Port William

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry made his name as a poet and later as an essayist and passionate advocate of the rural life. Berry has authored more than 80 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. I don’t know why I didn’t discover him and Port William until now.

Port William sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. Farms dot the countryside. Roads and landings and branches bear the names of the families who work these farms: Coulter and Penn, Proudfoot and Catlett. Berry has written dozens of novels and short stories to tell us their tales. That Distant Land collects the Port William stories into one magnificent volume.

Here’s how the place looks at the start of That Distant Land in the year 1888.

The town of Port William consisted of two rows of casually maintained dwellings and other buildings scattered along a thoroughfare that nobody had ever dignified by calling it a street; in wet times it hardly deserved to be called a road.

Wendell Berry, “The Hurt Man” from That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (Shoemaker & Hoard 2004)

The Voice

This voice draws me in. It’s a soothing sound with just a hint of a buttermilk twang and the occasional sharpness that comes from a life lived using your hands. For most of these stories, Berry deploys a close third person narrator who is clearly sympathetic to the families of Port William.

On occasion, we hear from an unnamed first person narrator. A member of the community, most likely a young person. A person who has heard stories and is now duty-bound to pass them on.

He laughed a little and said no more. Nobody else said anything either. After a minute he began to tell the story. I wasn’t anything but a boy then. I can’t tell it the way he told it, but this is the way he put it in my mind.

From “Turn Back the Bed”

As closely as these narrators observe the men, women and children of Port William, it is the land they love.

It had cleared and the sky was full of stars. To the east, upriver, he could see a faint brightening ahead of the coming day. All around him the dark treetops were throbbing with birdsong, and from the banks of the two rivers at their joining, from everywhere there was water, the voices of spring peepers rose as if in clouds.

From “Making It Home”

The Characters

Meet Mat Feltner who, “like every other five-year-old who had lived in Port William until then, was still wearing dresses.” Or Elton Penn, a boy with “a grin on his face that could have been distributed among three or four boys and still showed them all to be in a good humor.” Ptolemy Proudfoot is a sight to see when he goes a-courting.

Gazing into a mirror over the little wash table by the back door, he shaved so carefully that he cut himself in several places. He put on his shirt, and after several tries buttoned the collar. He put on his tie, tying a knot in it that would have broken the neck of a lesser man and left even him so nearly strangled that he supposed he must look extremely handsome.

From “A Consent”

Mat and Elton and Tol grow up to become pillars of their community. Not all of the folks at Port Williams are so upright. Some get drunk. Others can’t be counted upon to put in a good day’s work. When Nightlife wanders off with a loaded rifle, no one can be sure what will happen. Tol follows Nightlife. His friends join.

They fanned out as [Tol] said. And now the room of sight that had been defined only by a diameter was given a circumference as well. As they moved along, they continued to draw closer together or move farther apart, according to visibility. In that moving room that at once divided and held them together the only clarity was their intent not to let Nightlife be further divided from them.

From “Watch with Me”

A Time Gone By

Berry sets his characters against the backdrop of their times. The Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II. In one of the most moving stories, Art Rowanberry returns to Port William from the battlefields of France. He displays no overt emotion, navel-gazing or hand-wringing. He is simply home.

And there was nothing around him that Art did not know. He knew the place in all the successions of the year: from the little blooms that came in the earliest spring to the fallen red leaves of October, from the songs of the nesting birds to the anxious wintering of the little things that left their tracks in snow, from the first furrow to the last load of the harvest.

From “Making It Home”

The end of WWII marks the end of the small family farm. The tractor replaces the mule team. Agriculture goes corporate. The younger generation disappears into the cities. Those left behind in Port William struggle.

Wheeler and Danny both remembered when [the stockyards] had been the gathering point for the grass-fed slaughter steers and fat hogs and spring lambs from thousands of farms. And now many of the little farms had become part of bigger ones or had disappeared under urban development, most of the stockmen of the earlier time were dead, and a fine old zest and excitement had gone from the air.

From “The Inheritors”

Berry still farms his land in Port Royal, Kentucky. He continues to write. Berry tries to live as simply as he can, just as the families of Port William do. Is it a wonder that Jenny Odell should quote Berry? “I have thrown away my lantern, and I can see the dark.”

31 Oct 2021 | Karen Kao