Riding With Wendell

As I sat in the back seat of the Buick Century, I couldn’t help but notice the odor. I discretely checked my armpits, but the smell of stale sweat greeting my nose emanated from the car itself. It was the smell of a man who worked with his hands. I was sharing the car with two strangers, and a third man, the driver, who was also a stranger in the literal sense, but a man whom I felt I knew as well as my own childhood memories or the wooded paths and field roads I have haunted all my life.

               I ended up in his car along the back roads of Kentucky by attending a national conference of county extension agents in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was early in my career when I still worked as a county extension agent in Albany, Georgia. My wife was back at home with our 3-year old and 5-month old girls. In truth, the only reason I attended the conference was for the opportunity to participate in this field trip into Northern Kentucky.

               About six years earlier I had stumbled upon a book written by a native of this part of the world. It is a simple story, entitled “Jayber Crow”, about a town barber in rural Kentucky. This seemingly simple novel belied a complicated grace that impacted me greatly. At the time my wife was working on her teaching certificate and once a week I drove her about 40 miles south to class in Valdosta, Georgia. While she was in class, I filled the time browsing the shelves at Books-A-Million each evening. This is how I discovered the book that has become a lens through which I now see the world. I was drawn to the book by the author’s photograph on the inside flap of the dust jacket. It showed a tall man in a grey sweater, red suspenders, and a prominent vinyl case for a pair of glasses, like the ones my grandparents used, peeking out from his front shirt pocket. He was leaning on a fence rail while cattle grazed a lush pasture in the background. This same man was now behind the wheel of the car in which I was riding.

               Earlier that morning I had loaded onto a tour bus with a group of 20 or so county extension agents from all over the country and we had driven away from the city of Cincinnati. As our tour bus crossed the Ohio river into Kentucky, the land became more and more green and the houses grew further and further apart the closer we got to Henry County. Deep into the rural countryside, the bus came to a halt at the edge of the road.

               I looked out the bus window to a steep hillside with a white farmhouse perched about half-way up, where a tall figure in a straw hat was descending the steps to the road. A redbud tree full of green, heart-shaped leaves grew in front of the house, both clinging to the hillside. As the man got closer I noticed what looked to be the same glasses case from the author photo bulging from the front left pocket of his blue button-down shirt. This smiling man greeted each of us with a handshake as we exited the bus.

               The place was nice, neat, and green all around, as one would expect. Across the road there was an old barn or large shed, renovated and freshly painted white, overlooking the Kentucky river. Next to the old barn there was a large garden of corn, beans, tomatoes, sunflowers, and what seemed like every vegetable that could be grown in the rich soil of Kentucky. As we walked past the garden, the tall man in the straw hat warned us to watch the electric fence he had just put up “because the racoons had gotten to the corn”. He led us through a pasture gate and down the hill to the banks of the Kentucky river. Somewhere nearby, tucked into these woods beside the river was said to be the “Long-Legged House”, where this man wrote the many books of fiction, essays, cultural critiques, and poetry that I sought out, read, and re-read after discovering what I still consider his masterpiece, “Jayber Crow”, by chance in that Valdosta, Georgia bookstore one evening.

               Now, here I was, listening to Wendell Berry speak to our small group on the banks of the Kentucky River below his own house as kingfishers chattered in flight back and forth across the river and phoebes and pewees called from the trees of the wooded hillside. He spoke there for about 45 minutes about his farm, its history, and that of the river in that area, as well as the state of agriculture, society, and the land grant system, whose idea he praised but, for which, he cut no slack here in the presence of a bus-load of land grant system employees.

               After his formal remarks, if you want to call them that, Wendell answered a few questions for the group. When asked what the key to restoring the health of his farm was, he responded simply, “grass”. For on those steep hillside farms, the soil must be covered to keep it from washing away. He graciously allowed those few of us who wanted one, a photo with him on the rocky, green bank where the river curved away in the distance. As is my custom, when traveling, I picked up a small rock from that spot on Wendell Berry’s farm at the edge of the Kentucky river and placed it in my pocket.

               “Jayber Crow” was my introduction to the canon of Wendell Berry. Within a couple years of discovering that book, I read every novel, every collection of essays, every short story, and collection of poems written by Berry’s weathered hand that I could find. His work helped me to envision a path for my own future that I had never considered. For, it seems that if one follows a path in academia, one is expected to leave his or her native place. Some of that expectation is with good reason—the introduction of new perspectives, new ideas, and different ways of seeing the world prevents stagnation in both people and places.

               Truthfully, I had always planned to leave. I enjoyed seeing the world and viewing it from a different perspective. I did some of that and there were opportunities. But, somewhere along the way, my affinity for the place I had always known came to life. As my wife and I started to think of having a family, I began to consider the value of a life lived in the same area in which I had grown up. I wanted my children to know and appreciate these people and this place. I wanted them to at least have the opportunity to feel the same sense of belonging to it that I had. So, I took the road less traveled by most who follow an academic career path.

               Instead of taking a job as a research scientist with USDA or an Assistant Professor at a land grant school far away, I chose a postdoctoral position studying tomato spotted wilt virus of peanut in Tifton, Georgia, where I had done my Ph.D. research on cotton aphid biological control. From there I became a county extension agent in Albany, Georgia and after two or three years, an Assistant Professor at my alma mater, the University of Georgia, based in Tifton, where sixteen years later, I continue to conduct research on pecan production and help pecan farmers.  I discovered the work of Wendell Berry as I began that journey. He showed me it was ok to have these feelings. That it was ok not to follow the expected path, but to make my own way.

For 10 years, I had been on a path to learn how to help protect the land and the resources that keep life going on this planet through the applied science of agriculture. There’s a lot science does and can do in that realm. But, Wendell’s writing also stirred in me a need to participate more directly in this work, in a way that I could see, and touch, and feel. Now, here I was with the opportunity to do that not only through my job, but by caring for and working the small piece of land about 40 minutes north of Tifton I had known all my life. Where, as a kid, I searched for arrowheads and fished with my grandfather. Where I followed behind bird dogs with my Uncle Bill, and where I had spent Sunday mornings playing hooky from church with my father. The place where I had found solitude and healing and learned the ways of the woods and fields. Where my interest in these things had been born.

It was Wendell Berry who showed me that maybe I could do both. Perhaps I could work in science and work the land at the same time, fulfilling in a way, a responsibility of which I began to feel the weight. So, I began to plant pecan orchards on our farm. Since then, everything seems to have fit together and I am content with the rhythms of the life I have chosen. For me at least, staying home has turned out to be the right choice.

               Following the meet and greet on the banks of the Kentucky river, we all made our way back up the hill, through the sweet corn and beans and sunflowers of Wendell’s garden to the road, where we all loaded back onto the bus to embark on the next leg of the journey. I sat by the window looking out over the garden and the river below, processing the brief meeting with this author whose writing I had, like so many others, connected with. I had brought along my copy of “Jayber Crow” and another of his books, “Life is A Miracle”, in the hope of getting them signed, but the time had not seemed right for that. I was grateful just to have had this brief encounter with Wendell on his own place. I could see first-hand that he lived what he preached and that his own world fit him like a glove.

               Just before we pulled out, the tour leader bounded onto the bus and announced that Wendell was going to join us for the rest of the tour through lunch and “would anyone like to ride to the next stop with Wendell”? “Are you kidding me!”, I thought. It seemed there were 3 seats available in Wendell’s Buick. There were two takers right off the bat. I’m not normally one to thrust myself into situations like that but since there was only one spot left, I spoke up and said “I’ll go!”. With that, I grabbed up the backpack that held my two books, scrambled off the bus, and climbed into the backseat directly behind Wendell.

               As we pulled onto the road, he talked of his sheep, which seemed to be Wendell Berry’s greatest interest. We discussed the steepness of the hillsides throughout that country and what that means for working the land. He delved into the writing of Sir Albert Howard, who wrote the seminal work on organic agriculture, “The SoIl and Health”. I had seen many of the words now coming from Wendell’s mouth printed on the pages of his books. It was like being in the room with him as he set the words down.

               Wendell pointed out his son’s farm as we passed and commented on the health of the cattle. We drove through Port Royal, the inspiration for Berry’s fictional town of Port William. Arriving at the next stop—a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, I worked up the nerve to ask Wendell to sign the two books I had so optimistically brought along. He smiled and signed both with personal inscriptions. While he signed we discussed black walnuts, a recently discovered population of American chestnuts, and yes, I even found a way to work pecans into the conversation. Wendell perked up at the mention of pecans, and remembered fondly that his parents had a pecan tree in the yard when he was growing up.

               I asked Wendell if he had any new fiction in the works. He replied that he did , including a short story about Burley Coulter, perhaps his most endearing character. When I told him Burley was one of my favorites, he smiled and said, “Mine too”. Not wanting to impose on him any further, I got back on the bus as we headed to the next stop, offering my seat up to give someone else the pleasure of riding with Wendell.

               We all had lunch at the Smith-Berry farm, that of Wendell’s daughter and son-in-law. We enjoyed hamburgers, fresh sweet corn, and heirloom tomato slices sprinkled with Feta cheese and Italian vinaigrette dressing. Wendell’s wife. Tanya—the radiant and wonderfully kind woman who has typed all of his manuscripts over the years, joined us, along with several of the Berry grandchildren for lunch. Tanya is a quiet force all her own, and is full of understated insights you can see in her still-young eyes. After lunch we said our goodbyes to Wendell and family. I shook his hand like a blundering idiot for the 3rd or 4th time, inadequately trying to convey the appreciation I had for his work and his graciousness with us. I commented to Tanya on the loveliness of their garden. Her inspiration and contributions to Berry’s work are not recognized nearly enough. But if you read the writing of Wendell Berry you can come to know her presence in the many poems he has written about her and in graceful female characters like Hannah Coulter and Beulah Gibbs, that he peoples his fictional world with. She surely must be a remarkable lady.

               Our bus drove on through the town of New Castle, known as Hargrave in Berry’s fiction. The seat of Henry County, New Castle has one of those stout, red-brick courthouses with a tall, white clock tower overlooking the town square. I can picture one of Berry’s most prominent characters, the lawyer Wheeler Catlett, sitting in his office looking out at the courthouse from one of the second story windows of the old brick buildings lining Main Street.

               As the day wore on, I realized in these glimpses of Wendell Berry’s world, that I had seen so much of it before in the images drawn from his writing. I was in the middle of a Wendell Berry story. The green countryside, the fields, the woods, the rivers. The little country towns not unlike my own. But, most of all, there was the community and the relationships between people. I had sensed that once before, in the world of my own youth, and maybe that’s what I have been after all these years. I’m sure this corner of Kentucky is not as ideal now as it is in Berry’s work, or even as it is in his own memory. The world’s problems creep into the small places too. But, spending a few fleeting moments with him in this place, I saw a people and a place trying to maintain their balance. It’s a world I recognized and long for.

               There are many stories, like mine, of meeting Wendell Berry. In each case, his gentleness, grace, wisdom, and care for the land and community of which he is a part, shine through. At times, I’ve felt foolish writing this. I may sound a bit star-struck and perhaps I was. But as our car ride unfurled over the emerald hills of Kentucky, I came to see Wendell Berry as a human being. Despite his brilliant mind, he has body odor like the rest of us. It was good to discover that. And it was good to discover that the passion of his writing and the place he writes from is genuine.

               A year or two ago, around Thanksgiving, I sent Wendell Berry some pecans I had shelled from the first orchard I planted just a year before my visit to Henry County, Kentucky. I sent a letter along with the pecans, explaining that in many ways, he had a lot to do with the planting of that orchard and my farming pecans on the land my great-grandfather had purchased in the 1890’s. Though, I wrote, it was not likely he remembered our encounter, I had once had the pleasure of riding along with him and I appreciated the time he gave our group that day. A few weeks later, I unexpectedly received a package from Port Royal, Kentucky. It contained a personally signed copy of a special edition printing of the Wendell Berry short story called “The Great Interruption”. It was through reading Wendell Berry that I began to realize the cohesive life I found in the place I’ve always known, was possible. As Tanya Berry once said of the life she and Wendell made together, “It hasn’t been perfect. But it’s been right.”

3 thoughts on “Riding With Wendell

  1. Thank you for writing this; I enjoyed reading it. My introduction to Berry was through a curmudgeonly old newspaper columnist, Charley Reese, who was wild and outlandish but right more often than not. My dad worked for the extension service as a cotton entomologist. I’m glad there’s people like you in Extension.

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  2. I have so enjoyed reading about your unique opportunity meeting Wendell Berry. It was a refreshingly honest depiction of your feelings at the time.

    You have something that has been missing in my life and that is “Wurzeln.” I have family scattered in Europe, South America, and the United States but you have a deep-rooted connection to Tifton and the soil of your grandfather’s land. I admire and long for this connection to some degree. I left the Caribbean at 12, lived in Florida, then Georgia, and now I live in Germany. One’s “Wurzeln” gets shorter and shorter with each move.

    I hope my children will have the “Wurzeln” missing in my life through their German father who also has a deep-rooted connection to this area. However, they will still feel somewhat foreign due to their American mom and their coveted dual citizenship.

    Life is a journey of many decisions. Not many can say that they are content with the rhythms of the life they have chosen. I have realized that I do not know anything else but being different or foreign my entire life. This I have accepted. Arriving from the Caribbean to Florida, I had the Queen’s English accent. Although we all spoke English, my sisters and I were still considered different. Georgia was an amazing experience for me. I loved living and working in Atlanta. One felt less foreign in such a big city. Thank you for sharing this essay. I believe there is a reason for every path we take upon reaching a crossroad. We may not know it at the time but only later upon reflection. I am also happy and content with the rhythm of my life.

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