The Kentucky River winds past Port Royal in Henry County and Wendell’s farm before it empties into the Ohio River below Cincinnati where I grew up. It was downstream in my life when I was first introduced to Wendell’s work and without our ever meeting in person his work has been a part of my life and work ever since.
All of us have origins or we can call them headwaters. We come from someplace. We have a place of beginning. It may be a spot on a map or something that from the start has defined the way we look at life. I think Wendell’s headwater is love. Not the romantic or always changing love we associate with falling or being in love. It is the enduring love people share over a lifetime with all of their glory and foibles. It is the love of a particular place. It is the love of a patch of land and the love that is grateful and accepts responsibility for the gifts of nature. It is the love of clarity. It is not flighty or fickle but what Wendell has called competent love. The love that comes from knowing a piece of land, a person or a craft. “It is love that leads us toward particular knowledge, and it helps us to learn what we need to know. It leads us toward vocation, the work we truly want to do, are born to do, and therefore must learn to do well. I am talking about the hardworking familial and neighborly love that commits itself and hangs on like hair in a biscuit. This is love that can be enacted, whether or not it is felt.”
From love flows the sense of belonging. In “Jayber Crow” Wendell writes, “And so I came to belong to this place. Being here satisfies me. I had laid my claim on the place, had made it answerable to my life. Of course, you can’t do that and get away free. You can’t choose, it seems, withou being chosen. For the place, in return, had laid its claim on me and had made my life answerable to it.” One of Wendell’s favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, writes about the vow a minister takes when he is ordained. “We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it.”
Then there is the moral responsibility, even a calling, of perseverance that does not need success to keep going. Michael Pollan said, “Wendell stakes out a clear, rigid position and does not move from it. You see the world move toward it, very slowly. It can look anachronistic. It can look unreasonable. But I’ve witnessed the power of that kind of stubbornness.” It’s not the same as abstract hope. It’s not creating a movement. It’s not orneriness. It is a natural contrariness that leads to clearness and truth.
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice..
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.
Finally, for me, there is the tributary of genuine contentment in the firm belief that life is not to be squandered finding ourselves or chasing the wind of significance but, instead, we can rest in the better work of “giving thanks for precious things.” We can settle and learn to truly live committed to a particular place, neighbors, work and family.
“The important thing to do is to learn all you can about where you are and if you’re going to work there it becomes even more important to learn everything you can about that place to make common cause with that place and then resigning yourself, becoming patient enough to work with it over a long time. And then what you do is increase the possibility that you will make a good example and what we’re looking for in this is good examples.”
Art by Greg Newbold