Watch with Me, by Wendell Berry

I had been reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays about his Kentucky farm, so was delighted when a friend loaned me this book of short stories. The stories center on Ptolemy Proudfoot, a farmer, a large man, the last of what was once a large clan of Proudfoots in and near the town of Port William. Details of farm life enrich these deceptively simple tales of Tol and his wife, Miss Minnie. Hard work is leavened by the social occasions that Tol loves: visits to town, neighbors dropping by the house, family gatherings, a harvest festival at the school.

The affectionate depictions of Tol’s eccentric neighbors and the unspoken ties that bind them together reminded me of Mohawk especially in the way they assumed a certain responsibility for each other. Just as the owner of the bar and grill in Russo’s book gave Wild Bill a job and watched out for him, just as Dallas’s friends continued to loan him money and tolerate his feckless way with a timeclock, so Tol and his friends watch out for each other.

In the novella from which the book takes its title, Tol is visited by a neighbor known as Nightlife who was prone to spells where he became confused and angry, even dangerous. Occasionally he was sent to the asylum “where they would file him down and reset his teeth.” On this day, Nightlife picks up Tol’s shotgun, says something about how a man might as well shoot himself, and walks off. Tol follows him, reluctant to confront him and be shot himself, but unwilling to just let the man go. Tol is eventually joined by other neighbors, and they follow the man through woods and fields for the entire day and night and into the next day. They didn’t have to. They could have gone home to their wives and their dinners and their neglected fields, but their sense of responsibility for their neighbor wouldn’t let them.

The long walk is enlivened by stories brought to mind by places they pass and people they encounter. Tol also likes to tell stories about his grandfather, as in “Turn Back the Bed” where the men at a church picnic beg him to tell the story of his grandfather, a chamberpot, and a Proudfoot family gathering long ago. The past is present in all of these tales, Tol’s constant awareness of those who worked these fields and lived in these houses lending a depth and perspective to the simplest everyday action.

Tolkien called it “shimmer”, this sense of looking at things and seeing the past like a shadow behind it, and another past beyond that, and another. He deliberately included it in The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings trilogy, with their references to half-remembered legends, ruins whose stories had been lost, great statues left from long-gone civilizations.

In one of his essays, “The Long-Legged House”, published in a collectin with the same name, Berry talks about this awareness of the past in his own life. The essay focuses on a cabin on the river built by Curran Matthews, his grandmother’s brother, and what it has meant to Berry throughout his life, from a teenager’s camp to the place where he took his wife after their wedding to a weekend get-away. Even though there is nothing left of it at the present but the chimney and well, some locust trees, and the little white flowers in the grass, Berry looking at it sees the shades of the past: his great-uncle building it, himself as a young man. He sees the sycamore warbler of the present, echoed by the phoebes that used to build nests under the eaves. He says that “. . . where most American writers—and even most Americans—of my time are displaced persons, I am a placed person.” He goes on to say that it is not so much that we can possess a place but that a place can possess us.

I understand this. It’s the way I feel about the camp in Plymouth. The first time I went there, I felt that I had discovered my own place, the place in the world where I belonged. It took a while for me to understand that instead, I belong to the place, as so many others have in the past and do today.

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