Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

A “chat” with Wendell Berry

The good-news view

By
October 4, 2011

It would be safe to say that I am obsessed with Wendell Berry. And I am not alone. Judging by the crowds that gather whenever he accepts a speaking engagement — which ain’t often — I know I am in good company.

Still, if I am not reading his novels, I am re-reading his essays. If I am not speaking of him, I am speaking to him, if only in my mind. And what we talk about these days is how “The Economy,” “The War,” and “The News” are needing a new narrative.

Presenting these institutions as proper nouns was not my idea. Rather, it was a literary device in Berry’s book Jayber Crow. As a resident of Berry’s fictional Port Williams, the character Jayber observes the encroaching values of these institutions and struggles with their presumed status of importance, rationality, and forward progress as unassailable and obvious.

Though Port Williams is a made-up town, the notion that The Economy, The War, and The News function as some meta-national enterprise is true enough. These institutions form the engines of our society, with one or the other not only professing support for our national interest, but reporting on what those interests should be. These are the structures and narratives we are born into, the seas and vistas upon which we set our North.

I think about this triumvirate — The Economy, The War, and The News — and understand what Berry and Jayber are saying. Throughout history, our small lives and honest concerns have been sacrificed for the enterprise. We have given up land and home, punched time clocks, and turned over our sons and daughters in patriotic duty. Many have done so willingly and bear the cost with honor. Others have fallen through the cracks. We read of them daily: the workers, the veterans, the homeless cast out of homes. Today, and for some time now, the enterprise has been greedy and indefensible.

A friend of Zenger Farm helps with the harvest.

I think of these things in my garden, kitchen, and home. I am knee-deep in the harvest-and-preserving frenzy — tomatoes, pears, peppers, and grapes. In the garden, I am digging potatoes, curing winter squash, amending soils, sowing cover crops, and planting garlic. The fury will not let up till the first frost, when canning pots and shovels are put to rest for the winter. This is the life I have signed up for, the life I love.

For a time, it felt crazy to live this way, crazy to believe in small economies, fellowship, and the type of news that is mostly shared by neighbors. It appeared foolish and wholly apart from the national enterprise. But today, these things are appearing ever more practical.

Across the country, there is a growing chorus of voices speaking up for the small things. We are beginning to notice our neighbors and offer fellowship and kindness. We are teaching each other how to grow and cook food. We are working to put food on the table at a price that might afford us and the good farmers a living. Such things are evident everywhere.

Slow Food USA just completed its $5 Challenge, but important work also happens at the local level. In Portland, my home town, Zenger Farm is working to teach healthy eating on a budget. Check out Growing Gardens and the Portland Fruit Tree Project, too. Church groups, granges, and communities all across the country are returning to the story as it once was.

A chicken confab at Zenger Farm in Portland.

Slowly, and increasingly, these efforts are being presented as wholly apart from The Economy, The War, and The News. Slowly, they are being replaced by different news — the good news, as they say. The news of the heart, spirit, and small things.

I am overjoyed by the turnaround, as it has occurred both in me and in the world around me. It speaks to the power of an enlightened citizenry willing to do for themselves what the nation’s leaders cannot muster. It is the real audacity of hope, the people’s audacity of hope. There will be no more waiting. People are doing it for themselves.

So let those who doubt it be advised, in Port Williams and across the land: The Economy, The War, and The News are being replaced by a new narrative, one of hope and hard work, with tenacity and cockeyed optimism. It is being replaced so our children may be born into a kinder narrative or, if grown, so they will have the courage to participate. It is being replaced because the good earth requires it and so those who have been put down in the old American narrative will be held up in the new.

But most importantly, it is being replaced because it would make Wendell Berry happy. I know, because he told me so the other day.

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1. by Marilyn Noble on Oct 5, 2011 at 6:00 PM PDT

Beautiful, Harriet! Thank you.

2. by lynda david on Oct 7, 2011 at 2:33 PM PDT

I love Harriet Fasenfest. I love her. She is my new hero. Even though I am lazy, ignorant and a bit mature to become a householder/homesteader/farmgirl. I will join the revolution and plant, pick,can and freeze. I will raise chickens and goats. I will detach myself as best I can from the disease that has consumed this culture and try to regain my sanity and health. I feel more confident that I can do it now. I have HF to guide me, teach me and inspire me. I think with her bright beacon shining in the dark, I can find my way to safe harbor.

3. by Fasenfest on Oct 12, 2011 at 5:15 AM PDT

Holy Smokes, Lynda. I just returned from Vt. (with stories to tell) to find this post from you. Thank you. I am overwhelmed and grateful. But just so you know, I am such a newbie on the path that it is embarrassing at times to write at all. Still, I have been moved by the spirit and it seems so have you. At the end of the day I realize this is a spiritual movement - chop wood carry water before enlightenment, chop wood carry water after enlightenment. In other words....lots of work along the way. But it is good work and all the more fulfilling to know that others are working towards their own types of heaven. Be honest with that “lazy,ignorant and a bit mature” part. I always encourage folks to go slow because our personalities and social/economic commitments are very real and can get the best of our visions if we do not take them seriously. Having said that ---YIPEE and welcome aboard.

4. by lynda david on Oct 22, 2011 at 1:22 PM PDT

Holy Smokes to you! I didn’t realize you had replied to my post! I’m so honored. I live in Northern California, born and raised in San Diego, spent some wonderful time on Long Island recently but lived in Vermont many years ago. Vermont is where it’s at, in my opinion. I am glad you are a newbie on this life path. Gives me heart. I am reading your book, giving some as gifts and recommending to anyone who might truly get it and heed the call. Thank you so much for writing to me, it is a really a big thrill. Can’t wait for the next blog and book...In the Farmgirl Spirit, Lynda

5. by Bill on Dec 7, 2011 at 4:06 AM PST

Beautiful post. Mr. Berry has so much to teach us, and after decades of being seemingly a lonely voice in wilderness, it is very exciting to see so many now recognizing the truth of what he’s been saying.
blessings and peace...

6. by Fasenfest on Dec 7, 2011 at 9:04 AM PST

Hey Bill. You are right. Wendell was once a lonely voice. Now when he speaks he is speaking to the choir. He is a great spirit holder. It would be a dream come true to share a meal with him one day. To talk, to ask, to laugh. But reading his work and thinking about the soulfulness of his message is good enough for me. Oh, I did meet him once in Seattle and gave him my book which was in large part inspired by him. It was a happy day.

7. by anonymous on Jan 18, 2012 at 7:17 PM PST

Today, my life has changed.
I’ve had the luxury of working from home for 18 months, which really has changed me in ways I never knew possible. Today, I made a trip over to my local library in Decatur, Georgia, which has the most amazing floor to ceiling windows and overlooks the “woods” (quotation marks because coming from Portland, that has an entire different meaning than Atlanta). Anyhow.... I sauntered by the “New Books” section, hoping to find some new gardening reads - I’ve got spring fever really bad right now. There was this book... Householder’s Guide to the Universe. Hmmmm that sounds interesting. I stacked it on top of my other books and headed to the table next to the window.
HOLY COW! Who is this woman? By the time I read the first page of the introduction I was nearly in tears. I feel like I found my soul sister. Where have you been all my life and why didn’t I ever meet you when I lived in Portland!? Oh, oh.... I can’t take it all in fast enough.
Then... the best part, the part I actually voiced an “Oh MY GOD” out loud in the library.... when you quoted Wendell. Now what’s so crazy about this is that for Christmas my mother in law gave me one of his books and said that it was written for me - well sorta. I finally after 41 years, have found my peeps. Amen.

This August I finally get to buy a house, and I can’t wait. Unfortunately, I’m renting now so my garden is limited to containers. I had to leave my ten year old “city farm” back in the ‘Couve... ugh. Breaks my heart to think about all the work I put into it and I had to leave it behind.

I could go on and on... thank you so much Harriet! Please come to Decatur, things are slowly changing here but so much education is needed. We’re trying.
Best wishes and I’ll be watching out for you from now on!

A true fan and gardening sister,
Michelle

8. by Fasenfest on Jan 19, 2012 at 8:29 AM PST

Dear Michelle,

Now how can a person get a message like that and not respond? Honestly sweet Michelle, I cried. How mysterious the world is. Thank you!!

Georgia??? I lived in Americus Georgia for five years and was Millard Fuller’s assistant when I worked at Habitat for Humanity. I know the South and those tall trees you mentioned. I liked my time there in many ways but left in 1997 after my then husband passed away. Didn’t think the South was were I wanted to finally end up but I still have good friends there. I have since visited and somewhere in these culinate posts is one on that trip. If you ever get to Americus you must eat at Grannies - holy hell if that fried chicken and all the sides are not good. Also check out Koinonia - its a small Christian community (on of the longest running communes I believe) but they have an incredible gardener there - or did. Actually, it ain’t much to look at but I would go from time to time. Millard Fuller is buried there close to Clarence Jordan who founded that community. It was, in fact, the motivation for Millard starting Habitat. Today Millard’s vision continues at the Fuller Center (as distinguished from Habitat proper) and if you ever go say hello to Sharon Tarver for me -- we were best buds and she will tell you what sort of a “mess” I was. Love that word.

And who can resist Plains? Odd for sure but Jimmy still preaches Sunday School. Of course being a N.Y. Jew myself it WAS odd to listen to him speak of the “stiff necks” but that’s another story. I once gave Rosylynn Carter my sweet tomato chutney and she liked it. My, my, this is taking me back.

Frankly, I am always flattered when folks like the book and, I admit, that introduction is a bit of inspirational writing but I warn you, I go off on the crazy tip at times cause, well, I’m a bit eccentric or just well traveled. I write of the broken and odd experiences of my life because I think we all have them, or many people have them. I write of them as parables of society’s brokeness. Thrown off our land (we have all immigrated from somewhere), caste out to define ourselves in the “new” world, sensitive but unaware of the cultural contexts around us, wanting to belong but feeling all alone, separated from tribe and clan or just family as we hunt for definition and careers in the marketplace (or just a way to pay the bills), encouraged to exist in a first world narrative but aware of all the others that live outside the good graces of privilege, and always, always trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless. Winners? Losers? And now a planet heating up? Well, a sistah can get twitched here and there.

But the good news is, householding and living close to the bone has revealed a million wonderful things to me and revived my heart. Not that the world is not facing a perilous journey now but I have found my way toward solutions - if only in my backyard. First here and then beyond. Which is not to say I am not still odd but I am happy. And why not? I get notes like this and feel like all the searching and thinking and writing has made another person somewhere feel a little less alone. Good grief if that is not a gift.

So thanks and best of luck in Decatur. As folks used to say, Georgia is actually three states - North GA, South GA and Atlanta. After living there a piece you get what they mean. And what my brother used to say about GA’s culinary sensibilities.....If they don’t fry it, they’ll put sugar on it. Of course he never ate at Grannies so ignore him.

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