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That Distant Land: The Collected Stories by Wendell Berry


Rating: (Recommended)


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The 23 short stories in Wendell Berry’s new collection, That Distant Land, are presented chronologically, in the history of the fictional town, Port William.  Berry fans will appreciate two bonus items with this collection: a map of the area, and the placement of Berry’s longer fictional works in the table of contents in their proper chronological place. Here’s an excerpt, all of story titled, Are You All Right? (1973), pp. 365-371:


The spring work had started, and I needed a long night’s rest, or that was my opinion, and I was about to go to bed, but then the telephone rang. It was Elton. He had been getting ready for bed, too, I think, and it had occurred to him then that he was worried.

“Andy when did you see the Rowanberrys?”

I knew what he had on his mind. The river was in flood. The back­water was over the bottoms, and Art and Mart would not be able to get out except by boat or on foot.

“Not since the river came up.”

“Well, neither have I. And their phone’s out. Mary when did Mart call up here?”

I heard Mary telling him, “Monday night,” and then, “It was Monday night,” Elton said to me. “I’ve tried to call every day since, and I can’t get anybody That’s four days.”

“Well, surely they’re all right.”

“Well, that’s what Mary and I have been saying. Surely they are. They’ve been taking care of themselves a long time. But, then, you never know”

“The thing is, we don’t know”

We knew what we were doing, and both of us were a little embar­rassed about it. The Rowanberry Place had carried that name since the first deeds were recorded in the log cabin that was the first courthouse at Hargrave. Rowanberrys had been taking care of themselves there for the better part of two hundred years. We knew that Arthur and Martin Rowanberry required as little worrying about as anybody alive. But now, in venturing to worry about them, we had put them, so to speak, under the sign of mortality They were, after all, the last of the Rowanberrys, and they were getting old. We were uneasy in being divided from them by the risen water and out of touch. It caused us to think of things that could happen.

Elton said, “It’s not hard, you know, to think of things that could happen.”

“Well,” I said, “do you think we’d better go see about them?”

He laughed. “Well, we’ve thought, haven’t we? I guess we’d better go.”

“All right. I’ll meet you at the mailbox.”

I hung up and went to get my cap and jacket.

“Nobody’s heard from Art and Mart for four days,” I said to Flora. “Their phone’s out.”

‘And you and Elton are going to see about them,” Flora said. She had been eavesdropping.

“I guess we are.”

Flora was inclined to be amused at the way Elton and I imagined the worst. She did not imagine the worst. She just dealt with mortality as it happened.

I picked up a flashlight as I went out the door, but it was not much needed. The moon was big, bright enough to put out most of the stars. I walked out to the mailbox and made myself comfortable, leaning against it. Elton and I had obliged ourselves to worry about the Rowanberrys, but I was glad all the same for the excuse to be out. The night was still, the country all silvery with moonlight, inlaid with bottomless shadows, and the air shimmered with the trilling of peepers from every stream and pond margin for miles, one full-throated sound filling the ears so that it seemed impossible that you could hear anything else.

And yet I heard Elton’s pickup while it was still a long way off, and then light glowed in the air, and then I could see his headlights. He turned into the lane and stopped and pushed the door open for me. I made room for myself among a bundle of empty feed sacks, two buckets, and a chain saw.

“Fine night,” he said. He had lit a cigarette, and the cab was fragrant with smoke.

“It couldn’t be better, could it?”

“Well, the moon could be just a little brighter, and it could be a teensy bit warmer.”

I could hear that he was grinning. He was in one of his companion­able moods, making fun of himself.

I laughed, and we rode without talking down the Katy’s Branch road and turned onto the blacktop.

“It’s awful the things that can get into your mind,” Elton said. “I’d hate it if anything was to happen to them.”

Elton had known the Rowanberrys ever since he was just a little half-orphan boy, living with his mother and older brothers. He had got a lot of his raising by being underfoot and in the way at the Rowanberrys’. And in the time of his manhood, the Rowanberry Place had been one of his resting places.

Elton worked hard and worried hard, and he was often in need of rest. But he had a restless mind, which meant that he could not rest on his own place in the presence of his own work. If he rested there, first he would begin to think about what he had to do, and then he would begin to do it.

To rest, he needed to be in somebody else’s place. We spent a lot of Sunday afternoons down at the Rowanberrys’, on the porch looking out into the little valley in the summertime, inside by the stove if it was win­ter. Art and Mart batched there together after their mother died, and in spite of the electric lights and telephone and a few machines, they lived a life that would have been recognizable to Elias Rowanberry, who had marked his X in the county’s first deed book—a life that involved hunt­ing and fishing and foraging as conventionally as it involved farming. They practiced an old-fashioned independence, an old-fashioned gen­erosity, and an old-fashioned fidelity to their word and their friends. And they were hound men of the old correct school. They would not let a dog tree anywhere in earshot, day or night, workday or Sunday, without going to him. “It can be a nuisance,” Art said, “but it don’t hardly seem right to disappoint ‘em.”

Mart was the one Elton liked best to work with. Mart was not only a fine hand but had a gift for accommodating himself to the rhythms and ways of his partner. “He can think your thoughts,” Elton said. Between the two of them was a sympathy of body and mind that they had worked out and that they trusted with an unshaken, unspoken trust. And so Elton was always at ease and quiet in Mart’s company when they were at rest.

Art was the rememberer. He knew what he knew and what had been known by a lot of dead kinfoiks and neighbors. They lived on in his mind and spoke there, reminding him and us of things that needed to be remembered. Art had a compound mind, as a daisy has a compound flower, and his mind had something of the unwary comeliness of a daisy Something that happened would remind him of something that he remembered, which would remind him of something that his grand­father remembered. It was not that he “lived in his mind.” He lived in the place, but the place was where the memories were, and he walked among them, tracing them out over the living ground. That was why we loved him.

We followed the state road along the ridges toward Port William and then at the edge of town turned down the Sand Ripple Road. We went down the hill through the woods, and as we came near the floor of the valley, Elton went more carefully and we began to watch. We crossed a little board culvert that rattled under the wheels, eased around a bend, and there was the backwater, the headlights glancing off it into the tree­tops, the road disappearing into it.

Elton stopped the truck. He turned off his headlights and the engine, and the quietness of the moonlight and the woods came down around us. I could hear the peepers again. It was wonderful what the road going under the water did to that place. It was not only that we could not go where we were used to going; it was as if a thought that we were used to thinking could not be thought.

“Listen!” Elton said. He had heard a barred owl off in the woods. He quietly rolled the window down.

And then, right overhead, an owl answered: “H00000AWWW!”

And the far one said, “Hoo hoo hoohooaw!”

“Listen!” Elton said again. He was whispering.

The owls went through their whole repertory of hoots and clucks and cackles and gobbles.

“Listen to them!” Elton said. “They’ve got a lot on their minds.” Being in the woods at night excited him. He was a hunter. And we were excited by the flood’s interruption of the road. The rising of the wild water had moved us back in time.

Elton quietly opened his door and got out and then, instead of slam­ming the door, just pushed it to. I did the same and came around and fol­lowed him as he walked slowly down the road, looking for a place to climb out of the cut.

Once we had climbed the bank and stepped over the fence and were walking among the big trees, we seemed already miles from the truck. The water gleamed over the bottomlands below us on our right; you could not see that there had ever been a road in that place. I followed Elton along the slope through the trees. Neither of us thought to use a flashlight, though we each had one, nor did we talk. The moon gave plenty of light. We could see everything— underfoot the blooms of twin-leaf, bloodroot, rue anemone, the little stars of spring beauties, and over­head the littlest branches, even the blooms on the sugar maples. The ground was soft from the rain, and we hardly made a sound. The flowers around us seemed to float in the shadows so that we walked like waders among stars, uncertain how far down to put our feet. And over the broad shine of the backwater, the calling of the peepers rose like another flood, higher than the water flood, and thrilled and trembled in the air.

It was a long walk because we had to go around the inlets of the back­water that lay in every swag and hollow. Way off, now and again, we could hear the owls. Once we startled a deer and stood still while it plunged away into the shadows. And always we were walking among flowers. I wanted to keep thinking that they were like stars, but after a while I could not think so. They were not like stars. They did not have that hard, distant glitter. And yet in their pale, peaceful way, they shone. They collected their little share of light and gave it hack. Now and then, when we came to an especially thick patch of them, Elton would point. Or he would raise his hand and we would stop a minure and listen to the owls.

I was wider awake than I had been since morning. I would have been glad to go on walking all night long. Around us we could feel the year coming, as strong and wide and irresistible as a wind.

But we were thinking, too, of the Rowanberrys. That we were in a mood to loiter and did not loiter would have reminded us of them, if we had needed reminding. To go to their house, with the water up, would have required a long walk from any place we could have started. We were taking the shortest way, which left us with the problem that it was going to be a little too short. The best we could do, this way, would be to come down the valley until we would be across from the house but still divided from it by a quarter mile or more of backwater. We could call to them from there. But what if we got no answer? What if the answer was trouble? Well, they had a boat over there. If they needed us, one of them could set us over in the boat. But what if we got no answer? What if, to put the best construction upon silence, they could not hear us? Well, we could only go as near as we could get and call.

So if our walk had the feeling of a ramble, it was not one. We were going as straight to the Rowanberrys’ house as the water and the lay of the land would allow After a while we began to expect to see a light. And then we began to wonder if there was a light to see.

Elton stopped. “I thought we’d have seen their light by now”

I said, “They’re probably asleep.”

Those were the first words we had spoken since we left the truck. After so long, in so much quiet, our voices sounded small.

Elton went on among the trees and the shadows, and I followed him. We climbed over a little shoulder of the slope then and saw one window shining. It was the light of an oil lamp, so their electricity was out, too.

‘And now we’re found,” Elton said. He sang it, just that much of the old hymn, almost in a whisper.

We went through a little more of the woods and climbed the fence into the Rowanberrys’ hill pasture. We could see their big barn standing up black now against the moonlight on the other side of the road, which was on high ground at that place, clear of the backwater.

When we were on the gravel we could hear our steps. We walked side by side, Elton in one wheel track, I in the other, until the road went under the water again. We were as close to the house then as we could get without a boat. We stopped and considered the distance. It was only a quarter of a mile, but at night, with the water dividing us, it seemed almost hopelessly far.

And then Elton cupped his hands around his mouth, and called, “Ohhhhh, Mart! Ohhhhh, Art!”

We waited, it seemed, while Art had time to say, “Did you hear some­body?” and Mart to answer, “Well, I thought so.” We saw light come to another window, as somebody picked up a lamp and opened the hail door. We heard the front door open. And then Art’s voice came across the water: “Yeeeaaah?”

And Elton called back, ‘Are you aaalll riiight?”

I knew they were. They were all right, and we were free to go back through the woods and home to sleep.

But now I know that it was neither of the Rowanberrys who was under the sign of mortality that night. It was Elton. Before another April came he would be in his grave on the hill at Port William. Old Art Rowanberry, who had held him on his lap, would survive him a dozen years.

And now that both of them are dead, I love to think of them standing with the shining backwater between them, while Elton’s voice goes out across the distance, is heard and answered, and the other voice travels back: “Yeeeaaah!”

I had read about half of these stories over the years, and found that I enjoyed every one on reading or re-reading. Savor spending the next month reading one of the stories from That Distant Land every night or so. Through that, you’ll come away with a richer understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the importance of community in our lives, and a renewed commitment to the values that direct your life.

Steve Hopkins, August 26, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Distant Land.htm


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