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Wendell Berry's Sacred Environmentalism

We need alternative road signs and luminaries if we are going to reconnect human communities with places. Wendell Berry's writings provide some direction: "What I stand for is what I stand on."
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Writer, farmer and modern-day prophet Wendell Berry will visit the college where I teach and live this fall, and I'm trying to remain cool and level-headed. For me, that's a challenge because I marvel at his poetic prose that challenges us to hold our spiritual values at the center of our sense of place.

During his short stay, I fear becoming part of an agrarian paparazzi, planning my jogging routes around his campus tour or visit to an Appalachian Studies class. While I plant my fall garden, I visualize him strolling past my on-campus duplex when I'm harvesting kale with my two daughters.

Yes, this hero worship is amusing on some level, if you consider that I'm a 45-year-old mother, writer and academic. But I believe that we need to feel reverence for those voices calling us to put our religious values to work in local communities to sustain God's earth. And I believe that because I am a mother, teacher and a person of faith.

I want my daughters and my students to connect with people who are discussing, writing about and ultimately creating a healthful, sustainable world. I remember when the first fast-food restaurant -- Hardee's -- came to my hometown of Fairhope, Ala., in 1979. Yet my children have never seen a major highway exit in this country without signs signaling the location of every Taco Bell and Burger King within a half-mile radius.

We need alternative road signs and luminaries if we are going to reconnect human communities with places. Berry's writings -- all 30 books of poetry, novels and prose -- provide some direction: "What I stand for is what I stand on," he writes. He implores us to "practice resurrection."

To that end, his life with his wife Tanya on Lanes Landing Farm in Port Royal, Ky., reflects actions that back up his words. Famously, the 77-year-old Berry does not use a computer (my feminist students are surprised to learn that his wife apparently types his manuscripts).

He tackles contentious political issues, such as joining the Feb. 12 sit-in with 14 other activists at the Kentucky governor's office to ask for an end to mountaintop removal. In one YouTube video, Berry wears a blue button-down shirt and tie, while a younger protester in a T-shirt and jeans tweets about the event. Just this month, he joined the voices of Bill McKibben and James Hansen, calling for civil disobedience in protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to Texas.

We can lose our connection to places in one generation, he maintains. I think about this prediction as I watch my students explore ways to regain the local economies described in his writing. On most days, I have more faith than fear, more optimism than skepticism, primarily because of the work of both faith communities and my own students who are letting their spiritual connection to places guide their life's work, whether they consider themselves religious or not.

Here in my current home of Asheville, N.C., First Congregational United Church Of Christ installed 42 solar panels as a public witness to renewable energy. Oakley United Methodist Church started a community garden. Yet, Berry writes that even if we had an unlimited supply of sustainable energy, we would continue to degrade the earth -- until we adapt to local economies that recognize the impossibility of infinite growth as an economic principle.

As a mother whose days are marked by breakfast, work, dinnertime, bath time and bedtime, I have thought about what this means to me on a practical level. I can't come close to replicating Berry's life with a family farm and countless books to my name. But I am making an effort to live in community with others in one place, recognizing that this is my privilege and hence my responsibility.

When my former students grow food, teach children or start businesses like "The Organic Mechanic," I want them to realize that our heroes are real people in place and time. In class, I pass around a hand-written letter, a kind and diplomatic note from Berry declining my invitation to write a preface to my last book. This rejection note thrilled me because it represented an encounter with a real person on a similar journey, rather than some imaginary friend I talk to while gardening.

Watching for modern-day prophets and signposts will help us create the faithful communities we want to inhabit. This is the real work of our daily lives, not only in our imaginations. "There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places," Berry writes.

Now, I think it's time to plant that kale.

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