Near the end of The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry writes, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” This quote, perhaps more than any other quotation from his work, gets to the heart of Berry’s vision and the purpose of his writing. Berry’s project for over 50 years has been to argue for the goodness of reverent breaking and to demonstrate its possibility.
But as Berry’s phrasing suggests, reverent breaking is not just about discrete actions, but about the kind of people we are. Most of us who exploit the world, after all, are not so vicious that we willingly do things to desecrate God’s creation. Rather, we do it through our carelessness, laziness, or ignorance, failing to recognize the connection between our actions and the health of creation. And so the real question with Berry isn’t so much how we can break creation reverently, but how we can become the sort of people capable of breaking creation reverently. And this is why Berry’s novels are so vital to understanding his work. For it is in his novels that he shows us how we can go about becoming the sort of person capable of such a relationship to the created order.
One of the particularly powerful images Berry uses to capture this reverent relationship to creation is marriage. The stories of Port William are stories of marriages—Ptol Proudfoot and his wife Miss Minnie in the early 20th century all the way to the faithful stewards Danny and Lyda Branch of Berry’s later stories. Throughout Berry’s body of work, marriage functions as a means of learning how to live in creation, how to break it with reverence and in such a way that, in time, it will actually flourish. There are three marriages in particular that can offer a powerful picture of how Berry thinks we can break creation honorably and how we can become the sorts of people capable of such things.
In The Memory of Old Jack, Berry tells the story of Jack Beechum, a 92-year-old Port William resident and one-time farmer living out his final days in the inn in downtown Port William where he is looked after by his long-time friend Mat Feltner, one of Berry’s greatest characters. Yet as we read the story and become acquainted with Jack, we realize that his is largely a tragic story. Born to a father unable to care for him or for the land, as a young man Jack inherits a farm in disrepair and carrying considerable debt.
Under the tutelage of Ben Feltner, Mat’s father, the young Jack learns to care for the land and to farm it well—to farm it sacramentally, as the language in “The Gift of Good Land” would put it. What Jack is learning to do in these early days is to work in a certain way toward certain ends—ends governed by considerations beyond human ambition or simple profit margins. The goal is health and, beyond that, fruitfulness. Berry describes this well in his essay “The Long-Legged House,” (collected here) where he describes how preparing his family’s cabin for his soon-to-be wife Tanya helped teach him something about work as well as marriage:
For weeks before the wedding I spent every spare minute at the Camp, getting it ready to live in. I mowed around it, and cleaned it out, and patched the roof. I replaced the broken windowpanes, and put on new screens, and white-washed the walls, and scrounged furniture out of various family attics and back rooms.
All this, I think, was more meaningful and proper than I knew at the time. To a greater extent than is now common, or even possible for most men, I had by my own doing prepared the house I was to bring my wife to, and in preparing the house I prepared myself.
And so, in time, Jack, much like Berry working on the camp, naturally becomes ready to marry and pledges himself to a woman named Ruth Lightwood who he met at the local church. Tragically for both of them, however, Ruth Lightwood was no Tanya Berry. Instead of mirroring the real life relationship of Wendell and Tanya as Jack’s love for Ruth and his love for the land meld together into the creation of a place marked by this love, their marriage fails. Ruth’s family had left the farm a generation before and she had grown up in as much of an urban environment as was possible at that time and in that place. As a result, she felt a distance from the natural order of creation and was repelled by the work it demanded.
In describing their courtship Berry describes the reason the relationship is doomed from the start. Before it is anything else, marriage is an act of giving. And what we see in Jack and Ruth’s relationship is that neither of them is able to give themselves as they are to the other. Rather, Ruth loved the idea of what she might make of Jack, seeing him less as a living being to whom she would give herself and more as a project to be repaired and made into something more respectable and urban. In a particularly painful scene, Berry describes Ruth’s response to Jack’s physical presence. Ruth finds his presence so uncomfortable that she cannot even return his look.
Jack, for his part, was so taken by Ruth that one part of him desired to become the man she wished him to be. And so the marriage falls apart for eminently predictable reasons. Fueled partly by his own vanity and partly by a desire to become the man Ruth wishes him to be, Jack buys land he can’t afford and can’t maintain on his own. Over time his folly is exposed and he is forced to sell the land at great loss. Then when a fire destroys his barn and many of his animals, Jack is forced to take on a new mortgage to pay for the damages and labors under the burden of debt—which carries a lot of symbolic meaning in Berry’s fiction—for about another 20 years. A good man is ruined and his ruin begins with the withholding of love that ought to have defined his marriage.
The response to the ruin brought about in The Memory of Old Jack is Hannah Coulter, what will likely be Berry’s final Port William novel. In it, Berry tells the story of two marriages: First, Hannah Steadman’s marriage to Virgil Feltner, cut short due to the latter’s death in World War II, then the marriage of Hannah Feltner to Nathan Coulter after Nathan returned to Port William following a stint in the South Pacific in the same way. As an imaginative theology of marriage goes, you will do no better than Hannah Coulter. The sturdy foundation of Hannah and Nathan’s marriage is what Hannah calls “the room of love.”
At times in Hannah, Berry is quite explicitly echoing passages from his earlier essays, such as the quote cited in the opening paragraph from “The Gift of Good Land.” This isn’t surprising, for it is in the desecration of creation that we “condemn ourselves to loneliness.” It makes sense, then, that the alternative hopefully described by Berry manifests itself in the entire giving of oneself for the good of the other. And it, of course, resonates with Berry’s choice of the word “sacrament” in his essay. Indeed, when we consider the Eucharist we might say the same thing Hannah says of her marriage to Nathan: “What could be more heavenly than to have desire and satisfaction in the same room?”
What is perhaps most interesting about Berry’s development of marriage, however, is how he uses the language of marriage in some of his other works, most notably in Jayber Crow. Jayber is the story of Port William’s bachelor barber, the eponymous protagonist of the novel. Ultimately though, the story is about salvation: How an orphan with no home, no people, no family, and no place comes to rest. The novel is peppered with illusions to Dante, frequently referencing the dark wood of error, for example. And, much like Dante, Jayber experiences salvation through the love he has for a woman that is not his wife. (Anthony Esolen has written a marvelous piece about the Dantean themes of this novel in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry.)
Midway through the novel, Jayber is at a bar in a nearby town dancing with his long-term girlfriend Clydie, who he has no intentions to marry but with whom he has been carrying on a sexual relationship for some time. While at the bar, he sees Troy Chatham, the husband to Mattie Chatham, one of the most admired women in Port William. Troy is there with a woman, but the woman is not Mattie. And then as he and this other woman are dancing, Troy and Jayber make eye contact and Troy hooks his finger to make the “OK” gesture to Jayber, as if to say “hey, I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.” And Jayber is crushed by the thought that he and Troy Chatham might be much more alike than he’d care to admit. At the very least, they were enough alike that Troy could look at Jayber and see enough of himself to think that Jayber would understand his infidelity. And that thought destroys Jayber. He goes into the bathroom, telling Clydie that he’s sick. Once in there, he contrives to climb out the window in order to get outside without being seen. He writes a hasty note to Clydie, telling her he has to end things with her because he’s “sicker than a dog,” and leaves his car with her. He then walks the 12 miles back to Port William half-drunk with clothes mangled from his escape through the small window.
As he arrives in Port William he settles on a decision: Mattie Chatham is too good a woman to have an unfaithful husband. Jayber then makes the rather unconventional leap from that obvious truth to the bald statement that what Mattie obviously needs is a faithful husband. And he resolves to be that to her. She can’t know, of course, nor can anyone else in Port William since no one would quite understand what Jayber meant by that. But what Jayber does in the chapters that follow is significant: He had already broken off the relationship with Clydie and given her his car. Now he voluntarily embraces a life of chastity and the lack of mobility that follows upon his decision to give the car to Clydie. And when Mattie’s father is dying, Jayber goes to the family farm to give him his haircuts at home since he’s no longer able to make it in to Jayber’s shop. In all his life, he does what he can to be a faithful member of the place Mattie loves and to be a faithful husband to her, even if she is unable to be a wife to him. At the beginning of part three, Jayber explains why he did what he did:
Sometimes I knew in all my mind and heart why I had done what I had done, and I welcomed the sacrifice. But there were times too when I lived in a desert and felt no joy and saw no hope and could not remember my old feelings. Then I lived by faith alone, faith without hope. What good did I get from it? I got to have love in my heart.
Jayber had needed saving from the book’s opening pages when his parents die while he is still a toddler. He needs it a few years after that when both spouses of elderly couple caring for him die. And he needs it throughout his adolescence and early adulthood as he moved from an ugly orphanage through a period of vocational uncertainty to a period of dis-ease as he attempted to settle in Port William while still maintaining his mobility enough that he didn’t need to fully commit to it. What gives him the strength finally commit to the way of life that proves to be his salvation is his choice to love Mattie, to sacrifice his good for hers, and to do whatever was required to be faithful to his vows made to her. It is in the giving of himself, in the act of dying to self, that Jayber is saved. That is the central theme of Berry’s fiction, a theme which he is able to explore in profound ways through the image of marriage.
It is, of course, a classic Christian theme—the way up is the way down, the Kingdom of God is for the weak. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. And so as the novel ends Jayber goes to visit the dying Mattie in the hospital. Troy ought to be there, but Troy has thrown his final die, cutting down Mattie (and her father’s) beloved woods in order to save himself from complete financial ruin. His exploitation of the land has led him, like Jack Beechum, to ruin. And unlike Jack, Troy doesn’t have the sense or affection required to see his sin for what it is. Jack is restored to the membership of Port William in time. Troy never is. And now he is condemned to be alone, even though he is married. But that’s not how Jayber Crow ends. It ends in Mattie’s hospital room with Jayber by her side. The novel closes with a beatific vision as Mattie, joined by her faithful husband looks upon Jayber and sees him for what he has been to her for the latter part of her life: “She gave me the smile that I had never seen and will not see again in this world, and it covered me all over with light.”
In Berry’s work, marriage isn’t simply a social contract or an emotional bond; it’s a way of orienting oneself to the rhythms of creation. It’s the process of undergoing an organic “breaking,” much as one would break the earth when plowing, in order to produce a harvest. Seeds are planted and in time we reap a harvest—Paul might say a resurrection. For Berry the language of marriage is never far from the language of health, flourishing, and beauty. It isn’t the only means through which a person can come to God, of course. Jack Beechum shows us that. But it is one way.