Saturday 25 April 2020

Reading Wendell Berry for the first time.

Outside a country schoolhouse.
The lawn has been dubbed "our green ribbon." Yesterday we both worked in its service. First I dug up a few more of the later appearing dandelions, and then B.A. trimmed it with the push lawn mower. At lunch time I went out and cut the edges with scissors, creeping along on my hands and knees. However our vegetables turn out, we have control over the lawn.

Needless to say, I have a zero-herbicide, zero-insecticide policy. I am willing to spray a black-pepper solution on my vegetables, if necessary, but that's it. 

Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays arrived in the post, and I wonder now how it was that I never read his work before. I dimly recall seeing his name in a mournful essay by one eco-theologian or another. If this was during my M.Div. studies, the answer is that I didn't have enough time. My intellectual strategy was to grasp systematic, or dogmatic, theology and apply it to pastoral issues, but my emphasis was still on the theology and the pastoral issues that most interested me were in the service of abuse survivors.  

But now I am gardening during the most catastrophic pandemic since 1918, a disaster greatly exacerbated by globalism, so I am interested in reading both about small-scale farming and localism. The name "Wendell Berry" popped up in my mind, and I took online advice to read Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1993) first.

Having read only a few of the essays--and that at the end of the day when I was tired--I don't feel competent to say anything thoughtful about them yet. I will say, though, that as I read "Conservation and the Local Economy," I remember how I felt reading E.B. White's 1945 Stuart Little.  

Stuart Little is an odd book and doesn't travel well into adulthood, I decided last year when I was looking for a child's present and skimmed the beginning. The idea of giving birth to a child who is a genius and yet looks like mouse horrifies me. (I no longer see the world as Stuart but as his mother might have seen it, I see.) But the joy of Stuart Little for me was his car trip though the American countryside and his short sojourn in a small town called Ames Crossing. The description of the American countryside made me long very much for the American countryside as it was depicted in Stuart Little. This wasn't nostalgia, as I was only a child, and my experience of the American countryside was driving past endless cornfields in Indiana to see a relation or reach a holiday cottage near a lake. 

The closest I got seeing the Stuart Little world was when my parents stopped in a small General Store in some then-rural area near Ontario's Georgian Bay. We were allowed candy from this store: a very rare treat. There were Bottle Caps and Fun Dip Lick-a-stix and Pop Rocks--all the staples of the 1970s. While there I got the the same feeling I got from Stuart Little. 

Ames Crossing otherwise never came alive for me: I spent my North American life in cities with a few weekends and two weeks a year at Girl Guide camps and/or by a lake in the middle of nowhere. But my brother Nulli, come to think of it, lives in a kind of Ames Crossing. However, it's set amid lakes and mountains, not on rolling prairies, and its politics are divided between townies and usually absentee multi-millionaires who drive up prices and build mansions on the shores.

Yesterday was Friday, so I made dinner from my Moosewood Vegetarian cookbook instead of from the bag of fleshy goodies delivered by the butcher that afternoon. We ate our black bean chicaquile in front of my laptop screen, watching Episode 5 of "The Chosen."  Mary of Nazareth appeared for the first time, and we worried that the Evangelical filmmakers offend against her dignity in some way. Fortunately, they didn't. Episode 5 featured the Wedding at Cana, and I enjoyed the filmmakers' ideas of what it might have looked like: the family politics, the food, the drinking, the dancing.  


  1. I used to describe myself as "a conservative after the manner of Wendell Berry." There was a time in the 90's when I kept writing a letter to him pleading with him to run for president, then I would tear it up, then Clinton would do something else, then I would write the letter again, then I would tear it up. I love Wendell Berry and I am so glad you've found him.

    Kathy Johnson

    1. Thank you! I'm very much enjoying what I'm reading so far, but I really want to see what he's written more recently.

  2. That is amazing: we just did a new window display for our shop on the theme of a quote from Wendell Berry: Be Joyful, though you have considered all the facts.