Small, Slow and Settled

The Berry Center's Conference on Resettling America, held in March, 2013, has changed my life in one small way: I am now sorting our compost and taking the appropriate bits to the 4th Street Farm chickens, whose eggs I so enjoy. It's okay that my takeaway is small. Wendell Berry said so, right on stage in front of hundreds of people, in response to a series of increasingly pointed questions by Bill Moyers.

Bill Moyers interviews Wendell Berry at St. Catharine College, March, 2013.

Berry Conference participants

During the interview, Bill Moyers asked a long line of questions about why Wendell joined a weekend sit-in at the Kentucky governor's office. While one answer might have been "to protest mountain top removal," Wendell said, "Good company prompted me to sit in the governor's office." He spoke of the experience as one of being free, having moved beyond fears and the usual concerns about one's own personal comforts and even one's physical safety. Making the decision to go as far as needed made him "free to invest in the creation at to defend it." 

Wendell Berry, center, in a crowd of conference participants touring one site of the St. Catharine's unfolding Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program.

As Bill Moyers pressed Wendell to state what results the sit-in delivered, Wendell underscored a theme that underpins his masterful Jefferson lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2012, "It All Turns On Affection." Wendell said, "The great payoff is not knowing you're going to succeed, but having this great companionship with people you love."

On the right, hand on chin, is Kentucky farmer Steve Smith, who read a list of sustainability principles he developed through his work. To his left is one of St. Catharine's Dominican sisters, and to her left, in sunglasses, is Dr. Leah Bayens, trained as an English professor, who heads St. Catharine's Earth Studies Department and coordinates the new Berry Farming Program.

Bill Moyers said, "We acknowledge that the problems are big. Now where are the big solutions?" Wendell said, "There are no big solutions." He said Washington is not going to solve the problems of soil depletion and poor land management. "That problem is solved in relationships."

A view across the land at St. Catharine

Wendell championed thinking small, going slow, and, of course, settling in: "This can't be hurried....To be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial." He said important problems require work even though they may not be solved in our lifetime. "The important thing is to learn all you can about where you are. If you are going to work there, resign yourself to work there a long time."

Early in the interview, Wendell used the word "neighboring." After almost 28 years in my downtown spot, I realize I did not feel at home here until the neighboring began, 15 years after I had supposedly settled in. Forming a neighborhood association and working on common interests with neighbors made the first difference. Then neighbors began appearing with neighboring (and Wendell Berry) as guiding forces in their daily lives.

Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute, calls for colleges and universities to create a "major in homecoming." Jackson says all the other fields of study amount to one "major in upward mobility." From these wise, funny, generous men, and from my marvelous neighbors, I am learning what an adult major in homecoming might be.

And so, following BerryCon, I am paying attention to what my neighbors' chickens like to eat, and sorting food waste into little carrying bags of green things, peelings, cores, and other chicken delights. This small step seems the opposite of the Big Solution; certainly it's the opposite of grandiosity. It binds me to some chickens, and some dearly beloved people, settled 250 steps from my back door. It cycles me into the eternal mystery of life itself, when I eat the perfect eggs these chickens build from the molecules of this place, including scraps from the Campsie garden. How else to be fully at home, except to settle, at least in part, into that mystery?

Fourth Street farm hens

Rona RobertsComment