Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, Part 2

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!)

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Visiting Wendell and Tanya Berry, Part 1

I drove from Nashville to Cincinnati today, and on the way I stopped to meet the author Wendell Berry. I got stuck in a big traffic jam on I-65 around Mammoth Cave that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours! I called Wendell to tell him what happened and he said, “I’m sorry, don’t fret, we’ll have time for a visit. I’ll be here when you arrive, with any luck.” I drove on through the jam and went flying fast as I could.

I pulled off the highway a bit past 5PM and started paying close attention. I had always imagined Wendell Berry’s farm land looking like the rolling hills of Kentucky I had biked up and down with my father 3 years ago, but the exit I pulled of on was a different landscape. There were still hulls, but here were far more drastic, jagged, and covered in dark green forest. It was raining a grey misty rain just as it was the night before, and the scene felt altogether cold, but also more intense. I was looking very intensely, trying to match this land with the descriptions from Berry’s novels and autobiographical works. I rode 6 miles up and down a winding two lane road running alongside the Kentucky River. The river was on my left through the trees, and in between it and my road were what I took to be the lowlands. In contrast with the continuous hills, there were 100 yards of flat, green land from the bank of the river to the road. I suppose this is what floods when the rains raise the river.

I pulled up the Berry’s driveway on the right side of the road. The way ran parallel to the main road but also climbed the hill. To my left, the hill between the roads was in tall grass, fenced in. It held two grazing sheep, lolling in the drizzling rain. They seemed to acknowledge someone driving their way. On the hill to my right were three more sheep and a donkey (Wendell said he also has a llama but I did not see it). The driveway simply dead-ended into their sidewalk. I parked behind a car, got out, and gathered my things while the Berry’s friendly dog, Maggie, jumped up to meet me. She then returned to the porch making my way clear. I brought with me a poster, program, and recording from my senior recital.

Tanya Berry, a small, sharp, white-haired woman with glasses and a quick wit, welcomed me in and offered me a glass of water. The living room was cozy after driving in the rain. There was an upright piano, a slanted letter-writing dest, and a bookshelf covering the back wall, filled from corner to corner. We walked on through into the kitchen and dining room, which also held a ceiling-high bookshelf, also full. It is worth noting the ease which this situation took on.  I did not feel nervous and most everything around me encouraged me to feel at home. Wendell was upstairs fixing to come down when his great-nephew in the fourth grade called with an important request. Wendell came downstairs and took the call while I talked with Tanya about music and graduating from college.

Meeting Wendell Berry, after he got off the phone, felt very casual. Perhaps being numbed by hours of traffic along with some conscious effort to interact adeptly, I felt more casual than I wished I had. I am so grateful for the experience and everything it meant, but I fear now while recording it that I may have been less mentally present than I would have wished to be. But here is a paradox: to have taken the time at Wendell’s house to mentally process the state of “being at Wendell’s house” would have taken me mentally away from the conversation presently at hand. Thus I can say the greatest sign that I was mentally present at Wendell’s house is that I don’t remember being so.

The three of us sat down at the kitchen table and talked about countless things. There is no way I can unravel the entirety, so here I present a list of things we talked about. If you care to know more details, ask about one of these as a starting point, perhaps. We spoke about composing, electronic music, music notation, how to write for a performer, the recital, songwriting, English programs, Lipscomb, the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, the difference between the two, Alexander Campbell, spiritual dualism, its consequences on man’s treatment of the physical world, the church’s perpetuation of this dualism, the church’s responsibility and possibility for enacting change in this perspective, the nature-oriented language of scripture, conservation and exploitation, farming this summer, farming terminology, balancing animals and plants on a farm, land use, closing the market at Reeger’s, farmers markets, the growing season, the weather, living by the river, why I am going to farm, what I will do with music now that I have graduated, my expectations for the summer, his animals (the llama included), a reading list he gave me, The Land Institute, perennial and annual crops, and much more, including his new solar panels and his skepticism as to how precisely the power company is measuring their input.

(Stayed tuned for part 2)

(I realize there is little about Wendell’s persona here, but this picture will do for now)

Wendell on his porch