Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hannah Coulter and a Vanishing Way of Life

As I sit to write this post, I have an aching heart, lump in my throat, and unshed tears burning behind my eyes. All because of a book I almost didn't finish. I was ready to put it down around page forty, because of its slowness. But since it was for bookgroup, and I hate not to have read the book, I kept on. I'm so glad I did.

This is the first writing I've read by Mr. Wendell Berry. Oh, I've heard plenty about him. Lots of people talk about his poetry and admire his lifestyle of being a farmer AND an intellectual. So I've been meaning to read him for a long time, and when a member of the bookgroup picked this particular book to read, I was glad. Now, at long last, I'd read Wendell Berry.

He's written several books that take place in Port William, Hannah Coulter being one of them. And this one is written from a woman's point of view. That was the first thing that struck me as amazing. How could a man know and describe a woman's heart so well? I don't understand. I could no more write a book from a man's point of view than I could turn into a man. I just couldn't do it. Mr. Berry must have an extraordinarily developed sense of empathy. I wonder what it's like to be his wife? I'd like to meet and have a good long visit with her.

The book is about community life in Port William and how interdependent all the inhabitants are on each other, not only socially but economically. They call themselves 'the membership'. They remind me in many ways of the Amish and Mennonite groups the way they all come together to help bring in each other's harvests and have barn raisings and other gatherings to support each other.

I remember life being this way during my childhood in the late 50's and early 60's. I grew up on my grandparents' farm in a very small town in the Tennessee mountains. Life revolved around community and what was happening with each other. The children played outside until dark in the summertime while the adults finished chores or visited on the front porch. Life was slow and savored.

On Sunday afternoons, we'd go over to my daddy's parents' house and visit all afternoon. We only lived a few miles from them but didn't often see them during the week. The women would sit inside and talk about their children and recipes while the men stayed on the porch talking politics and other things newsworthy. I much preferred the company of the men as I thought their topics of conversation so much more interesting than the women's in the next room. Often my uncle would bring out his guitar and he, my daddy, my grandpa, and anybody else there would sing old hymns together.

Children then would sit quietly in the presence of their elders and listen if they were interested or go off and play with each other. Now that I think about it, I was usually the only one who loved listening to them. I learned much about life from my listening.

So other than Hannah Coulter being about her life, it's also about two ways of life; one dying life beginning after WW II and the new one taking its place. It's about the agrarian life being replaced by the technological. And it just makes me sad, so sad, for I lived this...am living it. I've seen warm summer evenings catching fireflies change to no one being outside. I see children not know the value of a hard day's work and not being willing to work unless they're paid much more than their worth.

I've seen farm after farm with fields lying fallow; the broken and rusty machinery of their trade lined up beside barns that no longer hold anything but memories. Gone are the aproned grandmas standing behind screen doors watching for their men to come home from the fields. And it makes me sad, for this was the world of my childhood, and I want it back.

The book also contrasts two kinds of people. One is the kind that hankers and yearns for more. More life, more travel, and more education. These are the ones that don't come back once they're seen and tasted the bigger world.

The other kind of person is satisfied to do what has been done for generations before him. He's not dissatisfied with his life and wants nothing more.

There's an irony in Hannah's story, because she wants her children, as most parents do, to have all the benefits she never had. So she and her husband make sure all three children have college educations. While wanting the children to come back and help on the farm and someday take over, they realize that because of their exposure to new ideas, people, and places, the children are gone forever which perpetuates the dying of the farm and the life the community holds so dear.

As a grandmother, Hannah notices a grave difference in how she grew up and how her grandchildren now live. Since she lived in Port William all her life, she knew intimately all the other people living there which included her family. You get to know people that you spend time with; face to face in conversation or side by side doing work.
Now since her own children have moved away and only come for occasional visits, she doesn't have the pleasure of knowing her grandchildren very well. And that is only made worse by her grandchildren's indifference to her by their absorption in their various video games, phones, and other electronic devices. There is very little to none 'face to face' anything going on.

For anyone who's studied much of history, you know that ways of life come and go and the world keeps on spinning. And I'm sure it will continue to spin until God deems it time to end.

But this I know. People need to realize that with technological advances, wonderful as they are, comes much personal responsibility. We need to know when to limit our childrens' time with their various machines of entertainment. To say, "Enough. Turn it off and go outside and play." And then to do likewise, for if we don't follow our own good advice, neither will they.

We can still have a rich, mindful life today but not without much vigilance. For this I've learned, that the more you have and the more complicated life becomes, the more is required of you and the harder it will be to live simply and wisely.


Sara said...

This was my first Wendell Berry book too; I read it a few years ago. I ended it feeling an ache and a longing that was almost depression. For me it was the man-woman relationship between Hannah and her husband, and all the wisdom in that man, and it's all tied up with their connection to the land and their community. I did see the technology issue that you describe so very beautifully but did not feel it with the impact you did. It was my parents (Hannah's generation) who were raised in the city; their parents who left the farms behind, so I don't have that wonderful, beautiful country upbringing you have. Even so, I can certainly see huge differences between today and my 50's and 60's childhood. I haven't read anyone else quite like Wendell Berry.

Andrea said...

such a good review, Debbie. I too had the same feelings as you. My dad grew up on a farm, and my Papa was a peach farmer. I witnessed this way of life and it makes my heart ache for it as well. Lots to think about.

Gumbo Lily said...

I've heard lots of good reviews about this book and I think I must get me a Wendell Berry book very soon. I know I will love his writing.

I was raised "in town" and after marrying at 19 years old, I've lived on a ranch in the country and we raised our five kids much like you describe -- hard work, playing outdoors and such. It's been a wonderful life. We are blessed to have one of our sons move home to the ranch and partner with us, raising his family into this lifestyle. There's nothing like watching your grandkids appreciate the very things you do. Just today we took the girls to feed livestock and they see life so differently -- water tanks, grass, sheep, cows, cloudy skies, snow.

Thanks for your honest review. I can't wait to get a WB book now. One that came highly recommended was Jayber Crow. Have you read that one? It's on my list.

magsmcc said...

In our advent book "The Christmas Mystery", one of the angels discusses wisdom and says that there are two ways of getting it. One- you travel everywhere and see everything and savour and reflect. Or two, you stay in one spot your whole life and see it all pass by for pondering. I think we live now in the first high-speed choice, but without the savouring and reflecting. We're too busy blogging/tweeting/sharing the moment to really be in it and consider it.

Pom Pom said...

I loved Jayber Crow very much and I like everything I hear about Wendell Berry. Frances loves him, too.
I haven't read Hannah Coulter, but now I shall.
It does seem like the simple and sweet ways noiselessly slip away, crowded out by "progress".

Angela said...

I think he did a great job writing a book from a woman's perspective. I've read quite a bit of Wendell Berry. I love his essays (especially the "What Are People For?" collection) and poetry too. But my very favorite is still Jayber Crow.

Cranberry Morning said...

Wow, I think I wrote that book. I'm definitely tracking it down and will read it. I'm sure many of us have that same story, and isn't it a sad thing.

On a brighter note, I wanted to let you know that I'm having a 4 HomemadeSoapnSuch Valentine Soap Sachet Giveaway - on now through Friday. Hope you'll stop in at Cranberry Morning and enter. :-)

Katy Sharpe Sammons said...

We read Jayber Crow that first year of the book club. Did you not get to read it? I loved it! In fact, I thought it was better than Hannah Coulter. Of course, everything Berry writes is excellent.

Amanda said...

This is one of my very favorite books. It is so beautiful in many ways, and yes, very sad. But I have to tell you that children still do play outside together and catch fireflies, make up games, ride bikes, go to the creek...right here in my suburban neighborhood. Girls are going to sewing classes and learning to cook at girl scout meetings. All is not lost! My son wants nothing more than to get out of suburbia and farm. He is 16.