Birds & Wendell Berry

This summer, the Faculty Ministry Leadership Team (of which I’m a part) is reading two books: Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness by Eugene Peterson, and Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry.  Yesterday, I sat for a few minutes in awe of this passage from Jayber Crow, in which Jayber, the barber of a fictional Kentucky town, Port William, explain the origin of his name:

If you have lived in Port William a little more than two years, you are still, by Port William standards, a stranger, liable to to have your name mispronounced.  Crow was not a familiar name in this part of the country, and so for a long time a lot of people here called me Cray, a name that was familiar.  And though I was only twenty-two when I came to the town, many of the same ones would call me “Mr. Cray” to acknowledge that they did not know me well.  My rightful first name in Jonah, but I had not gone by that name since I was ten years old.  I had been called simply J., and that was the way I signed myself.  Once my customers took me to themselves, they called me Jaybird, and then Jayber.  Thus I became, and have remained, a possession of Port William.

I have experienced firsthand the confusion of names in small town Kentucky.  In Benton, where I grew up, “Hickerson” was not known, but “Henderson,” “Henson,” “Dickerson,” and “Nickerson” were, so I spent a fairly significant part of my childhood correcting my name on official forms of various sorts.

But notice what Berry pulls off here, with a quick series of bird images. “Crow,” of course, begins the passage.  “Jonah,” however, means “dove” in Hebrew, and “Jayber” is a derivation of “Jaybird.”  In case that was not enough, we learn on the next page that Jayber’s mother was Iona Quail.  After reading this, I sat for several minutes, letting the images come to me and imagining what they might portend for this book.

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