Where I live, I am fortunate to be in a reading group, and the pieces chosen by my fellow readers have introduced me to all kinds of authors I had not previously thought of engaging with. The latest of these was the contemporary American writer Wendell Berry, and the piece chosen was his essay A Native Hill.
One of the principles of our group is 'close reading'. This means we allow ourselves the luxury of reflecting together on the quality of the author's language. Berry's writing is both elegant and eloquent. By reading and re-reading writing like this, I hope that something of its quality will seep into my own prose. We'll have to see...
Berry's essay begins with him pondering his close connection to the part of Kentucky he came from and returned to after many years in California, Europe and New York. He takes us on a stroll along the paths around his home, sharing his observations about rivers, streams, trees, fences, walls, roads, topsoil and litter. But A Native Hill is so much more than a description of a landscape. It is an inspiring meditation on how to live well in our busy, destructive human world.
At one point, he remarks: "It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history ... I am forever being crept up on by the realisation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth...".
I have long felt that cars and roads have made our world uglier and dirtier, so when I read Berry's perceptive thoughts on the difference between a road and a path, my heart started racing : “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.” “A road", he goes on to say, "even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.” These words felt like a delicacy that I wanted to savour as slowly as possible to make it last longer.
Though I loved the essay, the opening pages of the essay had left me feeling impatient. What finally hooked me were the following words on the third page: “I have pondered a great deal over a conversation I took part in a number of years ago in one of the offices of New York University”. From that moment, I couldn't wait to be told the rest of the story. Some years earlier, a senior member of Berry's university had tried to persuade him to stay in New York ‘for his own good’. But he had already made up his mind, after much agonising, to take up a teaching job at the University of Kentucky. Nevertheless, the conversation stayed with him for years and prompted him to reflect on the assumptions of the 'urban intellectual'.
I myself have chosen to spend most of my year in a city, but Berry's words left me respecting his decision to go back to the land - and the quality of his writing. By the time I finished A Native Hill, it had become clear to me that the leisurely opening was there to set the tempo for what was to come – mirroring the languid pace of nature, of the woods, and of the soil.