Tuesday 2 April 2024


I heard Pete's account of reading Wendell Berry's Stand by Me, a collection of his stories, while we were in Portugal. It was hard to get into, he said, old-fashioned, so many people you don't know if you should remember them all. It gets better, he said, as he went on, and eventually he was engrossed. 

Feeling ill and staying in bed for a day is a bit like being on holiday. The view is down to one window, it's quiet, there's nothing else you're capable of doing. Stand by Me is a substantial book, capable of seeing even a rapid reader like me through a day or two. I have liked Wendell Berry's essays, up to a point. He can be too earnest. But the stories in Stand by Me gather momentum. Perhaps there is no other way to persuade of the value of land, of community, than by weaving tales of the same group of people, involved in the same activities, interconnected, part of a membership, as one character, Burley Coulter, likes to say. The penultimate story, 'Fidelity', is about the death of Burley Coulter, and, debilitated as I was on Easter Monday, disinclined for much more than the smudge of a purple honesty flower outside the window, I was racing toward the end of the story. I had joined this small community of people gathered in the lawyer's office to bring about the defeat of a young detective who's trying to figure out how Burley Coulter was kidnapped from the hospital and taken to a reassuring death on land that he knew.

I read about this membership and their landedness and their mutual affection and support with awe. I have no experience of this. I never will. You can't buy this as real estate or gather it up in pots at a garden centre and plant it. Yet I know the attention to land. Mat Feltner in 'The Boundary', an old man going to check a fence down a stream he has known all his life, clambers in the company of the dead and, on the way back up, tired at the end of the day, all but joins them. I think I have practised this kind of attention since I was very young, claiming woods, fields and streams wherever I found them, adjacent to where I lived and even passingly, from a paused bus or train. I have that need to occupy land. Wendell Berry is the doyen of this kind of occupation. 

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