What is the future of this place? - Jan. 30, 2020
Sinking into Shafter's roots
January 30, 2020 | View PDF
"I began a motion of the heart toward my origins." When I read this sentence in Wendell Berry's novel, Jayber Crow, I recognized the feeling. It was 2003. I was a third-generation Shafter native, living in Virginia and feeling increasingly out of place. A motion had begun back to my origins. In the book, Jayber is a promising student. His teachers tell him he could rise above his roots. He wasn't interested. "Far from rising above them, I was longing to sink into them until I would know the fundamental things."
It took a while, but I made it home. This is my 10th year back in Shafter. Wendell Berry was partly responsible for the move. Like Jayber Crow, Berry had given up an academic career to return to his family place, a farm in Kentucky. I long admired his loyalty and his writing. I have a copy of his Collected Poems and in my travelling twenties, I read that book in many faraway places thinking of Shafter. When I changed my Facebook profile location to "Shafter," a friend from Virginia teased me by commenting simply, "Wendell Berry."
A few years ago, City Manager John Guinn, came into my office and told me that someone from [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist[END ITAL] magazine wanted to talk to us. This was completely unexpected and an ironic twist in my relationship with the magazine. In college at Fresno Pacific, [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist[END ITAL] had been my connection to the big world.
If Wendell Berry was partly responsible for the move home, [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist[END ITAL] was part of what drew me away in the first place. Sitting in the Fresno Pacific library, I was especially intrigued by the job ads. They would advertise corporate vice president and program director positions in places like London, Geneva and New York. What would a day be like in a job that required fluent French and English, an advanced degree and extensive experience with international finance? I had no idea. I guessed it happened in tall buildings, with dark wood paneling and people in dark suits sitting in leather chairs.
[BEGIN ITAL]The Economist[END ITAL] would be on a table in the lobby. In my travels, I never really saw that place. Instead, it was here, in the lobby of the Shafter City Hall, with no wood paneling or leather chairs, that I met [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist.[END ITAL] When it happened, the reporter set a copy of [BEGIN ITAL]The Shafter Press[END ITAL] down on a table and said, "Hello" in a British accent.
He was working on a story about the economic challenges facing the Central Valley. As the interview ended, I asked for a favor. "Please don't make us out to be victims, okay? Don't treat us like the Appalachia of the West." Unfortunately, he liked the phrase a little too much. Those four words remain my only contribution to [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist.[END ITAL]
Still, it was a fair and thoughtful story. Most of all, it ended with a good question. I might even count the fact that it ended with a question as a victory for my "don't make us victims" plea. He asked: "What is the future of this place?"
When I was asked to write for [BEGIN ITAL]The Press,[END ITAL] I remembered that question. If you read it with a personal stake in the answer, it sounds a lot like a question about loyalty and aspiration, roots and dreams, Wendell Berry and [BEGIN ITAL]The Economist.[END ITAL] It makes me think of the shop and restaurant owners around town who came from all over the world and have bet everything on building a business here. It makes me think of a boy in town who leaves books in barber shops because he wants to help other kids who love to read. It makes me think of the young people I know who are off becoming doctors and engineers in hopes of coming back and making a difference here. I don't know what the future of this place is, but I hope it will be like this. These stories connect with what I think is the best of Shafter's striving past. You might even say that these are the roots worth sinking into.