CATEGORY: Lafayette County
HED: "An American treasure"
By Errol Castens
OXFORD - Community, says Wendell Berry, is more than just people who happen to live near each other. It's a people with an interdependency - and a collective memory.
"When a community loses its memory, its people no longer know one another," he wrote in What Are People For? "If people do not know one another's stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another."
Community - including themes of place, marriage and work - is the recurring theme in the essays, poetry and fiction of Berry, whose reading drew a capacity crowd Saturday night at the Oxford Conference for the Book, at the University of Mississippi School of Education.
Deep and wide
It wasn't for looks that Richard Howorth, owner of Oxford's Square Books and an organizer of the conference, described Berry as "an American treasure." The nearly 400 people who came to hear the bald, lanky Kentucky farmer most admire his profound thinking. (The exceptions may be the two young women overheard proposing matrimony to the famously married Berry after his reading.)
Always with a communitarian-agrarian point of view, the author addresses a broad scope of subjects from race relations to the theology of ecology to saving family farms, and writes so tellingly that the Christian Science Monitor has called him "the prophetic voice of our day."
In essays he often lambastes the industrial agricultural economy and its wasteful use of peoples and lands.
"The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care," he wrote in The Unsettling of America. "The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health - his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's."
The condition of American agriculture, he told the Oxford audience, "is worse than it's ever been." Acceptance of a food system increasingly dependent on imports, he said, puts the country "in an advanced state of insanity."
Schools that groom students only to serve the (non-local) economy are also targets of Berry's criticism.
"I don't know of a school system that I think is educating people to stay at home (in their own communities)," he said Saturday. "The're educating them for export."
Berry declined to offer his audience solutions to national and global problems.
"The people who have had solutions to national problems have been Hitler and Mussolini, and a few of our own."
"You have to apply yourself to what you can do," he added. He encourages readers to raise part of their own food and to buy most of the rest from local farmers.
Despite the depth of the debates he enters, humor and sensuality often highlight Berry's poetry, stories and novels, along with a recognition of the human condition.
The "Mad Farmer's Love Song" declares the narrator's determination to be intimate with his wife after all is made right in the world - and his equally strong intent not to wait for that perfection.
Most of Berry's fiction is set in past decades, in the tiny burg of Port William and its countryside. Although gifted in describing the foibles of his characters, Berry makes even the most marginal of them seem tolerable if not likable.
In "Watch with Me," Thacker Hample goes over the edge and becomes an armed menace to himself and others. Neighbors, though, carefully trail him for a couple of days through the woods and fields to keep him from harming himself.
"He's a member of the community," Berry explained. "They want to recapture him as a member. It's not just charity; it's the community acting in its own behalf."
Many writers enjoy loyal fans, but Berry's work often has far-reaching effects on his readers.
"His books are the reason I farm," said Nan Johnson, who raises dairy goats and vegetables near Water Valley and teaches organic gardening in Delta schools.
"I hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago and read Wendell Berry," said Chris Kahldal. "I knew I had to do something different with my life after that." He changed professions from civil engineering to teaching math in Clarksdale and hopes to begin a homestead soon.
"I went from paving land over to wanting to cultivate it," he said.