by Ben Anderson
Over the years Warren Wilson has been fortunate to welcome many eminent individuals to campus, even aside from the College’s springtime commencement speakers. People such as E.O. Wilson, who spoke to an overflow gathering in the College Chapel; Bill McKibben, who came to campus on the eve of his 10/10/10 Global Work Party; and Jane Goodall, who despite an April snowstorm had no trouble filling Asheville’s spacious Thomas Wolfe Auditorium with a public presentation before spending the next couple of days on campus.
Before this year, Wendell Berry had last made a public appearance on the Warren Wilson campus way back in 1984, shortly after his 50th birthday and several years before most current WWC students were born. So the excitement and anticipation surrounding his visit 27 years later was hardly surprising – a two-day stay that also included visits to class and around campus with his wife and daughter. As the crowd began to stream into the chapel for a reading on the night of Nov. 9, it was clear this was going to be a magical evening at Warren Wilson.
Because the chapel seats hundreds, not thousands, the College made a conscious effort not to publicize the reading to the greater community, so that Warren Wilson students, faculty and staff who wished to attend could gain entry long as they arrived at least 20 minutes before the 8 p.m. start time. But when Wendell Berry is scheduled to read, word is going to filter out and not surprisingly a long line that included many from the larger community formed outside the chapel by 7:30 p.m. Fortunately, the technical work of Warren Wilson staff members David Harper and Sloan Poe facilitated a live broadcast in nearby Canon Lounge, where those unable to get a seat in the chapel gathered to enjoy the reading.
For his reading titled, “Living an Integrated Life: A Reading by Wendell Berry,” Berry chose to read from his famed Port William stories. And for about an hour, a rapt audience listed to a great writer read the written word well crafted – no multimedia presentation, no PowerPoint, just flowing and often poetic prose by one of the masters, interrupted only a few brief times by sips of juice in order to ease what Berry described as a throat tickle. His words were mesmerizing.
Before the reading began, Berry said of Warren Wilson, “This is a great place; this is an exceptional place.” After his reading, he fielded several questions that had been submitted beforehand by students at this “exceptional place.”
In responding to a question about needed change in our society, Berry said, “The great change we can make is to change the standards.” He later optimistically added, in replying to another question: “No matter how bad things get, somebody who’s willing can make it a little better.” He also told the students, “You are very fortunate to be at a small college,” noting that Warren Wilson “is not a battleship, but a canoe” where students can make a real difference.
One of the more poignant moments of the evening came just before the question-and-answer session when Jill Winsby-Fein ’13, a member of the Fine Woodworking Crew, presented Berry with handcrafted placemats, candles and a lazy Susan. Berry seemed genuinely moved to receive handmade gifts from Warren Wilson students. But then, nearly everything about the evening was moving, in one way or another…