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Wendell Berry Wrote Death Right

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The Memory of Old Jack: Is it passion or habit that overtakes us at the end?

Now he feels ahead of him a quietness that he hastens toward. It seems to him that if he does not hasten, his weight will bear him down before he gets there. He reaches the door of his room and opens it….


He goes slowly across the room to his chair, an old high-backed wooden rocker that sits squarely facing the window. This is his outpost, his lookout. Here he has sat in the dark of the early mornings, waiting for light, and again in the long evenings of midsummer, waiting for darkness. He backs up to the chair, leans, takes hold of the arms, and lets himself slowly down onto the seat. “Ah!” He leans back, letting his shoulders and then his head come to rest.

For some time he sits there, getting his breath, grateful to be still after his effort. And then he rises up in his mind as he was when he was strong. He is walking down from the top of his ridge toward a gate in the rock fence. It is the twilight of a day in the height of summer. The day has been hot and long and hard, and he is tired; his shirt and the band of his hat are still wet with sweat….

He does not know why he is there, or where he is going, but he does not question; it is right. Under the slowly darkening sky the countryside has begun to expand into that sense of surrounding distance that it has only at night….

Slowly the glow fades from the valley, the sky darkens, the stars appear, and at last the world is so dark that he can no longer see his legs stretched out in front of him on the ground or his hands lying in his lap; he has come to be vision alone, and the sky over him is filled and glittering with stars. Now he is aware of his fields, the richness of growth in them, their careful patterns and boundaries. In the dark they drowse around him, intimate and expectant.

And now, even among them, he feels his mind coming to rest. A cool breath of air drifts down up on him out of the woods, and he hears a stirring of leaves. He no longer sees the stars. His fields drowse and stir like sleepers, borne toward morning.

Now they break free of his demanding and his praise. He feels them loosen from him and go on.

(Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack, excerpted from Chapter 9)

This is the only way Jack’s story could end. Though, of course, this is not where Jack’s story ends. Pick any story by Wendell Berry and you’ll find the dead very much alive in the memory of the living—just like in real life.

The Memory of Old Jack is another immersive reading experience from Wendell Berry. I’ve never been to Port William (no one has, as far as I understand fiction), but I feel like I grew up not far from there. Mr. Berry presents a way of life that lies just on memory’s periphery for many of us—toward the far end of what we once knew. For others, there will be no memory of such a way of life. It will seem like pure fiction.

One wonders whether memory does not come flooding back in just this way, more real than our many screens today, until in the end it simply overtakes us. I think something like that was behind Dallas Willard’s comment on death.

I hope someone told him.


Image credit: Mark Peter Drolet

Written by kirkistan

October 16, 2013 at 8:11 am

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  1. […] This art wall reminds me of Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack. […]

  2. […] Berry explored this topic with extraordinary care. His The Memory of Old Jack is a solid antidote to our collective […]

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