Posted by David
For anyone who has family that has lived in rural America in the past century, Andy Catlett Early Travels by Wendell Berry is a story about you. It’s all of our story. I think particularly of my dad because Andy, who this is written about from an older man’s perspective, would have been born in the same year, about 1936. This story is simple and spans only a few day’s time. A ten year old boy travels to both of his grandparents’ homes not 12 miles away from his own house. What makes this visit important was that he did it alone.
Andy first travels to his Dad’s parent’s home on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, where they still drive wagons with horse teams. His travel is then contrasted by a visit to his mom’s parent’s house in a nearby town. Mostly it’s a timeless story about people living in early 20th Century America and who we’ve become. We listen to the talk of people in their homes, barns and street corners from the perspective of Andy, who is going through his right of passage. It harkens in me my right of passage trip, when I traveled away from my parents when I was 11 to visit my friend’s grandparent’s farm in Virginia. Although that was in 1982, forty years after Andy’s travels, there were similarities. Rural America was chugging along with diesel with by then, but the people still sat around in the stillness of the evening and talked. I suppose that still happens today in places where the TV’s not on. Even in 1982, the memory of that old way was still strong. The grandmother was still canning her garden food with parrafin.
Wendell also talks about fossil fuels and WWII and how they so fundamentally changed life in America. He talks about the old slow world that has been replaced by a new fast world. The book itself slowed me down, certainly as intended. Wendell acknowledges something that I foresee also, that the old bygone world has a character that isn’t altogether lost and actually will be returning strong soon, albeit in a different form. We are presently on the cusp of a new era, one that will replace the new fast world, because cheap fossil fuels are almost gone. I look forward to slowing down despite all the difficulties that will arise with the coming shift.
It’s already happening in our country and will continue to do so each day. I recall seeing bits and pieces of that coming world when traveling South America over ten years ago. I remember hiking into a National Park in Chile and watching two young men with ropes wrestle a three-foot diameter couch-sized chunk of hardwood down the forested mountain trail. The rain and mist had muddied up the trail which helped the big log to slide. They were exhausted but bound to get their prize to market. On the same trip, I remember seeing a donkey pulling a chassis of maybe a VW beetle down the road. It’s already happening and closer to home than we might be aware.
After reading Wendell’s book, my wife and I were discussing it. We both long for a return to that slower life, but why? We know it’s not ideal and cloaked with it are a host of different problems than we have today. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about relationships. In Andy Catlett’s travels, he witnessed people working together in the barns, chatting together in the towns and in the homes. Modern technology hadn’t yet consumed relationships as it has under the influence of petrol. People’s hands touched. The sound waves of their voices directly stroked the hairs of others’ inner ears. Despite the fight it will take to get there, we’re going back, whether we like it or not.
Some compare our petrolium-based industrial society as a train about to wreck with destiny. I say we won’t make it that far. We may just run out of fuel and slowly, surely roll to a stop in a great vast wilderness. We’ll help each other off the train, some faning their faces from the heat of the midday sun. Some will stumble off half-drunk and have to deal with a bad hangover without the help of asprin. The children will jump off the train not knowing the difference and start playing with sticks and chasing jackrabbits. But most importantly we’ll start talking again and telling stories together. And finally after all these years we might just learn to listen to what others’ hearts have been telling us.
Consider listening to Andy and see what his heart has to offer you.