In his 2015 book, Gumption, Nick Offerman wrote, "Now, as long as anyone is listening, I will holler about Wendell Berry." For those that don't know, Wendell Berry is a farmer, environmental activist, novelist, essayist, and poet who lives and works on the tobacco farm he grew up on in Henry County, Kentucky, and Offerman's favorite writer. Offerman goes on to tell how he was working as an understudy and make-up artist at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1995 when a colleague, the late actor Leo Burmester, gave him a book of Berry's short stories, Fidelity. It was a gift that changed his life. Offerman went on to read all of Berry's work — which currently stands at 13 works of fiction, 17 essay collections, and 17 books of poetry — much of it two or three times over, and claims it as a guiding influence in his life.
When Offerman heard that Austin-based documentarian Laura Dunn (The Unforeseen) was making a documentary about Wendell Berry, he signed on as a co-producer. That film, The Seer, will premiere at SXSW later this month. It focuses on Berry's passion for ethical land use and the benefits of small farms, an ideal he championed long before farm-to-table dining came into vogue. At his own request, Berry does not appear in the film, although audio from interviews with him serve as narration throughout. As the title suggests, the resulting film is about the world Berry sees around him — his farm, the nearby Kentucky River, the surrounding woods, and his neighboring farmers, men who have seen their land and livelihood taken over by agribusiness.
Do you have a favorite moment in the film?
It's hard to be objective answering that question because there's this great piece where Wendell talks about comparing farming and writing to other arts. He says, "somebody putting together a musical composition, or building this stool." And Laura asked me to then be filmed building a three-legged stool. I built this stool in my shop, and we filmed it. And so footage of just my hands and tools making this stool made it into the film. To have my clumsy hands working on a piece of furniture to illustrate something Wendell Berry is saying. If that's not the pinnacle of my career, then I don’t want to live anymore. I love that the best thing I've ever done in a film doesn’t involve seeing my face. That's the selfish answer.
The unselfish answer to that question would be towards the end of the film. Wendell doesn’t appear in the film. And I think she's (Dunn) done such a magnificent job of making lemonade with that particular lemon. It’s funny because now thinking about the film, I haven’t seen it for a couple of months, it’s hard to remember that he’s not actually in it because his voice and the photography work, he is so present without actually being filmed. But at the end of the film, when she has that footage of him in Spokane from the 70s, I just find so flatly moving that this young farmer, writer from Kentucky had such a prescient vision that he was able to speak to that convention with such confidence and common sense. It sort of brings it all home for me, and it also exemplifies the way that he’s been saying these things for decades.
You got to meet Wendell Berry. Is that correct?
It is correct. I had written him a handful of letters over the years. I was turned on to his writing about 20 years ago. And I immediately wanted to adapt his work and began writing and asking him for permission. And he communicated that he didn’t want anybody adapting his work, but nonetheless we wrote some friendly letters. And I think I was able to communicate to him that I had a sense of humor. It was really nice to write and receive letters from him.
Eventually, when I got involved with Laura's movie, Laura said I could probably let the family know that you're an okay guy, and basically I got her approval. With her signing off, they agreed to let me come to meet Wendell and his wife Tanya. It turns out their son Den was a fan of my woodworking and he had my article in Fine Woodworking magazine, which details a router jig that’s used for flattening a big slab of wood, if you want to use it as a table top. I think that may have legitimized me in the eyes of the Berry household more than anything.
As a craftsman yourself, both with woodworking and theater, is that ideal of starting with a vision of perfection something you think translates to other art forms, and how important is it to any art form to start with an ideal of perfection?
Absolutely. I think it's profoundly eloquent analogy to life, to any human effort. To my thinking, that's the best kind of ideal. Don't give yourself any defeat before your start. I'm working on my third book right now about woodworking, which is called Good Clean Fun, and among the projects in the book, I'm making a couple more stools based on the one I made for The Seer. Literally, I'm in my shop today working on this stool. When you begin any such effort, you go into it. That's the human condition. You say okay, that last one I thought was going to be perfect but I screwed up this and this. So now this time, I'm going to do it the next one. And since I made those two mistakes and learned, so now this one should be perfect. Invariably I'm human, there will be a flaw or six or sixteen. And then I'll say okay, then I'll take that into next season’s harvest. I think the gift of Wendell Berry to the human race is to take the art of farming, and communicate it to us through his art of writing in such a moving way, which is still enjoyable in its own right.
There’s another quote that also comes at the beginning of the film; "When we make our art, we are also making our lives and I’m sure that the reverse is equally true." It strikes me; Wendell Berry has this, not idyllic, but very intentionally simple life and he lived on his family's land and does things he loves. You're very lucky that you have the woodshop that you are passionate about, and you are able to act. How do people who don’t live as obviously an artistic life, or a life as connected to place, how can this apply to them?
I take myself back to the time before I had a woodshop. I think that your place can exist in the world, whether it's your family's farmland or your woodshop. But I think it can also exist within a person, because I think that before I had my woodshop, I had other places where I found my solace, and the places of my fecundity or my artistic peace. And sometimes it was in the theater, literally, sometimes it was fishing with my dad. Wherever I've lived, I've always had a place where I could go walk in the woods. That's always been a practice of mine, or a park. When I've lived in New York City, I depended on Central Park and the Cloisters, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn when things were roiling for whatever reason in my life and I need to just go and have a good think, I walk in the woods. The task usually becomes clear then.
If there's someone completely new to Wendell Berry, what are the books that you think they should start with?
I get asked that a lot. My usual answer is if you think you are going to like fiction more than essays, then I steer them toward the short stories. There's a book called Fidelity, and there’s Watch With Me. Both of those are great bite-sized, introductory pieces of fiction. There are really funny ones, and there are great dramatic ones. Those were the first ones I read, and it's not as big of a commitment as diving into a novel. But I think that the characters and the world in those stories will hook the reader, and like me, you have to consume his entire body of work. And if people are more prone to non-fiction, I tell them to get his book from last year, which is called Our Only World.
Just as a last question, if you don’t mind. Do you miss Ron Swanson?
(Laughs) Oh, gosh. That's a very good question. No, no. I don't. I miss the idyllic life that is involved around Ron Swanson, by which I mean the collaboration with all the people who made Parks and Recreation. In my adult career, I always thought it would be more centered in the theater than in film and television, working on Parks and Recreation was the closest time I ever came to experiencing the dream of artistic coalition that I always hoped for. You get the right bunch of people together, we can make something that does a lot of good. And that was an incredible time. But I'm also very aware, in the nature of that first quote from Wendell Berry of the temporal nature of such works. I’m not a specialist, I'm not the guy who just sculpts the human figure in marble and so it's easy to trace my progress from a young artist to a master. I'm much more of a dancing fool who has the opportunity to visit many carnivals, and that was the finest carnival I have ever gotten to dance at.
But no, I don't miss any role that I've had the good fortune to play, especially because I got to play that one a lot longer than any other. It was a beautiful time and it changed my life in a lot of great ways, but to long to return to it would be looking too much to the past. I'm trying to look in the other direction, and do some other good work.