Many such examples abound in these letters whether over issues of land use and ecological responsibility, or in the vigorous dialogues engaged in as the two men reconcile their differing spiritual and cultural worldviews, seeking always the common ground between Berry’s Christianity and Snyder’s Buddhism, of eastern and western cultural traditions; they correct misconceptions affectionately but without compromise, and they challenge one another without the slightest sense of rancor or power play. Both men show an admirable willingness to explore the spiritual traditions of the other, showing humility and a ready willingness to admit to individual knowledge deficits without a hint of self-abnegation; suggestions for further reading or study are made freely and with good humor. The central strength of this book is in its fine example of ecumenism-in-action and of the rejection of dualistic thinking, espousing instead what Berry calls “binocular vision”— what editor Chad Wriglesworth describes as “the art of gaining clarification of thought by perceiving through the other person’s way of being. This leads to an awareness of their mutual existence in an expansive and generous source of energy that Snyder calls ‘mind.’”
There is a sturdy vitality to the friendship from its earliest days evidenced throughout these pages; most of us can only hope for such an abiding and vigorous companionship over a lifetime. Both men live in a state of enviable integrity, showing a willingness to courageously interrogate their own lives, and each other, in order to ensure that they are acting in fidelity to a public trust both take very seriously. Through the embrace of their ongoing friendship as “distant neighbors,” Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder’s long correspondence provides a real sense of what it means to live peaceably with others and the planet; their relationship explores and endorses a worldview cultivated from different spiritual and cultural traditions blended, not seamlessly, not with ease, certainly imperfectly, but always with the patient tending and loving toil of farmers who have planted the seeds of peace in a relationship of respect, forbearance, deep affection, and a shared vocation of care for creation and human communities.
Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder is a marvelous book of letters between two devoted and conscientious men who are committed not only to the friendship between them but to a clear and highly developed vision of a better world. While religious pluralism and ecumenism are not the stated objectives of their work in the world, they nevertheless live out the ideals of both in a way that is natural to their relationship and serves admirably as a model for all people of faith and good will.
Michelle E. Wilbert is a thinker, writer, “poemcatcher,” spiritual director and retired midwife.