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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

The Heroes of Henry County

Amazingly enough, and to the everlasting credit of my son who suggested in the spring that we take a side trip from our annual summer vacation in Ohio to Wendell Berry's "home place," I made it to Port Royal, Kentucky last week. We were also in New Castle and Carrolton, which, as it turns out, used to be called Port William. We learned that by reading one of the myriad historical markers generously placed along the roadside by the state of Kentucky ("United We Stand, Divided We Fall"). Happy discoveries of this sort are exactly the magic of the all-American road-trip. Who hasn't wondered about the origin of the name of Berry's fictionally famous town?

The trip offered plenty of time for reflecting on my blog subject, made all the more real by being in his birth town, farm town and "big" town up the river where the Kentucky meets the Ohio. What a unique experience: the man and his place are two sides of the same coin -- inseparable in both biography and art. To spend time in his place would be not so different from visiting the man himself, or so I believed before setting out. The closer we got to the Kentucky River, the more my senses sharpened, hound-like. One doesn't spend as long as I have reading about a place, imagining a place and, sure, revering a place, to cruise into it unaffected. Wendell Berry has created much magic in his literary career. I can attest that for me at least, his love for and commitment to Henry County, Kentucky, has enchanted those farms and hills not through their fictional transfiguration, but by their actual fact of being. Everyone who reads Berry knows and loves the fictional Port William. But I am taken by Port Royal -- the real place whose buildings you can almost count on one hand, which has held in its tiny bosom these Berry's who have quietly been demonstrating the best way to live for more than a century now.

The Berry Center is the still fairly new library/museum/bookstore that sits in New Castle nine miles from Port Royal. It serves as a welcome center for travelers like me, and notably is not called the Wendell Berry Center. It's the Berry Center because it is home to the papers and legacy of John Berry Sr., Wendell's father, and John Berry, Jr., his brother, who each, now departed, lived lives of vigorous public service and revolutionary reform. Wendell is the famous one (his photograph with the Obamas and Christmas card from the White House are on display), but it is his father's portrait that hangs in the Center and his fathers' papers that splay across the shelves of their own room, bound and waiting to be archived. John Berry Sr., as is pretty well documented by Wendell and not enough others, managed to do the impossible in his lifetime: he "collectivized" the tobacco farmers of central Kentucky by successfully implementing, with FDR's help, a price floor for the crop that allowed families to continue farming in that part of the state for decades -- meaning farms could pass from parent to child. Meaning small places like New Castle and Port Royal could continue to subsist (Let's not exaggerate: even with the price support, the industrial forces of the 20th century were brutal to agriculturally dependent places). John Berry Jr. followed his father into the law, practicing as a country lawyer for 50 years in the same town as his dad (New Castle) and serving as a legislator and president of the Burley Tabacco Growers Cooperative Association -- the collective started by John Berry Sr.

Sadly the collective collapsed along with the economy about ten years ago, owing to farmers finally selling off their farms (in financial straits, one would imagine), and the lure of tobacco settlement money. We learned that a similar collective to coordinate the market share of beef producers is well underway to hopefully do for cattle farmers in the 21st century what the Burley Cooperative did for the (now nearly vanished) tobacco farmers in the 20th. It's a fact that it took a lifetime to accomplish this economic backflip -- empowering farmers through collectivization to gain some measure of stability and control over their economic lives and home places. And with two thirds of the Berry men gone and Wendell in his early 80's, it's guaranteed to take more than two generations to clone and harvest the success of this model to other parts of America. That it happened here, however, is all the proof anyone should need that it can be done. As my son and I noted driving off one evening -- "Goddamn if there aren't actual things that our government could be doing to help the people living here. It has happened before."

Of course the problem with traveling -- with being a visitor, especially when moving by automobile -- is that for everything you get to see, there is so much more that's hidden from view. From the road, traveling at 50 miles per hour, it's a thrill to take in the land forms, fences, barns, tree canopies and river views that, being such large features, really do define the landscape. But you see so few people. Which means you hear virtually nothing of the place. Wendell has noted this too. Places like Henry County, Kentucky, if they are to be known, must be inhabited. I need be careful about mistaking the mental photo book now etched in my mind, for the place itself. Recall the Berryism: It's place and people, never just one or the other. Fortunately we now have the Berry Center to right the balance, at least a little. Not only are friends and family working away there to keep the Center thriving and to tend the Berrys' intellectual and artistic legacy, they are also happy to share what they personally know about John, John and Wendell. Of course they know more than most. Kin is like that and, like the Berrys, these are people who go back a long way with each other and with their town.

Most people come to this part of Kentucky, we learned, to visit the newly opened Ark Encounter, a Christian evangelical and fundamentalist theme park that features a full scale replica of Noah's ark. I'm sure it's an amazing thing to see (though my son and I were unanimous in our utter disinterest in visiting). And anyhow I found myself wondering if my heart could be any more lifted than it was from spending time with the three women we met at the Center. They were gracious (as everyone we met in Kentucky was), alive to the mission of the Berrys, careful with their charge, and proud to be where they were. Important too was the fact that all three were women. The Berry Center was founded by a woman -- Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter, and the entire Berry canon, it must be told, exists because Tanya Berry, Wendell's wife, committed herself to her choices unremittingly.

Where were these women, exactly? This was a thought that kept snapping up at me like a stepped-on stick.

They were certainly in New Castle, that much was clear. Were they not also in the presence of a great and majestic beauty, there in that old converted house on Main Street, surrounded by the words and imaginings of these determined farmer-lawyer-philosophers? In a way, New Castle is like many small towns, several of which we saw even on this short trip. But in another way, there must not be another place quite like the Berry Center in all the land. Small places have their famous sons, to be sure, but not these (somewhat) famous sons, and not these ideas and accomplishments. Mr. Berry reminds us that the work is always local. The farming must be local -- the solutions must be local. The world is not one large place, swept along by one grand narrative ("A Great Flood came.....") but is everywhere "small featured," as he would say. It must be that each of us, like our places, are uniquely constellated by god knows what -- time, circumstance, predisposition -- to become an expression of life that is slightly unlike any other. Sometimes, like in the case of the Berrys, the expression is not slightly but significantly unlike any other. And so it is with New Castle, as experienced in the reading room of the Berry Center: it is both an ordinary Main Street USA place, and, to people like me, a spiritual "home place" both irreplaceable and irreducible.

Apparently I'm made to adore the words, works and ideas of Wendell Berry. I have no idea why I am that way, but clearly those are the receptors that I come with. I'm not precisely sure how my son felt being there, although there are plenty of indications that he has inherited something of his father's soul-soaked sensitivity for the Whole Life as suggested by the combination of small, agrarian places, artistic sensibilities and tremendously rigorous intellectual engagement. I do know that he enjoyed it and that he understands Wendell Berry in a way that the stories, essays and poetry could have never have taught on their own.

It's because we were there. He will read the work, of course, starting with the edition I purchased for him at the Berry Center bookstore. But it is the conversation with Wendell's granddaughter that he will remember longest. And the portrait of John Berry Sr. And the old guy we met at the Carrolton diner. And the bunting. And of course the barns. It's all of it. All there in Henry County and still there -- struggling to survive, but still surviving. The place and these lives are so completely worth preserving. Only a fool could leave the place and not see that.

But who ever goes? (The Ark is SO BIG and there's a new ZIPLINE!) It's a problem that the heroes of Henry County have been working on, on behalf of all of us, for more than 100 years now. The work continues, and will continue. So few have yet seen and felt these wondrous things.

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