Nick Offerman on the Essential Wisdom of Wendell Berry
In Conversation With Gary Lovely
Growing up in the foothills of eastern Kentucky as a compulsive reader and full-time hillbilly, I was instinctively attracted, like most literary-minded country folk, to the work of essayist, novelist, and poet, Wendell Berry. Berry’s books, particularly titles like Jayber Crow and The Memory of Old Jack serve as an apt reflection of the slow-moving but beautiful home that I miss so much now that I spend my days in the much louder Columbus, Ohio.
In Berry’s perhaps most well-known essay “A Native Hill,” he recounts the story of himself as a young writer from Kentucky, plopped into New York City in the beginning of his career. After a short while, he finds himself writing mostly about the bluegrass state, and against the career-ending warnings of his peers, decides to move back home. In the following years, Berry buys a plot of land in the Kentucky watershed portion of the Ohio River Valley, in his hometown of Port Royal, or “Port William” as you may have heard it in most of his fiction, and commits himself to a life of socio-conscious farming.
This essay, along with many of Berry’s teachings, sits with me. In 2015, I moved to Columbus with my partner who was finishing up a degree in veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University. A bookseller and publisher by trade, I took a job at the Book Loft of German Village, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. Though I love it here, there’s something about those rolling hills, impossibly leaning Mail Pouch tobacco barns, and old country stores that keep me woolgathering, so I’ve made it my duty to get Wendell’s books into as many hands as possible.
In continuation of this work and through the help of the hardworking folks at Counterpoint Publishing, Berry’s publisher, I was able to lob a few questions to fellow Berry fan and professional woodworker, Nick Offerman. Nick has spent years championing Berry’s work, even devoting an entire chapter to his legacy in his book Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers.
Gary Lovely: Could you explain how you became involved with Wendell Berry and subsequently The Berry Center in Kentucky?
Nick Offerman: In 1995 I was working at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre with a Kentucky actor named Leo Burmester. He fortunately took a shine to me, and gave me two books of Wendell Berry short stories, Fidelity, and Watch With Me. Wendell’s writing spoke to me like nothing I’d ever before read. I grew up in a family and community that aspires to the same set of values as the citizens of Port William. In Wendell Berry, I had unexpectedly found a chronicler of the nobility found in good, honest work, and thrift, and affection for one’s family and neighbors and animals and the land that supports and nourishes all of the above.I have often asserted that if my job were simply to broadcast the works of Wendell Berry to the world, I’d die a happy man.
I immediately wanted to adapt some Berry fiction to the stage or screen, so I wrote him a letter asking for permission. He replied with a charming letter, typed on an old manual typewriter, that he wasn’t interested in seeing any adaptation of his work. Of course, this was deeply frustrating, but only made me want to pursue him all the harder. I continued to write every few years, reminding Wendell that I was considerably younger than him, insinuating that perhaps he ought to relinquish permission to me before he made his final farewell. He always responded with polite firmness, and was consistently friendly as he kept me beyond arm’s length.
Over the years since I first read him, I have shouted my appreciation from the rooftops, bending the ear of anybody I could get to stand still about the writing of Wendell Berry, and why his works should be required curriculum in every school in the country. Friends and acquaintances were very familiar with my devotion to his fiction, essays and poetry. So much so that a charismatic friend (Holly Sabiston) in Austin, Texas, put me in touch with another friend of hers, Laura Dunn, who was making a documentary film about Wendell and his vision. I told Laura I would be over the moon to help out in any way I could with her film, so she made me a co-producer on it. Her films are gorgeous and important, and it was a privilege to pitch in on this one, which was called Look & See.
This relationship was fortuitous in another way: I was writing a book called Gumption, about some heroes of mine, and Laura introduced me to the daughter of Wendell and his wife Tanya, Mary Berry. As her folks are in their eighties, Mary is now generally captaining the ship that is the Berry Center. We spoke on the phone, and fortunately a couple of her kids had heard of Parks and Recreation, so I had a couple of fans going into the scrutiny. The Berrys naturally receive a lot of requests for all kinds of things, and it was lucky I had a couple of advocates vouching for me. Or vouching for my mustache, anyway. And my ability to consume eggs.
Then, yet again, the agricultural training of my youth saved the day. As my name was being bandied about the Berry living room, thanks to Mary trying to arrange a Sunday afternoon meeting and interview for me, her brother Den overheard and said, “Hang on. Nick Offerman is the guy from Fine Woodworking Magazine —I built his router sled to flatten my ash slabs.”
Well, this elevated me in Wendell’s eyes from solicitous writer/actor/film associate to a person who works with his/her hands to craft furniture and other heroic implements from wood. The meeting was set.
We had a beautiful lunch at the farm, thanks to Tanya, and a walking tour, and a handful of meetings since. I am very grateful for their friendship, and I try not to abuse their time.
I have often asserted that if my job were simply to broadcast the works of Wendell Berry to the world, I’d die a happy man. It turns out that Mary Berry is doing just that, with her work at the Berry Center, and so I do my best to support her efforts as best I can, because she knows what the hell she is talking about. They have a few programs supporting and educating small, local farming concerns, which is what our entire country if not the whole damn planet needs. The portions of Wendell’s writing and Mary’s hands-on nurturing that focus on rural, manageably sized economies are very inspiring to me, and it’s not just the two of them, of course. They have a lot of family involved, and neighbors into the bargain. I appreciate the example they set, which is why I try to be a good cheerleader for their efforts.
GL: The Berry Center does fantastic work in both their bookshop and their community. I’ve been particularly interested in Our Home Place Meats, a somewhat new program that supports local farmers and produces Rose Veal, an almost unbelievably good cut of meat.
NO: I couldn’t agree more. They are setting a great example with what is effectively a co-op protectorate that controls the quality of their beef and the lives of their cattle from start to finish. The ten farmers in the group are experiencing an alternative to industrial farming that focuses on the health of the farmer, the farm, the animal, and the consumer. Something we should be demanding of all our agriculture.
GL: In Paddle Your Own Canoe, you herald the importance of carrying a handkerchief, a habit I felt kinship with and that reminded me of the goodness in Wendell’s writing, particularly in The Memory of Old Jack. What lessons have you taken away from his work as a whole? Do you believe his writing influenced your own?
NO: Well, hell. The lessons are too many to enumerate in an interview, but a couple off the top of my melon:
–Set limits for oneself. What good is working too many acres, so that one must work 14 hours a day and thus never be available to enjoy one’s earnings, nor see one’s family?
–Eschew consumerism. Eschew screens and what they attempt to sell you.
–Slow down your pace so that your senses have time to rest on a lemon tree or a hummingbird or a creek.
–Wait until the hogs have been butchered before drinking the whiskey.
As for the second question, I suppose that Wendell’s writing has influenced my own insofar as I think his writing to be the best writing, and so mine necessarily aspires to his. I don’t ever expect to get terrifically close to his level of mastery, but every time I read him I think, “Jeez. Now that’s what I would have wanted to say, but he can say it with only a third of the words that I would require.
GL: As someone with plenty of experience recording audiobooks and reading scripts, what was it like recording The World-Ending Fire and The Unsettling of America?
NO: Reading those essays, or really any text, aloud, for the edification of an audience of one, is a privilege I take very seriously. Successfully translating a writer’s meaning and intent from the page to spoken word requires a good deal more energy than I would have imagined before I started doing audio books. When the text means so much to me personally, as in the case of these two books of Berry essays, it can be deeply rewarding but also exhausting. When I have performed a work of fiction, like a couple of Mark Twain titles, I generally cruise through with few stops or do-overs, but when I recorded these essays, I re-did a lot of passages, trying my damnedest to get the grip of the point across to the listener.
GL: Seeing as fans of your work are bound to become new fans of Wendell’s after listening, is there anything in particular you hope for them to take away from these books?
NO: Well, sure. I could just quote a passage from the Wendell Berry chapter in my second book Gumption:
If you are (about to be) new to Mr. Berry’s work, let me tell you right to your face that you are in for a treat. Not a treat like ice cream or some other confection. A much more substantial treat, perhaps constructed cleverly of leather or hickory or copper, like you just won a barn, and someone is going to help you build it, and then that person is going to tell you how one might prosper from the use of a barn in your life. You can’t know going in that it’s not the barn itself, but rather the building of it and its cumulative use that are the real prizes. That kind of treat.
I hope that new readers (or listeners) of this goodness will be improved by the main ingredients: common sense, empathy, contrariness, and respect for people and the nature in which we are privileged to live.
The World-Ending Fire and The Unsettling of America can both be found on Libro.fm, an audiobook service dedicated to supporting independent bookshops. Wendell Berry’s (and Nick’s) books can be found at your local indie bookshop, but I would implore you to order them from The Berry Center Bookstore.