Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, part 3

 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:26

I have saved my favorite parts of the visit for this last installment.  I gave a short synopsis of our talking subjects earlier, but there were a couple of things that stuck out that are worth telling in full.

Before I begin recounting some of these let me explain how I have quoted the Berry’s. When I wrote down this story, the evening was fresh on my mind and I could remember many exact words that were spoken. However, I did not record the visit or write anything down immediately so please understand, when I quote either one of them, I am simply recreating what they said from memory. I am not a journalist so I don’t know how couth or uncouth this is, but it is what I am doing and now you know. Many of these quotes and the ones from previous posts are probably over 50 percent accurate, but I had to take some liberties due to my memory. I think I have still represented what was said well.

Now that we are out of the red tape, here are some specific thoughts from the evening:

On farming this summer

I remember clearly telling the Berry’s how I came to decide to learn how to grow food this summer. I have recently read and learned a great deal about the importance of small farms in the conservation of nature. On an intellectual level I have come to undertand that, as Wendell himself says, “there is no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people.” The prevailing farming and food production practices in America today have not aimed to balance to health of the earth with the health of the people. Though such an imbalance may continue for some time, eventually the scales will begin to shift and the fate of humanity will begin to closely follow the fate of the land. We can see these shifts today in the massive amounts of soil lost every year due to the over-working and unsettling of farm land. Acknowledging these problems we have the chance to change our farming practices now while food is still growing. Sadly, it appears industrial farming practices are more likely to wait until the land has been lost entirely before enacting change.

Taking this new insight as encouragement, I have come to Indiana, Pennsylvania to learn how to grow food through a model of conservation instead of a model of manipulation. As I told the Berry’s, I understand the importance in my mind, but I don’t know if I will actually like doing the work. Wendell nodded, seeming to understand the place I was in. He told me to let the knowledge guide my work and give it value. His tone then became more direct and he said, “now, there will be some days you will wake up and you won’t want to do it, but (he paused and his eyes brightened) once you being, you will be glad you did.”

I take that with me now. Today I woke up at 6:30 for breakfast and started out towards the asparagus patch at 9 to begin this work. It was not one of my earlier days, but it was my first. I feel very cautious, today held a lot of weight for me. I don’t need it to decide everything, though. I feel I am in a strange position of wanting to like the work so much that I might be let down no matter what. I can’t let it weigh heavy though, I have to keep light.

On studying English in college and graduate school

Wendell told me that so long as I had the ability to read, I should not need to be concerned with studying literature in school. He didn’t seem to think it made much of a difference whether I was a major or a minor or anything at all. Literacy was his sole criteria for studying literature. I am appreciative of the simplicity of this, though I must say I have learned some great things in English classrooms!

Spiritual Dualism

I must also mention for those theologically oriented readers, Wendell shared a beautiful denial of dualism. He told me he swore off using the body/spirit dichotomy about 20 years ago. “Nobody has ever seen a soul. You can’t see the soul. I’m interested in physical things,” Berry said. He explained the path that dualism can lead us upon. “If you begin by separating a person into a spiritual self and a physical self, you will eventually come to consider one of more value than the other. So then we end up with ‘you must hate the body and live by the spirit,’ and that kind of thought is what has lead mankind to treat the earth without respect, to treat their own world so poorly.” Here Wendell gives us an example of allowing a lofty philosophical thought to work its way down to one’s practical action and daily living. But Wendell explained his approach differently. “I work from the bottom up. I live by what I see physically work.” Here is where I think Berry finds it helpful to live with “Nature as Measure.” By using our land in ways that imitate nature, we have the possibility to participate in a miraculous cycle. To work, instead, first by imposing human principles upon nature removes us from the cycle; it breaks the cycle. This is working from the top down.

Tanya on scripture

Tanya shared a beautiful thought on how scripture uses these natural themes in its teachings. She told, “At church this morning the preacher taught about the grape vine and the branches. You know, ‘I am the vine’ and all that. But as he was preaching I though, ‘I don’t think he really knows how a vineyard works!’ Afterwards I asked him if I could see the sermon because I had some questions. He said yes; he always likes to share about that stuff. But anyways, he was trying to teach about the vine and branches and the pruning, but he didn’t know how it worked! How can you preach that if you’ve never known how a vineyard works? It’s just like Wendell has said, you can’t really understand the 23rd Psalm if you don’t know what it is to be a shepherd.”

Wendell on William Blake on how to truly help others

Wendell and I spoke some about the difficulty of trying to solve problems on a large scale. I was sharing about a book I am reading called Seeing Like a State which deals with how large scale schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Wendell understood the difficulties of being too general with charity as well. He offered this quote from English poet William Blake:

He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars.

I looked up the quote later and Blake continues:

General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minute organized particulars.

Finally, thanks to everyone who read before and scored me almost 100 views in one day! From here on out the posts will have significantly less interaction with famous agrarian authors, but hopefully they will continue to be filled with adventure, creativity, and, if we are lucky, pictures!

Wendell and Zac