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.
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.
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.
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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