Sunday, November 25, 2012

Staying Grateful

I had the good fortune last week of seeing my favorite living author, in person, here in Pennsylvania. My younger daughter texted me to say "Hey I just saw that wendell berry will be at villanova today receiving an award at 4 . . .  Want to go with me?"
photo by Guy Mendes, 2012

I’ve been reading Berry for decades, savoring his Port William novels, memorizing parts of his poems, giving volumes of his essays as Christmas presents, quoting him in this blog. My son, living in DC, has seen him in person twice, and once invited me to travel down for a major Berry event, but the timing didn't work and since Berry is now 78, with a preference for staying in one place, I thought it unlikely I’d ever have the privilege of seeing him.

So – "want to go with me?"

I fired back an answer: "You betcha. Tell me where and when!"

Just a few hours later we gathered, my daughter, her boyfriend, and a friend who manages a local community farm, and off we went through suburban rush-hour traffic to hear the voice of rural Kentucky.

We found parking, found the Villanova University Connelly Center, found our way to the well-lit meeting room just as Berry was introduced and took his place at the podium. The room was full, but we slipped into four seats together, slid off our coats, felt our pulses slow as Berry eased into a short essay: “The Fifty Year Farm Bill,” published in The Atlantic that same day.

Berry speaks slowly, with a self-deprecating good humor and a soft Kentucky drawl, but his insights are sharp, and deeply critical of much that passes for current wisdom:
Industrial agriculture characteristically proceeds by single solutions to single problems: If you want the most money from your land this year, grow the crops for which the market price is highest. Though the ground is sloping, kill the standing vegetation and use a no-till planter. For weed control, plant an herbicide-resistant crop variety and use more herbicide.
But even officially approved industrial technologies do not alter reality. The supposed soil saving of no-till farming applies to annual crops during the growing season, but the weather continues through the fall and winter and early spring. Rain continues. Snow falls. The ground freezes and thaws. A dead sod or dead weeds or the dead residue of annual crops is not an adequate ground cover. If this usage continues year after year on sloping land, and especially following soybeans, the soil will erode; it will do so increasingly. And this will be erosion of ground already poisoned with herbicides and other chemicals. Moreover, even with the use of no-till and minimum-till technologies, an estimated half of the applied nitrogen fertilizer runs off into the Mississippi River and finally the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Thus an enormous economic loss to farmers becomes an enormous ecological loss as well.
Berry moved from his critique of current agricultural practice to a story written in remembrance of the Civil War: "The Girl in the Window",  published in the Winter 2010 issue of The Threepenny Review, and recently gathered with other of Berry stories in A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership.  In his fiction, as in his essays and poetry, Berry captures the joy and sorrow of what it is to be human, the contradictions of beauty and brutality, the timeless moments that shape who we are and who we become.

Listening to Berry read his own work, I found myself thinking about integrity: his determination to be consistent across time, to live what he says, to say what he lives. And I found myself thankful for his resonating message, stated quietly, calmly, across decades, across genres:  there are rules and laws impervious to our egocentric longings, and we thrive, as individuals, families, communities, when we live within those boundaries. Berry restated this most recently in his National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture in April, (the event I wanted to attend, but didn’t),  “It All Turns on Affection”:
“We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.”
Berry has done his best to demonstrate what it means to be responsible for what he knows and does. He has farmed, for years, the same small farm in Port Royal, the town where his family has farmed since before the Civil War. He has been a faithful husband and father, grandfather, now great-grandfather, and a life-long Baptist in regular attendance at his local Baptist church. He’s been engaged in non-violent civil disobedience since the sixties against nuclear power plants, mountain-top removal, most recently against the proposed XL pipeline. He has spoken out against unjust and unwise wars, against abortion, against the death penalty:
As I am made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life before birth, I am also made deeply uncomfortable by the taking of a human life after birth. . . .Probably we have no choice against illegal killing, which continues to happen against the wishes of nearly everybody. But it is possible, morally and rationally, to choose to withhold one’s approval from legal killing, and I so choose.   (Port Royal, KY; January 23, 2009)
After Berry finished reading his story, he entertained questions from the audience. “By contract, I’ll listen to your questions. But I’m not promising to answer them.”

The questions themselves weren't memorable, but the answers showed Berry’s ability to hear what's said, then flip the question on its head to see what might be of interest.

The last question seemed like a throwaway: "Where and with whom will you spend Thanksgiving? And what are you most thankful for this year, and why?"

With a gentle smile, Berry said "That’s four questions!: then courteously sidestepped them all:
"This business of identifying one thing to be thankful for. Gratitude is a complicated thing. Everything is connected. If you’re thankful that a dear one has recovered from a serious illness, well then, you need to be thankful that you HAVE a dear one." 
I doubt my quotation is exact, but it's a familiar Berry theme: everything is connected. The health of the land leads to the health of the people; the strength of the family depends on the strength of the community. We all belong to one another, to the past, to the future, to the economic and agricultural systems that bind us to each other. Healthy systems yield healthy people; disordered systems lead to increasingly disordered hearts, minds, bodies.

Wendell Berry, more than anyone else I can think of, has looked deeply into the disordered systems of our current culture and has described as carefully as he can the implications for marriages, children, identity, food, farming, faith, trade, our economy, our environment. Yet seeing what he sees, knowing what he knows, he persists in gratitude for the beauty of the world, the kindness of friends and family, the rich goodness beyond what human minds can understand or acknowledge.

He ended his answer, and his session, with this: “My great hope is I have enough sense to be grateful to the end."

I've been carrying his thoughts with me through this Thanksgiving weekend, thinking about what it means not just to be grateful, but to stay grateful.

Those thoughts were clarified the day after Thanksgiving, as four generations gathered to celebrate my in-laws' sixtieth anniversary. In their own ways they, like Wendell Berry, have modeled a gentle, generous life lived within the boundaries of marriage, faith, and family. As their children and grandchildren shared memories, the mood turned to one of thanksgiving: for the security of an ordered family life, for the courageous witness of a faithful, determined marriage, for the freedom of learning together what it means to grow in wisdom and grace.

I’m grateful for my mother and father-in-law, for family gatherings, for shared memories, for lives woven together over decades of games and laughter and far too much pie, for marriage, for friendship, for examples of faithfulness and forgiveness and quiet service to the common good.

And I’m grateful for Wendell Berry’s work and the vision he offers of healthy, nurturing communities, and thankful for the ability to read, to think, for teachers who pointed me toward the joys of thought, books, conversation, thankful for friends and family who share ideas, recommend new authors, pass on books they've found of value, thankful for the blogging community that helps keep the conversations going, that helps to deepen the discourse far past what’s possible in sound bites or passing comments, thankful for stories shared over coffee, questions dissected over leisurely lunches, the ongoing exploration of what it means to be human, faithful, engaged, generously involved.

I could go on – and will, in my own thoughts, prayers, journal, conversations.

And what good fortune do you have to share?

What are you thankful for this week?

And how will you stay grateful?

Learn by little the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of things which perhaps
is not gratitude at all
but the maker’s joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest. 
  (Wendell Berry, from ‘Leavings’2005)