Meeting Wendell Berry: Authentic Heroes in Real Places

I didn't imagine seeing my hero this way.

This fall, I visualized harvesting kale with my daughters when I thought about seeing Wendell Berry -- farmer, writer, and modern-day prophet -- on his visit to Warren Wilson College where I teach and live. Instead, I was blasting Britney Spear's "Criminal" on the radio of my beat-up Subaru, headed to Bed Bath & Beyond for pre-made curtains.

Oops. I wasn't exactly practicing the local economies Berry advocates through his life on a Kentucky farm and his 50 books of fiction, poetry, and essays.

When I first saw his lean 77-year old frame, Berry and his wife Tanya were walking on campus: Berry moved with steady intention, a cadence most likely refined over years as a fifth-generation farmer. While I still bought my curtains (and a 20-ounce Diet Coke), the sight of this couple slowed my internal clock, unfettering me from time for a short spell.

For the next two days, our campus felt giddy. We paused from the often divisive debates about campus policies and procedures because we were in the presence of something bigger: an authentic hero who had influenced the ethos of our school.

"Who else could have created more giggly excitement here at Warren Wilson?" one friend e-mailed me after she picked up her CSA share and said hello to him at the campus garden. (Admittedly, she had better timing than me.) His visit had meaning for our campus, one of seven "work colleges" in the country where students run the campus, working on crews such as the farm, garden, plumbing arts, and dining.

In his writings, Berry speaks about reclaiming local economies and living an authentic life. And in an age when heroes seem to beg for all our attention on TV and Twitter, Berry doesn't even use a computer. He doesn't want us to "like" his Facebook page. What a relief.

In fact, he doesn't want to be fussed over, which makes us like him even more.

In a scene resembling a rock concert, more than 500 people stood in line for an hour to hear him speak in the college chapel, with overflow seating in a nearby meeting room.

As if in a collective meditation, we sat in the wooden pews, listening to him read for almost an hour from a story set in the fictional town of Port William, KY. Berry didn't preach. He didn't tell us what to do or think.

But in responding to questions from students, he gave insight into how he thinks we can regain ways of life connected to places and people. He invited us to look inward, live into the answers, and use our faith for change.

Looking inward

To inform means to shape inwardly, not to overwhelm with information, he said, in response to a question about the Occupy movement. "It's a manifestation that people are getting worried," he said. "But a great public movement unaccompanied by personal and local change on a small scale is not going to amount to very much," he noted. Berry believes that we must inform ourselves and our communities and rebuild local economies that will be the kindest to the landscapes that sustain us.

Living into the answers

"You should be badly frightened of me if I answered that question as forthrightly as it was asked," Berry said, chuckling at a long-winded and ambitious question about societal transformation. "I don't know, and you don't know either," he announced. The answer will have to be lived out, he continued, and a lot is going to be required of us. "Don't go along with the idea that problem-solving is simply a matter of applying the maximum force as relentlessly as possible," he said.

Acting on faith

When asked about the role of faith in the environmental movement, Berry responded, "It's hard to think of a person who doesn't have faith in something. The human mind is by nature faithful." But we can be led astray and put our faith in science or the economy, he said, while real faith manifests itself in more humble ways. "Such a faith as I have is simply saying that things are not going to get so bad that somebody who is willing to do it can't make it a little better," he said. "I don't have any proof, you see. That's authentically an article of faith."

After Berry spoke, a student presented him with a Lazy Susan made by the woodworking crew, candlesticks created by the blacksmith crew, and placemats sewn by the fiber arts crew. At the event, Catherine Reid, a creative writing professor, reminded us that we are an "imperfect community," an apt description of my own life that includes such contradictory acts as harvesting sweet potatoes from my garden on the same day I scan status updates on Facebook at night.

Even with these contradictions (and an occasional trip to Bed Bath & Beyond), I am living out the answers, as best I can. My intentions gain traction from the faithful prayers in Berry's poetry: "And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here."