Monday, January 5, 2015

Space and Soil. Part I

                             “What we do to the land we do to ourselves”

                                                                                      Wendell Berry

I MET WENDELL BERRY I shook his hand. I may or may not had squeed a bit. Allow me to back up.

Earlier in November I went to the South Atlantic Modern Languages Association (SAMLA) Conference on Sustainability in the Humanities. I was presenting a paper on Wendell Berry. He was the keynote speaker. Conditions were perfect.


Who is Wendell Berry, you ask? Well, Wendell Berry lives in Kentucky. That’s the most important thing you need to know. He is a poet/novelist/essayist/activist that has spent his career urging others to pay attention to what is around them, his pages at times SHOUTING.

The writers that I study (the original Locavores: Gary Paul Nabhan, Barbara Kingsolver, Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon, and Michael Pollan) credit him as one of the most important writers for building agri-thinkery in America (my word, not theirs). He’s in the holy-trinity, with Thoreau and Rodale.

Locavores tend to return to Berry’s quote from “The Pleasures of Eating,” that “eating is an agricultural act.” He’s right. And that’s a big reason for many of our big problems.

After Berry’s talk I got in line to shake his hand. I told him I come from an agricultural family, that they were excited for me to come to this conference, and to see him. I explained I was a part of the next session discussing his work.

My paper, “What Are People For?. And “The Problem That Has No Name”: Wendell Berry, Feminism and Spatial Justice,” compares the ideas of spatial justice in Berry’s writing and Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. “The Problem that has no name,” is what Friedan called the problem of the Housewife, and Women more generally in white, suburban America.


With a grand canyon-sized smile he drawled, “Yeah, I saw that. Now this ‘problem with no name,’ that scares me a bit. I’m not sure I want to stick around for that to find out what you mean.” It must be horrible, no matter what your station in life, to sit and listen to a bunch of gidgits talk about your work.

For Berry, Kentucky is in everything he writes, thinks and believes. I can only imagine how many papers he’s sat through where Kentucky doesn’t matter at all. That must be like taking caster-oil, to feel like the point is being missed for “smart-assery” (his term for unnecessary academic language).

His keynote included a story about a family where the land was as much a character as any of the other humans. I will admit I zoned out during the keynote. I was trying to turn my brain backwards to my own memories of Kentucky. I lived there as a young thing. True story, I think.

In an interview, somewhere, Rainn Wilson offered a question from his SoulPancake project: “What do you miss most about being five years old?” I think I was four when I was in Kentucky. I’m not sure how many of my Kentucky memories are false implants from my family’s stories. An apple tree, My dad’s hat.

Being on a step-stool and doing dishes with the sun punching through the window, most likely just getting in my mother’s way. My dad coughing up moon-sized phlegm balls. I miss getting underfoot under the hazy Kentucky sky.

It’s the kind of story Berry would write. It’s the kind of story I would love to go all smart-assery on.

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