CRAFT FOCUS: Berry, Recollected Essays 1965-1980 by Elizabeth Gaucher

We're introducing a new feature series this summer on our HeartWood blog: Craft Focus. This series will focus on issues of the craft of writing, examining the works of others and the tools we use as writers to craft our pieces. We'll feature work from Wesleyan MFA student annotations on various works to discussions of specific craft elements, issues, and more.

Our first feature comes from Elizabeth Gaucher (Nonfiction '15) who is sharing her annotation on Wendell Berry's Recollected Essays 1965-1980, which she presented at the WVWC Graduate Studies Symposium, A Celebration of Scholarship. Read Elizabeth's annotation below:

The Question of Origin & Process: Wendell Berry’s Imagery in “A Country of Edges”

The purpose of this work is to dissect the craft of writing itself and to identify the techniques by which Wendell Berry engages the reader in a highly complex philosophical consideration of the natural world.

I approached these questions by noting in my first reading of “A County of Edges” the repeated and somewhat alternating presentation of land/rock and water images in the essay. I then identified Berry’s own recurring references to a transcendent connection between human life and the elements of the natural world throughout his essay, and examined how he supports his beliefs about unknown questions of time, origin, and change processes with rock and water imagery.

Finally, I analyzed the capacity Berry has through his limited choice of rock and water imagery to make accessible in a short work a series of ideas about why our world is continuously and invisibly shaped, by what forces, and to what end.

This annotation emphasizes the power a writer may wield by focusing on simple, basic elements of a setting to explore enormous intellectual concepts by introducing the familiar to access the mysterious.

Berry, Recollected Essays 1965-1980

In his essay, Wendell Berry uses the tension between images of hard land and limitless water to convey the dynamics of unity and change in the natural world. He uses these dynamics to open an interior dialogue with himself about aspects of life that are “too small, too large, too complex, too simple, too powerful, too delicate, too transient, too ancient and durable to ever be comprehended with the limits of human life.” That is a rather overwhelming theme, but by limiting his observations to how two very specific elements reflect this theme, he makes his philosophy accessible to the reader.

The essay begins with a definite hardscape image of “overtowering edges” and “wooded ridges,” but rapidly introduces the element of water in motion. Water is a substance without edges, and cliffs and ridges are places without motion, and so the narrator draws the reader into the question of how these natural elements relate.

The water of the Red River Gorge “reaches/falls/leaps” off the rocks and slopes. Berry proclaims that “The critical fact about water, wherever you find it in the Red River Gorge, is motion.” The Red River “moves in its rocky notches as abrasive as a file.” In place now is the image of a solid, motionless rock face and active liquid. It seems at first that they are opposites, but the narrator begins to explore the process or interaction between these elements. He states that the “leisure/patience/turmoil” of the river’s work will keep how it does what it does “to some degree unknown” and that though we may speculate, our speculation will always be “a point of departure from the present surface into the shadowy question of origin and process.”

Berry is ultimately concerned with issues of vastness, of mystery and time; but to launch such weighty topics in the first lines of a fairly brief essay would be counterproductive. By introducing the essay with limited “characters” in rock and water and staying close to those components throughout the work, Berry allows the reader to walk naturally and with ease through a difficult and somewhat obscure topic: how and why our world is continuously and invisibly shaped around us, by what forces, and to what end.


Elizabeth Gaucher is a native of Charleston, West Virginia, and lives in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction. She edits creative nonfiction for Longridge Review.