Debriefing SEJ 2008: a Beginning


You probably know the feeling–the mixed emotions after a week away, relieved to be free of steady-state, always-on attention to names, words and issues, now home, in the quiet let down to be out of the wash of adrenalin, zeal and the buzz of so many good ideas.

Ah, but to flop on your own worn napping couch, to sit once more in your favorite chair that holds the impression of years of your sitting, to sip coffee from your own stained mug. The dog who has missed you so sits at your feet, the kettle gently hisses on the wood stove (since in your absence, winter has come!)

Alas you face this morning the emails, the phone messages to return, bills to pay, fires to put out even while you keep the one behind the glass door of the stove perking along; you will attend to the piles that contain your life and under which somewhere is a once familiar oak desk.

I want to go back through the copious but not-terribly-rigorous notes I took over five days of meetings because I know there are websites and quotes and topics I’d want to share with you.

That I have a lot of notes is not difficult to understand if you realize that we never sat down to eat or to ride a bus but that some planned speaker was informing us of one thing or another or the person to your left and right at dinner were immensely interesting people worthy of their own scribbled notes that you hid on a slip of paper under your napkin.

There was very little dead air at SEJ; and one could not afford the luxury of free time. On the other hand, there were practically no moments–as there are typically many  at long conferences I’ve attended in the past–in which my internal dialogue was muttering “I don’t think I can stand another minute of this waste of my time. I’m not getting any younger!”

Impressions: this was in many ways to me more like being with my “kind” than a family reunion of genes shared by chance alone, than a high school reunion of vaguely-remembered fight songs, than a conference within my day-job peers of goniometer-carrying physical therapists.

The folks at this conference by and large were “like me” in ways that matter a lot to me, being both respecters of the power of words and engaged, earth-aware citizens who looked you in the eye with genuine interest and wanted to know your story. I was not the stranger in a strange land I had expected and dreaded I would be.

I’ll be pulling from the experience toward a consolidated expression of the event in a week or so. Until then, let me recommend this 13 minute youtube video of Wendell Berry (perhaps the only video of the man) giving a January speech against MTR that he read to us at breakfast yesterday morning. I challenge you to watch it all and listen from the heart and gut and not be moved.

Of this I am certain: many writers from across the country who attended the SEJ conference in Roanoke have come for the first time to our southern mountains; many have seen first hand the “garden land that has now become the waste land.” And they have been moved. Thank God for their voices while there is yet time.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Great blog! Enjoyed meeting you this week at the environmental justice session. I agree … SEJ is like a family reunion of sorts. Met lots of good people and am filled with inspiration.

  2. Fred, I know you are not doing the note cards at this time, but hope this wonderful photo of your home, all lit up at your return, will somehow be made available to those of us who are fans of your photography.