Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow Book Cover Jayber Crow
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint Press
August 30, 2001

I am forever grateful to the Art of Manliness website and Nick Offerman for introducing me to the work of Wendell Berry. Jayber Crow was my first introduction. I have since gone on to read Berry's essays, short stories, other novels and poetry. I haven't even put a dent in his catalog. It is hard to put my finger on what I appreciate so much about his work. Every time I read something by Wendell, it always makes me feel like I need to STOP. To slow down. To really re-evaluate what is important and what is just non-sense.

“Company is like snow,” he said. “The longer it stays, the worse it looks.”

The brief, laughing look that she had given me made me feel extraordinarily seen, as if after that I might be visible in the dark.

The river, the river itself, leaves marks but bears none. It is only water flowing in a path that other water has worn.

I was, they said, like a good horse who would not work; I was a disappointment to them; I was wasting my God-given talents. And this gave me, I believe, the only self-determining power I had: I could withhold this single thing that was mine that I knew they wanted. I had ways of not allowing myself to be fully present in the classroom, even though I was physically confined there.

Our life here is in some way marginal to our own doings, and our doings are marginal to the greater forces that are always at work. Our history is always returning to a little patch of weeds and saplings with an old chimney sticking up by itself.

I belonged, even defiantly, to what I remembered, and not to the place where I was.

My own temptation was not to go into the town at night but to escape into the countryside in the daytime.

I did not at all foresee the benefits that followed. It turned out that I was the first, in Brother Whitespade’s several years at The Good Shepherd, who had been even pretty sure of having received the call. By my declaration, without intending to at all, I set the stage for well-paying hypocrisy and self-deception.

It was as if the world, leaving me upright, had turned itself upside down above my head and poured over me rivers and oceans of warm water. After that, it was clear to me that if I became a preacher I was going to need a wife.

I didn’t want ever again to stand in front of the desk of somebody who had more power than I had. If all that required was keeping a few rules that I didn’t much object to, then I would keep the rules.

Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins—hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust—came from the soul.

The trouble started because I began to doubt the main rock of the faith, which was that the Bible was true in every word. “I reckon there ain’t a scratch of a pen in it but what is true,”

It hit me that Jesus’ own most fervent prayer was refused: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer. It means you may be crucified.

I wasn’t just a student or a going-to-be preacher anymore. I was a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where.

Everybody knew that Cecelia and Roy Overhold were each other’s all, and that for both of them their all was varyingly either too much or not enough. Both of them were good people, as people go, and they had a nice farm, but they were living out the terms of a failure that was long and slow. I don’t claim to understand it. I only know, from what I had seen already and what I saw later, that they would go along together quietly enough for a while, and then one night (it would always be at night) they would come face to face again with their old failure, each with needs that the other could not fill, and nothing they could do for each other that would not make things worse. Maybe it was childlessness that caused it. Maybe it was just one of those inescapable errors that people sometimes make. When Roy would turn up at my shop after dark or at some nighttime gathering of the men, I would know that he had come in from failure and despair that he could not escape but hoped at least to get off his mind for a while.

I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim.

He was the kind of boy who always assumes that people are watching him with admiration.

Mat said, “The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Even when I was sitting in the church, I was a man outside.

What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude.

Did the machines displace the people from the farms, or were the machines drawn onto the farms because the people already were leaving to take up wage work in factories and the building trades and such? Both, I think.

You couldn’t see, back then, that this process would build up and go ever faster, until finally it would ravel out the entire old fabric of family work and exchanges of work among neighbors. The new way of farming was a way of dependence, not on land and creatures and neighbors but on machines and fuel and chemicals of all sorts, bought things, and on the sellers of bought things—which made it finally a dependence on credit. The odd thing was, people just assumed that all the purchasing and borrowing would merely make life easier and better on all the little farms. Most people didn’t dream, then, that before long a lot of little farmers would buy and borrow their way out of farming, and bigger and bigger farmers would be competing with their neighbors (or with doctors from the city) for the available land.

It was the strongest moment I had known, violent in its suddenness and completeness, and yet also the quietest. I had been utterly changed, and had not stirred. It was as though she had, in the length of a breath, assumed in my mind a new dimension.

Anger and contempt and hatred leap from one heart to another like fire in dry grass. The revelations of love are never complete or clear, not in this world. Love is slow and accumulating, and no matter how large or high it grows, it falls short. Love comprehends the world, though we don’t comprehend it. But hate comes off in slices, clear and whole—self-explanatory, you might say.

Looking back now, after so long a time, the hardest knowledge I have is of the people I have known who have been most lonely: Troy Chatham and Cecelia Overhold, the one made lonely by ambition, the other by anger, and both by pride always clambering upward over its rubble.

There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.

I had thought of a flower opening among dark foliage, and of a certain butterfly whose wings, closed, looked like brown leaves but, opened, were brilliant and lovely and like nothing but themselves.

Hate succeeds. This world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time.

I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show. Even if she had been my wife, even if I had been in the usual way her husband, she would have remained beyond me. I could not have desired her enough. She was a living soul and could be loved forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity. That was why, as she grew older, I saw in her always the child she had been, and why, looking at her when she was a child, I felt the influence of the woman she would

He didn’t, He hasn’t, because from the moment He did, He would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we would be His slaves. Even those who hated Him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in Him then. From that moment the possibility that we might be bound to Him and He to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended. And so, I thought, He must forebear to reveal His power and glory by presenting Himself as Himself, and must be present only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of His creatures. Those who wish to see Him must see Him in the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures, the groaning and travailing beautiful world. I would sometimes be horrified in every moment I was alone. I could see no escape. We are too tightly tangled together to be able to separate ourselves from one another either by good or by evil. We all are involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds still are bleeding.

I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.

When I wade out again, I am cool and clean, delighted as a risen soul.

Why is hate so easy and love so difficult?

To love anything good, at any cost, is a bargain.

The trouble with many of my dreams was that they were perfectly rational, or they came from perfectly rational fears. They came from The Economy and The War—that is to say from The News.

This resting involves traveling at great speed, first on the road and then on the river. The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither left nor right. They don’t slow down for—or maybe even see—an old man in a rowboat raising his lines.

The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free.

“Buy a car,” it says, “and be free. Buy a boat and be free. Buy a beer and be free.” Is this not the raw material of bad dreams? Or is it maybe the very nightmare itself?

We sat there, thus apart and together, for a long time.

Egg, I went only to be there, to see what was there, to grow quiet enough to hear its sounds and voices.

The only thing we saw that was moving was the snow. I said, “It’s like time falling, and we and the trees are standing up in it.” “No,” she said. “Look. It’s like we and the woods and the world are flying upward through the snow. See?”

This is a book about Heaven.