It can be difficult to get a feel for the power of a particular writer from a mere paragraph or two– sometimes, you must read enough to let their prose and their themes crawl across the page and into your bones.
Such is the case with Wendell Berry. I’ve read several of his books but I always return to the story of Jayber Crow, the barber of the Port William membership.
Jayber (Jonah by birth) is a young man from the tiny river town of Port William, Kentucky who, twice-orphaned, has to leave that town for an orphanage during the depression. As he grows up and starts college in the big city of Louisville, he thought might have a calling to become a preacher. When he finds out he is wrong, he becomes a barber and eventually makes it back to Port William (in the midst of a great flood!) not long after that town’s barber closed shop because it couldn’t support a family. Jayber reckons that it might support a frugal bachelor, so he comes back to the land of his birth to let the town and its people live in his bones.
I wanted to share a passage from the book that occurs three-quarters of the way through the novel. It is an anecdote inserted by the narrator that is peripheral to the main plot of the book but also serves as a thematic transition. There are a few references toward those characters at the end, but they are vague enough that I would not consider them spoilers. They reference various people whose lives have come to ruin, some through their own handiwork and others from circumstance.
If you love beautiful prose, I hope you enjoy this passage:
The Man in the Well
an excerpt from the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us. As a man of faith, I’ve thought a considerable amount about a friend of mine (imagined, but also real) I call the Man in the Well.
The now wooded, or rewooded, slopes and hollows hereabouts are strewn with abandoned homesteads, the remains of another kind of world. Most of them by now have no buildings left. Everything about them that would rot has rotted. What you find now in those places when you come upon them are the things that were built of stone: foundations, cellars, chimneys, wells. Sometimes the wells are deep, dug to the bedrock and beyond, and walled with rock laid up without mortar. Virtually every rock in a structure like that, if it is built right, is a keystone; it can’t move in or out. Those walls, laid underground where there is no freezing and thawing, will last, I guess, almost forever.
Sometimes the well is the only structure remaining, and there will be no visible sign of it. It will be covered with old boards in some stage of decay, green with moss or covered with leaves. It is a perfect trap, and now and then you find rabbits and groundhogs have blundered in and drowned. A man too could blunder into one.
Imagine a hunter, somebody from a city some distance away, who has a job he doesn’t like, and who has come alone out into the country to hunt on a Saturday. It is a beautiful, perfect fall day, and the Man feels free. He has left all his constraints and worries and fears behind. Nobody knows where he is. Anybody who wanted to complain or accuse or collect a debt could not find him. The morning that started frosty has grown warm. The sky seems to give its luster to everything in the world. The Man feels strong and fine. His gun lies ready in the crook of his arm, though he really doesn’t care whether he finds game or not. He has a sandwich and a candy bar in his coat pocket. And then, not looking where he is going, which is easy enough on such a day, he steps onto the rotten boards that cover one of those old wells, and down he goes.
He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world. He falls so quickly that he doesn’t have time even to ask what is happening. He hits water, goes under, comes up, swims, or clings to the wall, inserting his fingers between the rocks. And now, I think, you cannot help imagining the way it would be with him. He looks up and sees how far down he has come. The sky that was so large and reassuring only seconds ago is now just a small blue picture of itself, far away. His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb. He calls out (for might not somebody chance to be nearby, just as he chanced to fall into the well?) and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.
How does the story end? Does he save himself? Is he athletic enough, maybe, to get his boots off and climb out, clawing with his fingers and toes into the grudging holds between the rocks of the wall? Does he climb up and fall back? Does somebody, in fact, for a wonder, chance to pass nearby and hear him? Does he despair, give up, and drown? Does he, despairing, pray finally the first true prayer of his life?
Listen. There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.’
I get chills every time I read that. If you did too, I recommend that you get your hands on Jayber Crow. I have the hardcover and the audiobook (which is wonderfully narrated).
While I’m at it, I figured I might as well share my favorite poem by Berry. Wendell Berry has over a dozen novels, but even more collections of poetry. This one never fails to stir in me the longing to disappear into the woods for a few hours.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.