On Reading Wendell Berry's "A Meeting"

But the poem I like to recite the most is Berry’s “A Meeting”:

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”
It’s a poem that everybody can recognize and interpret on several levels. It’s about death obviously, but it’s also about memory and belonging, about how we grow older and estranged to what we once were. It also confronts how death may take away a lot of things, but it will not take away your stories. It’s about permanence, then, and joy, even in the face of death. It does all this in such a simple, powerful, direct manner that it always takes my breath away. The poem reminds me of two rivers meeting each other: These two friends have gone long and far, and yet somehow they have come back together in a landscape of imagination.

Read the entire piece by Colum McCann at The Atlantic.


The Berry Farming Program and the Closure of St. Catharine College

Leah Bayens, director of The Berry Farming Program, offers an in-depth reflection on circumstances surrounding the closure of St. Catharine College and its repercussions for The Berry Farming Program.

Since June, I have held a heavy heart. I have also been angry, indignant, disoriented, and harried. This stands in sharp contrast to my springtime rhapsodizing, in an essay so long it had to be published in two parts, about the Berry Farming Program’s beautiful and fitting place at St. Catharine College. I wrote about the last four years my colleagues at The Berry Center and I spent establishing an experiential, transdisciplinary sustainable agriculture and agrarian studies program modeled on the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry. I sung the praises of students who accepted the idea of a “major in homecoming,” that is, a course of study that would help them “return home, or go some other place, and dig in,” as our friend and supporter Wes Jackson put it.1 I waxed poetic about the radical Dominican Sisters of Peace, who founded the college and provided a touchstone model for how to institutionalize ecological and cultural stewardship.

Less than three months after penning that tribute, I sat with fellow faculty and staff in a small auditorium and listened to the president of our board of trustees tell us that the college would close by the end of summer. July 31 marked the end of almost two centuries of the Dominican Sisters’ community-based education in Washington County, Kentucky. The announcement came just weeks after six remarkable Berry Farming Program (BFP) students graduated with degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism. The rest of our students were left homeless for the fall semester, and nearly 120 faculty and staff scrambled to file unemployment while searching for last-minute hires. The closure created a social and physical vacuum for the community as the classrooms, library, dorms, and offices sit empty in the midst of cattle and sheep pastures while a national bank’s receiver tallies the assets (including, I might bitterly add, the BFP’s brand new walk-behind tractor and implements).

Read the complete article by Leah Bayens at The Whole Horse Project.


Study of Wendell Berry and Higher Education To Be Published

The University Press of Kentucky will be publishing a study of Wendell Berry's thoughts about higher education at some point in 2017.

Drawing on Berry’s essays, fiction, and poetry, Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro illuminate the influential thinker’s vision for higher education in this pathbreaking study. Each chapter begins with an examination of one of Berry’s fictional narratives and then goes on to consider how the passage inspires new ways of thinking about the university’s mission. Throughout, Baker and Bilbro argue that instead of training students to live in their careers, universities should educate students to inhabit and serve their places. The authors also offer practical suggestions for how students, teachers, and administrators might begin implementing these ideas.

Baker and Bilbro conclude that institutions guided by Berry’s vision might cultivate citizens who can begin the work of healing their communities—graduates who have been educated for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity.

See more information at The University Press of Kentucky.


"Wendell Berry's Reading List"

Talk to any group of young farmers, farm interns, kids with liberal arts degrees who are choosing to grow kale over 401(k)s, and the common denominator is likely to be Berry. He offers more than sharp cultural criticism, compelling novels and beautiful poetry; Berry makes readers want to change their lives. For many this is done by eating differently, following Berry’s insight that “eating… is inescapably an agricultural act.” His writing inspired the local food movement as people began to understand that the health of the environment depends on our decisions at mealtime.

For some, Berry is a religious figure. I once met a woman in a coffee shop who told me that Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” was her religion, its closing lines offering a call to be present in our places:

…we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.

And then there are those who, like my 22-year-old self, are drawn to radical responses. Those who consider a return to the land to farm it and care for it with all the virtues Berry works out in his writing. But how to begin, was this the right choice, and most importantly for one who lives by books—what to read? I needed guidance, and so I wrote to the one man I felt could give it: Wendell Berry.

Read the entire article by Ragan Sutterfield at WorldArk Magazine.


An Appreciation of The Berry Center

The Berry Center addresses topics such as land use, farm policy, local food infrastructure, urban education about farming, and general farmer education with the overarching aim of promoting a healthy and sustainable agriculture in this state and in this country.

 In order to accomplish such a significant task, The Berry Center focuses its work around focused efforts that include programs and policies that protect local food producers in the marketplace; establishing a repository of papers, speeches and letters from three generations of Berry men on issues related to small-farm agriculture; organizing and participating in conferences with like-minded institutions that seek to work on problems and solutions for small farmers and rural communities; and preparing farmers and future generations of farmers to commit to small-farm agriculture through the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program.

Read it all at Kentucky for Kentucky.


Despite college closing, the Berry Farming Program will continue

We are very sorry to learn of the decision on July 1 to close Saint Catharine College, a school near Springfield, Kentucky that has been sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Peace since 1931.      

The announcement also means the St. Catharine College Berry Farming Program, launched in 2013 to offer two bachelor's degree programs in sustainable agriculture and rural leadership modeled on the teachings of author Wendell Berry, is searching for a new host university or college in Kentucky.

"The program will continue," said Berry's daughter, Mary Berry, on Wednesday. Berry's writing on farming has made him a moral authority among those concerned about climate change, the dwindling number of family farms, and healthy food and soil.

The degree program was founded by The Berry Center, a nonprofit institute located in Newcastle,  "to meet the urgent need for bolstering rural communities, small farm production and local markets."

In May, the first six graduates gained bachelor degrees from St. Catharine College in disciplines devoted to sustainable land use, plant and soil stewardship, rural community leadership and environmental arts and humanities, said Leah Bayens, chair of the Earth Studies department.

That leaves 19 undergraduates in the Berry Farming Program curriculum now facing abrupt transfer to other institutions, Bayens said.

Read more at Courier-Journal.

Concerning this closure and The Berry Farming Program, The Berry Center stated on Facebook,

We are deeply saddened by today’s announcement of the pending closure of St. Catharine College, a school located in the heart of the state and at the heart of the Washington County, Kentucky community. Though St. Catharine College is closing the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program will continue based upon the ideals that were established in its foundational years. John Turner, St. Catharine College Board of Trustees chairman, said that the closure comes as a result of decline in enrollment caused by the federal Department of Education’s admitted wrongful withholding of student aid on several key academic programs. He said further that the decline in enrollment has proven to be too difficult to manage with the debt obligation that has been assumed by the college in recent years. 

Mary Berry, Founder and Executive Director of The Berry Center, was moved to establish the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College when asked by faculty members and trustees how The Berry Center’s work fit with the four pillars of Dominican life. She thought that it was the right question and wanted to tie The Berry Center’s educational imperative to something established and sacred.

The first cohort of students enrolled in the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program graduated on May 14, 2016. These students provided an example of what The Berry Center hoped for – a mix of rural and urban students deeply rooted in their places devoted to life on the land. 

We would like to thank St. Catharine College and the Dominican Sisters of Peace for giving a home to our program and for their encouragement throughout its development. The Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program will continue based on the solid footing that we have achieved at St. Catharine College.


On Wendell Berry and Institutions

Institutionalization is neither fundamentally conservative nor liberatory; it depends entirely on the nature of the original concept and how it is established and maintained. To preserve the ethos driving ecological agrarianism, we must insist over and again that the complexities of “nature’s standard” not be simplified and that experience in and service to actual places not be supplanted by placebos. Failing these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the sort of affection necessary for the paradigm shift an ecological worldview entails.

In this light, I ask: What would it mean for ecological agrarianism to become the established custom? Institutionalizing ecological agrarian thought will mean making a fundamental shift in our minds and, thereby, our cultures. Compassion, collaboration, and respect must guide our actions. In other words, we will be guided by affection. We will be asked to see ourselves as absolutely placed in particular, rather than abstract, locations because a “mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good.” In this vein, Berry writes in “The Whole Horse”:

[T]he agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material. It is not at all impressed by the industrial legendry of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned by gigantic corporations. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.

Read the whole article by Leah Bayens at The Whole Horse Project.

This is Part 2 of an essay by Leah Bayens. See Part 1 ("A Way of Thought Based on Land") HERE.


Reading Wendell Berry in the Classroom

A week ago we took up Berry’s “That Distant Land,” 25 or so short stories about the Port William “membership,” a life together in and around a small town on the banks of the Kentucky River. In their different ways the stories are each a window into the glory and the ruin of the human heart. The most remarkable, unexplainable kindness and honor and generosity, and the worst sort of indifference and malice and selfishness— all mixed up together, in your heart and mine.

Because of course, that is the gift of a good story– we see ourselves in it. We recognize the characters because they are like us, able to do good and able to do bad at the same time. But that is where the words “meant” and “supposed” and “ought” become problematic. Whose to say what is good and bad? A supposedly moral majority? Perhaps we protest loudly, “Good is just a social construction.” Or maybe it is only me and mine, because justice is only and ever “just us”?

I offer them Berry as a way into this conversation about complex things. I want them to read and reflect, addressing Walker Percy’s argument that “Bad books lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” What do you see in Berry’s fiction that gives you eyes to see more clearly into the human condition? That is my question.

Read more at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture.