Miniature Mandibles

I’m reading outside with my bare feet on the firepit stones when I feel something like my cat’s tongue on my toe. I’m reading intently, in the few remaining minutes before my daughter returns from soccer practice and my attention will abruptly shift into chat about school and peers and the righteous outrage I suddenly see emerging in this teen. How had I forgotten that one of the most interesting aspects of adolescence is an emerging moral sense of the world? What’s wrong? Who’s right? (And, please, as a parent, could I just remain low and out of the light?)

I’m reading, of all things, Wendell Berry, when I realize a grasshopper is nibbling my toe. It’s the very end of August, the sunflowers are opening, the basil is prolific, the beans have spread into a sculpture in the middle of my garden. I close the book and let the grasshopper gnaw.

We are dealing, then, with an absurdity that is not a quirk or an accident, but is fundamental to our character as people. The split between what we think and what we do is profound.

— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture

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Mid-July… Slow Down The Days

The summer’s so brief and nearly unbearably beautiful in Vermont that I believe we stock up these days for the monotone of winter ahead. Maybe it’s different for families who travel a lot, who possess the luxury of multiple vacations, but the few days my girls and I camp each summer, sleeping beside lakes and under cool trees, return to us often in winter conversations…. Remember when the raccoons ate our food? When the canoe nearly tipped? When we watched the full moon rise from the breakwater?

Practice resurrection.

— Wendel Berry

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Hardwick Sign of Spring #1

My daughter sunk above her knees into the snow over my garden. Somewhere, deep down, lies my garlic. Are you stirring, little white cloves? In your tender hearts, are green shoots stretching?

Bit by bit, the world changes. Starting with the soil, I’m searching for ten solid beacons of spring. How much better does the world get for children than mud?

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

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Hardwick Postcard #7: Middle School

At the middle school concert’s intermission, my merry-eyed daughter sat behind me with a girl I didn’t know, so I turned around and introduced myself. Being 12, the girls laughed at this weirdly formal introduction, and then the couple beside me began laughing, too. I had been sitting beside the girl’s parents.

It’s a little world we live in.

I chatted with the new friend’s parents. Quickly, the girl’s mother and I realized we had both served on an elementary school board. The lights dimmed just as we started a conversation that could have launched into a very long conversation about school consolidation.

For all its myriad faults, public education — at least in Vermont — is still all about the local community. Chances are, at a middle school concert, you’ll sit beside people you like, and, equally possibly, besides people you don’t.

But you’re all still there.

My father sent me this Wendell Berry essay. Read it.

In 1936, moreover, only a handful of people were thinking about sustainability. Now, reasonably, many of us are thinking about it. The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state. It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay—what Albert Howard called “the Wheel of Life”—should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted. For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.

Wendell Berry

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Main Street, Hardwick, Vermont

Hardwick Postcard #6: Young Men

Without much discussion in the hardware store’s parking lot, the girls picked out a tree from the high school’s forestry program, then looked at my small car, the tree, and the car again.

The young man who had sold us the tree said, If you’re not going far, I’ll take your tree home for you. He had been selling trees all day in the cold, and his cheeks were red. Like most of the young men who work in the woods and know how to use tools and their hands, he was polite. He was a young man who would insist on taking off his boots rather than track mud on your kitchen floor.

He put the tree in the back of his truck, followed us home, and carried it to our back porch. I gave him a handful of chocolate chip cookies the girls had made that morning.

Barter economy? Perhaps an illustration. Or maybe just young man decency.

The two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment.

– Wendell Berry

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Hardwick Postcard #2: Community Notices

Outside Hardwick’s food co-op are two boards thumb-tacked with wind-tattered signs, the cultural postings of this small town – free community postings of library and school events, classes offered, a deadbeat father’s rambling missive to his family. I stand in the cold reading the jumble of those scrawled words, thinking how much more his children would have appreciated a loaf of bread.

It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

– Wendell Berry

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