A friend of mine moved to the university town where I was a student. A week-and-a-half ago, she sent me an e-mail with this subject line:
“Wendell Berry here all week”
Sure enough. Last Tuesday night he was to read from his work; Wednesday was an interview of some kind; Thursday he would do another reading; and Friday night he was participating in a concert intermingling his readings with music.
At first it didn’t look like I could attend any of the events. My days were full, so the thought of all that driving—three hours round trip—for just an hour or so of Wendell Berry didn’t seem like a wise investment of my time. After all, I’d be coming home late and needed to be rested for several meetings. Plus, I still had papers to grade and two classes to teach at our co-op. It just didn’t seem prudent.Then something clicked.
Suddenly, I wanted to make it happen.
I wanted to go.
I wanted to go, even if I was tired the next day, even if the papers went ungraded, even if I was unprepared for class and sleepy during the meetings.
I wanted to go see Wendell Berry.
And, if possible, I wanted to go with a friend.
So I phoned around.One friend couldn’t make it. Another friend couldn’t make it. A third didn’t return my voice mail, so I was about to give up. Then I texted her one last time, and at the very last minute she agreed to meet me, so we drove to the campus for the Wednesday conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson (moderated by Scott Russell Sanders). We met up with the mutual friend who told us about these appearances and arrived at the lecture hall just after 7:00 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. event. The place was packed. My friends and I had to split up to find seats.
With my telephoto lens, I could snap some casual shots as the gentlemen were setting up.
At one point, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry were trying to tie up a piece of artwork using rope. Clearly there was a lot of discussion about the best knot and the best system for raising the artwork.
Scott Russell Sanders stood and observed, amused.
Scott Sanders and Wendell Berry watched as people filled every seat, sat along the steps, stood four-deep in the entrance area, and, we were told, spilled into the hallway. They spotted a familiar face here and there.
The two men didn’t need too much prompting from Sanders to keep the conversation moving along, as Wes and Wendell are good friends who stay in close contact with one another, even collaborating on projects.
I scribbled notes on tiny sheets of paper during the talk and did my best to keep up. Now I’d like to share with you excerpts from their conversation. While I did my best to track their words, I may have missed a word here and there.
The two men began by describing what it was like to grow up on a farm. Each talked about the crops and animals they tended in their youth. Wendell went first. After his detailed account, he said:
Wendell Berry (WB): It took me a long time to get myself home and weaned from the idea that I’d been explicitly taught—and this must have come from teachers and friends—that to amount to anything I’d have to leave home.
(This idea of the value of farming—even his phrasing—reminded me of Ann Voskamp’s amazing post in October, “In Defense of Food: and all who bring it to our tables.) Then Wes Jackson (WJ) talked about his life growing up on a farm and mentioned the long rows of vegetables he had to hoe and how he grew to really dislike hoeing. Wendell Berry spoke up. WB: You can’t enjoy not hoeing unless you hoe.
Scott Russell Sanders (SRS): This brings up a theme that you both write about: work and the pleasure of work. But work seems to be a four-letter word for most of America. Can you speak to that?
WB: A couple of months ago, I saw an article in Progressive Magazine. It was called “Less Work, More Life.” That kind of got to me. The implication is that you’re not living when you work.
I used to work with some people in a university setting where I didn’t think the activities were too strenuous: they didn’t have long hours, and yet on Fridays [they would exclaim their relief that Friday had come and celebrate the end of the work week]. So…what I’m taking from this is that you must be working all week at a job you evidently despise in order to have a weekend in which you live.
Well, I wrote a reply [to the Progressive Magazine article]. I said something to the effect that you can’t write like that unless the word “vocation” is reduced to “job,” and public discourse is reduced to slogans like “less work, more life.” Our goal should be to have work we enjoy, not despise. If you say “more work, less life,” it’s almost suggesting you are enduring a type of involuntary servitude, which in this country we used to call “slavery.” If that’s what it’s like, I’d say it’s time to get new work.There’s a certain kind of writer who likes to speak in public about how desperately miserable writing is. If I felt that way, I’d quit. I think it’s worth infinite trouble, but it’s not worth suffering. I have bad days as a writer, and more good days I’ve liked being a writer. I’ve liked being a farmer—even dreading some of the work beforehand and getting to do it and liking it very much—but I don’t think my life has increased when my work has decreased.
WJ: Work doesn’t have to be fun. Satisfying, yes; but it doesn’t have to be fun. And the satisfaction is what comes as a result of meeting a perceived necessity or some possibility.
Wes described the dread of heading out on a cold, dark, snowy winter morning to milk the cow…but then how the process of wiping down the cow, and pulling out the can and sitting down to start the milking started to improve his mood. By the time he finished and took the milk inside to separate it, he felt good about it. He concluded:
WJ: What you weren’t really looking forward to, you’ve done. And you feel satisfied. Calling it fun trivializes it. Work is just part of being.
WB: It’s life!
The men spoke of the “fruitful provocation” they provide for each other. Wendell claimed that Wes was rooted in Scripture as a scientist; that “it’s a science that accepts limits.” Wes talked about how Wendell provided him with effective language to explain the necessity and possibility of an agriculture that allows people and land to avoid being competing agents. One phrase he used even for the title of a book is from literature. Wendell pointed it out to him; it’s “consulting the genius of the place.” He pointed out that this approach is quite different from the view that nature can be subdued or ignored.
Wes began to explain his vision for a new way to work with the genius of the prairie by planting a new kind of grain, a perennial wheat that his team of scientists has been trying to breed.
He said that Wendell wrote that when we came across the continent chopping down trees and turning over the soil, “We plowed the prairie and never knew what we were doing, because we did not know what we were undoing.” In other words, as Wes would say, we paid no attention to the genius of the place.
The illustration of two plants and their root systems was so long that Wendell got out of his chair to help unroll it and show that the root system on the left goes down, down, down.
The idea, if I understand it, is that ongoing tilling and planting of wheat and other grains (which is necessary because they are annuals) is, over time, causing the prairie topsoil to wash away; and the topsoil that remains needs nutrients.So this high-yield perennial wheat—a cross between standard wheat and the grasses that grow abundantly well on the prairie—would hold the soil in place and feed it…and farmers would no longer need to turn over the the soil each season to plant it.
They said that they’ve taken this idea to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—to the Secretary of Agriculture—and presented it to various senators, as well.
SRS: What was the response from the Secretary of Agriculture?
The audience laughed.
WJ: But Wendell and I are used to being ignored, so we’re toughened to that.
I’m not a scientist, nor am I a farmer, so I know little of how effective this solution could be, but I sure enjoyed listening to these two men share their vision.
My friends and I walked from the lecture hall to a nearby cafe, where I ordered a piece of plum tarte and coffee, and we talked until 11:20 p.m. At that point, we decided we really should get on the road and head home.
Due to a long delay on the freeway, I arrived home close to 2:00 a.m.
However, neither fatigue nor a full schedule kept me from going back down the next day with Charity Singleton.
To be continued…