Heading For Home With Wendell Berry
So much information, from the time I rise in the morning, with NPR and the Weather Channel, through my day on the computer (Facebook, email, the endless sea of the Internet), to bed, with the “entertainment” that passes for news on the local channel. At home, in my car on the road, at work, everywhere I go, I’m supposedly connected. Connected to what, to whom? All of this ceaseless, rapid-fire information that wears me out and down. But no wisdom delivered or received. In the course of a day bombarded by advertisement in all its current clever guises, plenty people have tried to sell me things. I might survive in the marketplace, I’ll probably survive life as we know it, but no one has offered a clue about how to live. If I have the world at the click of a mouse, on my laptop and cell phone, it’s tempting to believe that I’ve mastered my own little universe, as if it were all contained there on the screen. I have a couple thousand friends on Facebook offering no shortage of love for what I have to say. How is it possible then to so often feel small, alone, and fearful?
To be divided against nature, against wildness, then, is a human disaster because it is to be divided against ourselves. It confines our identities as creatures entirely within the bounds of our own understanding, which is invariably a mistake because it is invariably reductive. It reduces our largeness, our mystery to a petty and sickly comprehensibility.
My grandfather, my father’s father, was a weekend farmer, on a terraced hillside, a few acres that rose into the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside of Salem, Virginia. He worked in town, but came home each evening to furrowed rows of earth, a garden that provided both food and the solace of working the land. The way I’ve lived, with fast-food chains dominating the freeways and the city streets, with supermarkets the size of city blocks, with Wal-Marts that sell us our junk and now our food, it’s nearly inconceivable to me now that this good man took fresh vegetables out of the ground and put them on his family’s table. What could be simpler? What could be more divine?
Our present economy, by contrast, does not account for affection at all, which is to say that it does not account for value. The so-called materialism of our time is … at once indifferent to spiritual concerns and insatiably destructive of the material world.
It was clear to me that my grandfather loved the land. He worked it, after his regular job and on the weekends. The vegetables and flowers didn’t grow of their own accord. They had to be planted, watered, weeded, fed, watched over, and then harvested. My grandfather was a quiet, private man, often silent, but this didn’t trouble me, because his love was clear. He loved what he tended to. When he knelt in his old and frayed overalls, those meant for working the garden rows terraced into the hillside, and sifted that red dirt through his hands, he’d often smile. And that smile was all I needed. In the summer, he smelled of sweat, and cigarettes and the soft ground we walked on. The air itself, sweet mountain air, smelled of things growing in the sun. It would be easy and a mistake, to drift into nostalgia for a time that never was. The problem is, I was there, on my grandfather’s land, for an all-too-brief time that colored the rest of my days and set up a yearning I’ve yet to answer to my satisfaction. Wendell Berry has been on his farm in Kentucky for decades now, living and writing about a life and a community, that seem like a distant dream for most of us. But his life, his words, his ideas, are as real and as rich as the Kentucky bottomland soil he farms. His is a rare and practiced wisdom, the accumulation of working knowledge, the knowledge of work. He chose this life “away from it all," that might seem boring and slow, unbelievably slow, in comparison to our own.
What one has (house or job, spouse or car) is only valuable insofar as it can be exchanged for what one believes one wants—a limitless economic process based upon boundless dissatisfaction. For human beings, the spiritual and the practical are, and should be, inseparable.
We worship the wrong things. In our constant striving for either “winning” the rat race or for “simple” economic survival, we’ve forgotten who we are and where we are. If we are, in some real and spiritual sense, what we eat, and we have no clue where our food comes from, how then can we know who we are? And, as we travel the freeways between the great cities and are greeted by endless billboards and strip malls, McDonald’s and Starbucks and Wal-Marts, from sea to shining sea, until it all begins to look and feel the same (dead and boring), how can we be sure where we are? We’re lost. We’ve been taught to believe that everything must be complex—high-tech solutions to high-tech problems, from a centralized source, the industrial-military, agri-business machine, with an assist from Wall Street and nameless investors here and abroad. The answer to the mess we’ve made of our lives, our country, our planet, couldn’t be as simple as taking matters into our own hands, could it? Could we live self-sufficient lives in self-supporting communities?
I remember the times my grandfather would come home from work in the city and without changing clothes, roll up the white sleeves of his button down shirt and head out into the garden. He’d motion for me to come along and by his side, the world fell into place, his place, ours. Nothing has made us sadder, more fearful, than being adrift. Berry asks us to come home, to be still finally, to put down roots in a real community, not a virtual one. To be connected, to stay in one place, to watch the sun rise and set on a beloved piece of ground. These moments beneath the sun, in the open air, with the earth beneath our feet, are shot through with something eternal, a timelessness. There is a sense of wonder, a child’s wonder, for the world we find ourselves in. And in wonder at the mystery of creation lies grace, our saving grace.
This essay is for Wendell Berry, and for my grandfather, Howard Houck. Everything in bold italics comes from Mr. Berry’s Preserving Wildness in Home Economics (1987). The notion of narrative stillness, of the silence between lines, was inspired by Charles Baxter’s wonderful essay, Stillness, found in his Burning Down The House: Essays on Fiction.