Before we left for our three-week vacation pilgrimage I went to the local library and took out every Wendell Berry book they had. A few years ago I read his novel Jayber Crow. When I finished it I started right back at the beginning and read it again. It felt like home that book. I carried it with me everywhere I went for about a year afterwards. Finally I let it go. But I never forgot it. When considering what to read on our recent journey by car through BC and Alberta it hit me, Wendell Berry!
During the trip I read two of his short story collections: Watch With Me and Fidelity, and another novel: Hannah Coulter. I’m currently reading the novel Andy Catlett.
Wendell Berry’s fiction is all set on a small rural farming community called Port William. His stories tell of its various inhabitants and their lives, values and ways of being on the earth with the land, in relationships, and inside themselves.
My family still has a farm south of Edmonton in Alberta and when my grandparents moved there in 1946, the rural lifestyle of community and hard work was still thriving. My cousin now farms the land and his father farmed it before him. It’s unusual these days to still have a family farm to go to. I really value that opportunity even though the farming practices have changed enormously in the past 70 years or so! They have combine harvesters that steer themselves, enormous grain bins, stock market watching for grain and beef prices, seed drills with robotic sensors for fences and other obstacles, and, thank God, crop insurance, because this year my cousin lost his entire crop to hail – 10 mins of tennis ball-sized hail. It flattened the entirety of what was expected to be a bumper crop.
I’ve been known to say that I should write a piece about the life of a loaf of bread because it starts with a family making a life-style choice. Of course there are now commercial farmers too who don’t even live on the land, but that’s agri-business and different from what I’m talking about. There are still families that choose to live and work according to the cycles of Mother Nature and who are willing to pass control of what they work at, or not, to their God. Some years are fabulous: the barley crop is good enough for beer and therefore holds more value, the canola crop is forehead-high to a six foot man and the seed pods are crammed, the organic certification comes through and you can raise your prices accordingly. Some years, well, you get hailed out and you suddenly find yourself looking to do custom work (work for other farmers) and to rent out your grain bins for the year just to make ends meet – maybe. But there is always quiet and calm if you look for it.
Wendell Berry has a way of saying in a simple forward compassionate way, all the things I have felt through the years about the value of that rural farming lifestyle. He has a way of telling my heart and how I am – or want to be – in relationship. He has a way of bringing tears of joy, hope and sadness to my eyes all at once. He can bring the love and tough times of close community to life in a way that makes me feel part of it all. These things feel like home to me. They feel like comfort in tough times. They feel like joy in the good ones.
It seems to me to be a life of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage in place. One place. Pilgrimage through relationships. Pilgrimage in presence. Pilgrimage to one’s own heart. Pilgrimage through work. Pilgrimage as life lived authentically.
Farming is not for everyone. But I suspect that it is a life for a lot more people than are doing it right now. The physical touch of the land grounds us. It holds us close. It reminds us of our connection to each other, our inter-dependence. Through the land, we can know that we are One and that we are meant to love and care for each other.
I will leave you with a string of quotes that I love and let Berry’s words speak for themselves.
Thank you Wendell Berry for these gifts.
(talking about the “strata of history” down through the land) “You work your way down, or not so much down as within, into the interior of the present, until finally you come to that beginning in which all things, the world and the light itself, at a word welled up into being out of their absence. An nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is in time and the Now that is not, that has filled time with reminders of itself.” p.4
“I was experiencing consciously for the first time that transformation in which the living, by dying, pass into the living, and I was full of grief and love and wonder.” p. 5
“ ‘Well, anyway,’ Detective Bode said, ‘all I know is that the law has been broken, and I’m here to serve the law.’
‘But, my dear boy, you don’t eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve.’
‘Why, all the many things that are above it. Love.’” p. 175
From Hannah Coulter:
“Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.” p. 67
But the only reminder of it now is a pile of rocks that were the chimney. That is where I go to rest before I begin my slow climb back home again. I sit and let the quiet come to me. It doesn’t come right away. I have to quiet myself before I can hear the quiet of the place, and a car passing along the road up the hillside or an airplane flying over makes it harder. But I listen and wait, and at last it comes. It is an old quiet, only deepened by the sound of the creek, a bird singing, or a barking squirrel. It goes back to the beginning, and in it you can imagine the life of the vanished house.” p. 87
“Some of you fellows don’t know anything. I been farther around the frying pan looking for the handle, than you ever been away from home.” p. 98
“Way leads on to way, as the poet says, and what is done is hard to undo. And yet love is not satisfied with such answers but remembers and endures all things and yearns across the distances.” p. 133
“Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering. And they are all still here, still farming. They are here, and if the world lasts they are going to be here for quite awhile. If I had ‘venture capital’ to invest, I think I would invest in the Branches.” p. 152
(Hannah Coulter after learning her husband had cancer)
“My tears were falling into the bowl of beaten eggs and then my nose dripped into it. I flung the whole frothy mess into the sink. I said, ‘Well, what are you planning to do? Just die? Or what?’
I couldn’t turn around. I heard him fold the paper. After a minute he said, ‘Dear Hannah, I’m going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will take care of itself.’
He came to me then, an old man weakened and ill, with my Nathan looking out of his eyes. He held me a long time as if under a passing storm, and then the quiet came. I fixed some supper, and we ate.” p. 161