I think most readers of Wendell Berry, “The Seer” director Laura Dunn included, start with Berry’s non-fiction. They pick up The Unsettling of America or The Art of the Commonplace and go from there. That’s not how I came to Berry. I started with Jayber Crow, a novel about a small-town Kentucky barber who lived in rural Kentucky nearly his whole life and was in Port William, a small village of several hundred, from 1937-1987.
The qualities Berry is most known for were still present in that work. His severe critiques of industrial agriculture were on full display, as was his environmentalism. But within the space of the novel these things existed within a larger order, that of the membership of Port William. That made all the difference for me. And if there is one thing that “The Seer” gets exactly right it is anchoring Berry’s political and environmental views in the world of rural America and particularly the small life of Henry County, KY.
As Dunn noted in our interview yesterday, there’s a kind of environmental activism and activist filmmaking that easily veers toward anger and a certain theatricality. It makes the work inaccessible to anyone who isn’t already on board with the film’s viewpoint. What makes Dunn’s film refreshing is that it doesn’t go down that road, although it easily could. (Indeed, a poorer reader of Berry might take Berry himself in that direction, even though it would be wildly inappropriate and a severe misreading of Berry.)
In the first place, Dunn interviews a number of farmers who have embraced industrial methods and lets them speak for themselves. As best I can recall, the only time you ever hear Dunn speaking to any of the farmers during the interview is when she asks them questions. As she said in her interview, Dunn is clearly more concerned with letting people speak for themselves than inserting herself and her views into the film—and the film is better because of that.
There’s more to the scope of Dunn’s film than just a willingness to talk to more conventional farmers, however. The entire film is deeply concerned with the life of Henry County. Dunn and her cinematographer Lee Daniel were in the area for all four seasons and so we see the same places throughout the year and walk the same trails in fall, winter, spring, and summer. So the fact of the land, the trees, the river, the wildlife, and so on is never far from your mind as you watch the movie.
We also see children from the community, hear Dunn interview some migrant workers who now do much of the manual labor on the farms themselves, and, through the interviews with older residents, hear about some of the departed citizens of Henry County who did their part to sustain the place and it’s unique way of life.
The primary wood carving used in the film’s promotional images also gestures toward the expansiveness of Dunn’s vision of the place. It also sums up Berry marvelously—we see Berry’s back to us and, through him, we see the land. This is one of the chief strengths of the film. When you first hear that Berry doesn’t actually appear in the film at all, it’d be easy to wonder what the film is about if the subject is never filmed, but in this case the result is likely more faithful to who Berry is than a conventional biopic could ever be.
One of the other interesting aspects of the film—and something of particular interest to Mere O readers, I imagine—is Berry’s use of “traditional values” language during one excerpted audio segment from a debate he had with Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1974. We’ve long been on record here arguing that the chief problem with the culture war ethos of evangelicals was not with the idea of a culture war in itself, but with the fact that we were trying to wage a culture war while not having a distinct culture.
So when I heard Berry say in debate with Butz that “we cannot have traditional values if we do not have traditional people,” my interest was naturally piqued. In listing what these traditional values are, Berry covered a list that included religious right talking points, but also covered far more than just that—family and marriage, but also home economies, thrift, democracy, and independence. And the key thing Berry gets right that I’m still waiting for many religious conservatives to get is the deep connection that exists between the cultures that have been, in some sense, at war for the past several decades, and the economies that support them.
This, of course, is one of Berry’s strongest points and if you need proof of it you’ll do no better than carefully reading his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine.” A robust home economy that has strong ties not only between the members of the home but also to the surrounding place will naturally lend itself toward the kind of “traditional values” Berry praises in his debate with Butz and toward the (truncated) list of values the religious right purportedly values as well.
But selling out the home economy, carelessly embracing a way of life where at least one parent (and often two) is required to work outside the home, and reducing the home to nothing but a consumption center will inevitably lead to the sort of cultural downgrade social conservatives have bemoaned in recent years. But a strong counter to the industrialization of our places, of our families, and of our homes, will not begin in Washington, but instead with a rebellion against the economy that leads to those things.
This brings us back to one final strength of the film. In her interview, Dunn mentioned that Tanya Berry is as much the hero of the story as her husband Wendell. Dreher took special notice of this in his comments on the film, as did Gracy Olmstead. The comment that Dunn made to me is that, as an artist and a mother and homemaker, Dunn found Tanya to be so inspirational because she brought together art and homemaking in a way that was new to her. My wife made the same comment to me two years ago about a friend of ours we met during our time at Prairie Whole Farm.
And, of course, this was one of the chief concerns of Edith Schaeffer and of her daughter Susan Macaulay. (I should note that Edith actually disliked the title Hidden Art of Homemaking and much preferred the simpler, less restrictive Hidden Art.) This shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of some sort of Mad Men-style homelife in which the husband/father is always gone “at work” somewhere else while the wife/mother does all the work of homemaking. Homemaking is a shared task in which the entire family plays a part. Indeed, by the time we get to the 1950s the battle is already mostly lost because the home has already ceased to be productive and the husband has already been “liberated from it.” The wife’s similar liberation was inevitable at that point.
Functional cultures come from functional home economies. And functional home economies require the regular presence of both mother and father, require the presence of good, productive work to sustain the life of the home, and require a shared dedication to making the home into a place of life and health, not merely of consumption. I know no better way of making the point then to close by quoting the same poem that Dunn uses to open the film. Pay special attention to the fourth verse:
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.