Wendell Berry at King College

Monday I drove to Bristol to hear Wendell Berry speak at King College. Normally I would have taken Chris along, but I was going to be gone for two full days, there is a lot that he needed to be doing around here, and—to be blunt—I am still trying to figure out what Wendell Berry’s place will be in our family universe. I would surely take Chris to hear Joel Salatin or Gene Logsdon. I might take him to hear Neil Postman, may he rest in peace, but more because I think he would enjoy Postman than that he needs to hear what Postman has to say. I would probably not take him to hear Jacques Ellul unless he insisted, although I would travel a long distance to hear Ellul myself. Ellul has taught me many important things about modernity and the Christian life, but to the extent my kids need to know those things (and they don’t need to know them all), they ought to be learning them from me rather than Ellul.

For my own edification, Wendell Berry is important, perhaps even critical. For our progeny, maybe not so much. Even though I’m not much of a fiction guy, I’ll pass on to them my enthusiastic recommendation of his fiction; Berry has mastered a plain yet evocative style, and his fiction easily gets the reader engrossed in and yearning for a sense of place. I can’t see that my kids could ever get too much of that. But in his nonfiction I encounter the same “problem” that I encounter with Postman and Ellul and other social commentators that have changed me—they’ve changed me, after all, and their criticism is frequently aimed at trends and attitudes which, because they’ve persuaded me, I’ve worked hard to eliminate from the life of our family. And so much of the criticism, lively and relevant for me, would be dusty and academic for kids who never held those attitudes in the first place.

All that said, I certainly had a good time in Bristol. I had already planned to go when Dr. Richard Moyer of King College invited me to be on a panel of folks who had been affected by Mr. Berry’s writing enough to make changes in their lives. Agreeing to that not only got me a meal and a place to stay, but Richard was good enough to invite me home for dinner Monday night, which was preceded by a tour of his two acre homestead in town where his family has had startling success in growing much of their own food, with a particular focus on fruit. Richard and I had a lot to talk about, and spent a lot of time doing so. After dinner we drove over to the nearby King campus to hear Berry read a short story and answer some questions.

Wendell Berry is about how I imagined him, except that he seems to have stopped having publicity photos taken around the time his hair started to go. Tall, unassuming, dignified, reserved but with an occasional joking comment accompanied by a broad smile and a chuckle. He read an unpublished short story that night called “Stand by Me,” and another short story Tuesday night called “A Desirable Woman.” His reading was like his writing, plain and unadorned, subdued, evocative, very clear. Both stories involved events that have been covered before in his writing, some multiple times, but from the perspective of different residents of his Port William community. I understood the point of the first story but not of the second; both stories, though, were marvelously detailed studies of agrarian life in the 1940s.

Tuesday morning Mr. Berry read a speech he had given at a scientific conference, which examined our need to submit to limits. It’s a topic he has written on several times in the past few years, and one I’m particularly interested in, so this was my favorite session of the three. During the question and answer session I had a few reminders that, in general, I don’t think most of his fans understand the full import of what he is saying—otherwise they would be more prone to shout him down than to applaud him. Wendell Berry suffers because some of his criticism tend to coincide with complaints that are hot buttons for some political partisans, e.g. environmentalists. They seem to find it easy enough to agree with the “ain’t it awful” part of his message while ignoring his diagnosis and prescription, which would have them sputtering if they could just hear it clearly.

Tuesday afternoon I was part of a panel of farmers who have read Wendell Berry and been motivated by him in some way. One of the invited panelists couldn’t make it, so the panel was just me and Richard Moyer (who certainly qualifies as a farmer), and then we had D.J. Hammond and Kevin Calhoun and Tom Peterson and Mike and Kelly Cumbee in the audience, all of whom could have been up front. We told a bit about what we did and read a few selections from Mr. Berry that seemed important to us. I can’t tell you how it went—I thought I went on too long, and I always think I go on too long—but I enjoyed myself, and there were some thought-provoking questions asked.

If I used categories on this weblog, I suppose I would need a “Wendell Berry” category because we’re not done with him yet. All this concentration on Mr. Berry’s writings has helped me deal with some of my Wendell Berry “problem,” to the point where I’ve decided it’s time to feature his books on our website and in our catalog. So in the next few weeks we will be adding a generous selection of them, and I will start in on the job of writing descriptions, some of which is sure to spill over onto the weblog.


The barn went up just in time. Last Sunday one of our cows, Puzzle, started showing signs of freshening; her udder began to swell, and there were strings of mucus hanging down below her tail. You can imagine that this led to a lot of buzzing activity around the house. Monday the weather turned rainy, and so we decided to move Puzzle into the barn before she decided to brave the electric fence and head for the trees. And the kids were so sure that a calf was imminent that they begged for permission to stay in the barn that night—and got it.

Well, calf-wise nothing happened that night, but weather-wise it was fairly dramatic, with a downpour and lightning and thunder. At one point lightning struck our neighbor’s house, a few hundred yards from the barn, turning night to day and sounding like a cannon shot. The rain eased eventually, and Chris and Maggie and Matthew toughed it out through the night, sleeping on hay bales, but by morning they were pretty much burned out on the idea of maintaining a watch. So during the day we checked periodically, and during the night I would go out every three hours or so to make sure that one of the many calving emergencies we had read about wasn’t in progress.

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Things have been happening quickly around here, and I’ve been slow to post. Until a few weeks ago we thought we would be bringing our cows up to the house for milking, close to the electricity, water, etc. Chris even began building a stanchion underneath the deck. But as the time grew nearer, it looked unlikely that we’d have a good experience walking the cows up the hill to the house and back twice a day, especially in the beginning.

Then when Jimmy Ellis was here to deliver our cattle panels, he had brought his son Wes and a young Amish man, Harvey, along to help him. Wes is trying to get started as a builder, and asked if and when we planned on building a small barn (the existing tobacco barn is pretty much unsuable and needs to come donw). I told him I didn’t know, but he was welcome to put together an estimate for us. He did, and by then it seemed like the better part of valor to just go ahead and have it done, so we agreed.

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Perimeter Fence

A week ago our friend Jimmy Ellis brought us 200 cattle panels and 400 T-post fence posts. We’ll only need three quarters of that to install a perimeter fence, but cattle panels and fence posts are useful for other things. A cattle panel is 52 inches tall, 16 feet long, and weighs about 40 pounds, so the first challenge was to get them distributed around the perimeter of the field. Neither the weather nor our schedule cooperated until yesterday.

Friday the field was finally dry enough to think about driving in it, so around 2pm we got started. But the big question facing us was how to use a pickup truck with an eight foot bed to move a load of 16 foot panels. We thought it might work to put the tailgate down and support them with a couple of twelve foot boards. We loaded up thirty panels, and when we moved the truck they slid right out. That was annoying enough that we ended up dragging those thirty panels around the closest parts of the field, then left off to study the question some more.

The solution was to do what we had helped Roger Murrell do when he came to get four of the panels from us—lay them in the bed and extend them over the cab of the pickup. This morning we loaded them up 20 and then 25 at a time, then very slowly drove down the county road to the creek which bounds our land, then drove around the boundary (which is nice and flat) 16 feet at a time, while the kids pulled the panels off one by one and laid them roughly in position. We found the time to make four trips, and at the end we had most of the boundary laid out with 120 panels; the rest of the boundary isn’t good for driving, but it is close enough to the stack of panels that we can drag the remaining ones directly into place.

Next we’ll need to distribute fence posts, but that should be doable in just one circuit on Monday morning. Soon after that there is rain in the forecast, but since we won’t need to drive on the field anymore it shouldn’t be a problem; in fact, it will probably keep the ground nice and soft as we proceed to drive lots and lots of T-posts.

Bookstore: Remaindered books

These days publishers want to be done with a book as quickly as possible. Most new books will get a decent-sized print run, and then if it doesn’t catch the public’s imagination the publisher will quickly pulp or remainder them so that they don’t count as inventory. Even fairly popular books can show up on the bargain table soon after their published, depending on how many were printed and how quickly they sold.

We generally don’t worry about remaindered books, because for the most part our books are old and were remaindered long ago, if ever. The first time remainders became relevant for us was when we wanted to offer Eric Brende’s Better Off. It was available from our usual sources as a new paperback that we would have sold for $10. But I had also noticed the remaindered hardback version on Carmon Friedrich’s bargain book list for $5. I looked around and found that most online bargain book sellers seemed to have hardback copies available for that price.

We didn’t want to sell the paperback when hardbacks were easily available for half the price, so I tried to figure out where bargain book sellers were getting their remaindered copies, so we could stock up. I still don’t know, really. But I did stumble on something almost as helpful. Lately my favorite used book website, abebooks.com, has started saying how many copies of a book are available from a particular seller. Usually it’s just one or two, but sometimes you’ll find it telling you there are more than twenty. I looked for Better Off,found a seller that had more than twenty copies available, and contacted him directly. It turned out he had 32 copies, was glad to sell them all to me, and even knocked 50 cents off his price for the quantity order.

Those copies are almost gone now, so I tried the same thing again yesterday. I found just one seller with multiple copies of the hardback edition, but couldn’t find a way to contact them through their website (alarm bells!), and in searching the internet found some negative comments from folks who had dealt with them. But now the paperback edition is also remaindered, so I found someone selling those and just ordered 21 copies, which we’ll be able to sell for $5.

If anyone knows a more direct route to obtaining remaindered copies of a book, I’d be glad to hear it. It isn’t something that will come up often for us, I don’t think. But if we can get a good price on remaindered hardback copies of The Omnivore’s Dilemma when the paperback comes out this fall, we’ll certainly try to get them and pass the savings along.

Culture war as red herring

Dave Black challenges Christians who devote themselves to obtaining a seat at the society’s table (March 22, 7:08am entry):

Evangelical culture warriors are in the news again in a big way. It reminds me of the so-called “space race.” All the money, all the effort to “reach for the moon.” In the church, we have a similar set of misplaced priorities, I think. We aim at the stars (societal change) while the greatest of all objectives is ignored – preaching the Gospel to every creature. Some of us are so obsessed with lesser goals that we fall short of the main accomplishment.

Again, I point the finger at no one other than myself. If you are reading less and less about politics at DBO it’s not because I have become less concerned about statism in America. I haven’t! I have simply chosen a higher goal – one that the apostle Paul said was in fact unattainable in its entirety – to know Christ, and the power of His resurrection through the fellowship of His sufferings (so I take the Greek). Paul did not lecture on homosexuality in Philippi or on abortion in Ephesus. But when his hearers became Christians they no longer practiced evil.

There are plenty of polished comebacks to this approach, dismissing it as piety or separatism or just plain naivete. But there’s no need for Dave to polish a comeback of his own, when the facts bear him out (March 19, 7:55am entry):

Below is a picture of Tesfaye from Alaba, whose 8-year old daughter was beheaded two years ago by the Muslims because her family was Christian. When I asked him how he accounted for the success he is having in evangelizing the Muslims of his rural village, his answer blew me away: “We simply live godly lives, and we love and care for our Muslim neighbors.” His answer brought tears to my eyes. No gimmicks. No pre-packaged and pre-digested program imported from America.

Becky is right: God can use any method, or no method at all. But He always works through people, people who love and care and live genuine Christian lives. One of my constant prayers is that an over-reliance on methods will never hinder the work of God in Alaba. So, can you visualize yourself living in a network of redemptive relationships in genuine friendship? That’s a very powerful means God can use, as it eliminates the temptation to come on as “Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful” who must be virtually perfect (and probably also very plastic). Be real, be yourself, love and forgive others as Christ has loved and forgiven you, and stand back and watch the Holy Spirit do His work.

Dave then makes it very clear that the culture warriors suffer from a confusion about two very different understandings of how to “engage the culture,” one very much a Christian duty and one a Christian should avoid at all costs (March 22, 7:08am entry):

It’s not our main business to denounce organized iniquity in the public square, although that has its place. The best way to expose the unfruitful works of darkness is by producing the kind of Christians who will have no fellowship with them – and who will love those who practice them still. Can I get a witness?

Amen, Brother Dave. Amen.

Wendell Berry, again

Wednesday Debbie, Maggie, and Elizabeth made a day trip to southwest Virginia. And Jimmy Ellis and his son Wes showed up, along with a young Amish man named Harvey, to start on the small barn we had hired them to build, so Chris and Matthew spent the day helping them with that. I spent the day watching Jerry and Benjamin, and beginning my re-reading of Wendell Berry. So far I’ve finished Another Turn of the Crank and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, and started on What Are People For?

It’s been an odd experience. I started with Another Turn of the Crank with pencil in hand, and although the first time through (in 2001) I hadn’t made a mark, this time I underlined half the book or more. Most of the time when I underline a passage it is because (1) I understand it, (2) I think that the writer is right, and (3) I think what the writer is saying is particularly important. Given how strongly the book resonated with me this time around, I’m surprised I hadn’t marked it up before.

My guess is that at the time I simply didn’t have the background to understand what Berry was saying, at least at a level that would move me to take action. I do recall that my first reading of Berry gave rise to some intense yearnings, but I don’t think I knew what to do with them, or whether there was anything that could be done with them.

Later when I read Allan Carlson’s book The New Agrarian Mind I more or less agreed with his assessment of Berry as an elegist for a way of life that would likely never be reclaimed. Which led me to downgrade my opinion of Berry some, since by then I was persuaded that agrarianism could be reclaimed, at least in my little corner of the world. But now I think that assessment is unfair; I read Berry and not only find much to agree with but even concrete guidelines on how to proceed. (Of course, that assessment may simply be my misreading of Carlson, so I’ll have to go back and re-read that part of the book again.)

Another Turn of the Crank contains six short essays that are really manifestoes, which taken together give a brief but comprehensive overview of Berry’s understanding of agrarianism and its possibilities (and its needfulness). It’s by far the most definitive of his books I’ve read—literally, since each essay devotes itself to clearly stating the fundamentals, one after another, so that those with ears to hear can clearly understand what Berry is and isn’t saying. If I were going to take a stab at systematizing Berry’s thought (probably not a good idea, and certainly one he would discourage) then I’d probably start with this book.

The essays in the other two books are more wide-ranging, not so much manifestoes for agrarianism as they are assessments of modern culture from one agrarian’s viewpoint. I was a little frustrated while reading What are People For?, not by Berry but by my time-pressed need to skim the essays (especially the ones by Berry the writer and poet) which didn’t directly address the issue of how to live an agrarian life. Berry is a superb writer, and his devotion to regional writing is one that fascinates me in many different ways. I’ve mentioned before that I rarely read fiction, but if all fiction were like Jayber Crow I would probably read fiction regularly, both to enjoy it and to learn from it. So I’m making a mental note to revisit Berry’s essays on writing, and hopefully I won’t let another five years go by before doing it.