A Pilgrimage to the Land of Bourbon, Bluegrass and Berry

A pilgrimage is, by definition, a religious thing. I don’t mean that it is limited to a specific religion, and indeed, it isn’t even limited to an easily identifiable or government-sanctioned religion. But it is, nevertheless, religious. A pilgrimage occurs when the pilgrim chooses to go somewhere for a purpose that transcends the merely worldly. It is not a vacation, it is not a business trip, its purpose is more than practical (though, by being more than practical, it has the potential to become the most practical thing that the pilgrim can do).

Some pilgrims travel the Camino De Santiago possibly on the back of a donkey. Some pilgrims travel to Mecca, to gather by the millions as a humble though inspiring act of piousness. Some travel, every twelve years, to bathe in an Indian river, with over 80 million others.

And some pilgrims, though admittedly few, drive a 20-year old Toyota Tercel to Louisville, Kentucky.

I began my pilgrimage on Friday, September 26, to attend a conference. The conference title was “Making a Home Fit for Humans: Localism Beyond Food” and the overriding, if completely assumed argument, was that it is vital, indeed it is beautiful, for each one of us to center our lives to live well in our place… which, for those long term readers (if I can be said to have any truly long-term readers), is a key concept that I am trying to understand, and more importantly, to live out.

I will hereby step fully into a tangent. It is ironic, I suppose, that in order for me to learn  about how to live locally, I was required to travel to Kentucky. I hereby admit my flagrant sin. However, unlike all the other sinners, I had a good reason to commit mine, which I will soon go into. And thus, through the goodly gift of cognitive dissonance, I am absolved.

Before I get to the conference however (in regards to the chronology of this post… I have in fact already gone to the conference), let me start with my accommodations. I could have stayed in a hotel, those giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes made of ticky tacky, giant boxes on the hillside, giant boxes all the same. But since the theme was localism, and desiring to limit my peripheral sins as much as possible, I decided to couch surf.

Couch surfing, for those who don’t know, is where you contact an individual, or, in my case, a couple, and ask them to host you for a couple of nights. The accommodation is free, though it is usually polite to provide a gift of sorts, and, other than wondering whether you will be killed and eaten in the middle of the night, it’s usually an incredibly positive experience. For those of you who are concerned, I was not killed and eaten. In fact, my hosts, Chuck and Trang, were incredible. I met them at an ice cream parlour, and then, after meeting some of their friends and taking a free trolley ride (something which Louisville offers on the last Friday of every month), we returned to their apartment. They had a lovely blow up bed with sheets and pillows (such extravagance!) but more importantly, they had many samples of bourbon.

We started with the poor stuff. I don’t remember the name of it. But it was poor. It was perhaps a cross between bourbon and lighter fluid, with an emphasis on the lighter fluid. We moved up. Of course Jim Beam came into the equation. But even Jimmy is fairly poor by any actual standards. We ended with Angel’s Envy. When distilling bourbon, the mist that evaporates, the mist that makes the distillery smell heavenly, is known as the angel’s share. The angels (especially, I assume, the teenage angels) delight in this beautiful bouquet of 80 proof oaken glory. Angel’s Envy however, is the stuff the angel’s do not get. It is the stuff that a certain, highly-repentant sinner gets as he glimpses what quite possibly may be a little bit of heaven-on-earth, a glimpse of the promised land, kingdom come… and it is good.

The conference was the following day, Saturday the 28th for those of you who are checking my facts (I assure you, few facts were harmed in the writing of this post). It was a short walk from Chuck and Trang’s, which is good, since after a fourteen hour drive, I was not looking forward to sitting in a car. I entered the library at the University of Louisville, spoke with some folks milling in the foyer, then took my seat in the second row from the front, dead centre.

The first panel got up, speaking of how they themselves are attempting to live well in their place (another way of speaking is to dwell, I will go into this idea hopefully in the near future). They were all quite good, and I have several quotations which I copied down. I will likely share many of the thoughts in the future, and perhaps, if you are very lucky and I am feeling particularly honest, I will actually attribute them to the proper person, rather than passing the wisdom off as my own.

Near the end of the panel however, something changed. The speakers were still quite articulate and interesting, but I could tell that the room was now different. I saw people looking at the back of the room, grinning the grins of children who know that presents are about to be delivered.

I followed the gaze, knowing what I would see. Or rather, who I would see.

Mr. Wendell Berry had entered the room.

For those of you who know me, Mr. Berry has been one of the biggest influences on my life. His poetry, essays, novels, and way of life, have completely changed my life, challenged me, caused me to consider my vocation, my values, and my aspirations.

Berry and his wife Tanya (pronouced, in Berry’s drawl, Tonya) silently stepped into their seats.

A new panel got up, speaking on the topic of educating for place, which is a very interesting turn on the concept of place-based education, providing, perhaps, a purpose beyond education for the sake of manufacturing an employee. Again, there were some great concepts being addressed, concepts which I would love to share at a later point.

Lunch was next, a local caterer providing local sandwiches made of local ingredients and with a side of Pepsi and Lays potato chips (purchased, presumably, from a local supplier).

After lunch, was Berry’s turn to speak. I will go over it soon, I promise, but I wanted to quickly give an overview of the rest of the day.

After Berry spoke, a third panel came up, addressing the Politics of Place, followed shortly by two authors who were about to be published and who were sharing excerpts from their books. Again, there was much wisdom and much laughter. And again, I will likely share the ideas later on… but I really want to get back to Mr. Berry.

It was an interview, with Jason Peters asking the questions and Berry answering.

There have been few times in my life where I have sat in a room, with a couple hundred other people, waiting with baited breath for somebody to speak. Peters joked at one point that it was difficult to interview Berry because of his penchant for pausing. Indeed, it was often the case that there was an incredibly powerful silence on stage, right before Berry would respond, or rather, continue to respond. In a day and age where silence has become persona non grata, where those with nothing to say unable to stop saying it, it was beautiful to see somebody use pause so effectively. To see somebody actually consider before responding.

The interview lasted for an hour. There was wisdom enough in it to last a lifetime.

I will likely share other key learnings that Mr. Berry shared over that hour, but I wanted to focus here on one thing. Peters asked Berry to address the crowd, specifically the young college kids that were in attendance. What grandfatherly advice would he give them?

Berry responded with a couple of statements, then suddenly, his eyes lit up and he turned and addressed the crowd. (A paraphrase from my hastily jotted notes follows).

“Don’t worry about understanding. The great things of life cannot be understood; they must be lived.”

He went on to share his non-understanding of the Christian scriptures, specifically Psalm 23’s opening line, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” He shared how he didn’t understand that, how, since those words were first penned many years ago, many peoples had starved while knowing that those words were true. But they were a great truth, and as all great truths, they must be lived out, and only then will there be a possibility of understanding. Even then, understanding may escape us continually.

The drive home the following day was long. Made longer perhaps by my ample coffee consumption en route.

But its length was its gift.

As I sat in the car, a bottle of Angel’s Envy in the trunk, I had ample time to consider how to dwell in my place.

How can you live well in your place?

One way, perhaps, is by not worrying about understanding how to do it, but by living it anyways.

University of Louisville

It should be noted here that Louisville is better pronounced “Loo-el-ville,”
though the”Loo” and the “el” are somewhat run together.

The Thinker

I feel more cultured having seen an original famous statue.
Admittedly, it is only one of several made by Rodin, but it’s still nice.

Flier

Making a Home Fit for Humans. A worthy goal.

Wendell Berry

Me standing in line like a little goofy fanboy.Mr. Berry's Autograph

 Yes. I got his autograph.

I’m going to write a post on something he said in regards to this book
(this book being, quite possibly, one of the greatest novels ever written).

Bacon Doughnut

Completely unrelated to anything about the conference…
but this little bakery put a piece of bacon on a maple doughnut.

I’m not sure why Canada has not figured this out.

WB: Men Untrained to Comfort

image

This post goes out to my anonymous benefactor who surprised me with two camping plates, two bowls and two mugs. I’m not sure who gave them but I am incredibly thankful for them! Thank you!

————

From Leavings, 2010.

Men Untrained to Comfort

Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work
at the age of eighty in the topmost
tier of the barn. “Come down!” Jason called.
“You got no business up there at your age.”
And his father descended, not by a ladder,
there being none, but by inserting his fingers
into the cracks between boards and climbing
down the wall.

And when he was young
and some account and strong and knew
nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright,
back in the days they called him “Steady,”
carried the rastus plow on his shoulder
up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so
when they got there his mule would be fresh,
unsweated, and ready to go.

Early Rowanberry,
for another, brought a steel-beam breaking plow
at the store in Port William and shouldered it
before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it
the mile and a half home, down through the woods
along Sand Ripple.

“But the tiredest my daddy
ever got,” his son, Art, told me one day,
“was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum
in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder
and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store.”

“But why,” I asked, “didn’t he hitch a team
to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?”

“Well,” Art said, “we didn’t have but two
horses in them days, and we spared them
every way we could. A many a time I’ve seen
my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled
and take the end of a single tree beside a horse.”

– Wendell Berry

WB: The Seeds

By this time of year, farmers have already planned the perfect 2014 garden. In their minds eye, there are no plant diseases, no insect pests, no deer and the weather is always perfect. It’s a chance for them to spend a season in hopeful bliss, before the reality of the first frost-free day arrives. By now, many farmers already have their seeds ready, organized dutifully in shoeboxes, and are ready to go into the ground, or the soil in the sprouting room, very soon. This poem is found in Berry’s book “Farming: A Handbook.”

The Seeds

The seeds begin abstract as their species,
remote as the name on the sack
they are carried home in: Fayette Seed Company
Corner of Vine and Rose. But the sower
going forth to so sets foot
into time to come, the seeds falling
on his own place. He has prepared a way
for his life to come to him, if it will.
Like a tree, he has given roots
to the earth, and stands free.

WB: Window Poems: 13

Note: If you’re enjoying reading about my Camp Life, I would like to suggest you check out my friend Spence’s blog, Rediscover the Wild in Wilderness. He’s also living in a wall tent (see, I’m not the only crazy one!) though he’s doing it up in Thunder Bay!

The following poem comes from a book called Window Poems. It consists of a number of poems that Mr. Berry wrote in “The Camp,” a cabin on the Kentucky River. Berry had known this cabin for a long time, had grown up using it, and when he first married his wife Tanya, they returned there. The Camp was primitive, kerosene lanterns, butane stoves and an outhouse without a door (the door after all would ruin the view). Obviously, there is much about this lifestyle that I admire. The poems contained in this book were written as Berry looked out the window of The Camp at the river.

13.
Sometimes he thinks the earth
might be better without humans.
He’s ashamed of that.
It worries him,
him being a human, and needing
to think well of others
in order to think well of himself.
And there are
a few he thinks well of,
a few he loves
as well as himself almost,
and he would like to say
better. But history
is so largely unforgiveable.
And not his mighty government
wants to help everybody
even if it has to kill them
to do it–like the fellow in the story
who helped his neighbor to Heaven:
‘I heard the Lord calling him,
Judge, and I sent him on.’
According to the government
everybody is just waiting
to be given a chance
to be like us. He can’t
go along with that.
Here is a thing, flesh of his flesh,
that he hates. He would like
a little assurance
that no one will destroy the world
for some good cause.
Until he dies, he would like his life
to pertain to the earth.
But there is something in him
that will wait, even
while he protests,
for things turn out as they will.
Out of his window this morning
he saw nine ducks in filght,
and a hawk dive at his mate
in delight.
The day stands apart
from the calendar. There is a will
that receives it as enough.
He is given a fragment of time
in this fragment of the world.
He likes it pretty well.

WB: To Know the Dark

Frequently, I find myself returning to the tent at dark. This will likely change as we gain more daylight, but for now, I am usually traveling the last kilometre or so by foot with only the moon to guide me. I came across this poem recently which encouraged me to continue to refrain from using a headlamp on my evening walks.

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

– Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems

WB: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

The following poem is perhaps the best known of Wendell Berry’s poems. The Mad Farmer character appears throughout Berry’s poems. He has his own voice and way of doing things that I appreciate. I’m sharing this poem because today, in the Russet House Farmhouse, there’s an autographed copy of it hanging on the wall. Mr. Berry autographed it in pencil, meaning that, with time, it will fade.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

WB: Questionnaire

Every Wednesday (so long as I don’t forget), I would like to share a poem from Wendell Berry. This man has influenced me more than any other outside of my immediate friends and family, and I hope to do a more solid piece on him in the near future. For now though, I present to you one of his more troubling yet powerful poems.

Questionnaire

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3) What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4) In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5) State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

From Leavings, 2010.

I once read this poem in a class presentation on Wendell Berry. A friend of mine, after the first question, asked what if she chose not to eat any poison? Similar questions were hopefully asked by everybody after each question. Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s actually possible, in this hyper-consumer economy, to live in such a way as to not do any of the things listed in this poem. I’ve been challenging myself to live in such a way.