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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Value

Sid Shroyer

Among Wendell Berry’s many writings, poems, essays, and novels, is the fictionalized account of his boyhood Kentucky home, the novel called How it Went.

Andy, the central character, is considering the nature of life for members of the neighboring Branch family, who make a conscious effort to avoid ascribing value to things they don’t value. It’s a push back against modern American life and it puts me in mind of my own family. I suppose my parents could today be described as “plain.” They did not value money, but they valued some of the things that money could buy, like books and a college education for their children.

My folks grew up as members of large farm families one hundred years ago, in time a little before the “Andy,” of Berry’s story, but of that ilk, I might imagine Wendell Berry saying. Family farming still dominated American agriculture back then. Today it does not. Most farming back then was growing things that would feed the family that grew them. Selling a little surplus would help along the way but money, Wendell Berry explains, was inherently inferior to the land and what the land provided, life. Most farming now is a for-profit operation with the value of land simply the amount of money someone might pay for it or the amount of money it could create. My parents did not grow up in a place where people abused the land to make money. They grew up in a place where people cared for the land to grow food, for themselves, mostly, to eat.

The very word “value” had a different meaning then, and as Wendell Berry tells us throughout his life, that is a great loss.

Neighbors watched out for each other. Three farmers told me separately at my dad’s funeral home viewing 37 years ago that he refused to accept money for his welding work on their in-the-field broken down equipment. With Berry’s help I’m seeing what Dad saw, that putting a cash value on service to one’s neighbors in a time of need diminishes the inherent value of the gesture. Dad resisted that idea. There’s more to it, I see now, than simply being “nice.”

For the fictionalized Branch family, Berry says, “They held a certain distrust against money itself, or the idea of it, as if a token of value were obviously inferior to, obviously worse than, a thing of value.”

We’re 180 degrees removed from that, now, in a society where “value” is synonymous with a dollar amount. Our homes, and even the future of our children, are labelled as “investments.” For its own great profit, Facebook has turned the word “friend” into a commodity. The token of value is superior to the thing being valued.

When I wish to myself that I had back a Mickey Mantle baseball card I stuck in my bicycle spokes 60 years ago, it’s only because I’ve learned to value the contemporary token value of the thing more than the pleasure I got out of turning the most notable member of the hated New York Yankees into bicycle noise. What really, though, is the greater value of a piece of cardboard with an image of man who plays a game for a living? Take that, big shot!

The abstract “market” guides the tenor of our society to the degree that even destroying the planet is more “valuable” than not destroying the planet because the token of value of the thing takes precedence over the value of the thing. It’s hard to turn off the spigots of self-destruction when the thing coming out of the tap is the perception of wealth.

In How It Went, Wendell Berry writes, “Andy … has finally understood that, however it may be loved for itself, money is only the means of purchasing something of real worth that is not money. To live almost entirely, or entirely, by purchase, as many modern people do, is to depress the worth of every actual thing to its price.”

Even back in rural 1950s Kentucky, Berry’s Danny Branch was an anomaly, preferring his team of mules to a tractor, living with his wife and seven children on the margin of a society they happily chose to be apart from.

That “Marginality,” Wendell Berry writes, “conscious and deliberate, principled marginality, as Andy eventually realized, was an economic practice, informed by something like a moral code and ultimately something like religion.”

I get that. I would not have been able to properly write an account of my father’s life without having read the essays and stories of Wendell Berry.


Music: "You Are My Flower" - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Earl Scruggs, Norman Blake, Junior Huskey, Randy Scruggs, and Hanna Thompson





Sid Shroyer is a contributor to Michiana Chronicles and was a co-creator of The Wild Rose Moon Radio Hour, heard monthly on WVPE. He became a part-time announcer at WVPE in 2001 and has just recently retired from hosting of All Things Considered.