How to belong to beautiful places: instructions by Wendell Berry.

On Nov. 17, his film's coming to Chattanooga.

How to belong to beautiful places: instructions by Wendell Berry.
Images courtesy of Two Birds Film

"I can think of no stronger voice for the value of small places and the hope therein than Wendell Berry."

The times changes today. It's daylight savings.

Twice a year – in the fall, again in the spring – we shift our clocks back, as if magicians able to conjure up and reschedule the sunrise and sunset.

The time ... changes.

What an interesting phrase. Time seems to have that quality, doesn't it? Of being able to turn slow or fast, speed up or slow down?

Once, we went to NYC and stood transfixed in Times Square: the spires of advertising, the noise and devastatingly aggressive commercialism. My nervous system was amphetamized, my mind like a clothes dryer. Shaken and stirred, a country mouse in the big city, I was both exhausted and enthralled. In Times Square, time moved at ten times its normal rate.

Once, we went to the desert and camped out miles from any paved road. The stars were enormous, like crowns on our foreheads. We could hear the zippers on our tent, our bootsteps crunching in the sand, the breathing of coyotes two arroyos over. Time moved slowly there, as if time had all the time in the world.

The ... time ... changes.

As I write this, I look out the window: our brown dog is laying in orange leaves in the late morning November sun. He's been there for an hour or two, not moving, eyes closed, softly breathing.

I've had this quiet, probably strange, belief for a while now: so many of the problems in the world would be solved if we learned to sit quietly like this dog, each day, for an hour or so.

Instead of us wrestling with time, we let time move through us.

Images courtesy of Two Birds Film

Restlessness. Greed. They seem to energize so much of my activity. When I speed up, the time changes and I reach-grab-hustle-hurry-worry-slurry through my day.

Time moves differently when I am still.

To know a place – or person, or even the bite of food on my fork – I have to remain still within it.

When I am still, I'm able to receive what's around me.

When I receive what's around me, I'm able to open up, soften, reflect.

When I'm able to open up, I do less harm. I stop running from my experience. I'm able to know, at least for a moment or two, the actual place I'm in. The felt sense of it.

And time seems timeless.

In 1965, Wendell Berry left a teaching job in NYC and moved with his family to a farmhouse in Henry County, Kentucky. There, he began his abundant writing career: more than 80 books of essays, novels and poetry, all of which seem to revolve around naming both what's been lost and the path back to it.

For me, so much of his work can be distilled in two lines from "How to be a Poet":

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   

Images courtesy of Two Birds Film

His poem continues:

Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.  

How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry | Poetry Magazine

"He's a patron saint for many people," said Matt Busby.

Busby is a pastor at Mission Chattanooga and director of The Camp House and Mission, both of which are powerful expressions of Christian love rooted in this city. Busby is one of my favorite Chattanoogans, a man I admire deeply.

In 2014, strolling through McKay's, he picked up a copy of Berry's "Remembering."

"I was immediately hooked," Busby said. "He helped me name a lot of longings I had in my own heart about a place and need to belong in place."

How does our heart long for place?

What does it mean to belong?

What isolates, disconnects and prevents us from such belonging?

On Friday, Nov. 17, Busby and The Camp House will host the screening of Look & See: a portrait of Wendell Berry. The film was created by two Chattanooga-based filmmakers: Laura Dunn and Jeff Sewell.

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. –
Wendell Berry, Work Song Part II: A Vision

The event is free, but tickets are required. (Go here to reserve your spot.) The event begins at 6pm. and is followed by questions and discussion with the filmmakers and audience. Food as a Verb is a proud partner for this event.

Look & See: a Portrait of Wendell Berry (image courtesy of Two Birds Film)

"In this time when we are seeing, on a daily basis, the gross consequences of mass-scale globalization, I can think of no stronger voice for the value of small places and the hope therein than Wendell Berry," Dunn said. (She and Sewell moved here from Austin during the pandemic.)

Dunn met Berry during the production of her first film, The Unforeseen. Touring the film, she was moved – painfully – at how few Americans knew of him.

"So I set out to make a film version of [his essays] The Unsettling of America," she said. "That evolved into more of a portrait of his place."

Her film is gorgeous, heartbreaking and heart-filling, addressing – through interviews and images of Berry, his family and neighbors – the ongoing crisis at the heart of so much American suffering.

"The point of industrialism has been a replacement of people with machinery," Berry says in the film, "and the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands so that now, we can see both of those goals approaching some kind of fulfillment, some kind of realization."

Yet, there is a resistance and alternatives growing in communities all over America.

"You can find it if you hunt up the people working on a scale that's human and humane enough, people who love doing their work and do it out of great liking or love for it," he says.

This is what Busby means by place and belonging.

It's what I mean by stillness and time.

Our external suffering has its roots in the internal.

Our goal, Busby said, is not only a hearty, intellectual discussion of the film, but cultivating a very practical response: we want to know how we can impact our local economy and change culture, policies and outcomes.

Please join us on Friday, Nov. 17. Seating is limited to 250.

In the film, Dunn interviews one of Berry's children, who recalls her parents giving her frequent instruction wherever she went.


Pay attention.

"Look at this, see that it's good and don't forget. Whatever field we were in, whatever walk we took, we were told: look and see. What is that tree? What is this grass?" she says in the film.

"That is beautiful. Look and see that it is beautiful."

Images courtesy of Two Birds Film

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