By Norman Knight
Leaving the interstate in southern Indiana and exiting onto State Road 56 heading east. Morning sun bright on trees dripping ice water on our windshield. Detour directs us to rural routes leading us even deeper into the country.
A succession of sagging outbuildings and dilapidated barns slowly being enveloped by nature; neat one-story brick homes with pick-ups in the driveways; rebel flags; abandoned tractors and rusty appliances; red and yellow plastic toys scattered in the dirt among broken house trailers that might or might not be occupied; small hilly fields with useless silos along the tree line.
Inching through main street stop lights in Madison, this rural town seems to be one that is surviving abandonment or, at the least, trying. Only a few boarded windows and faded signs along the main drag. A right angle leads to the bridge across the Ohio River just south of town. Barges hauling their loads just as barges have hauled loads since the beginning, back when the Ohio became a wide national highway.
Crossing into Kentucky. Except for the river, where are the borders? Becky accompanies me on my pilgrimage to the place of writer, poet, activist and farmer Wendell Berry. In 1978, while briefly residing in a communal hotel in the Rocky Mountains, I read his name attached to an essay in a pacifist magazine.
I followed up by buying, reading and furiously underlining his 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.”
In it he argues that by causing small farms to go under, corporate agriculture (“Get big or get out,” advised Earl Butz, Nixon’s Secretary of the USDA) is destroying a timeless culture of small farms and small communities. More fundamentally, this idea of progress being synonymous with bigness is altering what it means to live as a complete human being. I never stopped reading him.
New Castle, Kentucky. We arrived after following a twisting road that rises and falls according to the course of the river. The road seems part of the landscape, the local environment. Appropriate. These days we cut modern roads straight, we blast through mountains, nothing stands in our way. Efficient. And if the concrete ribbons and the changes they bring split through and split up the local cultures? Well, that’s progress.
At the Berry Center, Becky and I are the only visitors. The young woman at the bookstore is happy to talk with us. We three have a good, long conversation about the land and the importance of a sense of place. We talk about growing things and about food distribution. We talk about the roll of the Berry women and of all women in these things.
It comes out she is Wendell Berry’s granddaughter. I admit learning that made me secretly glad in a six-degrees-of-separation way. I also am positive Wendell Berry would never condone or encourage such hero worship. Through his work the reader meets a humble man.
From his granddaughter I bought his newest book, “The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings.” In the introduction he defines agrarianism “as I understand it.”
Some of the tenets of this philosophy (?), way of life (?) include: the primacy of good use and care of the land as well as an understanding and respect for nature and her laws; the necessity of belonging to a place of one’s own, a need for family and community life and a sense of neighborliness; “a preference of enough over too much;” a “contempt of waste;” a respect for work; “… a preference for saving rather than spending” whether that be a household or a government; a suspicion of anything new — this wariness, he explains, “contradicts the ethos of consumerism and the cult of celebrity.” I am eager to finish it.
Becky and I say thank you and goodbye and then continue on our way up, down and along the winding roads of rural Kentucky.
We arrive in Frankfort, where we merge into the raging flow of interstate east-west traffic. Speeding through the cutouts in the mountains, I am imagining the peaceful country of Wendell Berry.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.