Wendell's Team: A Five-Part Essay
Note: Savoring Kentucky veers off the path of short(ish) blog posts today and offers an essay in five parts, in tribute to Wendell Berry. I'm on Wendell Berry's team. I put myself there. I'm a walk-on, unrecruited, at the far end of a bench so long even visionary Wendell cannot see that far. No chance I'll go pro. Wendell has never sent me onto the floor in the last two minutes of a game when our team is ahead by at least 30 points. In fact, our team doesn't have much experience being ahead. Even so, a lot more people seem to be walking on recently.
I hang around and practice, feeling lucky to live at the same time as Wendell. I don't "bleed Wendell," but the man's life and words dwell in the center of my heart, where only the most profound commitments have a home. Wendell doesn't get paid for it, and my shortcomings have nothing to do with him, but he is my life coach.
When he delivered the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on Monday night, Wendell Berry spoke right to me. Wendell's words find and fuel the part of me that considers most deeply what my purpose is, why I am alive. That's been going on since 1971, when I first read The Hidden Wound and A Place on Earth. Wendell has revised the latter book since then, and I have read it two mores times, along with the wealth of novels and stories based in Port William, a community that seems only a couple of counties away from Wayne County, where I grew up.
Wendell's fiction shocked me as a young adult, because he begins with ingredients as familiar to me as eggs, butter, and milk, and then transforms them immediately into soul-searing art, the process seemingly in plain view and yet beyond my grasp. I knew his characters and their community deeply, but had failed, until reading Wendell, to realize their importance. With eyesight sharpened a little by Wendell's fiction, and Wendell himself, now I see the value of working on the world that is right around me, in the middle of the large town where I am rooted. As I have described before, moments of learning and Wendell-inspired insights punctuate my adult life.
This work I do, assembling words and pictures about food and farming, would seem impossibly frivolous if it were not for a lesson learned from another book, one that fascinated me as a child: The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. I adored the country bunny DuBose Heyward invented in stories he told his five-year old daughter, Jenifer.* I wanted to visit the Easter egg-tinted world Marjorie Flack illustrated after she convinced her friend Heyward to put the story on paper.
The country bunny's story filled my childhood heart with a sense of possibility I still feel today. The story champions women, racial justice, country virtues, the value of organization and hard work, common sense, and sound character development, all without preaching.
As a country girl, I adopted two of the wonderful themes of this book as part of my worldview: first, women are superbly capable. Second, and most important to this present writing, the expressive arts, including cooking, are legitimate lines of work in the world. The country bunny taught her 21 children to work as a team to handle all the household duties, assigning each task to two bunny children. Most thrilling of all, she assigned two to dance and two to sing to keep up the spirits of the others as they worked. Children are capable, too—I knew that as a farm kid. But what joy to draw the assignment to sing and dance—or write and take pictures! I speak from experience now that I'm making my own work assignments: there is ineffable happiness in living an expressive life and still contributing to the team by raising the spirits of those who are doing the hard, real tasks (like actual farming, for example)!
Wendell does both. He farms, helps others farm, works to save soil and to save the Earth, teaches about place and community, and then he also pours out an expressive language so fine New York Times writer Mark Bittman said this week, "I doubt there is a more quotable man in the United States." Oh, what a fan I am, and how satisfying it has been this week to see Wendell command a national stage with his imagination, insights, and guidance.
Fan-dom fascinates me, living as I do in the middle of Big Blue Nation. We choose to follow a team, a choice that seems one of the most perfect examples of the social construction of reality, a premise about how we confer meaning and make sense of our world that was almost worth the pain of graduate school. We could choose a different team, or no team. We could choose to release ourselves from the misery we feel when our team falters—an infrequent experience with University of Kentucky sports teams this year, and certainly infrequent with Wendell Berry, in any year. Yet we stick with the team we have chosen, our spirits (and our local economies, apparently) rising and falling with their fortunes.
We speak of loving our team, meaning we have chosen to love it, to make it ours. In Wendell's Jefferson Lecture, "It All Turns On Affection," he makes a point I had never considered: our affections are best and most appropriately conferred on connections we can make personally. Affection operates on the personal scale, which constitutes a built-in limit—the necessity of limits being a powerful Wendell theme. Wendell says, "...we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection." We do, and should, worry about affection for our place and its members.
I take joy in the way Wendell blesses personal affection as a screen for what is worthy and deserving of our best work, as he reminds us that we should "give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful." I take delight, as well, in the country bunny's notion that some of us must apply ourselves to keeping up the spirits of those who do the heavy lifting.
Wendell's ideas and his life require me, as a fan of his, to find practical forms of love and encouragement for people who farm, grow food, and care for the land. I am part of the community of central Kentucky, and part of a small neighborhood in downtown Lexington, complete with the obligations and benefits of membership in both. Wendell's portraits of Port William's members have helped me understand this. When I say I practice with the team, I mean that I work from this understanding daily, even though my skills and contributions are limited.
I live in community with so many people I love and trust, to whom I am connected by bonds that bring to life the rich synonyms Wendel offers for affection—"love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence." These friends and neighbors are on Wendell's team, too. They bring real skills to the work of reaching goals even bigger than an NCAA championship or a national humanities honor. A growing number of people near me now work toward a goal most simply stated as "We can feed ourselves well." We live in a region graced by the soil, water, climate, and people capable of producing, processing, and delivering abundant, delicious food to all our community's membership, using practices that will sustain us and our land as far into the future as we can imagine. This is what "eating local" means to me: eating splendid food from our own place, made possible by the work and spirit of a connected community of people who have mutual interests and exchange interweaving gifts.
The bench for Wendell's team has been getting more crowded for a few years now, accumulating growers, teachers, policy types, cooks, processors, composters, inventors, beekeepers, communicators, systems thinkers, backyard farmers, distribution experts, chefs, researchers, environmentalists, and even a few poets. One person, Roger Lee Leasor, singlehandedly fits in a good number of those categories. He's one of the most gifted actors and song-and-dance impresarios in central Kentucky history. To keep himself entertained, he manages Liquor Barn, a chain of super-stores that sell spirits and party supplies. In his Liquor Barn role, Roger makes sure the stores carry a long shelf of Kentucky-made wines, most of them unknown and hard to sell. Explaining his tendency to say "yes" to Kentucky-made wines, Roger says, "I want to live in wine country. The way to do that is to help Kentucky vineyards and wineries succeed."
As more of us apply that same enlightened self-interest to food, self-sufficiency begin to seem possible, though almost impossibly challenging. We want to live in a place where all of us feed ourselves from the brilliant food our region grows. The way to do that is to help Kentucky farms succeed, to build and be part of a permanent local food system. That's Wendell's team. That's the team I choose. I'm scooting over on the bench now, making room for you.
*DuBose Heyward also wrote the novel Porgy, the basis for the Gershwins' operaPorgy and Bess, for which he wrote the libretto and helped produce the lyrics. Marjorie Flack wrote many children's books, including The Story About Ping.)
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