1.20.2012

Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold

Yesterday, the mailbox gave forth the latest issue of Garden & Gun magazine, a publication I resisted for some time (mostly because of the gun thing) before realizing it was a treasure trove of Southern culture and intelligentsia.  I made this realization after the first issue I saw featured Eudora Welty, and this realization continues to unfold with each month's delivery.  This month, I've only made it 26 pages in before having to take note of two or three different things, including the new book of photographs by Shelby Lee Adams called Salt & Truth and a Georgia farm making extra-virgin olive oil.  After being urged to the new and improved G&G website, I came across today's most valuable jewel: "Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit."

Regular readers know how much I admire Wendell Berry.  I am an unabashed fangirl in the face of his vast wisdom, wit, and words.  This relatively brief article highlights some of the reasons for my admiration.  The first page has Berry mentioning The Slow Communication Movement.  The article linked here indicates the idea has been around for awhile, but it sure is relevant to me today.  Case in point: our cordless phone died last week, so I plugged in an older (but not antiquated) corded phone in its place.  Since then, I have relished the uncommon practice of sitting still while on the phone.  So often, we communicate on the go: walking or driving while talking on the phone, texting while doing just about everything else, emailing in meetings or movies or even at dinner.  Allow me to suggest that being "tied down" is unbelievably freeing.  Even as I was growing frustrated while on hold for several minutes yesterday (all the while thinking I should be in the kitchen getting something done), I was reminded of how nice it is to be doing just this one, mindless thing in that moment.  That kind of intentional stillness is something I have long praised and sought in my life, and Wendell Berry is definitely one of the reasons for it.  Never read Berry and want to get a taste of his particular fervor?  Please read this great diatribe "Compromise, Hell!" published in 2004 in Orion.

Another of my environmental and literary idols is Aldo Leopold.  I remember the summer after I graduated and before I married, returning to my parents' farm.  I worked hay with my dad, me driving the old blue tractor that pulled the hay trailer, my dad using the newer tractor to lift the round bales onto the trailer.  It was a mundane job of stop and go, and most of my time was spent idling while dad was loading, so I took my library copy of A Sand County Almanac and literally felt my life being transformed as I read.  It was there that I first began to formalize my own land ethic and to become the person, the thinker, the environmentalist I am today.  I moved beyond my natural love of the mountains, the trails, and wild places and learned how to articulate the importance of those elements to society at large.  I'm thinking about Leopold today because I just found out about a documentary a colleague will be screening next month called Greenfire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time.  I'm looking forward to the film but am perhaps more excited about rereading A Sand County Almanac in preparation for that screening.  It has been almost 13 years since I read it first.  Will I find it changed?  What will it find changed in me?

In the last section of the Wendell Berry article, the author quotes Berry's 1971 essay "An Entrance to the Woods":
A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.
My new class on Appalachia is focusing on the history of rebellion, protest, and activism in the mountains of Southern Appalachia.  My greatest hope is that my students will begin to understand these words of Berry's in a real way, that they will find the things which arouse their passions and which they deem worth fighting for, that they will imagine a better life and begin to enact something of its possibility.  Watching them take those first steps is like watching myself back on that tractor, feet propped on the steering wheel, book in hand, motor idling, life changing.

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