Here's what Wendell Berry's slower pace of life on a Kentucky farm can teach us about investing faithfully.
I exited off I-71, onto a winding Kentucky road with a green county sign directing me to Port Royal. Meandering through wispy fog and lush bluegrass pastures, old tobacco country, I saw only one or two other vehicles but lots of cows and rolling fields. Wendell Berry’s farm, Lane’s Landing, is a place you have to go to on purpose. Berry (best-selling novelist, poet, critic, farmer, and recipient of the National Humanities Medal) often writes about out of the way places, and he does so with integrity because he and his wife Tanya have given themselves to one for over 50 years.
In our final letter before my trip, Berry sent me primitive directions: a hand-sketched map directing me via landmarks (river and trees and a fork in the road and neighboring homesteads). There wasn’t a traffic light for miles. I pulled onto their one-lane driveway and walked up the steps onto the porch of their white two-story farmhouse. This weathered man with a generous smile and kind, wise eyes welcomed me; and for a couple hours we sat in wicker chairs, enjoying conversation under a grey sky and a cool, breezy mist.
Our talk ranged wide—challenging and hopeful, sobering and centering, somehow all at once. After leaving, I pulled off the road and opened my notebook, trying to recapture lines and memories, bits I wanted to return to (and I still ponder them now, almost a decade later). However, it wasn’t merely what Berry said that struck me as important but where he said it: a small patch of acreage in a supposedly forgotten section of Henry County, Kentucky. This was the place that so many of Berry’s friends insisted would ruin him.
It wasn’t merely what Berry said that struck me as important but where he said it: a small patch of acreage in a supposedly forgotten section of Henry County, Kentucky. This was the place that so many of Berry’s friends insisted would ruin him.
After completing his graduate creative writing program with Pulitzer-winner Wallace Stegner at Stanford and after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship affording his family a year in Italy and France, Berry was on the fast-track. Berry joined the English faculty of New York University, landing him in the epicenter of the literary world, where editors and publishers and lucrative book contracts were for the taking. Yet he found himself disillusioned with the assumptions undergirding publishing success. He was following the template—the right city, with the right people, pushing fast and hard—but he found himself longing for the old homeplace, to deepen his writing and pursue convictions requiring radical realignment. When Berry decided to leave New York and head back to Kentucky, he knew he was turning “directly against the current of intellectual fashion.” Everyone thought he was insane, snuffing out his light just as it was beginning to burn. Certain Berry would ruin his career, Stegner tried to talk him out of this cataclysmic misjudgment.
However, Berry had gained clarity—the success he was after was about far more than immediate splash and impact. Berry wasn’t first aiming to write books that landed on the Times bestseller list. He wanted to stand for and contribute to something that would outlive him. He believed in ideas that required an immensely long view, and he’d committed himself to nurturing truths that put him wildly at odds with the status quo. He longed to participate in the healing of land and communities —and he saw no way to do this from New York and within prevailing formulas. So, Berry returned to Kentucky where from his twelve-by-sixteen-foot writing shed alongside the river, he’s scribbled out some fifty-two novels and collections of essays and poems that (now, at the age of 88) challenge so many of our modern conventions around business and farming and being human and how we determine what’s good.
Berry writes often about economies (not only money and commerce but the interdependence of humans and land and a good life). Among his many contrarian assertions is his rejection of our myopic fascination with short-term profits, a trance that blocks us from pursuing what’s necessary to promote long-term good for our homes, businesses, and neighbors. Author and teacher Steven Garber shared how he once took two senior executives of large corporations to spend an afternoon at Lane’s Landing. Before they left, Berry shared his long-won wisdom: “If you want to make money for a year, then you have to ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for a hundred years, then you have to ask other questions.” 1 One can trace how the choice to leave New York for the Kentucky farm and his convictions regarding industry and economics are part of a seamless whole, a far-reaching imagination about investing in a healing venture that will stretch long past our current horizon.
“If you want to make money for a year, then you have to ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for a hundred years, then you have to ask other questions.”
This vision requires us to overturn prevailing assumptions and rethink from the ground up how we judge impact and success, how we evaluate balance sheets and corporate earnings, and how we construct our own investment portfolios. However, all of this is a vision steeped in biblical wisdom. In Scripture’s inaugural story, God instructed the first humans to be fruitful and fill the earth, to nurture creation with tender skill. While slowly maturing under the tutelage of God’s wisdom, Adam and Eve were to work with diligence and care, slowly extending the Garden of Eden’s lush life over the rest of creation. This was a long-term project if there ever was one, an enterprise worthy of all they could bring to it, worthy of their entire lives.
But the serpent’s seduction was potent, luring them away from dogged trust in God and away from the prolonged, steadfast project their Creator had given. The quick shortcut to what they thought they wanted was too tempting to resist. Often, it still is. We push the land beyond its limits, pumping toxins in search of a higher yield. We clearcut mountaintops and forests in search of fast timber and rapid development. We incentivize workweek schedules to produce more and more, faster and faster. Isn’t it remarkable how despite humanity’s momentous development over the ages, our temptations haven’t changed a bit? We’re still impatient. We still grasp for more than God-given limits allow. We still fail to trust God.
Like Adam and Eve, we struggle to see human work, including the work we participate in through investing and the deployment of capital, with the patience that those Eden instructions require. If we live on the razor edge, anxiously addicted to monitoring the shifting winds from quarterly reports or the tyrannical scrolling bar on CNBC, then we will be controlled by fear and greed. If we are concerned only for our little bit of garden here and now but not the garden of abundance and flourishing God intends for the whole world, then we’ll selfishly pad our IRAs without regard for protecting others’ future and wellbeing. If we wring our hands only over percentages and margins without considering the real costs to families and nature and worker’s health and economic sustainability, then perhaps we’ll enjoy an immediate bump in our return, but I’m not sure we should actually call it profit. Our timeline is just too short. We aim for money for a year (or a handful of years), but don’t we want to make money (and do good) for a hundred years?
Our timeline is just too short. We aim for money for a year (or a handful of years), but don’t we want to make money (and do good) for a hundred years?
God intends for every stitch of his world to be healed, to be fruitful and flourish. This is a massive project, where God invites us to gather our best thinking and skill and the wise, faithful deployment of our resources into partnership with his cosmic renewal. And doing this will mean joining God’s expansive vision and investing in a future that stretches far, far beyond us.
Image used with permission
DISCLOSURE This communication is provided for informational purposes only and was made possible with the financial support of Eventide Asset Management, LLC (“Eventide”), a Registered Investments Advisor. Eventide Center for Faith and Investing is an educational initiative of Eventide. Information contained herein has been obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable.