Friday, August 1, 2008

Community Has No Price

A friend lent me two collections of Wendell Berry's short stories, The Wild Birds and Watch with Me. I liked Watch with Me, but found The Wild Birds nothing short of amazing.

Here's my favorite quote from among many in these wonderful pieces of writing: It's from a story called "It Wasn't Me." These words are said by the primary character from most of the stories in the book, Wheeler Catlett, as he tries to explain to a young farmer friend why none of us should look upon the help of neighbors as charity:

It's not accountable, because we're dealing in goods and services that we didn't make, that can't exist at all except as gifts. Everything about a place that's different from its price is a gift. Everything about a man or woman that's different from their price is a gift. The life of a neighborhood is a gift. I know that if you bought a calf from Nathan Coulter you'd pay him for it, and that's right. But aside from that, you're friends and neighbors, you work together, and so there's lots of giving and taking without a price -- some that you don't remember, some that you never knew about. You don't send a bill. You don't, if you can help it, keep an account. Once the account is kept and the bill presented, the friendship ends, the neighborhood is finished...
I remember learning in 10th grade English about two types of insight a reader can experience when reading great fiction -- revelation and recognition. Reading this speech of Wheeler Catlett's was an almost blinding moment of recognition for me.

So much of what I have thought about the devaluing of community and human connection in our society is wrapped up in those words. The affliction of "price" has infected our relationships, leaving many of us bereft of connection. There is an essential human need for interdependence, but "price" commodifies it, robbing it of its value, even as it pretends to give it a value.

That's all I can come up with to explain what I was thinking when I read Berry's words.

There are many other wonderful moments throughout the book, which is filled with haunting echoes of the themes in his nonfiction writing -- the meaning of family, connection to the land, the intrinsic value of rural life, the collapse of small towns amid technological change. It's inspiring to see a writer embody his ideas in characters and places, giving them lives of their own beyond the pages of an essay.

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