Distant Neighbors

Reviews Published September 12, 2014 in Published in Orion, September/October 2014

A review of the selected letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

When should you fight and when should you be still? What is the correct balance between action and contemplation, between the local and global, between a righteous rage and a morning of work in the fields? In April 1978, Wendell Berry was asking these questions of Gary Snyder, in a series of letters they had been writing to each other since the early 1970s.

“I see with considerable sorrow,” Berry wrote, “that I am not going to get done fighting and live at peace in anything like the simple way I once thought I would. So how to keep from becoming evil? Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything: don’t fight against even the devil, and don’t fight to ‘save the world.’”

This beguiling volume of letters between two of the most interesting and influential writer-activists in recent American history is full of quandaries like this. Though Snyder and Berry live half a continent apart, and rarely meet, these three decades-worth of correspondence between them digs deep into issues of action, place, spirituality, meaning and, of course, wildness. How to live, what to do, how to stay connected to the world beyond the human? The questions come faster than the answers, which is always a good sign.

Berry wonders in one letter how farming can survive in what he calls an age of “technological despotism.” Snyder’s answer is to take the long view. “What you and I are really talking about,” he writes, “is reviving the value system and integrity and authenticity that belongs to the Neolithic. The Neolithic mindset has been struggling to retain itself in terms of what is called “folk culture”against the taxing powers of government ever since.”

If that sounds like a big theme (and a big ambition) it is typical of the sweeping vistas of this volume. The meaning of spirituality, of God and of religion, flows similarly through the book as these two men, a “forest Christian” and a Zen Buddhist, tease out the spiritual imperatives of their work. There are some polite, sometimes spirited, disagreements, but there is more common ground. “I’m not interested,” writes Berry to Snyder in 1980, “in spirituality that is dependent on cheap fossil fuel, soil erosion, and air pollution . . . No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.”

What is often so interesting about volumes of correspondence is that the writers are not performing in a way that they might be if they had produced a book for publication. For that reason, you often get to see deeper into their souls, and especially into their fears and insecurities, than you otherwise would. In this case, both Berry and Snyder come across as honest and open-hearted explorers. There is an overall sense of a deep and questing wisdom, hard earned through land work, travel, writing, and spiritual exploration. There is no rushing, no hectoring, no grand gestures, just ever-deepening enquiry into what makes a good life, and how it can still be lived, even in the depths of the machine age.

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