By Fleming Smith
Sewanee’s first-year program “Finding Your Place” recently completed its third year. The ten-day experience ended with a “Berry Symposium” featuring Wendell Berry and his daughter Mary the lens of chemistry, archaeology, and a host of Berry. In the program affectionately dubbed FYP, approximately 150 freshman students began their studies at Sewanee on August 12th. These students started one of their courses early, learning about the Domain and its surrounding communities through other subjects. Through readings, field trips, and plenary lectures, these students sought to gain an understanding of place and how to find their own place in Sewanee. Wendell Berry, a noted writer and environmental activist, visited campus on Photo courtesy of www.orchardwriting.comAugust 20th and 21st to discuss his own perception of place. Berry’s writings draw inspiration from his agricultural roots in Kentucky, and his works convey a strong emphasis on living in tune with nature. Mary Berry, his daughter, is the director of the Berry Center, an organization that works for agricultural reform. Several students from St. Catharine College, located in Kentucky, accompanied the Berry family. These visiting students are studying Farming and Ecological Agrarianism, a degree program made possible through a partnership with the Berry Center.
At the symposium Mary Berry spoke extensively on the Berry Center’s work to support local farms through various projects, including sustainability and a plan to help small farmers compete in the marketplace. Mary Berry urged listeners to live in a world of “affection and membership,” a lifestyle she and her father believe stems from a strong sense of place and belonging. A large part of place, they argued, is being able to put down deep roots, to devote yourself to learning about a place in its entirety—perhaps committing the rest of your life to a certain place. “To one whose eyes have opened, any place is compounded of places unending to the end of time,” writes Berry in one of his Sabbaths 2013 poems. This line embodies one of the overarching themes of the symposium, “Imagination in Place,” the title of one of Berry’s essays. When the subject of education emerged on the last day of the symposium and of “Finding Your Place,” Berry said, “[We need to] confront people with themselves.” Much of the modern education system, he suggested, is based on productivity and external rewards, rather than the self-worth of students and faculty. Berry and his daughter asked students to cultivate an internal sense of place, using this knowledge to make “your” place better. During FYP, professors often remarked on the need for reflection. Students kept journals on Sewanee as a place and how they, as individuals, could make Sewanee their own place. For so many of these students, on the tenth day of their freshman year, college was the unknown, perhaps a scary unknown. Berry gave this advice: “Become acquainted with the dark,” he said, in order to find your own inner light.