Small People and Places Shine in the Film Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

As summer came to a close this year I found myself reviewing its moments with gratitude for small wonders.

There was the little backyard garden my husband coaxed to abundance and the lichens and shimmering insects that caught my eye on mountain hikes. I recalled with affection the pride I felt watching my colleagues who are spending their lives on behalf of children in our small-town school district waving at their young fans as they walked together in the community’s annual parade, which also features an impressive number of trucks and tractors.

I thought of how little respect the people in our mountain valley receive in the wider world, and I was drawn to revisit Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, a luminous documentary currently streaming on Netflix.

Its subject is the remarkable novelist-essayist-poet-farmer whose attempt to actually live what he believes affects readers in ways that often change their lives. In the telling of Berry’s story, filmmaker Laura Dunn elevates the dignity of small people and places hidden in the heartland.

Dunn notes in this interview that people she talks to tend to either “know who Wendell Berry is and he means a great deal to them” or have never heard of him. Her film will work on the hearts of each group and may have you adding Berry’s books to your must-read list if you haven’t already done so.

Look & See allows us to hear Berry’s voice, see his family photos and sit in as loved ones and fellow farmers speak about the man and his legacy.

He’s achieved an admirable consistency in life: working the land while writing about it, lifting its dappled details to light while tapping on a typewriter and altogether avoiding the virtual world of the computer.

Dunn reveals Berry and the people and places he loves in six chapters, each marked with an original wood engraving by Wesley W. Bates, whose work has illustrated Berry’s writing in volumes such as Roots to the Earth and Window Poems.

Look & See is, in some ways, a dual documentary, telling select aspects of Berry’s story as it explores, through current interviews and archival footage, the difficulties facing today’s family farmers in the wake of agribusiness expansion across the country.

The result is a stunning achievement, a film worthy of its subject and its message, at turns circumspect and wondrous, ominous and hopeful.

Berry never appears directly on camera except in photos, but he allowed Dunn to record his voice in conversation and in reading his work.

The result is a penetrating, powerful portrait. Consider the film’s opening scene (linked below), in which Berry’s words from “A Timbered Choir” provide a prophetic voiceover as images of concrete and neon and the destruction of wild places testify to the truth of “the seer’s” vision:

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective
, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

We glimpse, in Berry’s words, the future toward which we spin, where finally, looking back, we will find (if we haven’t already) that:

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd

of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from

Then Dunn slows us down. We walk a path on Berry’s property, his dog playfully scampering ahead. We meet Berry’s daughter Mary and hear her memories.

“The things that my parents taught us to notice they told us to notice,” she says.

‘Look at this, see that it’s good and don’t forget.’ Whatever field we were in, whatever walk we took, we were told to look and see. ‘What is that tree? What is this grass? That field was plowed incorrectly, why is that? What should have been done? That man is a great farmer. See what he does. That is beautiful. Look and see that it’s beautiful. That’s ugly. That’s a scar. Look and see that.’

The art, the communal effort, the “kind of idealism that seems to be native to farming” is lovingly revealed by Dunn’s lens and by those she interviews. Chapter Two, “The Unsettling of America,” examines the effect of industrialization on the farmer forced into deeper and deeper debt to keep his operation afloat.

We see Nixon administration Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz exhorting farmers to focus on profit because “the welfare of America depends on it,” while farmers from Berry’s county describe the burden expensive new machinery has put on them, actually narrowing profit margins to the point of putting many out of business.

“It’s the lack of imagination that my father talks about,” Mary says, “It’s not really looking at what’s happening. It’s not really counting the cost. It’s some kind of dream or ideal that is false.”

It serves an economy that is false and it works against nature, so it’s not in any way sustainable, and it’s made slaves out of a lot of people.

Berry debated Butz in the late seventies, and we hear the poet’s voice, humble yet passionate, gently and firmly opposing the Secretary of Agriculture. “We never meet,” (in convergence of agreement) Berry asserts, “because he’s arguing from quantities and I’m arguing from values.

And in Berry’s litany of values we’re reminded of the unquantifiable riches in the overlooked regions of America, the “nowhere” places, where raindrops sparkle, silently slipping from the leaves on vine, where startled deer bolt from the thickets, where undervalued intelligence is demonstrated in the almost magical ability to fix a combine or “put up” a winter’s worth of home grown food, taking the rest to market.

Dunn has done a great service in highlighting the beautiful, weathered faces of those who, in Berry’s words, “stood at the convergence of…our values: independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, political liberty, family, marriage, parenthood, neighborhood.”

In a time of stark political division, it’s refreshing to see these values in a context larger than mere red/blue posturing. We’re even shown a back and white shot of a farmer with a sign demanding, “Export Reagan,” which calls to mind the first Farm Aid concert and John Mellencamp’s masterful album, Scarecrow.

“Depending on the issues,” Berry has written, “I am often in opposition to both political sides.” You can’t box in Berry; his authenticity surpasses the false lines we’ve drawn beween left and right.

Don’t put off the chance to see this beautiful, thought-provoking film while it’s still available, to spend a moment with the man, those he loves, and those who are putting his vision into practice.

Look & See is inspiring but with a bittersweet, even tragic cast, considering the odds stacked against the vision Berry articulates.

Linger, as the camera so generously allows, on those “nowhere” people and places: on the farmers and their wives, on the migrants who travel from Mexico to Kentucky to work eight to ten months of the year for their families.

Listen to Berry’s wife Tanya speak of the intelligence of these people, take note of the earnest young men who can’t imagine a better way to earn a living than planting a crop and watching it grow.

Listen to Berry’s daughter reminding us that these kind, hard-working people “have faced an awful lot of talk and thought about how backward they must be.”

“Nowhere, they call it, out here,” says Wendell Berry as the camera rests on rose-gold layers of sunset reflected in still, silent water, “or a little ‘nowhere’ place.”

The great cultural failure that we’ve made here in the United States is to mistake millions of individual small places, with their own needs and demands, in use, we’ve mistaken them for nowhere.

As Anthony Esolen, another opponent of “the objective” reminds us, “In the real world, what is small is great and what is great is small.”

Now, unlike Berry, I do love visiting the city and for all I know, I may one day live there again. Like John Mellencamp, whose old tune still rings true, “Got nothing against a big town/Still hayseed enough to say/Look who’s in the big town.”

Berry himself finds hope in the “growing awareness that sane and healthy agriculture requires an informed urban constituency.”

Surely we can honor the city without denying “the boondocks” their place.

Laura Dunn’s lovely film simply asks us to “Look & See.”

Know someone who would enjoy this post? Please share Sparrowfare! Subscribe here and never miss another post. You’ll receive Reads that Feed: a Booklover’s Planner and Flight Fuel: an Eclectic Playlist of Hope in your inbox today.

What do you think? Are urban Americans being short-sighted by dismissing the value of small people and small places? I’d love to hear from you.

Becoming Remembers: How Wendell Berry Helps Us Mourn Our Times’ Tragic Tradeoffs, was written while I was immersed in Berry’s Jayber Crow.

The Close Reads Podcast conversations on Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow are worth every second.

Hear Berry read “A Timbered Choir” in Look & See’s trailer:

Photos by Rose Erkul and Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash.