Page 1

river’s rising selected works from

wendell berry

river’s rising

wendell berry

Berry’s artistic vision of agricultural work is diametrically

necessitates our estrangement from it. Berry has said that

opposed to the industrial vision which maximizes agricultural

“my sense of values comes from what I’m rooted in, what

mechanization in order to minimize human interaction with

I believe in”. To him, Nature, more specifically, the Nature

and care of the land. Separating humans as far as possible

of his particular place, serves as a moral teacher. In “The

from Nature in practice has created a character-killing and

Nature Consumers,” an essay in The Long-Legged House,

“community-killing agriculture, with its monomania

Berry explains one of the dangers inherent in our longing to

of bigness”.

separate ourselves from the land:

The modern linear view of progress not only has destroyed

Man cannot be independent of nature. In one way or

many of America’s farmlands; it also has been the driving

another he must live in relation to it, and there are only two

force behind strip mining, deforestation, pollution, and has

alternatives: the way of the frontiersman, whose response

widened the gap between culture and nature. The current

to nature was to dominate it, to assert his presence in it by

natural resource crisis, in Berry’s view, is a direct consequence

destroying it; or the way of Thoreau, who went to natural

of our character, and thus the only real hope lies in the change

places to become quiet in them, to learn from them, to be

of attitudes.

restored by them. To know these places, because to know them is to need them and respect them and be humble

Aside from our suicidal depletion of natural resources, one

before the, is to preserve them. To fail to know them, because

of Berry’s concerns is that our attitude towards the land

ignorance can only be greedy of them, is to destroy them.

the rain

It is a day of the earth's renewing without any man's doing or help. Though I have fields I do not go out to work in them. Though I have crops standing in rows I do not go out to look at them or gather what has ripened or hoe the weeds from the balks. Though I have animals I stay dry in the house while they graze in the wet. Though I have buildings they stand closed under their roofs. Though I have fences they go without me. My life stands in place, covered, like a hayrick or a mushroom.


“The past is our definition.

We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it,

the morning’s news

To moralize the state, they drag out a man, and bind his hands, and darken his eyes with a black rag to be free of the light in them, and tie him to a post, and kill him. And I am sickened by complicity in my race. To kill in hot savagery like a beast is understandable. It is forgivable and curable. But to kill by design, deliberately, without wrath, that is the sullen labor that perfects Hell. The serpent is gentle, compared to man. It is man, the inventor of cold violence, death as waste, who has

but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.” made himself lonely among the creatures, and set himself aside, so that he cannot work in the sun with hope, or sit at peace in the shade of any tree. The morning’s news drives sleep out ofthe head at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes open to the dark. Weary, we lie awake in the agony of the old giving birth to the new without assurance that the new will be better.

I look at my son, whose eyes are like a young god’s, they are so open to the world. I look at my sloping fields now turning green with the young grass of April. What must I do to go free? I think I must put on a deathlier knowledge, and prepare to die rather than enter into the design of man’s hate. I will purge my mind ofthe airy claims of church and state. I will serve the earth and not pretend my life could better serve. Another morning comes with its strange cure. The earth is news. Though the river floods and the spring is cold, my heart goes on, faithful to a mystery in a cloud, and the summer's garden continues its descent through me, toward the ground.


“ Their wholeness came upon them as a rush of light around the them, so that she felt they must be shining in the dark.”

excerpt from

a jonquil for mary penn At his best, Elton was a man in love with her but not just with her. He was in love too with the world, with their place in the world, with that scanty farm, with his own life, with farming. At those times she lived inn his love as in a spacious house. Walter Cotman always spoke of Mary as Elton’s “better half” In spite of his sulks and silences, she would not go so far as “better.” That she was his half, she had no doubt at all. He needed her. At times she knew with a joyous ache that she completed him, just as she knew with the same joy that she needed him and he completed her. How beautiful a thing it was, she thought, to be a half, to be completed by such another half? When had

there ever been such a yearning of halves toward each other, such a longing, even in quarrels, to be whole? And sometimes they would be whole. Their wholeness came upon them as a rush of light, around them and within them, so that she felt they must be shining in the dark. But now that wholeness was not imaginable; she felt herself a part without counterpart, a mere fragment of

em and within

something unknown, dark and broken off. The fire had burned low in the stove. Though she still wore her coat, she was chilled again and shaking. For a long time, perhaps, she had been thinking of nothing, and now misery alerted her again to the room. The wind ranted and sucked at the house’s comers. She could hear its billows and shocks, as if somebody off in the distance were shaking a great rug. She felt, not a draft, but the whole atmosphere of the room moving coldly against her. She went into the other room, but the fire there also needed building up. She could not bring herself to do it. She was shaking, she ached, she could think only of lying down. Standing near the stove, she undressed,

put on her nightgown again, and went to bed. She lay chattering and shivering while the bedclothes warmed around her. It seemed to her that a time might come when sickness would be a great blessing, for she truly did not care if she died. She thought of Elton, caught up in the day’s wind, who could not even look at her and see that she was sick. If she had not been too miserable, she would have cried. But then her thoughts began to slip away, like dishes sliding along a table pitched as steeply as a roof. She went to sleep.


march 22, 1968

As spring begins the river rises, filling like the sorrow of nations uprooted trees, soil of squandered mountains, the debris of kitchens, all passing seaward. At dawn snow began to fall. The ducks, moving north, pass like shadows through the falling white. The jonquils, halfopen, bend down with its weight. The plow freezes in the furrow. In the night I lay awake, thinking

"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief‌


of the river rising, the spring heavy

with official meaningless deaths

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."

compromise hell It is commonly understood that governments are instituted to provide certain protections that citizens individually cannot provide for them- selves. But governments have tended to assume that this responsibility can be fulfilled mainly by the police and the military services. They have used their regulatory powers reluctantly and often poorly. Our governments have only occasionally recognized the need of land and people to be protected against economic violence. It is true that economic violenceis not always as swift, and is rarely as bloody, as the violence ofwar, but it can be devastating nonetheless. Acts ofeconomic aggression can destroy a landscape or a community or the center ofa town or city, and they routinely do so. Such damage is justified by its corporate perpetrators and their political abettors in the name ofthe “free market” and “free enterprise,” but this is a freedom that

makes greed the dominant economic virtue, and it destroys the freedom of other people along with their communities and livelihoods. There are such things as economic weapons of massive destruction. We have allowed them to be used against us, not just by public submission and regulatory malfeasance, but also by public subsidies, incentives, and sufferances impossible to justify. We have failed to acknowledge this threat and to act in our own defense. As a result, our once-beautiful and bountiful countryside has long been a colony of the coal, timber, and agribusiness corporations, yielding an immense wealth of energy and raw materials at an immense cost to our land and our land’s people. Because of that failure also, our towns and cities.

Because as individuals or even as communities we cannot protect ourselves against these aggressions, we need our state and national governments to protect us. As the poor deserve as much justice from our courts as the rich, so the small farmer and the small merchant deserve the same economicjustice, thesamefreedominthemarket,asbigfarmersandcha in stores. They should not suffer ruin merely because their rich competitors can afford (for a while) to undersell them. Furthermore, to permit the smaller enterprises always to be ruined by false advantages, either at home or in the global economy, is ultimately to destroy local, regional, and even national capabilities of producing vital supplies such as food and textiles. It is impossible to understand, let alone justify, a government’s willingness to allow the human sources

of necessary goods to be destroyed by the “freedom” of this corporate anarchy. It is equally impossible to understand how a government can permit, and even subsidize, the destruction of the land or of the land’s productivity. Somehow we have lost or discarded any controlling sense of the interdependence ofthe Earth and the human capacity to use it well. The governmental obligation to protect these economic resources, inseparably human and natural, is the same as the obligation to protect us from hunger or from foreign invaders. In result, there is no difference between a domestic threat to the sources of our life and a foreign one

10 - 11

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.

12 - 13

the springs

In a country without saints or shrines I knew one who made his pilgrimage to springs, where in his life's dry years his mind held on. Everlasting, people called them, and gave them names. The water broke into sounds and shinings at the vein mouth, bearing the taste ofthe place, the deep rock, sweetness out of the dark.

He bent and drank in bondage to the ground.

14 - 15

contempt of small places

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds.

The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places. As we know, disease is hard to confine. Because natural law is in force everywhere, infections move.

16 - 17

We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions. Excessive nutrient runoff from farms and animal factories in the Mississippi watershed has caused, in the Gulf of Mexico, a hypoxic or "dead zone" of five or six thousand square miles. In forty-odd years, strip mining in the Appalachian coal fields, culminating in mountain removal, has gone far toward the destruction of a whole region, with untold damage to the region's people, to watersheds, and to the waters downstream.

There is not a more exemplary history of our contempt for small places than that of Eastern Kentucky coal mining, which has enriched many absentee corporate shareholders and left the region impoverished and defaced. Coal industry representatives are now defending mountain removal and its attendant damage to forests, streams, wells, dwellings, roads, and community life by saying that in "10, 15, 20 years "the land will be restored, and that such mining has “created the [level] land� needed for further industrial development.

But when you remove a mountain you also remove the topsoil and the forest, and you do immeasurable violence to the ecosystem and the watershed. These things are not to be restored in ten or twenty years, or in ten or twenty hundred years. As for the manufacture of level places for industrial development, the supply has already far exceeded any foreseeable demand. And the devastation continues.

The contradictions in the state’s effort “to balance the competing interests” were stated as follows by Ewell Balltrip, director of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission: “If you don’t have mining, you don’t have an economy, and ifyou don’t have an economy you don’t have a way for the people to live. But if you don’t have environmental quality, you won’t create the kind ofplace where people want to live.” Yes. And if the clearly foreseeable result is a region of flat industrial sites where nobody wants to live, we need a better economy.

a wet time

The land is an ark, full of things waiting. Underfoot it goes temporary and soft, tracks filling with water as the foot is raised. The fields, sodden, go free of plans. Hands become obscure in their use, prehistoric.

The mind passes over changed surfaces like a boat, drawn to the thought of roofs and to the thought of swimming and wading birds. Along the river croplands and gardens are buried in the flood, airy places grown dark

20 - 21

and silent beneath it. Under the slender branch holding the new nest of the hummingbird the river flows heavy with earth, the water turned the color of broken slopes. I stand deep in the mud of the shore, a stake planted to measure the rise, the water rising, the earth falling to meet it. A great cottonwood passes down, the leaves shivering as the roots drag the bottom. I was not ready for this parting, my native land putting out to sea.

for the rebuilding of a house

To know the inhabiting reasons of trees and streams, old men who shed their lives on the world like leaves,

I watch them go. And I go.

I build the place of my leaving.

The days arc into vision like fish leaping, their shining caught in the stream. I watch them go in homage and sorrow.

22 - 23

I build the place of my dream.

I build the place of my leaving

that the dark may come clean.

other works by wendell berry: fiction



Fidelity Hannah Coulter Jayber Crow The Memory of Old Jack Nathan Coulter A Place on Earth Remembering That Distant Land Watch With Me The Wild Birds A World Lost

The Broken Ground Clearing Collected Poems: 1951-19882 The Country of Marriage Entries Farming: A Hand Book Findings Given Openings A Part Sabbaths Sayings and Doings The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (1998) A Timbered Choir The Wheel

Another Turn of the Crank The Art of the Commonplace Citizenship Papers A Continuous Harmony The Gift of Good Land Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work The Hidden Wound Home Economics Life Is a Miracle The Long-Legged House Recollected Essays: 1965-1980 Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

works cited:

Berry, Wendell. A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. (CH) New York: Harcourt, 1972. “The Futility of Global Thinking.” Harper’s Magazine Sept. 1989: 16-22. (Adapted from “Word and Flesh, an essay in What Are People For?) The Long-Legged House. (LLH) New York: Harcourt, 1969. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. (UA) 1977. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986. Prunty, Wyatt. “Myth, History, and Myth Again.” The Southern Review 20 (1984): 958-68 Tolliver, Gary. “Wendell Berry.” Dictionary of Literary Biography 6: 9-14.

Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee is a Communication Design student at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis For information please contact Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee at

24 - 25

River's Rising  

A compilation of selected Wendell Barry works combined with self-generated images.