Reviewed by Charlene Caruso
Edited by Chad Wriglesworth
Published 2014 by Counterpoint Press | Berkeley
$30.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619023055
Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder is a collection of letters that spans forty years of friendship between two prolific writers who have each spent a lifetime living in harmony with the land in unusual and complementary ways. Gary Snyder’s passionate respect for the wild nature of the land led him to live in the wilderness of the Sierra foothills. Wendell Berry’s deep connection to an agrarian lifestyle drew him back to farm in Kentucky where his family had been stewards of the land for generations. This collection of correspondence begins in 1973, shortly after the writers became acquainted professionally through Jack Shoemaker, an editor and publisher in the Bay Area who worked with both men.
In his introduction, editor Chad Wriglesworth, succinctly describes the relationship between the two writers and the importance of this relationship to a contemporary reader: “By choosing paths of hospitality over mindless competition, these two men—known for giving us alternative models for living in place—have also left us a so-called road map that leads to more generous and imaginative ways of existing together.” Snyder and Berry are both purposeful and thoughtful in their letters—whether penning short notes about planting or composing long letters examining differences in their beliefs, there is a fearlessness in the way they live in the world. Both men are committed activists for the earth, inhabiting the land in a deeply personal way, choosing to raise their families to respect and rely on nature and accept what each season offers, be it bounty or hardship.
As writers, these letters offer their critiques of each other’s work and in doing so display a mutual respect that becomes a deepening and enduring friendship over four decades. Both men passionately express their respective views on spirituality and human’s relation to nature. Snyder views the world from a Zen perspective, while Berry sees the world through a more Christian lens. Their discourse is a spirited exploration of their values, always seeking clarity and precision, but never sinking to an indictment or judgment.
Throughout the letters, there is a patience, a deep sense of following nature’s pace that proceeds from a total lack of pretense in writing and in living. In one letter, Snyder leaves off from a discussion on the spiritual teachings of Zen and early Christians to ask Berry if he believes “one could use a tractor to get his place where it would grow enough grass to keep horses from there?” In response, Berry interrupts a rant on “poet-interviews” to write, “On the tractor question, I think you must do what seems to make the most sense in your particular circumstances. I regret tractors, I guess, at least as much as I regret interviews. Both, however, can be well used.”
Wriglesworth has been scrupulous in documenting the context and chronology of the correspondence and he acknowledges the invaluable assistance he was given by both writers in completing this project. His careful curation has resulted in a cohesive collection that steadily traverses the courses of both men’s lives as they intersect with each other and with the culture and times in which they were written. The questions of what one believes and how these strongly-held beliefs determine the way one lives in this world will always be important. In the case of Snyder and Berry, their principles have not only shaped their own lives but also continue to help shape the ways people think about and interact with this world.