I like Burley Coulter. I like him, at least in part, because he "caused a lot of trouble for himself and other people," as Wendell Berry puts it.
Burley is a member of Berry's fictitious town of Port William, the setting for novels such as Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. He is one of the most interesting and well-written characters in the Port William series and, really, one of the best characters in modern fiction. You can't read about him without wanting to be a little bit like him. Setting aside any real sin, you even want to get in the kind of trouble he gets into. But the attraction is deeper than that. Though he is flawed, there is a raw, earthy sanity about him, a pervasive humanness that we are drawn to—Burley Coulter is able to work and to love.
We meet him early in Nathan Coulter, the opening book of the series. To Nathan (and to those readers who first enter Port William through that initial installment) he is, forever, Uncle Burley. The name is fitting: he is a burly sort of fellow, who prefers to be outdoors and who is proficient in all manner of manly doings.
Uncle Burley is a skilled farmhand. He is adept at plowing with mules and countless other tasks. He is also described as disappearing into the wilderness for days, living from fishing and hunting. On the farm or in the forest, or anywhere really, he is good at what he does. And as you get to know him, you realize you don't just want to be like him, you want to be able to do the things he's able to do. But Burley's skill isn't just practical. Through his skill and his particular presence, he is life-giving to his community.
He can lighten drudgery with humor, getting the job done while helping others get through it. And that draws us to him even more deeply. This excerpt is from Hannah Coulter, with Hannah describing him:
"Many hands make light work," … that is right, up to a point. And there is a certain kind of talk that lightens the work too. Burley was a master of that. When the work was hard or hot or miserable, or when we were suffering our weariness at the end of a long day, we would hear him singing out: "It's root, hog, or die, boys! I was kicked out of Hell for playing in the ashes! All I want is a good single line mule and a long row!"
Later we see Burley working with two boys, one of them lazy and disinclined to do the work at hand and the other one overzealous and eager to a fault. To the former, he gives the right kind of encouragement, and to the latter, he aptly taps the brakes on his youthful drive. In this, I see a man who doesn't learn a few things and then impose them on everyone with smug surety. He is competent with reins and hammers, but also with hearts and egos.
He is competent with reins and hammers, but also with hearts and egos.
It recalls the scene where Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor: he says this after looking at the man, that particular man, "with love." Elsewhere, we hear in Burley's words, comically but movingly, the echo of St. Paul on love and membership in the body of Christ: "Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are members of one another. The difference, beloved, isn't in who is and who's not, but in who knows it and who don't."
Burley can take what he knows and apply it to people with good effect, most especially because, beneath his coarse exterior, he loves them. Without knowing what he knows or loving as he loves he would not be a man of such force.
We are not born knowing how to do things like brush our teeth, pray, or use a clutch, much less plow behind a mule or live off of fish and game in the wilderness. Learning how to do worthwhile things—achieving competency—is part of basic human maturity; it comes with time and determination. But even once achieved, it is only truly humanizing if it is ordered toward its proper end.
The root of competency is the Latin com, meaning "with," and petere, which can mean, "to rush in" or "to attack." Its use, however, is not aggressive like war but usually communal. I'm amazed at how often the modern sense of words carries the burden of competitiveness, as though that is our primary form of relationship with others. The word "compete" actually has the same roots as the word competency, but in classical usage, it meant to come together for a common goal, as opposed to fighting against each other for a limited reward (prizes, money, power). Sure, we might compare when we compete, but the idea is that our gifts make one another stronger. Etymology, of course, doesn't prove the point. But a careful reading of Berry (and the Bible) does. Our abilities and skills do not exist primarily so that we might gain an upper hand, but so that we might offer ourselves in a gift of love. That is the spirit of Burley's skill.
Our abilities and skills do not exist primarily so that we might gain an upper hand, but so that we might offer ourselves in a gift of love.
If we want to be like Uncle Burley, then, we must diligently pursue our competency—our ability to work—and our ability to love through that work. A lack of one or the other is disruptive to normal maturation of souls (our own and those within our care) and may limit how well we can fulfill our duties according to our state in life.
Conversely, too much time spent seeking and enjoying skills and abilities unrelated to, or even opposed to, our vocation can result in pride and disorder within ourselves and our households. Whatever else we may think of Sigmund Freud, he was at least on to something when he said that sanity is the ability to work and to love: "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." These maketh the man.
In a disembodied age focused almost exclusively on the psychological comfort and pronouncements of the ego (most apparent in social media), restating the obvious truth that you need to know how to do certain things in order to be fully human is threatening. Our culture sees work solely as a means to wealth. Meanwhile, our culture rewards mere effort, or even mere laziness, in order to preserve self-esteem, and this preservation it calls love.
But what if we rewarded actual ability and completion? Our lives demand more than effort—we must be able to do a job and do it well. "He did all things well," the people remarked of our Lord. It doesn't say he gave a good effort. (Surely he didn't have to suffer that modern form of abuse, being told "good job" when something was neither a job nor good.)
And what if we saw love not as a justification for forgoing work, for avoiding the development of real competence, but as the purpose and end for which work exists?
Passing through the hardships of learning to do something not only builds authentic confidence, it provides the natural mode of love expressed between spouses and between generations, between people and between peoples. We do well to recognize in a digitized age that there are no substitutes for the place that these competencies have in authentic formation and normal human culture. Burley wouldn't be Burley without his ability to work and to love. Those are things worth knowing how to do correctly.
Jason Craig. "To Work and To Love." Hearth & Field (2022).
Reprinted with permission from the author. Image credit: Georges de La Tour, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural North Carolina with his wife Katie and their seven children. He is the author of Leaving Boyhood Behind, the Senior Editor of Sword & Spade magazine, and co-founder of Fraternus. He also hosts retreats for boys and men through St. Joseph's Farm. He is known to staunchly defend his family's claim to have invented bourbon.Copyright © 2022 Hearth & Field
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