Who is Wendell Berry and why is he important to UUs?

imagesMessage given by Sarah Redmond, November 10, 2013
Doing a service for our lay-led congregation can sometimes feels like a book report and other times like sharing a passion.  Last year’s service on Rumi felt like the former and today’s service is definitely the later.  Wendell Berry is a name that has floated around in my consciousness for a long time without really understanding who his is and the incredible importance of his vision and impact.

Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, who has spoken here for the past three summers actually did a service on Wendell Berry at her  Dupage UU Church several weeks ago.  Martin and Joan Steindler, our members as well as members of the DuPage, Illinois congregation, were kind enough to send me a DVD of that service.  The direction I’m going to take is somewhat different, but I also want to share her understanding on Wendell Berry.

To Rev. Belcher he is a modern day prophet speaking in the tradition of Biblical prophets such as Abraham and Moses.  Just what is a modern day prophet, you ask?  Wendell Berry prophecies have to do with our relationship with the land we live on and the sense of community that small farming communities provide.  As with any true prophet it’s not just about his words, he totally lives his values and raises his voice to help others understand their own relationship to the land and the planet as a whole.  Rev. Belcher likens Berry to UU Theodore Parker.  Others scholars see him as a modern day Henry David Thoreau.  Berry is leading us to the path of saving our family farms, ourselves and our planet from environmental destruction.

His family has farmed the same land in Henry County, Kentucky, for 5 generations.  His father before him was a land conservationist and farmer, motivated by what he saw of his own fathers experience. Farmland was devastated by farmers pressing  the land to produce to earn a living while they were squeezed by monopoly commodity corporations.   Being a true steward of the land and farmer would be enough, but Berry has also written 27 volumes of poetry, 15 novels and 27 non-fiction books.  Something else I learned from Rev. Marjory West, a retired United Methodist clergy and Transition Marquette leader, is that Berry  is also a Methodist minister.

Berry was educated at Stanford, traveled and worked widely as a young man before  returning to Kentucky where  he taught writing at U of Kentucky before leaving to farm full time.  The accolades for Berry comes from the literary, poetry, environmental and religious communities.  Summing up, the Georgia Review wrote “He is a novelist, a poet, an essayist, a naturalist, and a small farmer.  He has embraced the commonplace and ennobled it.”

Do you believe in coincidence?  My immersion into Wendell Berry started out as a series of coincidences.  First, I picked up the novel Jayber Crow at a used book sale.  Then a traveling troubadour, Mark Dvorak, stayed at our home and we heard his story of writing a song about Port William, Berry’s fictional town.   From there I started reading and reading.  His novels are addicting because of their warm, loving and true characters presented in poetic prose.  A number of his poem have been included in our UU Hymnal.

Wendell Berry spoke at our UUA General Assembly in Louisville this summer.  At 79 he is still ‘walking the talk’ and working to end mountain top removal  and the destruction of rural communities by the coal industry.   As I mentioned when we did our talk in September, Wendell Berry was my final motivation for attending my first GA after almost 30 years of being a UU.

Another coincidence, the Transition Marquette is reading Berry’s The Unsettling of America at the same time I’d picked it up in preparation for this service. They will be discussing this book at the PWPL this coming Thursday at 7 pm.  All are welcome.
And lastly, this Wednesday’s UP Food Exchange, Growing Local Food Systems conference held at NMU.  The UP Food Exchange group which is made up of Marquette Food Co-op, MSU Extension services and the Western UP Health Department, brought in researcher Ken Meter to share the status of our food security, or should I say insecurity.   He  reported on our local food system and the numbers for the UP are grim.  The Central UP spends $430 million on food each year with all but $30 M leaving the area.  We have few farms growing a very limited supply of food for people to eat.  The goal of the conference was to build capacity and connect those producing with those consuming here within the region.   To build capacity we must see to it that our farmers can afford stay in business.  The average net loss in the Central UP  from 1989-2011 is $540 per farm per year.  This is input cost subtracted from sale of goods; there is no number in here for the farmer’s labor and time.  How long can our farmers afford to farm if they not only can’t pay themselves but have to pay out of pocket for inputs as well?  This is what Wendell Berry talks about happening to his home area of Kentucky and throughout the country, farmers not being able to earn a living by farming, not being able to be paid enough for their product to keep farming.

If you’d like to see the full report, see me after the service or go on the MJ website for the URL.   (www.crcworks.org/crc-docs/miupCENTsum13.pdf)

Environmentalist and back-to-the-land community have been following Berry for decades.  Some credit him with the farmers market movement.  Ken Meter, the UP Food Exchange keynote speaker, talked about how the local food movement has exploded like nothing he has ever seen in just the past four years.  People want local food, people want healthy food, people want food they can trust from farmers they can trust.

I’ve found that literature is often an easy entry point to difficult subjects.  Berry does this extremely well by inviting us into  Port William, a small farming community as its people transition from a traditional farming community where people and farm animals work the ground, harvesting crops together, supporting one another through life’s challenges,  to become the dying farm communities of today whose chief export is its children and the few farmers left need off-farm jobs to pay the bills.  Through his stories you see the impact of mechanization of the farm and the commodification of mono-cropping slowing destroying the community forcing more and more people to leave as they’re displaced by machinery.  Just as we’ve seen the off-shoring of industrial jobs in our generation, the early 20th Century culminating with WWII saw the destruction of the traditional family farms.  It isn’t until you’re well immersed into his novels that the message comes to you because you’re living with and loving his characters and sense of place is such a delight.

Just as with any good book, Berry’s books have led me to spend  time thinking about how his message fits into my own families story.  My grandfather whom I never met was an educated farmer having graduated from Michigan Agricultural College (today’s MSU) a century ago.  Listening to Father tell the stories, my grandfather was all about helping his neighbors understand the new machinery, the new ideas, the new chemicals and fertilizers.    As a result, as with many farmers, he couldn’t make the numbers work and between the debt for the equipment and land and the low prices farmers got for their crops, and he too left the farm.

My father went to college and never to return to what had been the family farm outside Kalamazoo where his family had been one of the very first non-native American families to settle in that area.   I’m sure many of you have the same story in your own lives where the family left the farm and scattered, as did ours. I were born on that farm and in some ways have been trying to get back to it.    Berry talks about folks having a sense of place and ‘membership’ in their communities.  I, like many of you, have lost that.
So then why is Berry a prophet?  He tells the story of our past and how we’ve strayed.  He gives us the map of how we can learn to survive and lead authentic lives in  the future, of how we can regain our communities and feed ourselves in a responsible, sustainable manner.

So why does Wendell Berry matter to UUs?  We justly pride ourselves on having been on the cutting edge of social justice issues through out our history.  However, if people starve, if food can’t be had at any price, if the planet becomes uninhabitable because of our destruction of it, what good are our social justice stands?  For me it’s all about the medical term triage; what is most critical and do that first.  Not that all issues aren’t important, but what needs our attention most critically and immediately is where I think we need to focus.

Our Seventh Principle is  “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”   We are a part of not separate from nature and that takes us away from religions that call for “man having dominion over nature.”  Wendell Berry’s central theme is we are one with nature and must be good stewards of the land and in doing so we build communities that sustain us.

I’ve been sorting out how I can grapple with the incredible challenge of the climate destruction.  My conclusion is the most practical thing I can do is to focus on growing food, growing community and supporting those who do, by educating people about healthy cooking and eating.  And yes, I will continue to  raise my voice politically in support of sane national policies and the things we must do to stop destroying the planet that is our one and only home.

So I hope I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about Wendell Berry.   That you too might  grow food, read his novels, poetry and essays for  a greater understanding, entertainment and inspiration; he gives all three.  Support the work of UP Food Exchange and the work of the MSU Extension and local health departments.  Support having home economics classes in the schools once again so young and not-so-young  people learn to cook.  Feed the hungry anyway we can, but look to build capacity for all of us to feed ourselves.

Wendell Berry matters to UUs because he gives us an alternative history so we can understand  our past.  More importantly, he holds the lantern to our future in which we must rebuild our communities by rebuilding our small, diversified farms using the techniques that have stood the test of time and not destroyed the land while we fed ourselves.

Wendell Berry message 11-13

Presented November 10, 2013
at Marquette UU Congregation