Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Rise

Wendell Berry (b. 1934)
From What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969–2017

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845, oil on canvas by American artist George Caleb Bingham. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Click on image to see full painting.) Wendell Berry discusses the painting in “The Rise”: “The painter’s eye, there, is very near the water, and so he sees the river as the trappers see it from their dugout—all the space coming down to that vast level. One feels the force, the aliveness, of the water under the boat, close under the feet of the men. And there they are, isolated in the midst of it, with their box of cargo and their pet fox—men and boat and box and animal all so strangely and poignantly coherent on the wild plain of the water, a sort of island.”
The title essay of Wendell Berry’s first nonfiction collection, The Long-Legged House, is a history of “the Camp,” his nickname for the cabin on the Kentucky River built by his great-uncle Curran Mathews and used as a family retreat since the 1920s. “There wasn’t enough elbow room in that cabin for more than a change of clothes, if you could find berth enough between the bed and everything else to get into them,” James Baker Hall, Berry’s fellow student at the University of Kentucky, recalled fifty years later. “For [Wendell’s wife] Tanya it was something quite other, a crash course in just what she’d signed up for, until death do them part.”

The Berrys began spending summers there after they married in May 1957, and the setting provided him with an inducement to read and write.
I have never been able to work with any pleasure facing a wall, or in any other way fenced off from things. I need to be in the presence of the world. I need a window or a porch, or even the open outdoors. I have always had a lively sympathy for Thoreau’s idea of a hypaethral book, a roofless book. Why should I shut myself up to write? Why not write and live at the same time?

There on the porch of the Camp that summer I wrote the first poetry that I still feel represented by—a long poem rather ostentatiously titled “Diagon,” about a river—and did some of the most important reading I have ever done.
Thoreau’s idea of a roofless book can be found in his June 29, 1851, journal entry, in which he characterized A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers as “a hypaethral or unroofed book, lying open under the ether and permeated by it, open to all weathers, not easy to be kept on a shelf.” Berry found similar inspiration from the Camp; he began commuting to this getaway each weekend to work on his writing. In 1964 the Berrys purchased Lanes Landing, a twelve-acre hillside farm adjacent to the Camp, where he and his wife would live year-round and where he has since written most of his essays, stories, and novels.

“The farm that my wife and I have is in every way marginal,” Berry admitted during an interview in 2014. “Every foot of it is either steep, which is most of it, or it floods.” In “The Rise,” Berry describes the latter, when the river was “up maybe twenty feet,” and recounts how he went six miles upstream and canoed back home during the flood. The essay was first published in 1968 as a signed edition of 100 hand-produced casebound books by the University of Kentucky Library Press and the following year it was included in The Long-Legged House. It has most recently been reprinted in the new two-volume Library of America edition of Berry’s collected essays, and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.

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We put the canoe in about six miles up the Kentucky River from my house. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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