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Wednesday
Mar302011

The Measure of Meaning: a Pilgrimage to Port Royal, Kentucky

Wendell Berry may not quite be a household name. But I, for one, mention his name on a regular basis in my house, while traveling around the country, and when talking with neighborhood friends about produce, local happenings, or politics.  

Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, and preservationist from Kentucky. He splits his time between three quiet activities: 1) writing fiction, poetry, and essays, putting pen to paper (quite literally) in a tiny hut on the Kentucky river; 2) working his farm; and 3) engaging in non-violent civil disobedience supporting various humanitarian or agrarian causes. He has spoken out in his 76 years against wars, corporate corruption, nuclear power plants, the death penalty and abortion, coal mining practices, mountain top removal, and other issues of land and life. Although he doesn’t fit squarely into any one political category, just last month, President Obama awarded him the National Humanities medal. Berry is a truth-teller of the storytelling variety, an everyday man with the character of a great king, and he has profoundly stirred up my own spirit to be brave, careful, and rebellious in ways that seem rather contrary to the norm. He reminds me of the Lorax, somewhere in the middle of Dr. Suess’s children’s story, just before all the Truffula trees are gone, balancing there on a stump pleading for the Barbaloots and the Hummingfish.

Over the years, I have started several unfinished thank you letters to him in my head, or scribbled them on the pages of a journal or in the margins of his books. I’ve had a growing sense that I somehow needed to communicate to him how much his work has shaped and enlightened me. So last fall I took out some construction paper and a pen and finally made it happen. It went something like this:

Dear Mr. Berry,

I have begun this letter so many times over the years. Why is it that the most significant things we do are often the things left undone? I should have written it years ago, but here it is now . . . Your writing enables me to crave and long for the country while I live in the city. It urges me to slow down when the pace around me is whirring. And it hushes my spirit when my world is full of noise. I wanted you to know that I am one of many who has been profoundly affected by your mentoring. God speaks through your narratives. His beauty is in your poetry, your disruptive encouragement, and your written voice. May God cause your work and art to take deep root, springing up new beauties in my heart, in the hearts of my children, and in the hearts of many others.

I also told him that his writing made me wish I’d been born in a small town circa 1950, learning the ways of survival from the land and from dependence on neighbors. Though the particulars are not the same, even now while I decidedly raise my family in the city of East Nashville, Berry’s principles of interdependence and sustainability are my daily teachers. My husband and I, both singers and songwriters by trade, think of our careers and our family life as though they were a small farm. We don’t produce heirloom tomatoes, but we aim to produce melodies that go out into culture like agents of nourishment. We teach our children about the craft and economy of self-employment as we write, record, and tour. And we have much yet to learn.  

The exercise of writing my letter to Wendell Berry was, after my procrastination, a very gratifying experience. Just knowing that my official “thank you” was sealed, stamped, and on its way to Port William — I mean, Port Royal — gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction and joy. This would have been enough, but then a few months later, he wrote me a reply. I read his words of appreciation on a simple note, typed on simple stationery. I was thrilled.

Around that same time, just one mile north of my house, my friend Alice had also been writing letters to Berry. She had also had a steady diet of his poetry and writings for the past few years, and she, with another mutual friend Flo, was now plotting a visit on our behalf to celebrate the birth of our friend Katy’s first baby. She thoughtfully planned the meeting as the perfect occasion for the baby’s first road trip and our shared joy as four friends. Although we have been friends for years, we rarely get this kind of uninterrupted time together. Having confirmed our visit by letter, Alice, Katy, Flo, and I loaded up in one car together on a chilly March morning for a trip to Kentucky — books, hopes, a basket of homemade things, and one celebrated baby girl in tow.

L to R: Alice, Sandra, Flo, and Katy outside of the dinerOn the drive, we read excerpts of our favorite Wendell Berry books out loud to each other and chatted about what we most wanted to ask him. Of course, our journey wouldn’t have been complete without a healthy dose of girl-talk — inevitable on a road trip without husbands. Before long, we rolled into a sleepy Port Royal that Sunday afternoon. Although it was on the map, we couldn’t believe it was actually a real place. Port Royal is a patchwork strip of storefronts, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of spot made up of a local bank, a post office, a general store with a built-in diner (with little printed signs about their town’s famous author, Wendell Berry), and an old Baptist church. I am sad to report that, like most small towns in our country, Port Royal looks as though it is dying. 

We then passed through the town and down a short way toward the river. We found our way to Wendell and Tanya’s address by narrative instinct. Not knowing the house number, we found their home based on his writings, our observations, and reports from friends who had made this same pilgrimage. The solar panels out in the field, the sheep, the tiny writing hut on the river, and the sloped property like the one where his famous character, Jayber Crow, lived. Even the border collie who ran out to greet us reminded me of the one in his novel Hannah Coulter. As our wheels turned over the gravel driveway, we looked up at a modest, white farmhouse set right on the hill, and we knew it was Lanes Landing Farm. I expected Disney music to burst out with glorious, warbled violins over our heads.

Tanya Berry opened the door and, without any fanfare, welcomed us into the house. We, four girls and one baby, crowded into the entryway. Wendell and Tanya both wore their church clothes. Wendell stood slightly behind the door, wearing a three-piece tweed suit. It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the light. He was taller than I expected, and he shook my hand as I came in; I, in turn, introduced myself. The overhead lights and lamps were off. The room was lit only by natural light from the windows, which seemed just enough at first, and more than plenty once you got used to it. I was surprised at how nervous I suddenly felt, wondering what to say upon first meeting someone you feel like you know but have never actually met.

Their home was beautiful in an ordinary way, with well-used furniture and tasteful modern-folk artwork adorning the mantle and walls. At one point later in our conversation, we learned that they have the same electric stove and washer they purchased in 1965. There were wood-burning stoves in each main room, producing steady warmth. The main wall in the living room was covered entirely with neat rows of books. After our introductions, we circled up to find seats around the stove and stumbled rather clumsily into conversation. Wendell didn’t seem to enjoy being the attention of our admiration but was gracious as we began to establish some common ground of conversation.  

Wendell is witty and well-spoken. I have rarely experienced such rich, wide-ranging discourse within such a short time of meeting someone. He and Tanya seemed to dig in more as we shared our experience of living life together (literally within a mile or two of each other) in the city. Katy talked about her front yard garden and how the neighborhood kids thought she was magic because she could pull up carrots from dirt. We also discussed our hopes for our children’s futures and the challenges of public education where we live. Wendell and Tanya have both spent time educating their now-grown children and grandchildren, and Wendell said, “You can’t think up a future for your grandchildren. You can’t even think up a future for yourself. You’re gonna be surprised.” Somehow this comment both sobered and heartened me in the same breath.  

There were many more moments like this as we talked; I couldn’t begin to convey them in one sitting. But Wendell is very quotable — he just seemed to toss out pearls of wisdom left and right. The overriding theme we discussed was neighborliness. You might not always like your neighbor, but being able to depend on one another instead of a government or corporation gives you genuine independence. Tanya chimed in with vigor, “Trade instead of buy whenever you can.” As we talked, you could see that they were of one mind in having true, good, change-making conversations about depending on community rather than corporations. “Serve your place, and allow your place to serve you.”

We talked further about the dangers of religion, the business of war, and how words like “public education,” “environment,” and “free market” have been hollowed out. We talked about the death of small towns in America, the importance of local banks, and the value of decent pleasure and joy in the midst of some potentially depressing times.

During every minute of our conversation, the Berrys were committed to saying exactly what they meant, leaving nothing to chance or nebulous romanticism. Wendell is both an idealist and pragmatist in his writing, and he is very much this way in person. At one moment he would surprise us with a gentle reprimand of our casual use of the word "love," commenting “Love is not a feeling, it’s a recipe. None of it gets interesting until it gets down to practicality.” But the next moment he would persuade us with the warmth of a benevolent teacher, reminding us of the importance of tangibility. In this increasingly connected and virtual world, he reminded us, “If it’s baby versus internet, you’re never gonna smile that way over the internet.”

One of my favorite moments was when Wendell said that he is a member of two organizations: 1) The Slow Communication Movement and 2) The Preservation of Tangibility. He noted that anyone can join these and added with a grin, “Actually, I think I founded them.” 

At one point in our conversation, I had the opportunity to tell Wendell how much his phrase “the joy of sales resistance” has meant to me over the years. How this phrase has shaped my habits of buying and selling and made me more aware of what it feels like to be “bought and sold” by the pressures of consumerism. Berry said, “I try not to obey ... to buy what I don’t need.” Singer-songwriter Joe Pug says it this way in his song “Hymn #101”:

The more I buy, the more I’m bought. And the more I’m bought, the less I cost.

I realized at one point while thanking Berry for his insight that I was nearly quoting the lyrics to one of my own songs, quite by accident (how embarrassing). But then again, in my song, I was only paraphrasing him. It was a funny moment in my head of how art makes circles around us and within us, taking us to new places of discovery and then bringing us back where we started. 

L to R: Sandra, Wendell Berry, Alice, Flo, Katy and her baby girl. Photo: Tanya BerryI took copious notes while we sat on that well-loved sofa in their living room. As I am not well-versed in journalism, and it felt silly at the time, I will treasure that little field notebook for years to come. After our visit, the Berrys were heading to a family birthday celebration and Wendell had to go out to bring in the sheep for the evening. He pulled a “Fred Rogers," swapping his dress shoes for Wellingtons and pulling his coveralls over his dress clothes, charmingly teasing us about having waited to take a picture until he was dressed for chores.  

As we drove home that evening across the Kentucky and Tennessee countrysides, we discussed the implications of Wendell’s ideas on our daily lives. The connection between four friends living just a mile or two away from each other is actually the most significant thing he could give us in his life work. He had already given us the seed of “neighborliness” by way of his writings. Indeed, good things have taken root in our front and backyard city vegetable gardens, our children’s educations, our concern about the health of the Cumberland River, and our concern over the flourishing of Tennessee farms.

Somewhere on Highway 65, it occurred to me that ideas are only seeds until they find places to take root. It is in community that ideas become reality — fruit-bearing trees and shelter-giving plants. Our two hours with Wendell Berry himself would not have mattered were his words and writings not woven into each of us as we live life together. By reading his writings on our drive and sharing how his words have intersected with our own narratives, something full-circle happened.

This is my great hope and belief about art: it is culture-making. Do with it what you will. Poetry can change people. Story can change the world. Global good starts as tiny as a Truffula seed. And if the sun and the bees and the rain and the birds give us their graces, we could have ourselves a harvest of renewal by summer’s end.


Sandra McCracken is an independent singer-songwriter whose smart, soulful blend of folk, pop, and gospel is as progressive as it is timeless. A founding contributor to the Indelible Grace projects, McCracken's contemporary settings of classic hymns are sung in congregations across the country. Drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and U2, McCracken crafts songs that wed razor-sharp hooks with incisive, confessional lyrics to create a transcendent portrait of the human spirit. McCracken currently lives, writes, and records at her home in East Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Derek Webb, and their two children.

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Reader Comments (19)

This is so great! Makes me want to read more Wendell!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

Sandra,
I love being part of the secondhand community of your communion with your friends in Nashville and the works of Wendell Berry. You yourself, along with Derek, are an inspiration in the way you handle your careers and family as much as in the art you produce. Though you may not be well-versed in journalism, the articles you write are very valuable journal of sharing, learning, and exploration; you may never smile over the internet as you smile over your baby, but I smile when it opens a window to let in some of the natural light you share.

Thank you.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Blake

Sandra,

Thank you so much for shraring! The timing of my seeing this article is supurb. I am starting a group of guys to discuss Berry and one of his books next week, one of whom made a trek to Kentucky to see Mr. Berry. We are going to be discussing the ideas he so eloquently pens, and how to put those ideas into practice to build and develop community in our city and neighborhood.

On a side note, I love your music. Your hymns albums are two of my favorite. I think too often, Christians often neglect studying our heritage and the history of the chruch. We naively believe that we are at the center of history, and fail to realize that centuries of Christians lived before us and have handed the Christian faith down to us. Jesus has brought us salvation, but without the chruch, his message of salvation would have been lost soon after his death and ressurection. He has carried the message to us today through the church, and in that history, there have been incredible theologions, authors, poets, hymn writers and musicians. Often times, we glance over what they have done and immediately focus upon our experience. Likewise, we often neglect to realize how our lives will impact future generations for years to come. What I do today, whether it be in my faith, my buying habits, my consumption, how I spend my time, etc., will impact generations of decendants. Mr. Berry truly recognizes this, and expresses it in a way that truly ressonates with many people.

Thank you again for sharing.

I need to plan a road trip myself. I'd love to come see you and Derek, two of my favorite music artists!

Nick

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Oh, lovely. Sandra, thank you. I have been reading Hannah Coulter this week and can't make it through a whole page without being moved to tears by Wendell's exquisite prose. You have that gift as well. Keep neighboring, and by all means please keep creating.

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAllison Gaskins

Sandra,
My brother sent me the link to this article. I'm so glad he did.

Wow.
What an incredible experience.
At the beginning of the post, I was touched that you were able to hold a letter from Wendell Berry in your hands--how precious!
And then to keep reading and hear about your road trip.....!
Sounds like such a wonderful day. Thank you for sharing it here.

And here's another thing I love about your post & photos: My husband and I have had the privilege of hearing Katy Bowser perform at Eddie's Attic a couple of times. She is a delight, and it was great to see her featured in your story as well. I was just listening to Come On or Go On the other day on my ipod.

Thanks again for a great post.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAbbie

What a bucket list experience for you all, and what a treat to be taken along.

I would like to join both the Slow Communication Movement and the Preservation of Tangibility. I suppose my membership isn't complete until I state that on a handwritten piece of paper and mail it in.

April 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura B.

Sandra, your joy, your seriousness and your welcome to the challenges ahead of you are clear. Thanks for sharing the link you have with Mr. Berry. Even though I now live close to him in Kentucky, you sweet women in Nashville brought me closer to him in thought and intent than ever imagined. Continued blessings through Jesus the beloved Son Of Man to you and to your family and to your dear friends, Alice, Katy and Flo.

April 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercynthia dare

Sandra,

How fantastic that you got to spend time with a personal hero in the flesh. It's funny how often the letters get written in our heads but not pen to paper, so it's neat to hear you put yourself and appreciation of him out there finding it met with positive response and an opportunity to meet. I too am a member of the Preservation of Tangibility, though slower to join the Slow Communication Movement. Your article definitely makes me want to read more of Berry. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteranneliesz

love it sandra! i've been reading heaps of berry since we moved to MN and i have so many farmer friends. so so glad you guys got to go to port royal!

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelly richter

Sandra,

Years ago I read Jayber Crow and fell in love with Wendell Berry's writing. The beauty of restoration through shared life and community deeply moved me. It is still one of my favorite books ever. I was so very jealous when I heard of your pilgrimage! :) Thank you so much for sharing about your time with him. It's beautifully stated and makes me thankful for the way God has enabled us to forge a family here where we share life (and childcare and meals and craziness and messiness) with some incredible people. “Serve your place, and allow your place to serve you.” It's beautiful and simple, but as a favorite song says, "there's nothing harder than learning how to receive". So, I pray for all of us that we might have hearts resting in the promises of our Savior that we can be true neighbors. Love and miss you friend!

April 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Chastain

Oh my Sandra! My heart was racing as I read your story...Berry has been a huge source of inspiration for my husband and I since we were introduced to his writings at Regent College. I've longed to road trip to visit him! Thank you for letting me vicariously do that with you and your girlfriends! What a treasured memory that will perhaps inspire many songs! (I also loved the reference to the Lorax. People forget what a profoundly radical story that is! I love reading it to my kids!)

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristy Yates

Hello Sandra. Your story was featured on Daily Good this morning. From there...I found this website. I loved how, through your story, you also revealed a sweet friendship shared with women around you. The story also reminded me how words connect us. I will certainly check out your music and your favorite author's writings. Thank you!

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Villa

Sandra, this is so unbelievable. I had no idea you gals got to meet Wendell Berry - how special! One of these days hopefully we can sit down together in person and catch up - I think we see life very similarly :) Listening to the new Indelible Grace while I type this and I guess the combination of your words and the sentimentality of Indelible Grace made me very emotional. I miss living in the (real) south.

November 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Bailey

There are no accidents in this world. I came across this blog because I had finished listening to Wendell Berry on a down load and was taken by the wonderful contact you had. And then after looking around a bit I clicked on the link for Indelible Grace. If I could be on my knees in a cubicle at work I would! This music is God talking to me. To us to a hurried up and watered down society.
I came back to the Lord after 10 years of wandering. My church sings the old hymns...we sing Calvin, Luther and the like. It goes beyond the today it takes me to the cross and the wrestling of our faith. Thank you for sharing this and being apart of the Community. Be Blessed!

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Coffman

Skimmed thru the comments above and was reading about your visit to Wendell Berry. We too have a funny little letter from him, just three sentences of well chosen words.
I'm wondering which book of Wendell's has the most to say about local, bioregional and world peace as the pathway to ecological rebalancing. I want to put together readings, poems, songs, especially songs, that will convince people to do a little work for peace each and every day.
Do the four friends have links to Women for Peace as an emerging organization?
Is anyone thinking about a Global Organization Of Democracies (GOOD) -- small, responsible democracies getting together year round -- to act like a conscience for the world?

February 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Keil

Hi Sandra,
Thanks for sharing your pilgrimage story. I've always wanted to visit Wendell Berry in Port Royal myself, as I'm a huge fan of his as well...
Have you heard of Harrod and Funk? Here's a video of them performing one of my favorite folk songs:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEYChdzX5WM
It's the story of Christopher McCandless, before Sean Penn turned it into a film...
God bless,
Rob

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob Lamb

Dear Sandra,

I enjoyed reading your story about visiting with Wendell Berry. I too would like to visit him or send him a letter. I write as a hobby and have been told by several people that our writing styles are very similar.
I have unsuccessfully attempted to locate his mailing address. Might you be able to point me in the right direction or provide it?

Thank you so much!
-Aaron
aaronhmm@gmail.com

January 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Dear Sandra,

It seems that I am in the same boat as Aaron. Is there anyway you could help me in finding his mailing address? Thanks so much!

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCheyene

on our way to make our own pilgrimage --

December 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBeth Dougherty

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