A Barn, Two Friends, and Wendell Berry

Dairy Barn Repurposed

The dairy barn where we gather as a community.  Sometimes it is a community of beekeepers, family, friends,  UGA students, historians.   This was a lunch meeting occasion.  The cow painting, created by local artist and friend Chris.  She painted a cow that she saw in a pasture.  The flowers are bachelor buttons grown by friend and neighbor Emily.  I added the roses.  The mint grown by me from a pass along plant from Emily.  Strawberries, local, and were at the time, in season.  There is no virtual reality here.

Chris and Emily are creative friends.  Painting, writing, gardening, preserving, and cooking.  Once common abilities of the “common”  people.  The ability to sing and make music also ran in families.  Average folks wrote ballads and told stories.  Children were raised to have whole life skills in the days before we became a “soccer society”.   Parents now manage the elementary school sports careers of their offspring.  And we  teach by example how to order food from a fast food speaker box in the drive thru.

Wendell Berry, farmer, author of poetry, essays, fiction, wrote a book in the 1970’s titled, The Unsettling of America.  He speaks to specialization as one of the causes of the breakdown of society.  In an essay, he describes a profoundly unhappy man who is no longer responsible for growing his own food, or cooking it, or teaching his children, or caring for his health.  He can consult experts (specialists) for all of these areas.  Quote:  “This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself…..and not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him….for all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor….it is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be….because he is helpless…dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so many experts, can only  mean that he is a captive, a potential victim”.

This “man” was described in the 1970’s.  We have become increasingly more specialized in the last 40 years and within those same 40 years obesity,  systemic diseases,  autoimmune diseases, cancer, anxiety and depression are also increasing– not just among adults but are now found strangely on the rise in our children, our youth.  And we should think that it is very strange indeed to have the immune systems of our children failing.  and to wonder why so many of our young people are immensely unhappy.

Berry is not a pessimist.  Nor a nostalgic dreamer of the “good old days”.  He is an observer of the created world and the society around him.  More and more people are beginning to suspect that our specialized, mobile, fragmented society is cause for fragmented individuals and families and communities.   Leisure is less leisurely and recreational pursuits  may not be re-creating us after all.  Talk to some of the “sport or travel sport parents” and they will not seem particularly rested or re-created, ditto the sports child himself and his siblings under duress.  There is another choice, another way of life, of living:  people are seeking community connections, local living which includes locally grown food–grown even by their own hand and hoe.  Industrial agriculture may be intending to “feed the world” but individuals are starting to get interested in feeding themselves and their families.

Perhaps our “crisis of character” Berry’s explanation for the ecological crisis and societal crisis,  has finally hit bottom and we are now working to redeem our land, our society, our families, and ourselves.  May it be so.