Mat Feltner died at a hospital in Lincoln this week.
Obviously it wasn’t Feltner himself — he lives nowhere outside of the mind of Wendell Berry, the pages of his novels, and the imaginations of the many thousands of us who have loved him in those pages. Feltner is the sort of character Berry’s critics are thinking of when they say he idealizes rural life. But for those of us who have lived near rural communities long enough or perhaps have rural roots, we know that Berry didn’t have to reach far to find someone like Feltner: Many Mat Feltners seemed to grow from the ground, with and alongside their farms, and all over this country. My family has known several such men.
Mr. Berry simply had to look around.
There is something perennial about the fear I have felt as I think about Mat’s passing, that sense of loss we feel as obviously great men go to their reward. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” we say and we have been saying it for ages. My pastor is playing Cassius in a local production of Julius Caesar that my kids and I will see later this week. There’s no small bit of that fear of the loss of great men in Marc Antony’s eulogy for Caesar. And yet while the fears that come from the loss of great men are seemingly ubiquitous in the human experience, the particular sort of greatness I saw in Mat may not be. (I am going to be referring to this friend as “Mat” throughout the piece. He was quite close with my parents, but I did not know him as well, and I do not know the family well, and so I want to respect their privacy.)
What’s curious about Mat Feltner is that he is one of the two great characters in Berry’s fiction that do not have a novel dedicated chiefly to them: Andy Catlett has Remembering. Jack Beechum has The Memory of Old Jack. Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, and Nathan Coulter all have novels bearing their names. Then there’s Tol Proudfoot, who doesn’t get his own novel, but has enough short stories to make up a novel.
But Mat Feltner and Burley Coulter do not get their own novels. They, rather, run through all the stories, as it were, exemplifying two ways of life that Berry loves dearly and wishes to preserve and which, you might even say, he synthesizes in the character of Danny Branch, Burley’s son and one of the last great old-timers remaining in the Port William membership.
Burley’s love is given to fields and streams and hills and hunting dogs. His heart is in the wilderness. He farms as necessity requires and, particularly as he ages, becomes quite faithful at it. But it’s a faithfulness he comes by out of love for his neighbors. Left to his own devices he would be in the woods somewhere with a good hunting dog and his rifle. Mat, on the other hand, comes by it more naturally. He is the rooted farmer, the pillar of the small town of Port William. He is a trustee with the bank, farms his own land, and also helps farm several other pieces of property around the neighborhood. And he’s something of the town rememberer. He keeps the memory of the good things alive and, in his quiet and humble way, makes sure they’re remembered and passed on.
There’s a touching scene in Jayber Crow where Jayber describes the Memorial Day practices of Port William as Mat Feltner led a number of people from the community around the cemetery, cleaning up graves and telling stories about the people buried there, people otherwise forgotten to the world. Through Mat, the past continued to live in the present, those virtues and even those people still walking about amongst us, instructing us, in some small, shadowy way.
There’s another scene like it, perhaps one of my favorites in all of Berry’s fiction, in A Place on Earth, which is the closest that we get to having a Mat Feltner novel. In it, the woman then known as Hannah Feltner (and later Hannah Coulter) arises from her bed at the Feltner place, eight months pregnant with the child of her now dead husband, Virgil Feltner, Mat’s only son, who was killed in World War II. Mat is waiting for her in the living room and asks if she’d like to go farm with him. She agrees and so they begin a walk around the property, doing what needs to be done, seeing to the animals, including some newborns, as Mat remembers Virgil with Hannah. You can see something of Mat’s quiet tenderness, strength, and honor in this excerpt, I think. You can also see the frailty, the awareness of his own fallibility, something which I think manual labor is especially good at teaching us, and the humility that grows from that awareness. In particular, he remembers a conversation that he and Virgil had after a hard spring rain destroyed much of Virgil’s first crop. Mat began by telling him that the crop had failed, in part, because of mistakes Virgil had made.
‘Virgil,’ I said, ‘this is your fault. This is one of your contributions to the world.’ That was hard for me to say. And he took it hard. I saw he was about to cry. And bad as I hated to do it, I let it work in him while we stood there and looked. I knew he was hating the day he ever thought of raising a crop, ready to give up. Finally I put my arm around him and I said, ‘Be sorry, but don’t quit. What’s asked of you now is to see what you’ve done and learn better.’ And I told him that a man’s life is always dealing with impermanence—that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary. That, anyhow, is what I’ve tried to keep before myself. What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent.’
He laughs, and looks at Hannah. ‘Every time I make a mistake, that gets more painful to believe.
You might say that Burley helps us see the world as it is and to smile on it. Mat helps us to see the world as we have made it to be and as it might become as a result of our actions, for good or ill.
The loss of our Mat grieves me for many reasons. My dad loved him, and the feeling I know was mutual. Before his brain injury, dad often helped him on his farm. They loaded cattle together onto the trailer so they could be taken to market, no easy job that. Often they’d celebrate the completed work with dinner at a restaurant in a nearby small town.
When dad wanted to find a man from church to help in the boys ministry he led, he went to Mat, not because Mat had any boys in the program (his sons were all grown with families of their own) or because he had shown any interest in working in children’s ministry, but simply because dad respected him. He knew he was a fine man. And he wanted the boys in his program to be around a man like that. And so I’m sad because my parents are sad and because Mat’s family is sad and because death is a grievous evil that takes men like Mat from us. Now other men will have to show today’s young boys what they are called to. And I don’t know that we’ll do it so well as they did.
But I think I also grieve because I’m not sure where the next generation of Mats (or Burleys) is going to come from. God will provide them, I hope. But I’m haunted by a line Berry had that I first heard in the “Look and See” film. It was from the late 1970s when he was debating Earl Butz, the secretary of agriculture. “Where do you think that traditional people and traditional virtues will come from,” Berry asked, “if you destroy the traditional economies and lines of work that inculcated those virtues?” The world that birthed men like Mat seems to be ending. And I’m not sure the world that is emerging will produce such men with any regularity.
Mat’s greatness was not the greatness of a Caesar or even an FDR. It was something of a homespun greatness. It was quiet, strong, not indifferent to suffering, and always sturdy. It was, in short, a greatness that looks very like Christ and very at home in a kingdom where the first is last and the last first. If you’ve had the privilege of knowing a godly farmer, it’s remarkable the ways so many of Christ’s parables and sayings can snap into focus for you, possessing a sudden and obvious correctness simply because of your experience seeing a godly man set to good work in God’s creation.
As we watch men like Mat be lowered into the ground, we do know that they, like the crops they planted in life, will sprout again in the Spring, breaking through the ground and reaching upward to the heavens. But I do worry about the severity of the Winter that must come first.