. In this regard, chapter 2 (“Affection: Community, Race, and Place”), which focuses on Berry’s account of the racial ordering of his place in close conversation with Willie James Jennings’s The Christian Imagination, is essential reading.4 Communities and their members, Wiebe argues, are profoundly wounded. For Berry, imagination is what enables the negotiation of this reality, and imagination does this, first and foremost, by helping us to face rather than evade the reality before us—to learn the difficult work of dealing with the wounds in the places we are and to acknowledge our own role in perpetuating them. Imagination cannot “imitate or plagiarize nature” because it would then be blind to these wounds, and therefore blind to the reality of which they are part.


I’ve been sketching what I take to be some of the major lines of argument in Wiebe’s The Place of Imagination. In the remainder of this essay, I want to reflect further upon the idea that imagination does not imitate or plagiarize nature. What does this mean, exactly? And what are some of the implications of this commitment?

Wiebe borrows the formulation about plagiarizing nature from Berry’s book on the poet William Carlos Williams, a major influence upon Berry. According to Wiebe, Williams inspired “Berry’s return [to Kentucky], providing the poetics that informed and made possible Berry’s revived imaginative receptivity of his place . . . [and that] structures Berry’s engagement with his home.”5 In commenting upon Williams’s poetics, Berry writes that “a work of art must not be an illusion of reality. The artist must not ‘plagiarize’ from nature. To do so—to paint as an illusion of ‘reality’ a scene or a view—is to make a thing that is by nature fragmentary; both artist and viewer must accept thereby a sort of condemnation to incompleteness.”6

The example Williams gives of plagiarizing from nature is painting that aspires towards a certain kind of realism, presenting an illusion of a scene or a view. At least on Berry’s presentation of Williams, the concerns with this approach are various, but the main one seems to be that such paintings, almost in spite of themselves, end up being only fragmentary, incomplete, and superficial. They are content simply with the surface of things. As Williams’s comment suggests, this has essentially to do with the aspiration of such art to a condition that denies or obscures its creaturely status, which leads to the evasion of, rather than the engagement with, reality in all its difficulties. Art isn’t nature. Rather, it’s contained within nature and subordinate to nature, and Williams and Berry seem to be suggesting that it’s essential to acknowledge and display that difference in the very form of the artwork itself. Plagiarizing nature—mirroring or copying or offering illusions of nature—not only denies this difference between art and nature, but it also, as Berry writes, “usurp[s] the rule of nature either in the world or in the mind.”7 Art, in other words, provides fantasy rather than insight; its disclosive powers stop at the mind of the artist rather than extending to the depths of the world.

What is the alternative view of artistic creation that Williams and Berry propose? Williams asks us to consider “The Open Window,” a painting by the Spanish artist Juan Gris: “Here is a shutter, a bunch of grapes, a sheet of music, a picture of sea and mountains . . . which the onlooker is not for a moment permitted to witness as an ‘illusion.’” In this way, Williams continues, Gris’s painting “escapes plagiarism after nature and becomes a creation,” coming to possess the power to “stand between man [sic] and nature as saints stood between man and the sky.”8 As Berry puts it, this approach to art “is an imitation of the processes or creativity of nature.”9

The distinction Berry is drawing is an important one: art is not an imitation of nature in the sense of its visibility, but rather an imitation of the processes and the creativity that animates what we see. This essentially relates to Wiebe’s point about the creativity Berry sees underlying his place, a depth to the reality of things that is not only ineradicably mysterious but that makes claims upon us. For what is at stake here is the disclosure of an order that is both ontological and moral.

The idea that art—understood in the broad sense of human making—imitates nature’s processes and creativity is an old one, with roots at least as far back as Aristotle,10 and it became commonplace among the medievals. For instance, in taking up this idea, Thomas Aquinas writes of the way art imitates nature almost identically to Berry: art imitates nature in its manner of operation (ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione), by which Thomas means something like art does not plagiarize nature but rather perceives, works with, and even imitates the processes already operative in the created order.11 The example Thomas uses is the medical arts. Thomas thinks there are processes already at work in the body that bring about health—what medievals referred to as natura naturans, nature doing what nature does—such that the art of the doctor is to understand how the body already strives for its own health and to assist it in its striving. The practitioner of the medical arts, then, is not the principal agent of health; the processes already at work in the body are, and the goal of the doctor’s art is to work with these processes.12


As I’ve been suggesting in this essay, imagination and how it places us in the world is the heart of Wiebe’s argument about Berry’s fiction, and Wiebe convincingly makes the case that it is central to Berry’s vision of artistic labor. In this final part of my essay, I am especially interested in concretizing these considerations by extending Wiebe’s argument beyond Berry’s fictional art into an art that is also important to Berry but that Wiebe does not consider in much detail, at least in The Place of Imagination: the art of agriculture. In other words, by turning to agriculture, I want to examine the book’s central insights beyond Wiebe’s explicit topic, testing the applicability and generativity of those insights beyond Berry’s fictional art to a practical art like agriculture.

In Berry’s book on Williams, Berry himself makes the connection to agriculture explicit, noting how Williams’s poetics, and the relation between art and nature it implies, conforms to the agricultural sciences as understood by Albert Howard and Wes Jackson. As Berry explains:

Farming obviously cannot copy nature because it is to a significant extent an art and is to that extent artificial. . . . But farming, according to Howard and Jackson, must nevertheless imitate the creativity of nature by incorporating the natural principles and processes of the forest or the prairie. The good farmer farms, then, not by a “realistic” copying, but by a kind of science, a kind of art, and a kind of imagination.13

Although there are clear and obvious differences between Berry’s fictional art and agriculture, Berry’s interest in this passage is the similarities between them. (And just to be clear, while Howard and Jackson’s principal interest here is agricultural science, Berry is suggesting that their work has important implications for agricultural practice.)

Consider Jackson’s work at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, which is seeking to develop an agriculture that mimics the prairie by breeding herbaceous perennial seed-producing crops that can be grown in polyculture.14 What Jackson and his colleagues oppose is a dominant form of agriculture—the conventional monoculture of annuals—that treats the landscape as if it were a blank slate, without any creativity underlying or animating it. I would argue that what Jackson and his colleagues are attempting to do in developing such an agriculture—an agriculture that mimics the prairie—is imagining an agricultural art that imitates the processes or creativity at work in the wider natural world. In other words, they are not plagiarizing the prairie but imitating the prairie in its manner of operation, discerning and incorporating into agricultural practice the principles and processes of the prairie. Moreover, at least as Wes Jackson and other proponents of this so-called natural systems agriculture describe them, these ecological principles and processes even provide a kind of moral norm for agriculture—both in the sense of offering guidance for what good agriculture looks like, but also in the sense of providing a language with which to critique dominant forms of agricultural practice and how they are pillaging our world.15

What is also important to see about this agriculture that mimics the prairie is that it involves complex processes of discernment and judgment. Lee DeHaan, lead scientist on the development of the perennial grain Kernza, resists some of the more popular understandings of the work of the Land Institute, which characterize its approach as if it were a plagiarization of nature. “We don’t imitate everything about the prairie,” he said to me on a recent visit there. “We don’t copy it exactly. Rather, there’s a process of discernment regarding what to imitate that is much more complicated than it is usually represented. It’s really hard to discern what rules of nature exist, if they are something we should use in our human endeavors, and then when and how to apply them.”16 At least on Wiebe’s terms, what DeHaan seems to be arguing for here is the crucial—and oftentimes unacknowledged—role of imagination in agricultural science and practice itself.

The resonances between the Land Institute’s approach to agriculture and Wiebe’s articulation of Berry’s poetics of place are striking and worthy of further reflection. For this agriculture does not plagiarize nature but seeks to imitate it in its manner of operation. And while this agriculture might articulate certain ecological rules or principles, such rules or principles must always be locally instantiated and so must always involve actual experience with actual places. In other words, the rules or principles cannot be simplistically equated with theories, maps, blueprints, recipes, or DIY manuals, because something like imagination is indispensable both for the perception and the instantiation of them. Finally, taking such agriculture seriously entails exposure of our exploitative (agri)cultures and extractive economies, our deep and systematic entanglement in them, and the imaginative and common work of discovering alternative ways forward.

In raising the question of agriculture in this way, I am mainly interested in thinking together with Wiebe about whether the analogy Berry draws between the art of Williams’s poetics and the art of agriculture holds. If it holds—and I think it does—the analogy certainly complicates distinctions often made, for instance, between fine arts and crafts. It also perhaps offers additional grounds for responding to Berry’s critics, many of whom seem perpetually intent upon characterizing him as beholden to nostalgia, for just as Berry’s fictional art cannot be characterized as the longing for a bygone age, neither can this agriculture be characterized simply as the recovery of traditional approaches. But above all—and to paraphrase Wiebe only slightly—I am interested in thinking with Wiebe about what insight such agriculture might give into what fidelity to place means, about rehabilitating place as the facilitator of reality, and how, at least in practice, it requires something very much like imagination as affectionate perception.17

  1. Joseph R. Wiebe quoting Wendell Berry in The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 26.

  2. Wiebe, Place of Imagination, 4–6.

  3. Wiebe, Place of Imagination, 151.

  4. See also Wiebe’s excellent presentation, “‘Becoming Native’: Settler Colonialism in Ethics of Place,” Society of Christian Ethics, January 3–6, 2019, Louisville, Kentucky, in which he extends this line of argumentation.

  5. Wiebe, Place of Imagination, 7, see also 13–32.

  6. Wendell Berry, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford (Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011), 153.

  7. Berry, Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 155.

  8. William Carlos Williams, quoted in Berry, Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 153. The figure of Gris appears frequently in Williams’s work and is one of Williams’s main interlocutors in engaging the question of what art has to do with the world we inhabit. On this point, see Lisa M. Steinman, “‘No Confusion—Only Difficulties’ in Williams’s Spring and All,” Cambridge Companion to William Carlos Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 62–63.

  9. Berry, Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 154.

  10. Aristotle, Physics, II.10–II.15

  11. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I.117.resp.

  12. Some of the ways this tradition of thought understands the order of nature’s processes and creativity in both moral and theological terms can be glimpsed in the following passage from the Romance of the Rose, by the medieval French poet and scholar Guillaume de Lorris: “With most attentive care [art] kneels before Nature, like a poor beggar who lacks both knowledge and strength but who strives hard to follow her. She begs and prays and implores Nature to teach her how to use her skill so that her figures may properly encompass every creature, and she watches how Nature works, for she would very much like to do the same work herself. . . . She mimics Nature, but her understanding is so weak and bare that she cannot make living things, however natural they seem.” Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Frances Horgan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), ll. 15975ff. (pp. 247–48). Among the points of this passage is that there is a fundamental distinction between art and what God does in creation: that humans must humbly acknowledge that they don’t bring the world into existence ex nihilo, that their art depends upon a prevenient reality, from which they have something to learn. The work of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the Ceylonese Tamil philosopher, who curated Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts until his death in 1947, often stressed the theological significance of this understanding of art. For instance, he reads Thomas’s formulation ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione to mean art is a non-identical creaturely imitation of God’s creative agency, and that nature and works of art have a common origin in God. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Figures of Speech or Figures of Art? The Traditional View of Art (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom: 2007), 9, 38–39, 42, 65.

  13. Berry, Poetry of William Carlos Williams, 156.

  14. See Wes Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980). Wendell Berry wrote the foreword to Jackson’s book. For more about the Land Institute and its current work, see

  15. See Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture. See also Miguel Altieri, ed., Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995), ix.

  16. Personal communication.

  17. Wiebe, Place of Imagination, 151.

  • Joseph Wiebe

    Joseph Wiebe


    Response to Matthew Whelan

    What I appreciate most about Matthew Whelan’s response is that it addresses what other responders have questioned: how can a reflection on Berry’s fiction be practical? What does it look like to have these cultural logics instantiated in another context? Whelan expands the conversation in ways that others wanted me to include in the book. While the critical engagement is understandable, Whelan’s ability to do it based on his own work shows how much better it is when it’s done in one’s own wheelhouse.

    I’m a typical Mennonite in that I’m not a farmer but have plenty of family members who are—though they are fewer and fewer with each passing generation. My experiential knowledge of agriculture can only be nostalgic—childhood memories of harvest, driving around with my aunt from field to field and sitting in the combine with my uncle—but I’ve maintained a conversation with my family about the changing nature of agriculture. I’ve heard about the difficulties and hardships of rural communities constantly losing the best and brightest to cities. Additionally, the inherent difficulties of working on land persist. I’ve seen the water table at zero in the East Souris River Watershed; I have an indelible memory of my uncle dragging his boot across the surface of his land and watching water pool in his one-inch deep tread. Yet government incentives and agribusiness profits notwithstanding, left-leaning urban eaters and policy, at least in the Canadian prairies, have been less than supportive. Limit drainage to save the wetlands but regulate water levels to make sure lakefront cabins are plentiful and dry.

    Adaptation is always necessary, which has been technologically and politically facilitated. Only a decade ago, that same northern land didn’t have the heat units to grow soy. Now seed genetics and climate change have made it possible. The wheat board is gone. So are the beef export restrictions to Japan from the 2005 BSE scare. All of which is to say that Whelan is absolutely right that imagination is central to agriculture, as far as I can tell, for both perceiving underlying processes and developing practices based on those perceptions—both of which are constantly changing by internal and external influences.

    In that case, given the postulation that there is an analogy between poetics and agriculture through their imitation of nature, can agriculture itself give insight into fidelity to place, place as facilitator of identity, and require affectionate perception? I want to say “yes” along with Whelan but the follow-up question lingering in the back of my mind is, Can this include industrial agriculture? I completely agree with Whelan, that if the relationship between art and agriculture as Berry and William Carlos Williams articulate it is one of nonidentical repetition, then the criteria for agriculture is not the recovery of lost forms of agriculture. But does this mean the “rules or principles” of agriculture, as Whelan puts it, can emerge only from certain techniques?

    Perhaps it’s because of my kin, perhaps it’s because of Berry’s skepticism of organic farming, or perhaps it’s because of my attempt to be open to emergent iterations of practical instantiations of affection for place, but I am open to industrial forms of agriculture. I certainly will have no truck with any “moral norms” derived from agricultural principles that condemn it outright. But I can’t speak technically about this; I only have two stories.

    My grandfather John Stobbe was born in Russia in 1918 at a time when Mennonite agricultural colonies in what is now Ukraine were fairly established and thriving. During World War I, Russian authorities began confiscating property and possessions for the war effort. When the Russian Civil War broke out, Mennonites were targeted by anarchist and Bolshevik armies because they were often more advanced and wealthier than their Ukrainian neighbours. Throughout the war and afterward, Mennonites were robbed, imprisoned, murdered, and raped. Many Mennonites fled Russia in the 1920s to avoid Siberian concentration camps. The revolution was not kind to any landholders and Mennonite villages were often subjected to unwanted attention. Several family members were arrested by the KGB and banished to Siberia. Some escaped, some didn’t. My grandfather fled with his family as a seven-year-old to the Canadian prairies. He grew up and was fortunate enough to own land, which, of course is part of the story of settler colonialism in North America.

    He was a serious man who at one time owned a few nonconsecutive quarter-sections, which he fenced. Range roads bordered the townships in typical prairie fashion in order to have efficient access points to all quarter-sections. Yet John had the habit of going over his own land, rather than solely using range roads, to get to the farthest section. This meant he drove his tractor to the first gate, got off the tractor to open it, drove through, got off his tractor to close the gate, and got back on to drive to the next gate. He did this three times every time he went to the farthest reach of his land. He did it because the land was his; he was grateful to own it and loved it and knew it. John’s operation grew, though he seemed ambivalent about how big it needed to be to be sustainable. When his son, my uncle Milton, expressed interest in expanding, he was nervous. But why? He had already expanded production well beyond his own father, which was beyond the capacity of community land in Russia. John was an industrial farmer; I rode with him in his blue Datsun to the fields where harvest trucks lay idling. The last time I saw him, he was eating lunch with his family and friends leaning against a combine. He died of a heart attack the following September. My father suggested it was partly from the fact that the old lifestyle didn’t fit industrial agriculture; John ate like he wasn’t sitting in a driver’s seat all day. Perhaps. Even if that was the case, it’s hard to blame agricultural techniques for lack of self-awareness or the stress of intergenerational trauma. Throughout his life, John loved the land and organized his life according to that affection for his place.

    Milton took over the farming operation when John died and inherited a certain ambivalence. The stress and uncertainty of farming are more than most can stomach. I remember my uncle telling me that if my cousin, Nevin, was uninterested in farming and decided to move to the city or elsewhere he’d sell the farm. Fortunately for Milton and my Instagram feed, Nevin and Milton farm together in an operation that exceeds my spatial knowledge on a land with beauty that exceeds the conceits of coasts and mountains. Not only is industrial agriculture not ugly, it also doesn’t forestall affection for place or care for its particularity, which brings me to the second story. A few years ago, Milton was driving me around showing me his land. It wasn’t as wet as it had been the previous years, but he was informing me of the topsoil’s precarious state. It was late fall. We approached Nevin’s land but first passed a neighbour’s field, which had been tilled to black. Milton stopped and told me to look and commented on how irresponsible this neighbour had been. He explained the practice’s economic exigency in the moment but that it showed they had no view for the future. The land was exposed and extremely vulnerable to loss. Sure enough, the following spring the winter runoff and early spring rainfall washed four inches of topsoil onto Nevin’s field. Milton told Nevin to push all of it to the top of a hill on his property—that it would be worth a lot for years to come.

    These are anecdotes, but they remain influential and generative in my mind. If we want to emphasize that what constitutes good agricultural practices are not techniques in and of themselves separate from “actual experience with actual places” then we left-leaning academics need to remain open to unexpected examples of fidelity to place and place as a facilitator of identity—even if they expose our prejudices of rural people and challenge our political economies.