On road trips when I was little, we’d eventually pass through a forgotten agrarian town with scattered well kept farms and a mom-and-pop store. “Look out the window, girls,” Daddy would say. “These are my people.”
That’s how I felt in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, when I read my first Wendell Berry novel, Hannah Coulter, at the age of seventeen.
I’m descended from the bluegrass state since the dawn of time, though uprooted in the last generation. My unconscious tongue still holds the hillbilly dialect (with tard for tired , pillar for pillow, harsh for hush). I grew up on stories of great floods, duels over bird-dogs, and many a much diluted ‘worter dranking party’ by the light of the moon. I heard tell of good Judge Barkley, Mr. Willoughby that owned the general store and pretty Miss Parish the schoolteacher (who could sure wear out a little backside with a peach tree switch). From my granddad’s lap, I memorized the recipe for removing freckles in a muddy stump, braced myself for catfish noodling, horse cutting and train jumping, and regretted this old world that forced a young boy to join a war just to get some peace.
So yes, I felt at home in Port William, sure enough, but it was more than merely romanticism for the olden days, for the earnest native tongue of Wendell Berry called me not to the past, but to the future. “I wish I could tell you what to do,” my Mama’s often said. “But I’m afraid all I can tell you is what not to do.”
In the same way Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow instructed me. They told their beautiful, heartbreaking stories, and then waited to see what I would do about it. I was itching to do something, that seventeenth and eighteenth year.
“You’ve gotta go,” my parents said, but I knew it wasn’t because they wanted me to, but because it’s what everybody did. We millennials heard it everyday. You can be anything you want! Anything! The president? Yes! An astronaut? Yes! A home-maker? Um, no. You see, I had just recently acquired freedom from public school. And I wanted freedom, but I wanted freedom, mostly, from what everybody did. I wanted freedom from the American dream of moving up, from specialization, from endless accreditation, from well-paying prisons, from disassociation, from homelessness, from street-lights, conditioned air and city water. I knew what I didn’t want. But what did I want? I wasn’t sure.
Until I met the Branch Family of Port William.
“Every one of them seemed to have a perfect faith in the education they got outside of school, which they didn’t even call “education”. Out of school, they learned what they evidently thought they needed most to know: to keep house, to raise a garden or a crop, to care for livestock, to break a mule or shoe one, to fix a motor and almost anything else, to hunt, fish, trap, preserve a hide, hive a swarm, cook or preserve anything edible, and to take pleasure in such things. To learn things they didn’t know, they asked somebody or they read books. They were a lot like their friends the Amish. Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are already are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering. And they are all still here, still farming. They are here, and if the world lasts they are going to be here for quite a while… They survive and go on because they like where they are and what they are doing, they aren’t trying to get up in the world, and they produce more than they consume… It doesn’t seem to bother them that while they are making crops and meat and timber, other people are making only money that they sometimes don’t even work for.”
“If I had ‘venture capital’ to invest”, said Hannah Coulter, “ I would invest it in the Branches.”
In the context of the Port William stories, this rootedness was more than just a earthy ideal that I am naturally geared for (though that’s the truth), it was clearly the way rural America maintained their land, preserved their families, and perhaps most importantly, retained their sanity. The abandonment of the agricultural small town destroyed Western culture and ushered in the tyranny of our modern state, not to mention the tyranny of the modern mind. This I came to believe at eighteen, with the crusading spirit that defines that tender age and you can only imagine the result. I had no venture capital, but I had my life ahead of me and many acres of good, responsive land. (“Ain’t nothing wrong with it,” Burley Coulter would’ve said.)
I’m glad my parents once said, ‘You’ve got to go’, and then when the time drew near, ‘You can go’, for, like Jayber Crow, “in my freedom I pointed to Port William, like a compass needle points north”, only my ‘Port William’ was the home I would try to make and bless, God helping me.
“Maybe I could stay,” I said, mind made up.
“Maybe you could,” they said, and we all grinned as if we had good sense.
So this bit of earth in the foothills of South Carolina, with it’s mottled sandy loam and red clay dirt, with the hardwood hill tops and mountainous gullies, with the old homesites and Indian trails, became mine and there are few things in this world I’m more passionate about.
I heard a history teacher say once that when the Pilgrims landed here there weren’t any jobs…. just lots of work. That first year brought dairy goats, bee colonies, a garden expansion and pecan orchard. The following years have been no less visionary, if not always viable. Right now, I look out the window across the pond to see the Longhorn cattle herd, circled and surveyed by (merciful heavens) a border collie.
I will turn twenty-six this year. I am a farmer, a gardener, a housekeeper, a caregiver, a barber (yes, like Jayber) and if I live as long as him, I guess I’ll have become a gravedigger, too. It hasn’t been easy. (“It was far from perfect,” as he said, “because I was far from perfect.”) But it’s the truth that anywhere I might have gone, I’d have taken myself. There is no geographical cure this side of the resurrection of the dead.
This is my story, in part and thus far. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive. If I were to prescribe anything, it would be simply this: Just as sure as there is freedom to go, there ought to be freedom, also, to stay.
And if for some reason you don’t want to stay… don’t read Wendell Berry.