Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Waking Up with Wendell Berry

I'm very newly into the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. It begins with a notice to the reader that I am trying hard to take seriously:

Persons attempting to find a "text" in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a "subtext" in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise "understand" it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

I'm trying, really I am, not to be the dreaded explainer. That is my bent, I'm afraid, but the author has asked in good faith and good humor, and so I'm trying hard to indulge him and honor his request.

To resist explanation, it turns out, is to invite emotional resonance. I'm forty pages into Jayber Crow's 363 pages and already hopelessly in awe of the title character, telling his story in retrospect. By reading his memories of childhood I'm recalling my own memories; by way of his reflections on the impact of time and the wheels of progress I'm noticing how much the places I've lived have changed over the years, and how much I've changed myself in relation to them. I'm observing him observe these other people and recalling my own observations of the people whose paths I have crossed. It's not necessarily comfortable terrain for one such as I, so predisposed to deconstruction, but it's not a bad way to wake up in the morning.

This morning I awoke to Crow, late in life, recounting his time at The Good Shepherd orphanage, where as some odd institutional protocol his name was truncated from Jonah to J., only to be recast at some later date as Jay and familiarized as Jayber. What follows is how my day today begins, and I expect it will shape how my day today unfolds.

For a while after they had come to The Good Shepherd, the newcomers were known as "newboys" and "newgirls." This status of newness we sooner or later simply wore our way out of. . . . I remember a little girl, the E. Lawler I mentioned before, who came to The Good Shepherd when she was about seven years old. She was a slight, brown-haired, sad-looking, lonesome-looking girl whose clothes did not fit. She looked accidental or unexpected, and seemed to be without expectation, and resigned, and so quiet that even in my selfishness I wished I knew of a way to help her.

I watched her all the time. When her class went out to play, she did not take part but only stood back and watched the other girls. She always wore a dress that sagged and brown cotton stockings that were always wrinkled. She was waiting. I did not understand that she was waiting, but she was. And then one day as her classmates were joining hands to play some sort of game, one of the girls broke the circle. She held out her hand to the newcomer to beckon her in. And E. Lawler ran into the circle and joined hands with the others.

I wrote E. Lawler in my tablet so that I would not forget her.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Local Food and Sustainable Religion

I'm not what you might call "self-motivated." I often need external prompts to keep me going on my more mundane projects. One of those projects is gardening.

So every year now (for the second year in a row!) I'm reading a book that relates in some way to the growing of food. Last year was Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a gift from one of my hippie author friends, who noticed that I had read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma (a gift from another of my hippie author friends) and assumed that I must be a hippie foodie. I'm not, but the book was great.

This year's entry is Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living, by Craig L. Goodwin. I met Craig at the Inhabit Conference last year, an event sponsored by the Parish Collective, a network of mostly urban and suburban hippies who want their religious life to be homegrown, organic and slow. It's a great event, if you're into that sort of thing.

Craig's family spent a year living locally, and facing up to all the implications of that. They went in fairly ignorant (less ignorant, I suspect, than he likes to suggest in the book, but by no means were they stealth hippies engaging in fraudulent life experiments), and dealt with the surprises as they came. I'm now at the point where the family is running out of staples, like flour, and running in search of homegrown replacements.

The family visits any number of processing plants with very little luck, until one food industry representative directs them to a "recovering conventional farmer." Fred proves to be a good match for Craig's "recovering conventional consumer"; I suspect I'll hear more from Fred as I continue to read. Anyway, Fred turns Craig on not only to local sources of flour but to the ecological logic of what has become, after a century or two of industrial progress, unconventional farming. Show concern for the sustainability of topsoil, Fred suggests, and your land will not dry up. I found this interesting: "The richness of the tropical rainforest is in the way it recycles the nutrients"--the interdependency of the soil and the plants growing in it. "Once the native vegetation disappears, so does the productive capacity of the soil." Deforestation in the Amazon, for example, won't result in more land for agricultural use; it'll result in more useless land and a starker, less stable environment.

The kicker of chapter five, for me, was the surprise twist at the end, in which Craig steps way back from his search for flour and sugar and cheese, and reflects on the parallels between environmental responsibility and congregational life. He's a pastor, so he thinks that way, but I found his insight to be quite compelling, and fertile ground for the church's ongoing reformation. Here's what he wrote:

I am learning that what farmers like Fred are doing agriculturally, I need to do theologically and pastorally in the church. Like farmers, our lives have become disintegrated and fragmented by rapid cultural and technological change. Maybe we've imagined the whole world as little more than a medium for growing souls, pushing and pushing until we erode the fertile topsoil that's essential to our faith--justice, goodness, mercy, compassion. Imagine what might change if we thought of the earth and everything in it as part of God's redemptive plan, as an integrated process of life breaking out "on earth as it is in heaven." Maybe even our stop at the dairy aisle and our choice of flour could be fertile ground for faithfulness.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...