That Distant Land: Collected Stories includes all of Wendell Berry’s short stories published up to 2004. It’s a remarkable body of work, and it’s only the short stories – it doesn’t include the novels, the books of poetry or the essays and articles.
Maybe I should say what a remarkable writer Wendell Berry is. If you haven’t read Berry before, you should. Choose anything by him. Anything. In his novels and short stories, you walk into the fictional world of Port William, Kentucky. It is a small world, geographically speaking, a few square miles on the banks of the Ohio River across from Indiana. But it stands for something much larger, something more universal, and something that's important.
Two of the stories serve as a kind of bookend summary of the whole volume, and tell you much about the author’s beliefs and philosophy, and the ideas that infuse all of his writing.
“It Wasn’t Me” uses the form of an auction to pit a reverence for the land against the narrow and uncaring commercial use of it. There are three bidders: a young man named Elton Penn who has farmed the land for his landlord; a doctor, who is most likely looking for an investment and possible tax shelter but who would be more than willing to have Penn manage it; and a neighboring farmer who wants to expand his farm holdings, and this particular farm sits right in the middle of it. In the few short pages of the story, Berry explores motives and beliefs, stripping them down to bare essentials. This is a clichéd story of “good versus evil;” it is something deeper and more profound than that.
In the other story, “The Boundary,” 82-year-old Mat Feltner’s world has, because of his advancing age, become increasingly confined to the area immediately around his farmhouse. But he begins to worry that a fence hasn’t been properly maintained, and he sets out on foot to check it, much to his wife’s concern. The fence turns out to be fine, but Mat’s journey turns into both an exploration of memory and the land, as well as a physical ordeal.
Both stories encapsulate the themes of all of Berry’s writings, fiction and non-fiction alike:
· A spiritual reverence for the land. This isn’t “nature for nature’s sake” but a reverence that recognizes the innate connection we have to the land.
· A belief, some might say a recognition, that for most of us, the connection to the land is forgotten and broken. We think of it, when we think of it at all, as a financial asset, something that’s part of our investment portfolio or that shelters taxes.
· We are stewards of the land, and because of that, we are also stewards of memory, because some of our most profound memories are found in land and place.
All of these stories display a beauty of thought and narrative. And they arranged in the table of contents in the order they occur in Berry’s fictional world. (The novels are also listed in this chronology to show where they are placed in the rich world he’s created.) Arranging them this way, and adding a genealogy and a map at the end of the volume, emphasizes that memory, history and people are inevitably one with the land, part of a coherent whole that Berry believes we have fractured and nearly destroyed in contemporary life.
He may have a point.