I like to say that Wendell Berry’s writing happens to you over time. His prolific slew of literature, non-fiction, and poetry–which span the topics of agriculture, community, faith and place– is slow and steady. It isn’t fiery, and not one of his many books could be described as a “page-turner.” But it does change a person. It moves them to think differently about how they live, and how their living affects other people around them or the land under them. It’s like his writing slowly moves in, setting up house, unpacking boxes and rearranging the furniture until one day, you realize you’re different.
So it’s no surprise that on a Thursday night in December— perhaps in the busiest season of the year— the Atrium at the Martin Agency was filled to capacity with people changed by Berry. Real Local RVA and Tricycle Urban Ag partnered to create an event with one purpose: to gather together in community and friendship to watch the new documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.
The film, directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell, takes a look at life through the lens of Wendell, his words and the subjects of his writings. Namely the film focuses on the struggle between the ideals of agrarian life, “simplicity, land stewardship, sustainable farming, local economies, and rootedness,” against the growing perils of modern industrial agriculture and the collateral damage it claims.
Berry’s melodic voice is the primary narration of the film, (he declined to be on camera) and the film reflects the heart of Berry’s writings: an abiding passion for the small and the local, for the good and true, even if it is hard and slow. As life becomes faster (how quickly can we get our food?) and more disconnected (we feel like we’re in community because we see each other on Facebook), Berry’s words remind us that we were made for connection and that the good things don’t grow overnight. Nor do they grow without intention, stewardship, and presence. There is perhaps a way forward, but it is not going to come easily.
The film encourages us once again to make the commitment to sustainable agriculture, to embrace community, and to support the local food system. Furthermore, we must commit to this life together. So as we go to our corners to continue the good albeit hard work we can remember that we all showed up that December night, and we all care too. As Berry wrote, “The abundance of this place, the songs of its people and its birds, will be health and and wisdom and indwelling light. This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is our reality.”
Rebecca Parker Payne is a fellow RVA Wendell Berry fan, blogger and writer of all things concerning community, family, food, and place. Her writing has been featured in Kinfolk Magazine, The Other Journal, Christianity Today, and the The Kinfolk Table. She occasionally writes at Stillhouseblog.com and frequently tweets at twitter.com/becca_parker.