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Loss and Remembrance

A Kentucky farmer travels

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Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry’s sense of place is unmatched in contemporary American literature—it’s his overriding passion. In his soon-to-be published novel, A World Lost, Berry captures the essence of his Port Royal, Ky., home. He works his words just as dexterously as he might drive his workhorses, harvesting possibly his finest work to date.

The title of Berry’s new work befits the loss of innocence experienced by 9-year-old Andy Catlett, a familiar, if not first-person, figure from the author’s other novels and short stories. Andy’s sense of identity and cultural memory are molded as finely and richly as the humus in the woods behind his Kentucky River home. With the death his father’s brother during the summer of 1944, Andy comes to grips with the loss of innocence. And in writing about Andy’s own loss, Berry touches on both the global destruction that took place during World War II and the upheaval in rural places like Port Royal, where the coming technological revolution would turn the culture inside-out.

For the past 15 years, Berry’s identification of the tension between our cultural memory and our present values has intrigued me deeply. His influence has literally followed me in my life’s work, affecting my career decisions and at one point even leading me to the steps of the writer’s Port Royal home.

Rugby, Tenn.—May 1981: Escaping the hype of graduation from Sewanee, a classmate and I flee to the utopian solitude of his family’s place in Rugby. Amidst the restored century-old homes, I am much closer to understanding my place on earth than I realize—thanks in great measure to the author of a book of essays my friend has urged me to read.

A forestry major with an intense interest in the Romantics, the Fugitives, and things Agrarian, I was now poised to take a summer job working on a family dairy farm. I responded immediately to Wendell Berry’s first book of essays, A Continuous Harmony, which argued forcefully if not eloquently for a return to more sustainable cultural practices. Berry’s essays grabbed me as the missing link between the past and the present—a link I was desperately trying to find upon leaving the security and serenity of a four-year residence at my own collegiate Arcadia. Here was a versatile author, having made a name for himself by taking on the cultural establishment of agriculture. His encouraging words told me it was all right to go home again, do the good work, and live out the culture of the earth.

Port Royal, Ky.—July 1983: Getting away from the daily chores of the family’s 60-cow dairy farm was always difficult, but I conspired to make a swing through this Kentucky River community so that I could at least lay eyes on the hallowed ground worked by the man who had made such an influence on my life’s work. Indeed, Berry’s Unsettling had worked such a spell over my still developing outlook that I blame/credit it for my decision to turn down a corporate job offer. Instead, I stayed on the family farm, stretching my summer job into a permanent one.

After a visit to an Ohio bull syndicate farm, I swung south, crossing the Ohio River and going upstream the few miles to the familiar setting of much of Berry’s work. Arriving just before dusk, quite unannounced, I summoned up the courage to climb the bank of stairs to his front door, rehearsing in my mind all the scenarios of how I would introduce myself, what I might say, how he might react, and how I might escape.

Welcomed, I mostly sat in awe—of the Far-Eastern books sitting on his coffee table, of his easygoing conversation, of this writer/farmer kicked back in his bare feet. Despite my having interrupted a conversation with his neighbors, he graciously steered the conversation toward me: what had I seen at the bull farm, how did we farm, and—the watermark of his conversations and writing—his constant encouragement to keep going ahead.

Tirana, Albania—April 1995: Farming and an interest in public policy have landed me on the shores of the Adriatic, not far from the skirmishes in the former Yugoslavia, in this emerging Third World, post-communist nation largely unknown to the Western world. I am the token lay-farmer tagging along on a five-man team of agricultural economists to evaluate how successfully American foreign aid is restructuring the Albanian agricultural economy and the nation’s ag-university in particular.

What we see is the clash of cultures, a primitive subsistence agriculture with oxen pulling plows. Only five years earlier, the planet’s cruelest dictatorship ran collective farms with at least enough efficiency and humanity to keep a minimum number of calories on the kitchen table. Following the collapse of the Hoxha regime, land was returned to the peasants, and some 400,000 farmers were automatically born—although their main concern was self-sufficiency. In a land without traffic laws and with no cultural memory resembling our own, Western-style land reform, crop production, and agribusiness infrastructure are a long way from fruition.

Over dinner, while sipping Bull’s Blood Hungarian wine, Berry’s work wafts into my discussions with the ag-economists. To my great surprise, his vision isn’t automatically dispelled as might be expected of land grant academics—with whom Berry has picked his battles over the years. We ponder what his outlook would be in Albania, where the American system is being delivered to a culture probably more amenable to a sustainable-driven approach. I’m carrying with me a book of Berry’s essays, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Marriage, and leave it with my friend from the States, the ag-economist in charge at the Agricultural University of Tirana. This is reading material not generally found in Albania. Is it the first Berry work to be read in Albania?

Wytheville, Virginia—August 1996: My wife still reels in guilt whenever Berry’s name is raised. Every frozen dinner placed in the oven elicits this response, I gather: Working on a farm but not having enough time for homegrown or prepared food makes for this anachronistic tension. Despite my musings that someday those who prepare food for a hungry globe will be rewarded as richly as our culture presently rewards the litigators, baby calves at the local market were bringing only $5 this week. And despite the statistics, which say that the average farmer feeds a growing number of Americans thanks to his efficiency and reliance on modern technology, Berry’s voice hearkens—asking us to remember, reconsider, and celebrate a world lost.

Wendell Berry will speak at A Literary Salon, 4-6 p.m. Sept. 8 at Zeitgeist.

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