The Gospel According To Wendell Berry, On Screen : The Salt America's foremost farmer-philosopher, Wendell Berry, is the subject of a new documentary. It celebrates the writer's work, and the rural community in Kentucky in which he's rooted.

The Gospel According To Wendell Berry, On Screen

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The writer Wendell Berry is so old-fashioned, he's revolutionary. His novels and poems mourn the decline of traditional farming communities, like the one where he lives in Kentucky. But Berry, now 81 years old, is more in step with the present than ever. His writings have helped inspire a local food movement. A new documentary film celebrates Berry's work in the place that he calls home. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Knowing where you're from comes up again and again in Wendell Berry's writings and in this film about him, called "The Seer."


WENDELL BERRY: I have happened to live nearly all my life in a place I don't remember not knowing. Most of my forebears for the last 200 years could have said the same thing.

CHARLES: So it's interesting - the creator of this film, Laura Dunn, can't really say where she comes from.

LAURA DUNN: So I think that's part of the story in a way - this sort of seeking a home in a world that feels full of displacement.

CHARLES: In her film, we don't see much of Wendell Berry himself. But his weathered voice is a soundtrack to flowing images of the places that formed him and his writing - the hills and streams of Henry County, Ky. It's a homage to all places like this - farming communities off the beaten track and often forgotten.


BERRY: They called them the sticks - the boondocks. Nowhere, they call it out here. I hear that over and over again - oh, a little nowhere place.

DUNN: I want to be able to just show you this place. And in this place, it's farmers. It's farmers and their struggles and their victories.

CHARLES: Wendell Berry's condemnation of modern farming is probably what's brought him back into the public eye in recent years. He despises how big it's become - how technological. And this film goes deeply into the business of farming. We hear from migrant farmworkers and big-time farmers who are deeply in debt.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ten years ago, I would have never dreamed it would have cost what it does to put a crop out now. So it's just crazy what it costs. And sometimes it gets a little hard to sleep at night. Toward end of year, when the crops are all in the ground, and all the money's spent, and - we just need a good crop to repay the banks back.

CHARLES: The film includes video of a speech that Wendell Berry gave in 1974. Already then, he was arguing that when big farms grow and small ones disappear, it destroys communities, and also the values that live in those communities - traditional values like loyalty, neighborliness, kindness.


BERRY: So I don't think that you can love those old values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.

CHARLES: In recent years, there's a bit of a Wendell Berry renaissance going on. He's inspired a new generation of small organic farmers. I recently saw a quote from Wendell Berry - eating is an agricultural act - on the wall of a glitzy, trendy food establishment in Manhattan. But this film is about a lot more than food and farming. It's really Laura Dunn's search for, as she puts it, things that are whole in a fragmented world. At one point, we hear her in the background talking to Wendell Berry about how she's always looking for places that are still a remnant of togetherness and community.


DUNN: ...A connection to the land. And I study those because I don't come from a place. I come from divorce.

BERRY: We all come from divorce now. This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can't put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together, and you put them back together. Two things - not all things.

CHARLES: As we listen to Wendell Berry, we see a furnituremaker at work, fitting together pieces of wood. And Dunn says a hopeful thing is the thought that this may be all that we personally need to do.

DUNN: What he is saying to me is that there is no big solution. It's broken. We're all complicit in a broken system and in a broken world. The question is not so much how can I fix it all, but how can I, with my own two hands, do good work every day? And I find that immensely hopeful.

CHARLES: "The Seer" premiered last month at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Screenings are scheduled at film festivals in the coming months in Houston, Nashville and Toronto. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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