A Passion for Excellence and Order

Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and the he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude- though the farmers who have it have no been much acknowledged or much rewarded.

Such an attitude does not come from technique or technology. It does not come from education; in more than two decades in universities I have rarely seen it. It does not come even from principle. It comes from a passion that is culturally prepared- a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love. When we destroy the possibility of that succession, we will have gone far toward destroying ourselves.

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture

Reading Berry’s words here immediately brought to my mind one older person who probably did more than anyone to instill that “passion for excellence and order” in me, Mr. Jones Woods. A master woodcarver, originally from rural North Carolina, he taught me woodcarving for several years during my boyhood in Tennessee (granted, not that terribly long ago, all things considered), instructing me in the very basics of knife strokes, how to read the grain, how to manipulate a chisel, and so on. I can’t say that I ever became a master woodcarver, though through his oversight I worked out a few decent pieces. More importantly, while learning under him I saw his love of good craftsmanship, of hard, patient, steady work, and the resulting excellence. He invested continually in my life- I would often stay after my lessons were up to listen to his stories, watch him work on one of his ongoing pieces, watch him tie flies, or just talk about life.

He was precisely the sort of person I wanted to be around- not because he always “affirmed” me in my work or ideas, but rather, even in his criticism he was genuinely constructive, and terribly patient (he also kept bandaids in stock for the times- more than once- in which his repeated urges to “slow down” were ignored and the knife took off more than basswood). In everything he conveyed the sorts of cultural values that are so neccessary for living a truly “good life” that embrace more than instant gratification and mockingly artificial and surface pleasures and goods, a world of pre-packaged everything. And in everything Mr. Jones’s Christianity was evident: he lived and breathed his faith, whether in his love for his wife, in his craftsmanship, or his solid churchmanship- and in so doing he made manifest a Christianity that revelled in the goodness of the natural world offered back up to God in thanksgiving. He knew and loved beauty, in a rich strong masculine way, and found beauty in hard work and honest commitment. To sum up, he taught me far more than the art of turning a block of basswood into art: the intersection of his life and abiding passion for excellence and goodness with my life instilled in me all manner of virtues. I genuinely loved and respected him, and still do, though I haven’t gotten to see Mr. Woods in several years now, as he and his wife moved off to Michigan to be closer to their children. It is very much people like Mr. Jones that hold culture together. Wendell Berry is right on- internet and iPods and fancier universities will not do the job. It is real, genuinely real, people, themselves rich in passion for virtuous living, that preserve and encourage real, healthy culture.

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