Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Visit With THE Wendell Berry

I'm writing this for my own record, but elected to share this with you since you might appreciate my observations about Wendell.  Wendell Berry might be Kentucky's best known writer. You can google him to learn more, but he writes as a calling to remind people and society of simplified ways of life, the importance of  family and community, and reverence and conservation of the land, farms and forest.  He is an advocate for sustainable agriculture and sustainable communities.  My contact with Wendell was because of my work in sustainable agriculture and Partners for Family Farms.

Wendell, Bonnie Tanner and I were charged as a committee to think of a way to honor Sue Weant, who retired as Ex Dir. of PFF.  Bonnie and I went to Wendell and Tonya's farm in Port RoyalKY.  Wendell and Tonya live in a simple frame house perched on a steep hillside overlooking the Ky River.  Bonnie knew that it was best for us to park at the road and walk up the steps to the house.  Wendell greeted us from the porch and offered to come get us in his pick up if the climb was more than we needed.  We climbed.

  One step into the living room revealed that Wendell lived the way he writes.  I don't remember a TV set anywhere, but there were walls of filled bookshelves.  I wish I had taken the time to browse at least the spines of his library collection. The home was cozily furnished with furniture of the 20th century and warmed with two small but efficient wood stoves.  We met around a round table in the kitchen/dining room.  I thought of the many discussions that had probably taken place around that table.  As we sat there, Wendell mentioned that the new governor's office had contacted him to see what he thought about their efforts to "green" state government.  I'm sure the official got more than they expected when Wendell gave his list, after hearing the list of what Wendell called token efforts.

While we got our work done it was fun to meet with the Berrys.  Wendell could illustrate about every point of our conversation with a story.  At one point he told a story and said "I might have written about that."  Not only could he tell stories, but he was an eager listener. While Wendell is serious about his mission, he is quick to burst into a chuckle that turns briefly into a belly laugh. The tall man that he is keeps that belly laugh from reverberating long.

We finished our work quickly so that we could tour the farm.  Out front, between River Road and the river, was a narrow pasture where his flock of Cheviot sheep were grazing with their guard donkey and a llama. We went by his team; one white and one black gelding that Wendell had purchased from an Amish friend when they were colts.  He broke them to a mowing machine (and tore up one when low flying jets spooked the young team).  He said his son would come get them to plow, since they worked better than his own horses. Wendell pointed to a steep cleared field and said, "it's a work of art to mow that field.  I lay it off in several lands (sections) so that the horses don't have to do so much steep work."

We drove through a wooded area and he described the timber that had finally gotten above the water weeds and was beginning to "take off ."  He named the varieties of trees in the stand as if they were children and then said, "there is one Walnut that I can't see just now."

He took us to both his children's farms.  A son farms several acres and had a big turning plow and a large cultivator in the barn lot that were pulled by horses.  Fields were all laid out on a contour and in a specific rotation that returned them to sod frequently.

At the Smith-Berry winery we saw the vineyards, with Wendell's sheep cleaning out the weeds between the vines. "They've removed the need to cultivate the vineyards,  but Chuck needs to get them out before the sugar comes up in the grapes."  We saw the tobacco barn that was serving as a storage shed, but could be readily transformed into a stage for music groups  that help make this a diversified farm. The stage was such that the audience could enjoy the music from an adjoining field or, if weather dictated it, from inside the barn.  I recognized the site as where I think the first Extension-sponsored "Sustainable Agriculture Field Day"  was held with Steve Moore, Henry County Ag Agent, as the organizer.  I remembered that this was probably where I first met Wendell.  The then Governor Brereton Jones and Libby attended as farmers and asked not to be introduced.

It was a great trip through and around Port Royal with Wendell as a guide and historical commentator.

We saw Wendell's "factory."  It was a small, one-room building built on stilts to keep it above the raging Ky River at flood stage. It had a porch facing the river, a chimney to carry out the wood smoke, and an outhouse out back.  Wendell goes to his river cabin most every day to ponder and write.

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