Book Club

April 26th, 2008 by Rainey

So my mom, grandmother, sister and I have started a monthly bookclub.  This first month we are reading Jayber Crow. I am enjoying it quite a bit.  Before the book begins Wendell Berry writes: “NOTICE: Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.  BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”

I love it.

I was able to hear Berry speak at the 2007 Duke Divinity Pastor’s School and Convocation last year.  He was fantastic–warm and witty, charming and genius.  The topic was faith and the earth.  One of the things that I most appreciated about the discussion was that he refused to talk about the “environment.”  He argued that once you begin talking about the environment, you have separated yourself from the equation.  Really, we can’t separate ourselves from the land and the issues that our land faces.

Reading Jayber Crow you are immersed in such a sense of place.  The land is important.  Relationships are important.  The river and community are important.

Berry practices what he preaches.  He and his wife fill their table with vegetables they have grown and meat they have raised.  They work the land.  Their children live close by and farm as well.  They recognize the importance of place and community, family and home.  And when you are tied to the land in that way, you begin to recognize how vital it is to your own sustenance and very existence.

In a Smithsonian interview he is quoted:

The greatest obstacle, Berry worries, is a lack of people to work the land. “How are you going to get these people?” he wonders. “And how are you going to keep them at it once you’ve got them, past the inevitable disillusionment and the weariness in the hot sun?” When I remind him of an old popular song about farm boys returning from World War I—”How’re you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?”—he responds: “How are you going to shut up that voice that’s now in every American mind, “I’m too good for this kind of work’? That is the most insidious voice of all.”

As a young man, Berry thought he would have to leave his native place and way of life. “In high school my teachers were telling me, you can’t amount to anything and stay where you’re from. So when I left here I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I’d be going with my ‘talent’ from one university to another, so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin.” Now his life, and his poetry, belong to the place he came back to. “I realize every day how extremely fortunate I’ve been as a writer to live where my imagination took root,” he says. In his poetry he often gives thanks for his surroundings. He seeks to write, he says in a recent poem, in “a tongue set free from fashionable lies.”

After having Zeke, I know what has been lost in my own life.  To live so far to  away from family.  To live on such a small square of land that growing some herbs in a pot is about as much gardening as we can afford or muster.  To live with the idea that we don’t have time enough or space enough or energy enough to try to do it better.  I am shamed by it.  And saddened by it.

My grandmother and grandfather lived in the same house all their lives after getting married.  They lived across the street from my grandmother’s parents, who ran a corn mill.  My grandfather was met every day at the mailbox by my great-grandmother who told him he was going to hell because he was a Methodist instead of a Baptist.  My father lived close to his cousins and ran across the road to his grandparents to eat dinner and be loved.  After my father grew up he moved away to go to school and take a church in Virginia.  He married a woman from Ohio whose own education had moved her far from home.

But his brother still lives across the street from my grandmother.  He renovated my great-grandparent’s old farmhouse and made a life there for his family.  He spends the nights with my grandmother now, to help her get to the bathroom and make sure she is ok.  They all eat dinner together most nights.  And my cousin is building a house up on the back forty up the hill from my grandmother’s house as I write this.

Maybe they know something we don’t.  Maybe my uncle is the one who got it right.  Working the land.  Raising tomatoes and cows.  Making furniture.  Taking care of his mother and his daddy when he was still alive.  I know my daddy wishes he could have had it both ways–to have his career and his life in Virginia and have retained his life where he grew up.  And though our life has been a wonderful one, one that was very different than that of my cousins and my uncle and aunt in many good ways, when you go down to South Carolina, you can sense that time is different there.  Life is different there.  And you wonder what you might be missing out on.

Before the long driveway between my grandparents’ house and my uncle’s house was paved, we used to walk down the gravel in barefeet, being chased by dogs coated in red dirt, to go swimming.  We went to the creek to play on slippery rocks.  We stood out in the pitch black of nights with no street lights and ran with sparklers as our only light on the fourth of July.  And then we would gather around a table nearly groaning under the weight of fresh vegetables, beans we had snapped earlier that day with our grandmother on the carport, meat, and the requisite poundcake.  The kids would have to eat in the kitchen.  And nearly every night we would sneak back in late to eat bowls of cereal before bed.

It is so hard to know the good things about a life like that but to be bound by the demands of your calling, your job, the economy in many ways.  What are we losing, living like we do?  And is what we gain worth the trade-off?  It is hard to know.

All I can say is that the life we are building here is one that I hope Zeke will look back on with fondness and warmth.  That he will think of us as home, wherever we live.  That he will have memories that mean something and ties to community, family, church, and, hopefully, land that will shape him and secure him here.  I hope that he will never feel too comfortable talking about an abstract environment, but will instead know his world intimately, as one who has really lived and resided in it, knotted and woven into it and kept there because of relationships and experiences that no manner of leaving or returning can undo.

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