Oral History, Wendell Berry, and Memory as Membership (I)

“Work Song” By: Wendell Berry 

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow-growing trees
On a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live
Here, their houses strongly placed
Upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
Rich in the windows.  The river will run
Clear, as we will never know it,
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
Green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
The old forest, an old forest will stand,
Its rich leaf-fall drivting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
Risen out of the ground.  They will take
Nothing from the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting.  Memory,
Native to this valley, will spread over it
Like a grove, and memory will grow
 into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament.  The abundance of this place,

 the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
 light.  This is not paradisal dream.
 Its hardship is its possibility.

Berry has a way of making me re-consider “home.”  Although (almost) all of my siblings are out of the house, each of us still knows this place (pictured throughout) as our home.  Originally purchased by my grandparents over forty years ago to provide a space large enough for their seven children, the land has undergone a number of transformations.

Before there was the large pond, great for fishing and ice hockey, and the neatly manicured lawn, excellent for frisbee, soccer or football, this area of the property provided pasture for cattle, goats, and at one time, a horse.  Before vegetable gardens were built on a gentle slope, this area of the property contained stacks of concrete forms and mounds of rebar for a construction company.  Before the linden tree (below) in our side yard was planted, there used to be an old cherry tree.

The many transformations reveal that this property is a product of hard work.  The beauty of this place bears the image of my parents as well as their parents.   Their long labour of love for gardening, coupled with their even longer love for labour, has made this place what it is today.   Berry would praise their “wisdom” for “standing like slow-growing trees on a ruined place,” enriching it with the responsibility that is required to transform any place into a home.  

Nearly all my childhood memories are shaped by this place.  One memory of the linden tree comes to mind.  When I was around ten, my family all worked together to plant this replacement for the cherry tree we had cut down in the side yard.  Probably out of my Dad’s love for efficiency, I recall the assembly line of pails, filled with water from the nearby garden hose, used to drench the roots of the linden with what seemed like an unreasonable amount of water, and for what seemed an unreasonable amount of time.  We were told that planting this tree bare root in the heat of that July day could shock the tree and kill it.  Therefore, in the cool of the evening, we had to work hard, our arms aching, to provide the tree with nourishment while creating an environment where its roots would take hold and thrive.   When I remember the work of that singular evening, it pales in comparison to the countless moments spent under the shade of the tree.  The shade expands each year with the slow, subtle growth of the tree.  It interests me that the slowness of such change and the silence of its reward often results in both being taken for granted. This brings me back to Berry.   In a time where change occurs rapidly, and is expected instantaneously, Berry reminds us of our need to understand the joys of membership that is rooted in, and responsible to, one place.  Here the work is hard, and the change is often slow.  Considering this reality, how then do we remember places we call home?

As the people in our lives come and go, we are left with our memories.  In the poem we see that memory constructs legends and sings songs about the people and places in our life.  But Berry takes it further, arguing that memory grows “into sacrement,” by bringing together the membership of a community, both living and dead.

Brent Laytham, in “The Membership Includes the Dead,” argues that Berry’s use of memory intentionally evokes the sense of membership within a community.[1]  Latham proceeds to categorize the terms of membership in Berry’s fiction:

  1. Central to membership is place.  This implies a common ground between members of a community.
  2. Membership is a gift that is not earned.
  3. The bonds of membership (i.e. labor, place, love) run deeper than surface affection and hold the community together through time and place.
  4. Membership, through memory, involves the dead now made alive.

Oral historians are placed in a unique position of being able to listen, record and collect such memories.  Interviewees rely on memory, relating the “plot” of their lives, as well as their understandings of the “characters” involved in their story.  Memory then, becomes a vehicle for “re-membering,” or regaining access into that community.

Although this post has been largely personal, and a little scattered, I want to use this series of posts to unpack the implications of approaching “memory” as “membership” for oral historians, particularly as it is found in Wendell Berry’s short novels, Remembering and A World Lost.

References: 

[1] Brent Laytham, “The Membership Includes the Dead,” in Wendell Berry and Religion:  Heaven’s Earthly Life eds. Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens, (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 173- 189.

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9 thoughts on “Oral History, Wendell Berry, and Memory as Membership (I)

  1. Wow, this is such an insightful post. I love Wendell Berry, and I love this concept of memory as re-membership, re-upping or commitment to one another as well as to place. Such an undervalued concept in our transient, virtually driven culture.

  2. Dave, you are my hero! And on a less creepy note, thanks for this. I am discovering of late a calling I never knew I had, which is to do my small part to fight against the human tendency to equate forgetfulness with progress, and speed with fulfillment. I’m inspired by Berry’s thought that what matters is not the grand political gesture, but the individual effort to educate one’s children and neighbors, to teach them to appreciate the beauty of hardship. This is the whole point of this book deal I’m trying to work out: I want to get back to an appreciation of things and people where and who they are…

  3. I bet you have already read it, but reread Berry’s “A Native Hill” at some point. I think the issue of ‘re-inhabiting’ a place and actively making it a “home” through an awareness of the place’s past and a vision of the place’s future health is key to good ‘home-making’. Also, Ellen Davis’ //Scripture, Culture, Agriculture// and its look at the ideal home maker of Proverbs 31 is a GREAT chapter to read.
    D.

  4. Thanks Vance. I am glad to help you with your book project. Looking forward to reading it.
    Thanks for the suggestions Doug. I have read that essay by Berry, but not the one by Ellen Davis. Sounds really interesting.

  5. Dave,

    I found your post and references very intriguing.

    I am involved in a community/history project in Austin called Voices of the Violet Crown. Similar to Laytham’s bonds of membership, the focus of our website is on the continuum of community over time and how being a good neighbor is a creative process.

    Hope to see your presentation in Waco in April.

    • Thanks Susan!

      It sounds like you would love the work of Wendell Berry. I am similarly drawn to his understanding of what it means to be in a membership, or a community, and the responsibilities we have to those living in a common place. Browsing your website, I love the kind of work you and Rob are engaged in, and really enjoyed “the Community Mosaic” video.

      Looking forward to meeting you at the conference.

      • I do love Wendell Berry’s work. “The Memory of Old Jack” is one of my favorite books by him (read it several times). I’ve also read “Remembering” and “Hannah Coulter,” and I enjoyed hearing him read part of his poem “Santa Clara Valley” (from “Sabbaths,” I believe) in the film “Unforeseen.”

        I look forward to learning more about your work.

        Thanks.

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