REMEMBERING; By Wendell Berry; North Point Press; $14.95.
More accepting of progress now than ever, more inclined to forget the last entry in the parade of passing fads, we are tempted to dismiss Wendell Berry's memories as mere nostalgia, for they evoke a 1960s distrust of business growth and suggest ideas about the "grammar" of our language and our land that Berry already has conveyed in earlier books.Once swept into this gentle story about a small farmer spiritually troubled after losing his right hand to a harvester, however, we realize that culture, whether counter- or conservative, speaks to the same human feelings - consoling the same fear of being controlled and extolling the same dream of being free to realize our potential.
What is different is the way the two cultures interpret these feelings. Berry's protagonist, Andrew Catlett, is most afraid of being controlled by anonymous, faraway forces such as "marketing"; he feels free when he can see the way his labor nourishes the land and the people who live on it. The new agribusiness experts who are taking over Catlett's trade, however, celebrate the freedom to succeed in a managed, urban world, where one affects, and is affected by, unseen others, and where one's labor is measured by an abstract symbol: money.
It is against this abstraction of meaning that Catlett struggles in these pages. He witnesses it in babble about "econometric surveys" and "variance-covariance matrices" at an agricultural conference, for instance, and cautions the crowd with a story about a farmer he knew who carried his year's work to the warehouse but came back owing $3.57: "I think that bill came out of a room like this, where a family's life and work can be converted to numbers and to somebody else's profit, but the family cannot be seen and its suffering cannot be felt."
"Remembering" seems headed toward an obvious resolution - as Catlett is heartened by his wife's love and re-invigorated by visions of nature - but these visions come in a dream. In reality, in losing his connection with the land, Catlett has lost his sense of self:
"Somewhere there is a lovely something, infinitely desirable, of which he cannot recall even the name," Berry writes. "What he is, all that he is, amid the outcries in the dark and the rendings, is a nothing possessed of a terrible self-knowledge."