Wendell Berry, a letter to Gary Snyder, thinking about religion

I think we have to acknowledge the possibility that practical experience can be condensed to good purpose into moral law: Do not let the topsoil wash away. That does not have to be stated as a moral law. It’s a “universal.” It could also be stated: “God has forbidden us to let the topsoil wash away” or “Grandpop said don’t plow that hillside.” The point is that if such a limit has no lively existence in the community, then the hillside is not safe from authority—charismatic reformer, visionary leader, progressive institute or whatever—that may say to plow it. Or, without that kind of law, how are people going to tell the difference between a person of authentic spiritual authority and some charismatic son of a bitch who wants the hillside to produce a taxable income or a “surplus” to improve the balance of trade?

So, granting the limits of moral law, I would still disbelieve the authority of any spiritual teacher who encouraged or condoned or ignored the waste of topsoil, or the corruption of community or family life. I think such a teacher would have to meet that kind of test.

What I’m feeling more and more inclined to argue, in other words, is that there’s no “high culture” without low culture. No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away. No use expecting excellent art if there’s no excellent farming and carpentry. This is hard (and instructive) to deal with because, of course, it means that I’m in the wrong lifetime to expect Port Royal [Kentucky] to produce an excellent poet. I’m in the wrong lifetime to even get a good glimpse of what the excellence of an excellent Port Royal poet might be.

That is so hard for me to think because I came along under the specialist system in the arts, which proposed among other things that diseased society could be ransacked for the “subject matter” of “great poetry”—a notion full of silliness and despair. I think, now, that our work must settle for being, at best, a fragment of a glimpse of a better possibility. Speaking for myself, I’m pleased with that conclusion. I see a lot more hope and satisfaction in that than the possibility of making an “artistic triumph” out of the ruin of the world …

Read more in Little Star Weekly

After nearly fifteen years travelling back and forth between Japan and California, studying Zen Buddhism and writing poetry, Gary Snyder built a house and farmstead in the Sierra foothills in 1971 where he lives to this day. Wendell Berry completed a Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford in 1958, travelled to Italy and France with a Guggenheim, and taught English Literature at NYU’s University College in the Bronx, before buying a farm in the vicinity of land his family had farmed for generations in Port Royal, Kentucky, in 1965. He too lives and farms there still. Between them they have written dozens of books of poetry and some of the most essential reflections we have on our relationship to the land. In the early 1970s they began a correspondence about farming, poetry, and much else besides, from which Counterpoint is just now publishing a generous selection edited by Chad Wriglesworth.  A portion of a 1980 letter about religion and the sacred appears in the current issue of Little Star Weekly.




Copyright ©2014 by Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint

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