Sunday, July 29, 2007

My New Kentucky Home

I come from another visit to Lexington Kentucky, this time to participate in a book-signing for the recently published UKY Press book, Wendell Berry: Life and Work, in which I contributed a version of this post. It was a truly lovely and forever memorable evening. Wendell Berry, flanked by book editor Jason Peters and photographer and long-time friend Guy Mendes, gamely signed copies of this new book about Wendell until all copies sold out. The bookstore - Black Swan Books, overflowing with a universe of used books - sold a lot of other Berry books also, as people scooped up copies of Wendell's novels, poetry and essays for inscription. Also present were contributors and neighbors, Ed McClanahan, Norman Wirzba, Kate Dalton, and Morris Grubbs, and of course, University Press of Kentucky Director and all-around good fellow, Steve Wrinn. I read most all of the book on the flight back, and it's a great read about a great man. It should be in your town and personal libraries.

Afterwards we retired to a local restaurant, drank bourbon, and ate plentifully. I was fortunate to sit between Wendell, Guy Mendes and Ed McClanahan, who regaled me with stories of their long friendship and jokes a bit too racy to repeat here (I knew when one was coming - Wendell would conspiratorially lean in, so that his wife Tanya wouldn't hear. I'm pretty sure she did, and didn't mind, but it was the courtesy that charmed). Memory and love were palpable, as were prodigious amounts of laughter and good cheer. It amuses me to think that there are people who consider Wendell to be a dour Jeremiah. His laughter is a miracle of nature, and I recall that he once wrote that only people who are not serious are unable to laugh.

In the midst of that company I marveled that I should be among its number. They were mostly Kentuckians, many were long-standing friends, and most had spent a long time working on or with Wendell's thought. And here I was, in every abstract respect the sort of person that Wendell had spent his life criticizing: a college professor at a prestigious university, a resident of Washington D.C. - locus of centralizing power, policies that were killing off the farmer, and the hulking Pentagon - someone who did not grow up around farming and knew little of living in the countryside. But, far from feeling like an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and I think that is no accident: beyond welcoming a newcomer with kindness, an integral part of Wendell's thought involves encouraging the ability and capacity of people everywhere NOT necessarily to till the earth, but to understand, and to understand well, the sources of their sustenance, the ground and grounds on which that sustenance rests, the presuppositions of culture that are necessary for good work, good life, and good deaths.

Wendell is often mischaracterized by libertarian and "progressive" critics that he proposes to put us all back on subsistence farms. This requires not only a willful misreading, but probably reveals an absence of actual reading. Nothing could be further from the truth, plainly visible in black and white on the printed page. Consider a few passages from Berry's book, "Citizenship Papers":

"Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself to be as superstitious as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

"I am not suggesting, of course, that everybody ought to be a farmer or a forester. Heaven forbid! I am suggesting that most people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic. Most people are now fed, clothed, and sheltered from sources, in nature and in the work of other people, toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility" ("In Distrust of Movements," 47-8).

Or, even more directly:

"At this point I want to say point blank what I hope is already clear: Though agrarianism proposes that everybody has agrarian responsibilities, it does not propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities. Nor does it propose that every product should be a necessity. Furthermore, any thinkable human economy would have to grant to manufacturing an appropriate and honorable place. Agrarians would insist only that any manufacturing enterprise be formed and scaled to fit the local landscape, the local ecosystem, and the local community, and that it should be locally owned and employ local people. They would insist, in other words, that the shop or factory owner should not be an outsider, but rather a sharer in the fate of the place and its community. The deciders should have to live with the results of their decisions" ("The Whole Horse," 121).

Berry is commending for all of us - whether we live on the country or in the cities, in the suburbs or the exurbs - to become more thoughtful about what we are doing and to change our behavior accordingly. Does this mean selling the suburban house and buying a farm in the country? No, though some have and will. It does mean that we begin to think about the sources of our sustenance and the consequences of our actions, and that, where possible, we begin to develop skills and practices that can help sustain our families and our communities. Rather than buying the cheapest goods, look to support local agriculture, local merchants and local manufacturing (today's Washington Post carries a front page article on a groundswell of people seeking to eat local, mentioning Wendell Berry by name no less). Rather than buying a new item made in China and shipped with prodigious quantities of oil, attempt to repair the old item or use a serviceable substitute. Cook at home more; repair your clothes, even make some; pick up a hammer or split some wood (this will give you an idea of the energy that is required to heat our houses...). Consume less; save more. Live smaller, turn down the heat, use less air conditioning. Turn off the television and gather with neighbors. Invest in enterprises that support these values, not those that will make the most money in our "growth economy." Rather than thinking in terms of individual satisfaction, take into account the good of one's family, one's neighbors, one's community - and, future generations of each. All this requires us to think more than we now do about what we are doing. The one "movement" that Wendell Berry has endorsed is "MTEWIID": "the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing."

And here's something else that made me settle into my chair and truly enjoy that evening with Wendell and friends, knowing that I had every reason to feel welcome in that Kentucky company: Wendell has said that this change cannot happen without the good efforts and support of "cityfolk." In 1977 Wendell Berry agreed to debate Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture under Gerald Ford and subject of a withering critique by Berry in "The Unsettling of America" (Butz had told farmers, infamously, to "get big or get out"). One member of the audience asked Berry why more politicians and leaders don't listen to farmers, and this is what he said:

"I think they don't listen to farmers because there aren't enough of you. You're a negligible quantity, politically. I don't see how you're going to protect yourself without some friends in the cities, and I don't see how you're going to get them. You see, this is the split I'm talking about. You're feeding people not interested in raising food, they're interested in eating it. So when you've got a declining small population in which nobody is interested, I don't see how you stop it at an irreducible minimum. It seems to me that farmers are in rapid precipitous decline, they're without political friends, and I don't see how they can do anything except expect to decline some more. Unless values change."

Wendell Berry has done more than any man alive in helping to bring about this change in values. And he has acknowledged the need for political friends who live away from the farms, in the towns, in the cities, and yes, even in the suburbs. And so, I sipped my bourbon in full knowledge and joy that I had been invited and warmly welcomed into that fine and immortal company. There's more room at the table.


Bob said...

Great story, almost as if I'd been there sipping on two fingers of Wild Turkey...had to be a delightful evening.
Did WB mention if he was working on another Port William novel? I do hope so.

Paul Cella said...

Wonderful post. These points need to be repeated and renovated, lest those of us sympathetic to Distributism or Agrarianism forget them and acquisce in the "willful misreading."