James's Reviews > The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge

The Unforeseen Wilderness by Wendell Berry
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Sep 06, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: place, nature-creation-environment
Read in September, 2011

Wendell Berry wrote The Unforseen Wilderness forty years ago when it was threatened to be damned by the damned Army Corps of Engineers. He wrote with a sense of urgency for the wilderness he loved. I read this book because in a few short weeks I’m preaching a sermon on part of the Abraham story and wanted to read something indirectly relevant to my text. I wanted to press into the meaning of ‘place’ and thought that Berry would be a good guide.
So I pulled the Berry books off my shelf. I decided against rereading one of the Port William stories I love, and instead looked towards his essays. Many of his collection of essays focus on technology, society, agricultural practices and are often published as thematic collections. This short book was the only one I found on my shelf which focused on one theme, and so I walked with Berry into the Red River Gorge.
Having finished the book, I felt somewhat sheepish that I read this for what utility it would provide me in way of insight or imagination. I wished to lift out pieces I found interesting much like the strip miners of east Kentucky decimated the landscape for the coal within it. Perhaps my tendency to ‘use’ Berry is that my introduction to him was via Eugene Peterson who somewhere said, “Every time he writes “farm” I substitute ‘parish’ or ‘congregation.’ It works every time. I have learned more usable pastoral theology from this farmer than from all my academic professors.” But what Berry says by way of agriculture is different from his reflection on wilderness. While this book is critical as any of Berry’s of modern technique and economics, it principly commends the experience of place beyond any human attempt at manipulation of it. Still there were some things I found instructive.
Slow is the only way to Go
The Red River Gorge was inaccessible to me as Xanadu was to Coleridge. I never have been to Kentucky save a Grey Hound through the state. As Berry says of those who travel the interstate at 70mph, “Though One is in Kentucky, one is experiencing the highway, which might in nearly any hill country east of the Mississippi.(52).” Other than that my only experience of Kentucky is buckets of fried chicken and Bourbon, both exportable commodities which likely ill-reflect the culture, the place, or the people of this State. I learned from Berry that to experience a place, is first to slow down and to allow yourself to see it and to be present there. As Berry says:
The faster one goes the more Strain on the senses, the more they fail to take it in, the more confusion they must tolerate or gloss over—and the longer it takes to bring the mind to stop in ` the presence of anything. Though the freeway passes through the very heart of this forest, the motorist remains several hours journey by foot from what is living at the edge of the right of way (53-4).
Berry’s reflections upon the experience of place relating to speed of travel and busyness are instructive to me, not only in terms of geographic space but in terms of spiritual geography as well. I have reflected on this, in terms of Scripture reading and what is seen or not seen based upon how quickly you traverse the terrain. Berry’s words tell me I am ont the right track, even if I take some of his words in an unworldly direction he would not intend.
Entering the Wilderness on the Wilderness’s terms.
Berry writes:
A man enters or leaves the world naked. And it is only naked—or nearly so—he can enter and leave the wilderness. If he walks, that is; if he doesn’t walk he can hardly be said that he has entered. He can bring only what he can carry—the little things that it takes to replace for a few hours or a few days an animal’s fur and teeth and functioning instincts (56-7).
Likewise he reflects:
For the time, I am reduced to my irreducible self. I feel the lightness of my body that a man must feel whose lost fifty pounds of fat. As I leave the bare expanse of the rock and go in under the trees again, I am aware that I move in the landscape as one of its details.
In this, Berry is clear that the only way in which one can really be said to enter this wilderness place, is by entering into it. In approaching landscape one must adjust her step to its contours. There must be no coercion or manipulation. Otherwise, you have not really been there but somewhere else and the path that you travel is only a means not a place.
Place is Dynamic
Perhaps it is inevitable that reflections on a river gorge would postulate that to experience a place, is to know it as every changing. Berry writes:
No place is to be learned like a textbook or a course in school, and then turned away from forever on the assumption that one’s knowledge is complete. What is to be known about it is without limit, and is endlessly changing. Knowing is only like breathing: it can happen, it stays real only on the condition that it continues to happen. As soon as it is recognized that a river—or for that matter, a home—is not a place but a process, not a fact but an event, there ought to come an immense relief: one can step in the same river twice, one can go home again (75).
Therefore nature/place/home/anywhere is not a static locale to behold or bemoan but a dynamic relational event. When a place is not a static point on a map, it becomes a dynamic point of encounter. When Berry entered the Gorge, he was encountered by the presence of what he encountered there. At one point he reflects on his ignorance about the nearness of Dog Drowning Hole and says, “Before the Gorge had been a place I understood as I understood its maps. But now it became a presence that I felt in the roots of my hair and the pit of my stomach, as though something whose existence I failed to anticipate in the dark had come up behind me and touched the back of my neck. (80).” Following Berry, one does not experience ‘place’ unless we allow that ‘place to press upon us and change us.

It should be obvious that most of what Berry says here of the Kentucky Gorge can be said of any wilderness, or for that matter, God and marriage if you allow metaphor to frame your thinking on the matter. I do not know that there is anything in this book I can use for a sermon but it was well worth the read.
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