Wendell Berry Worship
Anyone who read my old blog knows that I have an above-average affinity for Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, writer, and activist. For a year or two, in fact, I hardly read anyone else. I even suggested Jayber Crow to a book club and may have won a convert or two.
It has been a while, though, since I have read him as faithfully, and that is probably a good thing. It is good to remember that there are other writers out there, and some of them are even worth reading. I have over-relied on conviction for too much of my life, often at the expense of other parts of myself. And so my readings of Wendell probably caught too much of his conviction — which I still respect, by the way — and not enough of how connected he is to his heart, his wife, the earth, and to God.
Anyway, I teach two sections of freshman composition this semester. I like to use Twitter every couple weeks as a way in to discussion and texts. (Wendell probably wouldn’t approve, since he doesn’t even own a computer.) We also have this reader full of short essays and columns about technology, food, the meaning of life, etc. The idea is to find certain rhetorical concepts at work in the texts. So what I do is write a few prompts on the board that connect the concepts to the reading, and my students start tweeting. We use hashtags so I can check what they’re writing, and I retweet or reply and push the students to think more deeply or be more specific or to offer an example or whatever.
Yesterday, we were discussing a short piece from — of all writers — Wendell. Remember now, this reader is chosen for me; I had nothing to do with selecting it. It just so happens that he has a selection in the book. In it, he was saying his usual things: know where your food comes from, grow some of your own, support local farmers, be nicer to animals and the earth. Live consciously rather than passively. He charged us to “Eat responsibly.”
Naturally, I’m jacked to talk about it. But the students gave me their usual ho-hum, who gives a shit, really? They were unimpressed, too cool for this. It is not possible to live this way, they said. We cannot know everything all the time. We are fine with being passive.
In the mean time, I got a text message from my sister. Checking one’s text messages while teaching is probably another Wendell no-no, but I did it anyway. She was looking at my Twitter page, which was full of Wendell quotes, questions, and commentary. She wanted to know if I am excited about Wendell today. She told me she was so inspired that she will have a moment of silence for the turkey’s life that ended so that she can eat her Jimmy John’s sandwich. I tell my students this, and they are amused.
A couple years ago, I wrote Wendell a letter. I did not have his address, but I knew what town he lived in. Apparently that was enough because a few weeks later I got a letter from him, briefly answering my questions. I wrote him a again and asked him if he receives visits. He wrote me back again, saying that he does, but that the time slots are minimal. He offered a few, but I did not get around to visiting him because instead I went abroad and chased more transience, rootlessness, and disconnection.
Against my better judgment, I told my students all this. They laughed at me. They thought this was ridiculous, that I am the biggest nerd of all time, that I should take life a little less seriously. They are probably right. But reading some Wendell and living life more consciously would still be a good idea for them :).