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What Happens When a City Girl Reads Wendell Berry

I am a bona fide city girl. I don’t like being outside. I don’t like animals. And I don’t want to know where my food comes from. As far as I am concerned the boneless skinless chicken breast is the ultimate expression of the triumph of modernity. At least that all used to be true of me.

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana

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I am only one generation away from a line of farmers that stretch back to ancient times. That changed when my father moved to the city, became a professional and passed all of his disdain of rural life and its presumed intellectual backwardness to me. I was an excellent disciple.

And yet, here I am, all these years later, daydreaming about living on a farm and plotting out my latest agrarian endeavor—raising live chickens. What happened? Wendell Berry happened.

Over several years, I was exposed to people and ideas and events that slowly changed me. And the name Wendell Berry kept popping up. Finally, after much cajoling, I overcame my severe case of reverse chronological snobbery and agreed to read a living author. I reluctantly opened the pages of the novel Jayber Crow and I was forever changed.

It’s been many years since I entered that world, but I still remember how I felt. I was overcome with a deep sense of longing and a sorrow for things I did not know that I had lost. I saw my grandparents in a new light and I felt ashamed that I had despised their rural ways.

I mourned the loss of their connectedness to the land, the natural rhythm of their lives. I even mourned the death of all the small towns that disappeared when the interstate was completed when I was 12 years old.

I wasn’t intellectually persuaded by Mr.Berry. Rather my heart was reordered. He helped me to love that which I had previously found unloveable. And I knew, on some deep level, that all of the trappings of modernity, that which I had held to be superior, were really the cause of all my feelings of isolation and alienation and fragmentation. At last I had discovered what my soul was missing. And I was faced with the great irony that my whole life I had been celebrating the death of the very things that were, in fact, life.

I read more of Berry’s fiction after Jayber Crow and then I started exploring his non-fiction essays as well. I had never had an emotional experience reading an essay before. Then I read “The Native Hill.”

As I read this essay, I could feel my heart expanding and all the disparate fragments of my soul being pulled together, unified by a center that I didn’t even know existed, much less that I was missing it. He had moved me from the house of mourning to the house of healing.

This July the CiRCE Institute will be honoring Wendell Berry at its annual conference. Do yourself a favor. Read some Berry to find out why. And don’t blame me if you find yourself wanting to buy live chickens. You’ve been warned.

(editor’s note: coming soon – a “where to start with Wendell Berry” blog post)

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