Ruling the Empty Road: What Wendell Berry’s New Book Offers Post-Election America

It was November 6th. Americans, I was being told, were going to the polls to exercise their political prerogatives. Oh, really? Having been hounded, cajoled, bullied, and bombarded with messages from canvassers, callers, and advertisers in the weeks leading up to the election, I was feeling a little depressed. Is this, I wondered, what politics looked like now, people barricaded behind positions rather than discussing ideas and values? I imagined hopped-up citizens pounding their selections into voting machines with meaty fists. Or maybe even shooting them in at point-blank range. What did we have to say for ourselves and this dismal state of affairs? Hector and Achilles had more mutual regard for one another.

But let me tell you about something that happened to me that cast a new light on our sorry situation.

It was late afternoon, and I had just discovered at a local independent bookshop A Place in Time (Counterpoint), Wendell Berry’s new collection. Each of the twenty stories that appear in the book has been previously published, but what a treat to have them gathered together in single volume. I bought my copy and left the store walking on air. The day was bright with insight and across the street a European-style café beckoned. I accepted the offer.

Settling into a sun-straddled table, I placed my order, and got acquainted with the book. Berry has been with us for a long, long time, defining and defending human existence against the forces conspiring to obliterate memory, rip us from our connection to the land, and take what’s left and see how it survives the cage match we call daily life. To be honest, a Wendell Berry book always has been something of an event for me, and this new one was no exception, so I quickly immersed myself in the opening story, “The Girl in the Window (1864).”

Set at a time of extreme and violent polarization, the piece assesses the damage we do to ourselves by refusing to acknowledge our collective belongingness. Like “biting dogs” we terrorize our bonds to one another, the narrator says. Berry is no sentimentalist, so he never shirks the role we play in creating these unpleasant conditions, and in that first story he uses a steady hand to bring the tension to an almost unbearable pitch. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but I will say that the conclusion is breathtaking. It all comes down to two people squaring off with each other across the ideological, biological, and temperamental divide that seemingly separates them. Their conflict—“encounter” is a better word—ends in a manner inconceivable today when our adherence to positions precludes humanistic resolutions. The story nearly broke my heart.

The server had long ago brought my order. As I ate and brooded over how much we have lost, or given away, I became conscious of the television (isn’t there always a television?) where commentators were delivering their dismal account of the election: a constant chatter of red-state this and blue-state that, as if we were little more than molded plastic Lego characters in a child’s idea of politics.

Wendell Berry has spent a lifetime advocating for the subtle and shifting grounds of human connectedness and mutual responsibility. “As your heart gets bigger on the inside,” he writes in another story in the new collection, “the world gets bigger on the outside.” And he means it. In fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, he has remained steadfast in showing how we belong to each other. As he said recently, we can’t help belonging. The difference is between knowing and not knowing that fact.

While the talent yakked on, I re-read this line from the lead story: “That was why she sat still in her fear and watched as the alien riders, in the absence or invisibility of the entire membership of the town, occupied and ruled over the empty road.” What kind of victory was this? And more to the point, why did the members of Port William allow it? I couldn’t help thinking that if the people of Berry’s fictional town had the advantage of reading A Place in Time, they would surely have seen the importance of showing themselves and defending humanistic values against “the creatures.” Those of us ashamed of what we’ve become this election season might consider doing the same.