Back in October, My Sweetie and I watched a documentary, Look & See. It’s focused around the writer Wendell Berry, who thoughtfully chose to live as a writer and as a farmer and as a family person in rural Kentucky. It’s also about some of the early days of what is currently the sustainable (and/or organic) farming movement. I put the trailer at the bottom, so you can get a flavor. If you have Netflix-streaming, it’s available there—and I encourage you to watch it.
It’s been a little while, so I don’t remember the leap. What I have is the scribbled note:
“What would it be like to have died in the middle of the Civil War?”
If I’m guessing, I’d say there’s a quality of Berry’s articulate yearning that reminded me of the steady struggle of wartime. And the physical setting—or perhaps the human setting, within a wider community—that echoed the resonances I learned about the Civil War.
Or perhaps there were moments in interviews of “not yet” about things that I’ve already seen come to pass as a farm-to-table consumer, who as a consequence now has farmers and chefs in my wider circles.
What would it be like to stop being present in the midst of cultural cataclysm, not knowing how those tall swells and crashing waves end up subsiding into ripples? To only know the heaved landscape and not how it smooths into the hillsides of Vicksburg?
Today in systematic theology (part two!), my prof unfurled a map of our landscape, pointing out the structures of secular thought that make the current towers and holes we’ll be navigating around in our theological studies. Deconstructionism, critical theory, post-colonialism… those edifices built during my undergraduate years that are now as solid in their slipperiness as the New Criticism was before it.
Yet during this description of the modern Western metaphysic my prof slipped in, “And we are living in a time of profound fecundity…”
In the War Between the States, as a whole we slid among understandings of personhood, of the limits of sovereignty, of the duty appropriate to offer to one’s place or one’s nation, of wise ways of making money or a living. I wonder whether changing reference to the War Among the States might still better convey the profound upset I hear when I read contemporary accounts of the time. Wars seem to thrive on binaries: us, who are correct, and them, who are wrong and should be shot. But that war force-fit a binary onto a landscape that kept thrusting it off. As a girl, I learned the crisp official versions and read the more slippery versions: siblings who defined honor in incompatible ways; soldiers who left home because they were told their home was in danger, only to land in trenches a thousand miles from their unthreatened home; persons of education and privilege who paid extra so that an immigrant would be sent to the front in their stead; persons of education and privilege that believed the greatest arc of justice was best served by personally laying down in a trench to fight… and die of sepsis.
Where was truth? Where did justice stand? What behavior was right, and proper?
How would the world ever reshape itself, afterwards?
In the middle, one is only in the middle. It is unfair to push someone in the middle to foresee the end.
Swimming through the water, one doesn’t recognize wetness. Only the air makes the water feel wet.
I agree with my prof—that is, I’m glad that from his wider perspective that he can see those things that I keep sensing. I may not live to see a renewed flowering of Christian (and/or other religious) faith. I may not live to see our commercial relationship with grown food become rebalanced—or, for that matter, our relationship with labor rebalanced in similar ways.
I’m in the middle of the river.
Still, the currents keep tugging around my ankles.