Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: A Place in Time

by Wendell Berry

Kansas Dad recommended this book to me after I read and loved Hannah Coulter. This is a book of short stories, told from different points of view but all centered on the Port William community. In it, Mr. Berry argues economic changes in our country eliminated small farms brought about by the economic changes in our country and therefore destroyed a better way of life. More than anything, though, this book had me considered how we can be thoughtful and deliberate in the way we raise our children within our community, fostering their relationships with people of all ages.

In "Stand by Me," he talks of how young boys were encouraged (forced) to participate in the economic work of the farm, contributing to the family as they were able, learning, and growing.
To spare Grandma, and when they were out of school, we kept the boys at work with us. That way they learned to work. They played at it, and while they were playing at it, they were doing it. And they were helping too. We generally had a use for them, and so from that time on they knew we needed them, and they were proud to be helping us to make a living.
Over and over, I was reminded of Boys Adrift, which I read recently. The young men in these stories were learning how to be men through their relationships with the men of the community, by observing how they lived and working with them. In "A New Day," Mr. Berry describes a weekly basketball game in which young men (high school students) and older men played together.
It seemed that everybody who wanted to play was playing, a full dozen by Elton's count. But it took him a while to determine who was on which side, since there was only the one goal and the players were in work clothes. The only readily visible difference among the players was that on both teams the boys were wearing the rubber-soled shoes that they called "tennis shoes," though none of them had ever so much as seen a game of tennis, but the men were all wearing their work shoes. A considerable part of the interest of the game was the men's efforts to start and stop and stay upright in those shoes on boards that had been polished by the hay shoved across them for fifty years. Also the boys, who had been playing basketball at school all winder, were in practice, young and agile and comparatively fast, whereas the men were out of practice or had never played before, and were comparatively slow and awkward in addition to being poorly shod.
In the course of the game, there is an accident, one that might have been tragic but was instead merely hilarious.
It was one of the best moments of the sporting life of the Port William neighborhood. Fifty years later you could still find people who hadn't been there who could tell you all about it.
After the game, Mr. Berry writes:
The boys started idly shooting goals. The men stood around retelling the story of Pascal's fall and laughing. If any of them knew which side had won the game or what the score was, the subject was never raised. Maybe the boys knew.
The game was a time of action and comraderie, and the boys were as invested in it as the older men. They were comfortably together in a way that's impossible at a contemporary high school basketball or football game.

I love this quote from "At Home."
When he got home from the war, still recovering from his wound, he knew his life was a gift, not so probable as he had once thought, and yet unquestionable as that of any tree, not to be hoarded or clutched at, not to be undervalued or too much prized, for there were many days now lost back in time when he could have died as easily and unremarkably as a fly. It was a life now simply to be lived, accepting hardships and pleasures, joys and griefs equally as they came.
Mr. Berry writes often of the work he finds most praise-worthy, that is, the improvement of a piece of land: the planting and tending of a garden and fields, the proper care of chickens and hogs, the mending of fences, the painting of buildings, the making of something good and beautiful where before there was neglect and desolation. From "A Place in Time":
This accomplishment of the Penns stood among the other good things of the early life of Andy Catlett like an illuminated page. He had seen firsthand what they had done and how they had done it. They had taken what had been given them and what had been available in the time and place, and they had brought it to abundance and the luster of a new thing.
As a young boy and man, Andy Catlett watched his neighbors and learned how to leave the world better than it was. Later in the same story, Mr. Berry is explicit in his criticisms.
The Penns' story, then, was a story of the gathering up of a small, brief coherence within a larger, longer story of disconnection and incoherence. Even as Elton and Mary were making themselves whole, in their marriage and in their place, Port William and its neighborhood were coming increasingly into the story of cheap fuel, speed, and the fire-driven machinery of disintegration. By the time of Elton's death in 1974, the balance had tilted against such a life as he had aspired to and lived. The economy of industry had prevailed. The land and the people who did the land's work were to be used, and used up, by the measures of mechanical efficiency and corporate profit. Green was replacing thrift as an economic virtue. All was to be taken, nothing given back.
The last two paragraphs of the last story:
It seemed to him almost a proof of immortality that nothing mortal could contain all its sorrow. He thought, as we have all been taught to think, of our half-lit world, a speck hardly visible, hardly noticeable, among scattered lights in the black well in which it spins. If all its sorrow could somehow be voiced, somehow heard, what an immensity would be the outcry!
In the silent, shadowy room in the great night he was thinking of heavenly pity, heavenly forgiveness, and his thought was a confession of need. It was a prayer.
In some ways, I mourn the small farm Mr. Berry mourns, but I also fear I would have made a poor farmer's wife. I don't care for gardens or chickens. I would much rather sit snuggled in a chair and read one of his books! I also know there are many farmers now who work to feed their families and provide nutrition for a great many people, that changes in agriculture do allow greater yields. Given our country today, what can we do to nurture the relationships to our community and the land that would allow us to live fuller lives, lives of contentment and purpose?

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