Last week I traveled to Kentucky to participate in a conference sponsored by The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. While I might comment at some other moment on some of my conference experiences, including sitting in sessions with Silas House and Fenton Johnson and hearing Wendell Berry read an unpublished Port William story, the week was a delight for many other reasons. For example, I got to share meals and times with several friends, including Ed McClanahan, Guy Mendes, Jay Denham, Ryan Cheong, Laura Chandler, Brian Vickers, Jamie Bartek, Mandy and Matt Higgins, and David Shields at places like Heine Brothers Coffee, Holly Hill Inn, Smithtown Seafood, Country Boy Brewing, and Joella’s Hot Chicken. Who could complain about such a week? I mean, seriously, who? And why?
Halfway through the week, however, I did receive some sad news, which made me have contrary feelings about the week. On Monday, May 31, 2016, the farmer and writer Gene Logsdon passed away. Contrary, though, seems the proper response. You see, Gene published much of his work online for nearly the last decade under the guise of the Contrary Farmer.
Wendell Berry introduced me to Gene Logsdon. Or rather Wendell’s writings introduced me to Gene’s writings. Getting to know Gene’s writings (especially his agricultural essays) led to a trip to Gene’s beautiful farm in north central Ohio with a friend, Paul House, to talk with Gene and Carol, his wife, about his fiction, as well as his friendship with Berry. In preparing for that weekend trip, I read most, though not all, of Gene’s nonfiction work, including but not limited to The Contrary Farmer, Holy Shit, All Flesh is Grass, The Mother of All Arts, and Good Spirits. I only read Gene’s fiction (The Lords of Folly, The Last of the Husbandmen, The Man Who Created Paradise, and Pope Mary & the Church of Almighty Good Food) following our visit as Paul and I prepared to write our essay. For about a week, I devoured those four titles, reflecting on the conversation we had shared with Gene and Carol (both before and after she poured he and I some of his beloved Woodford Reserve). I even set aside some of his nonfiction to do so. One of those set-aside volumes was his Gene Everlasting: A Contrary Farmer’s Thoughts on Living Forever (2014). Gene wrote this collection of essays documenting some of his reflections about life and death after he “became a cancer survivor” (vii). Since it was cancer that ultimately claimed his life, I did not hesitate to pick up Gene Everlasting when I returned home to Buffalo. I am not certain how I would have read it in the days prior to his death, but the ideas of permanence and immortality with which he wrestles certainly take on new meanings in these days after his death.
Allow me to encourage you to visit Gene’s website. Read his essays there. Then order a few of his many books. Regardless of whether you farm or agree with all his philosophical leanings, you will nearly certainly learn from his nonfiction. I did. His contrariness will likely challenge you. It did me. As you turn to his fiction (and please do so), you will find lively characters who live their lives completely—much like Gene did. Maybe as a precursor to his fiction, read the short essay, “Contrary Fiction,” Paul and I published in The Draft Horse Journal (Winter 2014-2015).
I am grateful to have known Gene even in the small way and for the short length of time that I did. I learned quite a few things from him and his work, including the one I put off reading until these past few days where he advised:
Only through change is permanence achieved. Be still, frantic human. To understand immortality, embrace mortality (171).