I will continue my retelling of the visit, but first a word or two on meeting Wendell Berry himself:
Wendell is a tall man. His white hair covers only the sides of his head and when he puts on his glasses the upper rim is so high above his eyes that it appears his eyebrows are perpetually raised, and he seems sternly attentive. His eyes themselves are intense. They do not always actively look alive, but in their bright grey-blue they seem to hold careful thought always stirring, turning slowly.
It is always strange to meet someone you have known about or of whose work you have spent a lot of time studying. Even if you can know a lot of a person’s thought through what they write, you must know them personally if you are to truly know them at all. Now, I wouldn’t say that after spending two hours with Wendell Berry at his home that I know him personally, but I have at least seen his personality. His personality is certainly surprising if you have only read his books before, especially if you have read mostly his essays and little of his poetry and fiction. He is deeply kind. He was welcoming, accepting. To the degree that I did not think about whether I was comfortable or not, he and is wife made me feel at home.
I am sure many people have wondered how someone who writes so strongly against the shortsightedness and shortcomings of industrialism actually lives in 2012. From what I saw at his house, he lives a lot like most everyone. There are marked differences and they are significant, but on the whole, most of Berry’s house looks like my grandfather’s. There is no TV in the Berry’s house, but they have electricity and a modern kitchen. They have plumbing and a fridge. While I was explaining how I compose, we spoke for a good while about music notation programs, like Finale I use on my computer, like Finale. I can assure you I was not snarled or scoffed at or turned away. Best I can say it: I was not greeted by a principled Wendell Berry essay. I was greeted by Wendell Berry. And to describe simple who that was. I met a thoughtful old man much like anyone’s grandfather, made wise and humble by years of living. Though I certainly felt self-conscious, a bit like an intrusion, it is my fault, not his. I wasn’t made to feel “You are entering my house, and I know that you know how smart I am. Your time is limited so hurry in and out and don’t talk foolishness.” That was only the voice in my head. Like I mentioned in part 1, the dominant feeling was simple, casual, natural. Strange as it was, very calm: normal.
Now to continue:
As we spoke, Tanya got up and started getting things out of the fridge. She said they don’t usually eat large dinners because farmers are used to big lunches. It is worth reflecting that I was originally scheduled to visit from 3-5 before the traffic jam occurred. When I arrived at the Berry’s, it was already 5:30. After talking for an hour or so, it was indeed getting close to mealtime. The days misfortunes were now balancing with unexpected blessing! Tanya brought out potato salad, olives, crackers, a huge block of cheddar cheese, some bread, and a curious avocado dip, curious because she said it wasn’t guacamole. And it wasn’t guacamole; it was better! Avocados chopped up with tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, and cilantro fresh from the garden. Delicious to spread on bread, especially with the cheddar! The dessert is a story all on its own:
Wendell Berry’s colleague and friend Wes Jackson has been doing research with The Land Institute for several years now in Salina, Kansas. The Land Institute is working to develop perennial wheat that will produce as much grain as annual wheat. A note: perennial plants last for several years after being planted, lasting through the winter and growing again in the spring. Annual plants last only through the growing season and must be replanted every year. Modern agriculture of all kinds, organic to industrial, depends virtually entirely upon annual crops. Much soil loss is due to the annual breaking of ground to replant. The aim is to grow pastures that remain in place, strengthening the soil year after year, instead of re-planting and breaking the soil every growing season. Over seasons The Land Institute has been developing a breed of perennial grain called Kernza with which they are aiming to replace the soil-depleting annual grains, developing a soil-enriching permanent ecosystem, while still producing ample food. All this goes to say that Tanya had baked cookies using oats and Kernza flour that Wes Jackson gave them. This may seem kind of silly, but I think its incredible! Tasty cookies too!
(tomorrow we will close this 3 part blog with some final thoughts and recollections. Stay tuned!)