a meaningful life

12 September 2007

My aim for this journal is to capture ideas and make connections between them. Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is an apt starting place because it thoughtfully addresses many things I care about and coherently relates them. I begin with the hope that I can do the same.

Near the end of The Unsettling of America, Berry writes that “it is the overwhelming tendency of our time to assume that a big problem calls for a big solution. I do not believe in the efficacy of big solutions.” He follows this statement with a list of a dozen proposals for solving the big problem of industrial agriculture that he has described throughout the book as being both evidence and cause of disease in ourselves, our communities, and the world. Each of his proposals is ambitious, though arguably “small”. Taken together, they manifest his confidence in a much larger vision of a fundamental shift in our culture such that it would rest on the existence and health of a nation of small family farms.

Berry stands with Jefferson in his belief that “as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state”. I have a fantasy of living on a couple of acres with chickens, goats, bees, and vegetables, so there is much of his vision that’s appealing to me. Still, it wouldn’t work for my family to leave this city and move to the countryside. I have ties to the place I live, as I think most people do. Even if we could un-tether ourselves from our urban lives, where would we go that would allow us the connection to our families’ history, tradition, and heritage that Berry suggests is attendant with a connection to the land? Within my family, that cultural inheritance was disrupted at least a generation ago. With our link to the knowledge of country life broken, and new connections to city life forged, a mass migration from city to countryside significant enough to create the rural-based society Berry advocates seems unlikely.

If we can’t return ourselves and our nation to our agrarian roots, what can we do to heal the cultural wounds he describes – wounds that are as much ecological, communal, and personal as they are agricultural? As I read The Unsettling of America, my own answer came in the form of a question: “What are you doing now?”

The question originated in my reading of Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm. Salatin writes that he is often asked for advice on how to get started farming, and he always responds, “What are you doing now?” He suggests that regardless of your location or other limitations, there are many ways to make farming part of your life.

Though, like the question, this “answer” relates to farming, for me its scope is much broader. “What are you doing now?” is a prompt to identify what I can do in this moment, in this place – to sustain myself, my family, my community, and my world.

This is a profound shift in focus for me, because for my entire adult life I have been looking forward to a future in which I will be doing useful and meaningful work. Only upon becoming a mother did I feel the value of the work I was already doing. As I ponder my growing desire for work in addition to mothering a toddler, I am still looking to the future and what I might become with more education or more time or more something, but I am also able to envision what I can do with what I already have.

So here are a few of the things that I can do, and am doing now. I write, and I feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in that. I create an “attachment village” – a concept from Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s Hold on to Your Kids (more on that later). I get to know my neighbors. I feed my family from local produce, and I know the people who raise it.

These actions help me love where I live and bring more of what I want here, in the words of a friend. They are expressions of and contributions to a meaningful life.

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