Reflecting on a photo of Wendell Berry, in thought and action
On my list of the 25 books I would read for the rest of my life, I included a compilation of Wendell Berry essays. Berry, a native Kentuckian, writer, activist, environmentalist, agricultural and, well, all-cultural critic, and farmer, may not be Insta-famous, but serves as an icon in the modern intellectual rearguard connected to old ways of living contented, fulfilled lives grounded on the ground, a specific place on this wide earth which we make a home.
The front cover of the book, The World-Ending Fire, includes a photograph of Berry by James Baker Hall1. Reclining in his chair, feet propped up on his desk, chin enfolded in his left hand, Berry stares out his window, deeply immersed in reflection. A pad of paper lays in his lap; he carelessly cradles a pencil in his right hand. More pencils lay in front of him on the desk.
It looks like a simple office, well-lit by the sunshine streaming through the many windows. A bookcase to the right, cut off by the photo, appears relatively small. Berry keeps neither the tidiest desk nor the most cluttered. A few small stacks of papers cover a portion of the desk. A few books too. He also has a clock, binoculars, an open briefcase and a few other odds and ends.
Like Berry staring outside his window, I find myself staring at this photo again and again. Questions turn over in my mind:
What preoccupies Berry?
Conceptualizing an essay?
Working on a particular sentence?
Pondering a plot in one of his novels?
Musing on a farm project?
Lost in thought?
Lost in feeling?
The photographer could have found Berry in this pose quite a while that day – and the day before and the day after, and the year before and the year after. Deep thought extrudes from Berry’s writings, making them some of the most thought-tilling and uncomfortable to read of our era.
In the photo, we perceive the lie of much of philosophy, the supposed divide between thought and action. In Berry, we witness thought as action.
Transfixed by this photo, I feel drawn to emulate Berry more. Think and feel. Sit and think and feel. Of course, in a newsletter called Solvitur Ambulando, I would espouse rising from the chair to walk and think and feel.
As I look closer, more details stand out. His chair, for instance. Its wood construction fits with his office and natural surroundings. He sits at a large, long desk. We see the tape dispenser and eraser by the window. We can’t see the full room, so perhaps he does have storage cabinets. But he seems to keep the few items he usually needs nearby – the simplest and easiest kind of organization. He may appear lost in thought, but he remains ensconced in time – he has a calendar and clock in view, and he wears a watch. Berry wears a workman’s uniform over his clothing (which includes a collared shirt). He wears leather workboots – sturdy yet not unwieldy. He likely came from, or will return to, working on his farm.
The broad texture of the photo concerns unity in life. Berry lives a unified life. He doesn’t have two sides to him – the farmer and the intellectual. Those sides harmonize in one being. Take his workman’s clothes and boots. If he looks out his office window and sees something requiring attention, he can address it immediately. Contrast that with the modern lives most of us live (acknowledging Covid has altered this point and it may evolve further). We dress, sit in a car, sit in traffic, enter an office building, sit in a drab office (lucky us) or cubicle (rather less lucky us) adorned by a couple of knick-knacks or photos to remind us of our ‘real’ lives, enjoy the life-sustaining (?) glow of fluorescent ceiling lights, catch a glimpse of actual shining sun as we pass a window in the hallway on the way to the bathroom, work through the pixilated intermediation of technology, re-sit in our cars, re-sit in traffic as we drive home to our ‘real’ lives.
Take my planned changes today. In the morning, dress in one outfit. At work, I put on a chore coat (to keep warm, not to do chores). In the afternoon, I change clothes for my yoga class. Later, I will change into a swimsuit and sunshirt for family pool time. By today’s standards, I enjoy a short and easy commute – 12 minutes on side streets. I can’t but help note the divides between elements in my life: at home, I dress for work; at work, I dress for exercise; at home, changing clothes yet again, like a premature chameleon, too soon altering my appearance for the environment I do not yet traverse.
Here I do not judge the requirements of my life, or most people’s lives in the modern age. I am simply noting that Berry’s life contains a unity that mine does not. Staring at this photograph spurs further reflection upon that juxtaposition.
This is the deeper suggestion of Hall’s photograph. Yes, we humans need more time for uninterrupted thought. Yes, I need to spend more time in reflective feeling and thinking. Yes, thought is action. Even more, the Berry photo points us toward living a life of unity. Perhaps we cannot live and work in one place, as Berry does. Nonetheless, the questions pile up, like a cairn in the wilderness of our lives:
What does unity mean in my life?
Where can I unify more of my life?
How shall I unite thinking and action more cogently?
In what parts of my life do I live in accord with my truths?
More uncomfortably, in what parts of my life do I not live in accord with my truths?
Where can I at least bridge the disparate elements of life?
How can I bring them into concord?
Photograph of Wendell Berry reproduced with the kind permission of the James Baker Hall Archive
Image created by Olivia Lund.