A Feature Review of
Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters Of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.
Reviewed by Michelle E. Wilbert
In the affectionate introduction to this edifying collection of correspondence between novelist, poet, and cultural critic Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, the “Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology,” an essayist, activist, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974 for his book Turtle Island, editor Chad Wriglesworth relays the earliest articulation of the relationship between the two men, found in a short essay sent by Berry to Snyder after his returning home to Kentucky following his first visit to Snyder’s homestead in the San Juan Ridge area of southern California. While offering his observations on their various shared affinities and concerns – land, community, and the sense that “being native to a place” involves examining the questions that would lead to a commitment to arresting the “pattern of imposing human will upon the land” and to living within creaturely limits in conformity to the local ecology – he concluded his reveries by metaphorically extending his hand with the declaration, “We are neighbors—distant neighbors,” and thus began a friendship that has lasted more than 40 years and has been conducted largely through the somewhat lost art of epistolary.
These two men, born in the same decade but coming from distinctly different familial, spiritual, and educational backgrounds, developed an intimate and evolving bond built upon the written word—the letters they wrote to each other alongside the essays, poetry, and books written for a larger world viewed, always, as a neighborhood, a community. The letters date from July of 1973 to July of 2013, 40 years of enormous social, political, and environmental change and upheaval; an interesting aspect of the book is how few of the notable events of those years feature in these letters— the terrorist attacks of 2001, for instance, are never mentioned which may reflect editorial decisions or gaps in the correspondence but it seems possible that neither man was inclined to focus on discrete events in time, instead viewing the problems and issues besetting the world in a more holistic framework.
Throughout their long relationship, the two remain focused on what they discerned to be their particular vocations, and their letters are equally devoted to their vision of the work and writing they share.
As the book, and the correspondence develop, this chosen designation of being “distant neighbors” becomes more layered, nuanced, and profound. Throughout these many letters, the Biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor” takes shape as the friendship grows from its nascent foundation of shared principles and cultural aspirations to evolve into a lived expression of Romans 15:2, “Each of us must consider his neighbor and think what is for his good and what will build up the common life.” Both men are deeply invested in the value of community and share an understanding of the spiritual foundations that must ground its formation and evolution. In the earliest stages of their relationship, there is admiration and growing consensus in terms of their ideals, with increasing attention paid to the ways they might find to share the work and create more opportunities to visit each other in their respective homes; both are eager to explore the other’s local environment and to share insights about farming and land use; letters frequently offer an ongoing phenology–some news of the weather and local environmental conditions—there are shared concerns about an expected drought, a hard winter or a late, wet spring that delays planting. They each send copies of their written works-in-progress requesting feedback on content and suggestions for improvement, and both are freely given and received in an open framework suggestive of a relational infrastructure of marrow-deep trust. As friends, they evidence a great generosity of spirit—even when there is a critique of an essay or an idea—that conveys not only their obvious respect for each other, but an abiding self-respect present in seemingly equal measure in both. Strong, functional boundaries are essential in any healthy relationship–“Good fences make good neighbors” whether distant or right next door– a clear example given when Snyder informs his friend Wendell that he and his first wife have separated and he is now with a new partner, news that is offered with warm respect for Berry’s own long marriage and conviction that it is an essential part of living responsibly attached to place, community and the cycles of fertility, growth and decay. Berry responds in kind with sorrow for the ending of a marriage but with acceptance and welcome to the “new neighbor” found in Snyder’s soon-to-be wife Carole.