It has been 12 years since I first read Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer Liberation Front, and I’ve been devouring his novels, poems, and essays ever since. Which is, actually, not enough time to consume all 53 volumes that make up his prolific output. This is fine with me, as my to-read queue is fat and happy, contentedly waiting for me to get around to the next one on the list.
Last night, I had the pleasure of putting a face to the words, as I sat in a sold out crowd at the Herbst Theater as a part of the City Arts & Lectures Series to hear Mr. Berry answer questions and read from the three books he put out last year. Ladies and Gents, our dear Wendell is 78. And still, he puts out more books in a single year than some writers in their entire career. So, how does he do it?
1. He has a “writing place”, which he describes as a physical space in which “nothing is linear or square or rational”.
2. He allows himself to be distracted, by nature of the window he looks out upon as he writes, looking up from time to time at the world outside. He was once told to try staring at a blank wall while he writes, but he found that “not being distracted was the most distracting thing of all!” Wanting to be in conversation with the world, even while writing so that he doesn’t miss anything, helps him stay connected. “I’d hate to be confined to a page!”
So, he leapt off the page last night, and I was warmed to find that his personality and demeanor perfectly matches the books he writes. It lends authenticity to his words to hear his lilting Southern accent, witness the left foot slightly turned in to the right, and to listen to the calm cadence of his answers to the questions put before him.
“Work at ease” is a phrase that returns to him in both his farming and his writing, and he tries to keep an even pace in whatever he is doing. This is a very important message for me to hear, as I am multi-tasking mama extraordinaire, and I need the “work at ease” mentality sorely.
I am drawn to Berry’s work because of his intimate knowledge of human relationships, and the way he writes and speaks about love makes sense to me. Last night, he said, “I’m a little suspicious of people who tell me they love humanity. Better to reduce it to one at a time.” He responded to a question about what is his favorite part of the Bible by naming The Beatitudes, that he needs the message that loving God and loving your neighbor are essentially the same thing. “I don’t understand it, but I want to keep thinking about it.”
In San Francisco, Berry is certainly more popular for his activism, particularly with sustainable agriculture. Most of the questions from the audience had to do with his work on the 50 Year Farm Bill and protests of coal mining in Kentucky. I got quite an education in care of the land, something my urbanite brain does not consider very often. It is something I need to think about more, because, as Berry said, “We’re destroying our country because of our unwillingness to imagine it.” He pointed out that we are seeing less and less of our world, and are shocked when occurrences like Hurricane Sandy remind us that we live in nature and we’re not in charge, because the ads are constantly telling us that we live in a wish-fulfilling world.
He declaims the fact that we have no semblance of a land use bill, that says, “We love our land, and we want to take care of it, so here’s how we are going to treat it.” And about the mountaintop mining that he protested, (“I tried several times to get arrested, but they wouldn’t!”), he has choice words: “There’s nothing under the ground that’s worth more than the little layer of topsoil sitting on top of it.”
I am always trying to relate Berry’s words to my city life, and I certainly had no trouble doing that when he talked about Wallace Stegner’s concept of Boomers versus Stickers. Boomers are people who come to a place to make as much money as they can, then get the hell out of there. Stickers are the ones who attempt to live within their means and dig in to their community. This really hit home, as I have recommitted myself to my neighborhood at the very time that it was flooded with folks making massive amounts of money in the New Wave Tech Boom. He quoted Wes Jackson, who said there is only one major in higher education: Upward Mobility, but there needs to be another one: Homecoming.
It is not easy, to choose to stay, even when everything is changing all around you, or, even worse, when nothing is. Berry did not sugarcoat this. He has no quaint version of hometown life, but instead talked about how in small communities, everyone knows your business, and your task is not to care about whether or not they approve. The upside to everyone knowing everyone else’s business, he says, is that everyone knows who needs help.
There was a certain sweetness to the evening for me, as I was there as the guest of our church’s resident mystic, who had recalled me saying once that Wendell Berry was one of my saints, and invited me to come to the lecture. Knowing I can’t afford such things, he paid for my ticket, and I got to sit beside his lovely partner and get to know her better. I believe I was experiencing the aforementioned benefits of everyone knowing my business.
I left the evening with a question: since Wendell Berry knows so much about human relationships, and he knows so much about the land, are the two connected? Does he understand people better because of his commitment to farming? Am I missing out, by shunning all things outdoorsy, in learning about the one thing I care most about in the world, how to love people better?
Folks who are knowledgeable about the land — can you weigh in here? What have you learned about relationships through your commitment to the land? “It all turns on affection”, Berry said, several times, quoting E.M. Forster. It all comes back to love.