Do you know Wendell Berry? I don’t mean have you ever had him over for supper, I mean, when I say his name, do you perk up and expect to hear something good and important? If not, go here before you read on. I mean, he’s kind of a big deal.
I grew up in Kentucky. I’m from Laurel County, home of the original Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Yes, really… that thing up around Louisville is a tourist trap). London, my hometown, is also home of the World Chicken Festival. Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal, too. Home of Weaver’s Hot Dogs (opening again this weekend! Miracle of miracles…) Home of a Wal-Mart that closed so a bigger Wal-Mart could be built next door (true story) and home of a big Wal-Mart distribution center. Which sounds icky if you’re from elsewhere, but meant lots of jobs at the time, so…
Laurel County is in southeastern Kentucky. Almost the holler, but a little too close to the interstate to totally qualify. We’ll call it neighboring the holler. We speak the language, anyway. London is home of many churches, some in old brick buildings on main street, some way out in the country, and many in between that live in storefronts, houses, or new buildings. London is home of the late great Sue Bennett College, which closed several years ago but is now home to a YMCA, a literacy program, and some other life-affirming things.
Suffice it to say, I grew up in Kentucky, but I did not exactly spend my evenings on a front porch learning to pick a banjo. Though my parents and grandparents farmed tobacco, I never lived on the farm. Many of my classmates missed school on the first day of deer hunting season, but that was not exactly the bonding activity of choice for my family.
And, somehow—call it teen-age oblivion and inward focus—somehow, I made it all the way to college before I ever heard of Wendell Berry. But in my freshman year, when I first read one of his essays—I could not even tell you which one it was now—it sounded like home. It was not the content but the language that spoke such truth to me. Something in his written voice sounded as old as the ground. Older than me, older than him, older even than Transylvania University (which is pretty dang old!). It sounded a little more right than WalMart or television or even Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was only an hour from home, but I think it was the first real encounter with the Kentucky in my veins.
Because, you know, living in Kentucky and being from Kentucky are two different things. I lived in Kentucky all my life, but for many, many years, I had no knowledge or appreciation of bluegrass music, or horses, or bourbon, or agriculture, or Appalachian folklore, or even the prophetic power of Wendell Berry. Only as an adult have I begun to feel the pull of these things on my soul. Even if my particular childhood was a little bit devoid of these things, I soaked them in like a thirsty tree, and one day, Mr. Berry gave me the words to claim them. Now that I live in the desert a thousand or so miles away, it is a language that I call up daily to reference who I am, to preach the gospel, and to raise children far from home.
In retrospect, there was a great deal of the real Kentucky in my early years. I met James Still (live and in person!) when I was in the 7th grade. Somewhere, there is a picture of me and my bff Nicole presenting him with a gift from our English class. I sat, every Sunday of my life, in a 100+ year old church that was part of the original Stone Campbell movement. Every fall, I breathed in the aging tobacco in my grandparents’ barn like the fragrance of grace itself. I sang “My Old Kentucky Home” in the school choir, next to Pentecostal girls who’d never had a music lesson but could SI-I-ING like you would not believe.
And then I went to the oldest college in Appalachia, where I picked up a Wendell Berry essay and learned what all those things meant.
Because even though I grew up in Kentucky, I did not know I was from Kentucky until Mr. Berry gave me the great gift of place. He is a poet, a prophet, a leader, a teacher; a farmer, activist, environmentalist; writer, humanitarian and award-winning voice in the great big world. But above all, he is a Kentuckian, and he has shown a great many of us–wherever we may roam– what it means to be “from” someplace good.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Berry. I hope I am still moving mountains—or rather, keeping them in place—when I am 77. And even then, I will be from Kentucky.
“”Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
— Wendell Berry”