Wendell Berry on loss and recovery

I remember feeling sad when I got to the final pages of Wendell Berry’s magnificent Jayber Crow; sad because I didn’t want the story to end, sad because I’d fallen in love with Berry’s prose and couldn’t imagine the next book I’d read to be anywhere near as exquisite, sad because I wanted to linger longer in Jayber’s barber shop in Port William, Kentucky, wherefrom I might look at the world – its history and its gnawing hopes – through Jayber’s truthful eyes and to see things familiar but as if for the first time.

And, while soaring from Austin to San Francisco, over landscape both infertile and august, I felt that sadness lift a couple of days ago when I returned to Berry’s Port William via his book A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership. Two passages in particular struck me. Both, in their own way, concern the theme of loss and recovery:

‘Well, you get older and you begin to lose people, kinfolks and friends. Or it seems to start when you’re getting older. You wonder who was looking after such things when you were young. The people who died when I was young were about all old. Their deaths didn’t interrupt me much, even when I missed them. Then it got to be people younger than me and people my own age that were leaving this world, and then it was different. I began to feel it changing me. When people who mattered to me died I began to feel that something was required of me. Sometimes something would be required that I could do, and I did it. Sometimes when I didn’t know what was required, I still felt the requirement. Whatever I did never felt like enough. Something I knew was large and great would have happened. I would be aware of the great world that is always nearby, ever at hand, even within you, as the good book says. It’s something you would maybe just as soon not know about, but finally you learn about it because you have to’.

‘Our descendants may know such a time again when the petroleum all is burnt. How they will fare then will depend on the neighborly wisdom, the love for the place and its genius, and the skills that they may manage to revive between now and then’.

One could learn a hell of a lot by hanging around in Port William. Some day soon, I hope to return and …


  1. Jason, thank you for that on this particular day when our congregation has lost a dear friend and colleague, a ‘saint’ among us called Ruth McNeur in Dunedin hospital at 8.30am. She loved my kids like a grandmother; loved me like a mother, especially when my mother died at an early age (64) of a rampant leukemia. In the early days of this land her family were involved in ministering Word and Sacrament to early Chinese settlers during the goldrush days of Otago. We will miss her loving kindness to so many of us and her twinkling humourous eyes and her ‘neighborly wisdom’. I must read Wendell Berry, meet his wise characters and visit Port William too in my imagination!


  2. Janet, I’m sorry to hear of Miss McNeur’s death, and of your’s the community’s loss. Her service to others was exceptional. As for Wendell Berry, I suspect that you would very much enjoy his books. I was going to sit on this post for a few days, but now I’m glad that I posted it when I did.


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