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Slayton: Wendell Berry Birthday

Earlier this month about 40 Vermonters got together in a candlelit barn in Fayston to celebrate the 80th birthday of a Kentuckian who did not attend, the writer and farmer Wendell Berry.

Berry’s poems, essays and novels are part of the intellectual foundation of the American environmental movement. He has written that we humans must learn to live in closer harmony with nature, and that small-scale farming and locally grown food are a key part of any coherent environmental ethic.

Although Berry lives a thousand miles south of the hillside where the birthday dinner took place, these are obviously ideas that resonate deeply with many Vermonters, who have a deep affinity with green thoughts and green actions. And Vermont, of course, is one of the wellsprings of the national environmental movement. Many of those who attended the birthday dinner said that their work and their lives had been inspired or strengthened by the writings of Wendell Berry.

There were other connections as well. The evening took place at the spectacularly scenic Knoll Farm, situated high on a hill overlooking the Mad River Valley. And it was organized by Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow, principals of The Center for Whole Communities, a sort of combination blueberry patch, sheep farm, and environmental think-tank that aims to promote the sort of environmental ideals common to both Vermont environmentalists and the writings of Wendell Berry.

The valley that evening was beautiful – and wet. A brisk summer rain shower had ended and strands of cottony mist rose silently from the valley below and the surrounding hills as folk musician Steven Schuch offered an eloquently wordless grace – his “Air for Summer” on solo violin, which rose above the valley as pure and effortless as the rising mist.

What followed was an evening of locally produced food and beer, music and song, accompanied by the poetry and prose of Wendell Berry. There were readings on the pleasures of farming, the misguided direction of mainstream economy, the love of one’s own place, the virtue of taking and keeping marriage vows, the healing peace found in the experience of wild nature, and a description of Grandma Catlett lovingly constructing a black raspberry pie.

Perhaps most affecting was the moment when a slender young woman spoke of her despair over the present state of the world and read Berry’s poem expressing similar despair and his response: “In the dark of the moon,” he wrote, “I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.” Berry’s protean mind and finely honed writing wove the evening together, making deep connections and sowing seeds of truth along the way.

Peter Forbes, committed to his hillside farm in Waitsfield, said that he had been strongly influenced by Berry’s unbending commitment to his home farm in Kentucky. Berry’s writing and presence had taught Forbes the value of making one spot on the planet whole and healthy. The evening’s celebration was evidence of how much can radiate from such a commitment to the land.