Death pervades Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth. Old people die. Young soldiers die. Daughters die. Characters talk about it. Characters dread it. The preacher, Brother Piston, tries to console surviving family members after a loved one dies.
But the novel doesn’t treat death as altogether bad. Old Jack Beechum, for instance accepts his inevitable death calmly: “He speaks of the approach of his own death as much as a matter of fact as he speaks of the approach of Tuesday.” His acquiescence probably comes partly from his understanding that death may be a means to an end. He hates to see boys from his town die in war, but, he reasons, “It may be necessary to use up the lives of young men . . . . A choice has to be made between terrible sacrifice and terrible defeat.”
Other characters and circumstances show that death can be a price worth paying for a greater good. Sometimes the lesson somes out symbolically, even allegorically. Uncle Stanley Gibbs digs graves among his other duties at the church. Or has dug them until lately. He can still use the shovel but finds it hard these days to move his old knees enough to get out of the hole once he digs it. The effects of impending death take away his livelihood and literally put him in an early grave. So he asks Jayber Crow, a character who has thought he has no purpose, to take over that part of his job. Jayber finds that for the first time he has a plan, that he possesses “not only a life, but a death.” And Uncle Stanley, now more appreciative than ever of the job he almost lost, discovers that what he gave up has come back. “It is a resurrection. He thought he was a goner, but now his life is twice as abundant as before.”
The novel is told in the present tense, and this, too, plays a symbolic role in the book’s lesson of life, death, and resurrection, of loss and hope. Virgil Feltner has been reported missing in action. The narrator tells us: “The news has gone its rounds among the gathering places, and has quietly set the young man’s life into the past tense of the town’s consciousness. . . . To speak of him in the present tense becomes the private observance of his family.” Burley Coulter expands on the notion of family observance of death in a letter to his nephew Nat, also away at war: “We don’t rest in peace. The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him.” Put it all together, and it seems to say that Wendell Berry sees his characters as virtual family and cares about them too much to speak of them in the past tense. I reported a few days ago that I sensed constant hope in the book, and now I see why.
Rain also pervades A Place on Earth. Like death, it hinders people’s movements. It tests their patience. It tests their works (as when young Virgil plows his first field incorrectly). And the connection between rain and death solidifies when a flash flood caused by the inexorable rain carries away a young girl. And so these parallels reinforce the view that death, just like rain, is both bad and good. The rain that caused the river to rise also brings new life out of the fields each spring. And the same death that puts lost soldiers into the past tense brings resurrection.