Wendell Berry, a story of an old bucket, and a sense of place

Below is a beautiful, powerful story.  As you read it, consider several things.

First, what practices does Wendell Berry engage in that enable him to notice that bucket, to “really” notice that bucket, and then to reflect on the meaning of the bucket?
Second, how do Berry’s reflections on woodland community and human community inform your “place,” your community? Are there deficiencies in your understanding and practice of “place” Berry draws out? Are there hopeful, engaging things in your understanding and practice of “place” that Berry affirms? Please comment below.

For many years, my walks have taken me down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather’s farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth.

The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black soil…The old bucket started out a far better one than you can buy now. I think it has been hanging on that post for something like fifty years.

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories, too, as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself- in lore and story and song- that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

In the woods, the bucket is no metaphor; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods, if the woods is left alone. Of course, in most places in my part of the country, the human community did not leave the woods alone. It felled the trees and replaced them with pastures and crops. But this did not revoke the law of the woods, which is that the ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation and that the growth of the years must return- or be returned- to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance…of this natural law.

If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil building will be resumed by nature. A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.” (Berry, TWOLC, pgs 153-55)


Shining thoughts on leadership and social change…

…from civil rights leader Andrew Young, reflecting on the legacy of his friend Martin Luther King.

“Today, almost three decades later, Martin’s legacy looms even larger than we thought possible in the days immediately after April 4, 1968.  And as the details of his travails, his struggles, and the atmosphere of turmoil and contention have receded into broad strokes of black and white, Martin has become a larger-than-life symbol, almost a deity, rather than the flesh-and-blood man I knew.  There is a danger in this.

We should not lose our sense of how the civil rights movement happened, because if we do, younger generations, along with ourselves, will lose a sense of how new opportunities were fought for, and won.  In blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.

In these days of “everything for me,” Martin’s decision to devote his life to social change seems almost of another age.  But if his life teaches us anything, it is that real leadership must be grounded in the interest and institutions of the people, and leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen, all of which was Martin King’s essential nature.”

–    Andrew Young, An Easy Burden, pgs 473-74

I appreciate Young’s reflection here for many reasons, but especially his point that King has become venerated in such a way that all the surrounding context of what made him meaningful fades to the background.  It is no surprise that this has happened, since powerful interests would like us to forget the most successful grassroots advocacy movement to come down the pike in a long, long time.  President John Kennedy claimed he didn’t have the votes to pull off comprehensive civil rights reforms; the Birmingham campaign led by King forced action.  President Lyndon Johnson claimed he didn’t have enough political capital to pass a voting rights bill so soon after the civil rights legislation; the Selma campaign led by King forced action.  Through SCLC’s continued action that dramatized the great inequalities and sinfulness of the status quo in America, great social reforms were accomplished.  So, let us heed the warning from Young that “in blurring, or ignoring, the context of the struggle, the veneration of Martin Luther King becomes devoid of depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is lost.”  Let us practice the opposite, to “sharpen, and pay careful attention to the context of the struggle, so our admiration of King becomes rich with depth and context, and the ability to use his model to renew the struggle for a just and equitable society is enhanced.”

And I deeply appreciate Young’s reminder that “leadership must appeal to the most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature.  This can only come from a process of continual questioning, the capacity to overcome mistakes, and the ability to follow a path courageously once it is chosen.”

How often are we being shaped in our society to embrace our most moral, disciplined, and determined qualities in our nature?  Does, for example, the most relevant example of the rise of the Tea Party in America follow this path?  It is clear that Tea Party leaders are galvanizing a group of people for change, but change in what direction?  Are people being led to the values of Andrew Young here?  Are his values wise?

And how often are we taught that leadership emerges from “a process of continual questioning”?  I have most often been taught that leadership is about firm decisions and the appearance of solidity, even if it appears the opposite is true.  Is it true that wise leadership is in fact much more flexible, more relational, more in touch with our limited nature and limited understanding of truth?  Is it in fact more about a courageous path, mistakes along the way, confession when we were wrong, and shared glory when we’ve gotten it right?

Everyday Justice in the trenches of life…

In the spirit of Julie Clawson’s book “Everyday Justice”…

And living with Margaret Mead’s wise words “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only  thing that ever has”….

In a world where so often we feel disempowered because we don’t have money or influence or aren’t considered “important”…

I will, from time to time, be posting pictures and thoughts of the small efforts in my life toward God’s justice.

Today, I have pictures of my most recent effort.  I work at Cracker Barrel, and when I first began there, the General Manager of the store gave me the OK to use our spent coffee grounds for composting at home. After he left, I was told this could no longer happen.  I attempted to recycle aluminum cans at work where everything is thrown into the trash.  Again, I was told this could no longer happen.  Why?  Because the company’s Loss Prevention Program doesn’t allow it.  We also happen to throw away all the paper used over the course of each day.

In the face of this opposition, I have decided to do my own mildly subversive activity.  Whenever I run out my food or the food of a fellow server, I pocket the paper used and bring it home at the end of the night to our home, where I place the paper in recycling.  This results in about 100 small pieces of paper an evening being recycled.

Some persons would tell me this is just a drop in the ocean.  Essentially meaningless.
But I have been shaped by the Bible to believe that nothing escapes the sight of our observant God.
Therefore no act of faithfulness is too small.
This knowledge transforms my disempowerment into thoughtful action.

Save America’s most endangered mountain

A call to action from the good people at http://www.ilovemountains.org/ .  Please at least read to understand their perspective, let it affect you, and if you feel comfortable, take action through calling or emailing your elected representative.  I share this information not as a disinterested individual, but as a Christian obeying the command to care for God’s creation.  The situation is dire.  As Will Samson writes in his book Enough:  Contentment in an Age of Excess,

“Men and women are stuck with a coal economy that is devastating their job base and leaving little hope for their future.  Children are leaving Appalachia in record numbers, crushing families, some of whom have lived in that area for more than two hundred years.  Throughout the coal-mining areas of Appalachia, in almost biblical proportions, neighbor is pitted against neighbor, friend against friend (Isaiah 19:2).  One family fights to preserve ancestral lands from being take and blown up to get at the coal seams below, while another enjoys ATVs and a new widescreen TV.”  (36)

Massey Energy has begun blasting on Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has stated that the mining operation on the mountain is “actively moving coal.” Workers have been seen moving heavy equipment up to the mining zones, and blasting and plumes of smoke were seen and heard near the Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment.

he Brushy Fork impoundment is an enormous retention pond holding 8.2 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry waste. If the impoundment were to fail due to the blasting, hundreds of lives will be lost and thousands more will be in jeopardy from an enormous slurry flood.

A 2006 study confirmed that Coal River Mountain—the highest peaks ever slated for mining in the state—is an ideal location for developing utility-scale wind power. Local residents have rallied around this proposal as a symbol of hope, a promise of a new and cleaner energy future, but that hope may be destroyed unless quick and decisive action is taken right now.

Please take action today to communicate with Secretary Salazar, Secretary Jackson, and the Office of Public Affairs your concern.

6,000 Acres To Be Destroyed

Massey’s plans for the mountaintop removal operation would destroy over 6,000 acres of Coal River Mountain and create 18 different valley fills, devastating the Clear Fork watershed. Over 10 square miles of the most bio-diverse ecosystem in the United States will be destroyed forever, affecting the lives of the local residents by destroying their homeland and polluting their air and water.

Wind on Coal River

A wind assessment study conducted by Coal River Mountain Watch and Downstream Stategies revealed that Coal River Mountain has enough wind potential to provide electricity for over 150,000 homes and create stable, well-paying jobs—forever.

The proposed wind farm would help diversify the local economy in an area historically dependent upon sparse, temporary coal mining jobs, pumping $20 million per year in direct local spending during construction and $2 million per year thereafter. Destroying the mountain will also be destroying one of the best wind power sites in West Virginia.

This opportunity, however, depends upon the mountain being left intact. If blasting continues on Coal River Mountain, the wind potential—and the jobs—will be lost forever.

And thank you for helping to preserve Coal River Mountain for generations to come.

Contact your district Representative.   Contact your Senator.

And if your Senator is Mitch McConnell, tell him to stop whoring himself out to Big Coal. It’s unsightly to see supposed leaders be such a puppet and lapdog of big business  (Nathan’s words here, not the folks at ilovemountains).



Watch the video here.

And to guide the direction of your reactions a bit I would suggest several things.

1)  If this video makes you guilty or uncomfortable, don’t run from it, but don’t let it destroy you either. Though wealth and poverty ARE relative (a dollar has less purchasing power in America than in, say, Bangladesh), yet generally those who read this blog could stand to significantly alter their spending habits and lifestyle (myself included).  

As an example, consider a man I respect named Cliff Kindy.  Cliff serves in Christian Peacemaker Teams, has served several tours of duty in Iraq for CPT, is an organic farmer in Indiana, and committed to non-violence as a disciple of Jesus.  In other words, Cliff sees the destructive violence of this world, puts himself in dangerous situations for the love of Christ and peace, and backs up his words with action at home too, by giving away every cent he makes over the poverty line so he doesn’t have to pay taxes because the bulk of them go to the military.

Kindy believes in the God beyond the chaos who calls us to witness to another way, and that leads to courageous statements like this;


“We didn’t come into Iraq with armed guards, we don’t wear flak jackets, we don’t ride in Humvees or tanks. And I think we’re alive today because that’s how we operated in Iraq. There’s no way anybody who is armed could have done the things we’ve done. We’ve been in the razor-wire cities. We’ve been in the homes of Iraqi families in Fallujah, Ramadi, Karbala. Abu Hishma village that was razor-wired for eight months, we slept overnight in that city. People would say, ‘Well, that’s naive.’ In fact, it’s realistic. If you’re going to run around with guns, you’re going to get killed.”

Do you see how Kindy, once confronted with the violence of this world, did not run away from the discomfort of the truth nor become paralyzed by the problem? He’s working proactively in all areas of his life to bring it into line with the peace of God and the selfless giving of one’s life for others.  And in so doing, Cliff  has become an example of courage to look up to.

In a society of passive people who live their lives vicariously through the success and failures of athletes and reality TV stars, we need people whose examples stick like a thorn in our sides.  People who inspire us, frustrate us, and remind us that all is not lost yet, people who inspire us to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

All this to say; if this video makes you guilty, consider how to reject cowardice and passivism to put that guilt to work in proactive ways.

First impressions aren’t always the most accurate…

Cedric Benson The Great Debaters

Have you heard about Cedric Benson’s arrest on Saturday?  From the first reports I heard on ESPN Radio the other day, Cedric was “pulled over” while boating on Lake Travis in Austin, TX for a “safety check” where the police were suspicious enough of his sobriety that they put him on their boat for a test, where Benson became disorderly and violently resisted arrest enough that pepper spray was administered and he had to be dragged to his car.

My first impression? “Typical Cedric Benson. Displays no work ethic on the field to get better. Thinks he’s entitled to everything because he was a first-round draft pick and is a pro athlete. Plus, he’s probably a thug, if his actions around the police reveal anything.”

That was my first reaction. Casting stereotypes. And stereotypes sometimes work, I guess. However, my viewing of the excellent, excellent movie The Great Debaters earlier this year told me a little something about racism that I’m much more sensitized to, especially when it comes to police and minorities. In the setting of The Great Debaters (1930s Texas), it was still kosher in the wider society to treat blacks like subhuman-beings; scene after scene in the movie displayed that in shocking detail. Why this is relevant today is the simple truth that racism, while it may not be quite as immediately obvious in our society today (it’s less kosher on a society-wide level), is still deeply embedded; just harder to see. And it’s no coincidence that the most deeply-South sections of American society typically have the most embedded racism. It is this simple understanding that makes this Cedric Benson story more complex than at first blush. Especially when the experience of his friend and Benson’s mother (two passengers on the boat) is told. The quotes all come from this story.

A female passenger on Cedric Benson’s boat Saturday night in Austin, Texas, was concerned enough about his safety after police took him into custody to phone her parents and urge them to call 911, the Tribune has learned.

‘I called my dad and told him, ‘Call 911, my black friend is getting beaten up by police on Lake Travis,’ ” said Elizabeth Cartwright, 22, a friend of Benson’s from the University of Texas. “It’s more what I heard than what I saw. I have never heard or seen Cedric that scared.’

And this little tidbit matters too.

Cartwright, an English major at the University of Texas who is to graduate later this month, estimated she and her fiance had been boating with Benson six times this spring and each time a Lower Colorado River Authority boat pulled them over for a safety check.

Now, call me oversensitive, but when the three elements of the story (Texas police, a black man, and six “safety checks” in six boating expeditions) come together, I start to get a little suspicious, thanks to listening to experiences of my black brothers and sisters. The affidavit filed by the Lower Colorado River Authority described Benson as cocky, combative, and smelling of alcohol. Multiple witnesses of the event describe things differently (there were 15 other folks on the boat). According to Benson, police pepper-sprayed him in the eyes without provocation and dragged him along the ground to the point he cried out for his mother, Jackie.

Cartwright commented again,

The arrival of LCRA police perturbed Benson because of the frequency of the checks on his 30-foot boat, Cartwright said. When Benson’s boat passed the safety inspection, Cartwright said she and her fiance were surprised the officer then required a sobriety test for Benson. “We were all like, ‘Why?’ ” she said.

After an officer led Benson to the LCRA boat for the test, the second officer left behind on Benson’s boat assured a nervous Jackie Benson that her son would be fine, Cartwright recalled.

A few minutes later, Cartwright said she heard Benson begin to scream after the officer pepper-sprayed him in the eye. By the time Benson was in handcuffs, he was screaming, “Please stop, Mom, make them please stop.” Cartwright disputed that Benson was resisting arrest.

And finally,

Benson claimed police kicked his feet out from under him, causing him to fall awkwardly. When Benson got up, Cartwright remembers him sitting in a squad car surrounded by six officers.

“In the weakest voice, Cedric said to me and my fiance, ‘Help me get out of here,’ ” Cartwright said. “He was so scared.”

The reason this story sticks out to me is the radical difference in accounts between the police and witnesses. Fifty years ago, the witnesses may have been muzzled (because of some being black) and the police report would have been the only one given to the press, which would have led to more whites saying, “Typical black man (insert racial epithet here).” I still have the extended scene from The Great Debaters burned into my memory of Denzel Washington being arrested under pretenses of disorderly conduct and “communism” for having the audacity to organize the poor white and black sharecroppers to act together. The way the police handled that situation, the brutal disregard for his humanity, and the racism that bled through everything disturbed me.

I’m not saying this situation was racially charged, but I am suggesting it as a possibility. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

This is an attack on the black church (and if the black church, then the church at large)…

Jeremiah Wright and Cornel West have awakened me from my middle-class white slumber in the last three months.  Lost amidst all the hullabaloo from 10-second sound-bites yanked from the greater context of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons which news organizations then talked hours on is the greater message Jeremiah is seeking to convey to the American nation. Jeremiah Wright is not Obama’s lapdog, and Obama is not his. Barack Obama is a politician, and Jeremiah Wright is an eloquent, shockingly-honest, sometimes-divisive pastor of God’s church.  The two are very different things. In order for us to understand the experience of the black church and the foundation from which Wright speaks, we need to move beyond the sound-bites and into a good, full listen to him in the videos below; even if, or especially if, we disagree with him.

If you are a person who is sick and tired of news organizations telling us what we should believe and showing us what we should see, please give this man a full listen in the videos below.

And if you want to know, REALLY know, this man that Barack Obama is separating himself from because of mushy political centrism in seeking to get elected, please give this man a full listen in the videos below. Barack Obama is being more and more exposed as a man who used Trinity UCC as a leg up, as a prestige card to play with the black community, rather than a fully participating member invested in attacking the problem of racism head-on. Calling for racial unity is nice and all, but when significant embedded racism still exists in our society, it’s time for troublemakers, rabble-rousers to stand up and speak truth to power, their political careers be damned.

And let this be stated clearly, if you can watch Survivor or American Idol or Dancing with the Stars (“reality” shows) or Lost or 24 or The Office (hour-long escapes from reality into suspended disbelief) or Hannity and Colmes (a show of barking partisan hacks) for hours on end every week, I’m fairly certain you can watch an embattled man (and a fine one at that) talk about something of vital importance for our world today in the videos below.

I’m sitting on some thoughts, but I will write them in the next couple days after wrapping up some loose ends for school. So keep attuned here if you’re interested in catching some of my thoughts on this; I want to contribute to this conversation that is simply not taking place in our society right now. It is DESPERATELY needed, and I want to be a part of it. Even in a little tiny way.

Video #2 of the same speech

Video #3 of the same speech

Video #4 of the same speech

Video #5 of the same speech

Video #6 of the same speech