We were walking through the pastures of his farm, and he gave a distinctive whistle; a quarter mile away I could see their heads move, then slowly the big horses began to trot their way towards their friend, Wendell Berry.
We were talking about life and labor, about the world and our place in it. It was after our supper in his kitchen, enjoying a uniquely farm-to-table meal that his wife had made, and he invited us to see something of his place along the banks of the Kentucky River.
His horses were beautiful and strong, working horses that he uses to plow his fields. They knew him, and he knew them. As we talked about many things, meandering along the road between the pasture and the woods, I saw some old baling twine long left in the tall grass, and I picked it up, knowing that it had given itself to good use and was now on its way into the earth– and maybe it was that I had spent a long summer baling hay myself, and I knew what the twine meant, the good work, the hard work, the sweat and the satisfaction.
Watching Berry that day, I thought about his life: a farmer, a friend, a husband, a father, a neighbor, a citizen, and a writer too. Taken together, with more, they are him.
Vocation is a big word, a complex word, but a word that matters to us, as it gives us language to make sense of life. We long for coherence, for threads and patterns that account for the different days that take us into different places doing different things. To put it another way, we yearn to be called into coherence, into an integrity that holds us together, where the most important things are in reality the most important things. All day long we fall short of that, with heartache, and that is why we “eat, drink and be merry,” hoping that drowning ourselves will somehow kill the pain of the disintegration of our souls.
Twice a year, in my Monday morning class for the Fellows who come to Washington for a year of post-graduate learning and living, I spend a day on Berry’s vision of vocation as artfully offered in his collection of short stories, “That Distant Land.” I ask them to read five stories that I choose, and invite them to read more. Then we talk for the morning, usually over the page-essay I have asked them to write, going around the room, reading aloud, asking questions of each other.
This week the question was this: Walker Percy argued that “bad books lie, they lie most of all about the human condition”— what do you see in Berry’s stories about the truth of the human condition, about who we are and why we are? From Wheeler Catlett to Uncle Peach, from Elton and Mary Penn to Burley Coulter, we think through the wonder of our humanity, so able to be glories and shames at the very same time. In the fall semester, I try my hardest to give them this book the week of Thanksgiving, so that they can linger, reading more fully about the Port William membership that is the context of Berry’s literary universe, populated by people we know, because they are like us. We see the truth of our lives in their lives.
And I brought my baling twine into class too, wanting them to know that the stories are born of an honest life, of someone who walks the pastures and woods, seeing and hearing the world that gave birth to the people and place we entered into that morning… longing in our own ways to know more fully the truth of the human condition, which is of course the truth of our own hearts.