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Fall 2014

The Branch Way of Doing

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Wendell Berry

Danny Branch is older than Andy Catlett by about two years, which matter to them far less now than when they were young. They are growing old together with many of the same things in mind, many of the same memories. They often are at work together, just the two of them, taking a kind of solace and an ordinary happiness from their profound knowledge by now of each other’s ways and of how to do whatever they are doing. They don’t talk much. There is little to explain, they both are likely to know the same news, and Danny anyhow, unlike his father, rarely has anything extra to say.

Andy has always known Danny, but he knows that, to somebody who has not long known him, Danny might be something of a surprise. As if by nature, starting with the circumstances of his birth, as if by his birth he had been singled out and set aside, he has never been a conventional man. To Andy he has been not only a much-needed friend, but also, along with Lyda and their children, a subject of enduring interest and of study.

Danny is the son of Kate Helen Branch and Burley Coulter. His family situation was never formalized by a wedding between his parents, who for various and changing reasons lived apart, but were otherwise as loving and faithful until death as if bound by vows. And Danny was as freely owned and acknowledged, and about as attentively cared for and instructed, by Burley as by Kate Helen. “He’s my boy,” Burley would say to anybody who may have wondered. “He was caught in my trap.”

And so Danny grew up, learning by absorption the frugal, elaborate housekeeping of his mother through the Depression and afterward, and grew up also, from the time he could walk, in the tracks of his father, which led to work, to the woods, to the river, sometimes to town. Danny learned as they went along what came from work, what came, more freely, from the river and the woods, what came even from the easy, humorous talk of his father and his friends.

The whole story of Burley Coulter will never be known, let alone told. Maybe more than his son, he would have been a surprise to somebody expecting the modern version of Homo sapiens. He loved the talk and laughter of work crews and the loafing places of Port William, but he was known also to disappear from such gatherings to go hunting or fishing alone, sometimes not to be seen by anybody for two or three days. Everybody knew, from testimony here and there, from gossip, that he had been by nature and almost from boyhood a ladies’ man. Little girls had dreamed they would grow up and marry him, and evidently a good many bigger girls had had the same idea. But he remained a free man until, as he put it, Kate Helen had put a bit in his mouth and reined him up. But nobody had heard much more than that from Burley himself. He was full of stories, mostly funny, mostly at his own expense, but they never satisfied anybody’s curiosity about his love life. He never spoke disrespectfully of a woman. He never spoke of intimacy with a woman. And so Port William speculated and imagined and labored over what it believed to be his story, receiving the testimony of many of its own authorities: “Why, he did! I know damn well he did!” And Burley quietly amused himself by offering no help at all. It is possible, Andy thinks, that Burley was the hero of a work of fiction, of which he was hardly innocent, but a work of fiction nevertheless, composed entirely in the conversation of Port William.

Burley knew the way questions followed him, and he enjoyed the chase, preserving himself unto himself sometimes, like a well-running red fox, by arts of evasion, sometimes by artful semi-truths. Those who thought to catch him were most apt to catch a glimpse as he fled or perhaps flew, a mere shadow on the horizon. When he stood and faced you, therefore, as he did stand and face the people he loved, his candor would be felt as a gift given. But in ordinary conversation with the loafers and bystanders of Port William, he could be elusive.

“Where was you at last night, Burley? I come over to see you, and you wasn’t home.”

“I stepped out a while.”

“Well, I reckon your dogs must’ve stepped out too. I didn’t see no dogs.”

“My dogs do step out.”

“Reckon you all was stepping out off up Katy’s Branch somewhere?”

“A piece farther, I reckon.”

“Well, now, where?”

“Well, till full day I didn’t altogether exactly know.”

“If I couldn’t hunt and know where I was, damned if I wouldn’t stay home.”

“Oh, I knew where I was, but I didn’t know where where I was was.”

Danny, his father’s son and heir in many ways, always has been a more domestic man, and a quieter one, than his father. In 1950, two years after the law allowed him to quit school and he started farming “full time” for himself, he married Lyda, and the two of them moved in with Burley, who had been living in the old house on the Coulter home place alone ever since his mother died.

For seven years Danny and Lyda had no children, and then in the following ten years they had seven: Will, Royal, Coulter, Fount, Reuben, and finally (“Finally!” Lyda said) the two girls, Rachel and Rosie. Lyda, who had been Lyda Royal, had grown up in a family of ten children, and she said that the Lord had put her in this world to have some more. Like Danny, she had grown up poor and frugal. “If my daddy shot a hawk that was killing our hens, we ate the hawk.”

She was about as tall as Danny, stoutly framed but not fat, a woman of forthright strength and presence whose unwavering countenance made it easy to remember that she was blue-eyed. She and Danny are the best-matched couple, Andy thinks, that he has ever known. That they had picked each other out and become a couple when they were hardly more than children and married before they could vote seems to Andy nothing less than a wonder. He supposes that they must have had, both of them, the gift of precocious self-knowledge, which could only have seemed wondrous to Andy, whose own mind has come clear to him slowly and at the cost of much labor.

For a further wonder, Danny and Lyda seem to have understood from the start that they would have to make a life together that would be determinedly marginal to the modern world and its economy—a realization that only began to come to Andy with the purchase of the Harford place when he was thirty. It was already present in Danny’s mind at the age of sixteen, when nearly everybody around Port William was buying a tractor, and he stuck with his team of mules.

Marginality, 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. No Branch of Danny’s line ever spoke directly of morality or religion, but their practice, surely for complex reasons, was coherent enough that their ways were known in the Port William neighborhood and beyond by the name of Branch. “That’s a Branch way of doing,” people would say. Or by way of accusation: “You trying to be some kind of Branch?”

To such judgments—never entirely condemnatory, but leaning rather to caution or doubt or bewilderment, for there was a lot of conventional advice that the Branches did not take—it became almost conventional to add, “They’re a good-looking family of people.” The good looks of Danny and Lyda when they were a young couple became legendary among those who remembered them as they were then. Their children were good-looking—“Of course,” people said—and moreover they looked pretty much alike. Danny and Lyda were a good cross.

Their economic life, anyhow, has been coherent enough to have kept the Branch family coherent. By 2004, Branch children and grandchildren are scattered through the Port William neighborhood, as Lyda says, like the sage in sausage. They stick together—whether for fear of Lyda, or because they like each other, or just because they are alike, is a question often asked but never settled. Wherever you find a Branch household you are going to find a lot of food being raised, first to eat and then to sell or give away, also a lot of free provender from the waters and the woods. You are going to find a team, at least, of horses or mules. But there are Branches catering to the demand for heavy pulling horses. Some keep broodmares and sell anything from weanlings to broke farm teams. If a team will work cheaper or better than a tractor, a Branch will use a team. But with a few exceptions in the third generation, they also can fix anything mechanical, and so no Branch has ever owned a new car or truck or farm implement. Their habit is to find something that nobody else wants, or that everybody else has given up on, and then tow or haul it home, fix it, and use it.

As they live at the margin of the industrial economy, they live also at the margin of the land economy. They can’t afford even moderately good land, can’t even think of it. And so such farms as they have managed to own are small, no better than the steep-sided old Coulter place where Danny and Lyda have lived their married life, no better even than the much abused and neglected Riley Harford place that Andy and Flora Catlett bought in 1964.

The Branch family collectively is an asset to each of its households, and often to their neighbors as well. This may be the surest and the best of the reasons for their success, which is to say their persistence and their modest thriving. When the tobacco program failed, and with it the tobacco economy of the small farmers, and when, with that, the long tradition of work-swapping among neighbors, even acquaintance with neighbors, was petering out, the Branches continued to swap work. They helped each other. When they knew their neighbors needed help, they went and helped their neighbors. If you bought something the Branches had for sale, and they were always likely to have something to sell, or if you hired them, they expected of course to be paid. If, on the contrary, they went to help a neighbor in need, they considered their help a gift, and so they would accept no pay. These transactions would end with a bit of conversation almost invariable, almost a ritual:

“Well, what I owe you?”

“Aw, I’m liable to need help myself sometime.”

The old neighborly ways of Port William, dying out rapidly at the start of the third millennium, have survived in Danny and Lyda Branch, and have been passed on to their children. The one boast that Andy ever heard from Danny was that he had worked on all his neighbors’ farms and had never taken a cent of money in payment. After his boys grew big enough to work, and he knew of a neighbor in need of help, instead of going himself he would sometimes send a couple of the boys. He would tell them: “If they offer you dinner, you can eat, but don’t you come back here with any money.”

This uneasiness about money Andy recognizes from much else that he has known of the people of Port William and similar places. Free exchanges of work and other goods they managed easily, but transactions of money among friends and neighbors nearly always involved an embarrassment that they had to alleviate by much delay, much conversation, as if to make the actual handing of cash or a check incidental to a social occasion. It was not, Andy thought, that they agreed with the scripture that “the love of money is the root of all evil,” but that from a time even older 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. And so a man, understanding himself as a neighbor, could not accept money as in any way representative of work or goods given in response to a need.

The Branches, then, would have things to sell. They would work now and then for wages. At convenience or if they had to, they would spend. But their aim, as often as possible, was to have a choice: something they could do or make or find instead of spending money, even of earning it.

Of the source and the reasons for this Branch fastidiousness, Andy is still unsure. For himself, he has finally understood that, however it may be loved for itself, money is only symbolic, only the means of purchasing something that is not money. To live almost entirely, or entirely, by purchase, as many modern people do, is to equate the worth of every actual thing with its price. The symbol thus comes to limit and control the thing it symbolizes, and like a rust or canker finally consumes it. And so buying and selling for money is not simply a matter of numbers and accounting, but is a dark and fearful mystery.

Do the Branches know this? Because he so imperfectly knows it himself, Andy has not known how to ask Danny or Lyda if they know it. He knows only that they, and their children too, seem to be living from some profound motive of good will, even of good cheer, that shows itself mainly in their practice of their kind of economy. The Branches are not much given to explaining.

And so in addition to being included in their friendship, benefiting from it, knowing them well, and loving them in just return, Andy has studied them with endless liking and fascination, feeling always that there is yet more that he needs to know. He believes that the way they live, and the way they are, can be summed up, not explained, by a set of economic principles, things Danny could have told his children but probably never did, or needed to. Andy, anyhow, after many years of observing and pondering, has made a list of instructions that he hears in Danny’s voice, whether or not Danny can be supposed ever to have said them:

1 – Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better.

2 – Don’t buy anything you don’t need.

3 – Don’t buy what you ought to save. Don’t buy what you ought to make.

4 – Unless you absolutely have got to do it, don’t buy anything new.

5 – If somebody tries to sell you something to “save labor,” look out. If you can work, then work.

6 – If other people want to buy a lot of new stuff and fill up the country with junk, use the junk.

7 – Some good things are cheap, even free. Use them first.

8 – Keep watch for what nobody wants. Sort through the leavings.

9 – You might know, or find out, what it is to need help. So help people.

Andy heard Danny say only one thing of this kind, but what he said summed up all the rest.

When he was just old enough to have a driver’s license, Reuben, Danny and Lyda’s youngest boy, raised a tobacco crop and spent almost all he earned from it on a car. It was a used car—Reuben, after all, was a Branch—but it was a fancy car. Lyda thought the car was intended to appeal to a certain girl. The girl, it turned out, was more impressed with another boy’s car, so Reuben got only his car for his money, plus, as his mother told him soon enough, his good luck in losing the girl. Though all in vain, the car was bright red, and had orange and black flames painted on its sides, and had a muffler whose mellow tone announced that Reuben was more rank and ready than he actually was.

Andy and Danny were at work together in Andy’s barn when Reuben arrived in his new-to-him car. He had promised his help, and he was late. He drove right up to the barn door, where his red and flaming vehicle could hardly have looked more unexpected. He gunned the engine, let it gargle to a stop, and got out. Maybe he had already had a second thought or two, for a touch of sheepishness was showing through his pride. Danny favored his son with a smile that Reuben was not able to look away from. Reuben had to stand there, smiling back, while, still smiling, his father looked him over. When Danny spoke he spoke in a tone of merriment—the epithet he used seemed almost indulgent—but his tone was nonetheless an emphasis upon a difference that he clearly regarded as fundamental: Some people work hard for what they have, and other people are glad to take it from them easily. What he said Andy has remembered ever since as a cry of freedom: “Sweetheart, I told you. And you’re going to learn. Don’t let the sons of bitches get ahold of your money.”

Wendell Berry, a farmer and environmental activist who lives in Kentucky, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His latest book is This Day, which came out from Counterpoint in 2013.

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