Arts/Literature

Sustainability, localism, community and the dignity of work: In praise of Wendell Berry

Here’s what Ken Kesey had to say about Wendell Berry:

“Wendell Berry is the Sargeant York charging unnatural odds across our no-man’s-land of ecology. Conveying the same limber innocence of young Gary Cooper, Wendell advances on the current crop of Krauts armed with naught but his pen and his mythic ridgerunner righteousness. One after the other he picks them off, from the flying bridges of their pleasure boats as they roar through his native Kentucky rivers, from beneath the hard hats in the Hazard county strip mines, from the swivel chairs in the Pentagon where they weigh the various ways to wage war on all forms of enemy life beyond the end of their own friendly chin. He’s a crackshot essayist and, for those given to capture, a genial and captivating poet. He boasts a formidable arsenal of novels, speeches, articles, stories and poems from his outpost in one of the world’s most ravaged battlefields where he writes the good fight and tends his family and his honeybees. Consider him an ally.”

The thing is, Kesey said this in 1971.

That was nearly forty years ago. And I realized, after reading another Berry essay collection a couple of weeks ago (in this case, The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays), that Berry has been pounding away at the same themes for at least that long. And nothing that he has expressed concerns, not to mention deep dismay, about—the increasing power of agribusiness, our increased disconnection from the land, the abandonment of local economies and communities, our collective disregard of the concept of stewardship—has gotten better. In fact, one could argue that everything of concern to Berry has gotten worse. And this is tragic, because current trends, particularly in agriculture, but also in the relentless suburbanization of American life, where no one actually really knows how to do anything, are probably unsustainable. The result will be, well, who knows what, but it might not be pleasant. And who will have the kind of wisdom and local knowledge that is central to Berry’s worldview then?

Berry is fond of throwing out nuggets like the following:

Nobody has a right to destroy anything, and everybody has an obligation to defend as much as he or she possibly can. But sooner or later you’ll have to choose. You can’t defend everything, even though everybody has an obligation to be as aware as possible, and as effective as possible, in preserving the things that need to be preserved everywhere. But I’ve argued over and over again that the fullest responsibility has to be exercised at home, where you have some chance to come to a competent and just understanding of what’s involved, and where you have some chance of being really effective.

And:

Rome destroyed itself by undervaluing the country people, too.

And:

My approach to education would be like my approach to everything else. I’d change the standard. I would make the standard that of community health rather than the career of the student. You see, if you make the standard the health of the community, that would change everything. Once you begin to ask what would be the best thing for our community, what’s the best thing that we can do here for our community, you can’t rule out any kind of knowledge. You need to know everything you possibly can know. So, once you raise that standard of the health of the community, all the departmental walls fall down, because you can no longer feel that it’s safe not to know something. And then you begin to see that these supposedly discreet and separate disciplines, these “specializations,” aren’t separate at all, but are connected. And of course our mistakes, over and over again, show us what the connections are, or show us that connections exist.

And:

There is no time in history, since white occupation began in America, that any sane and thoughtful person would want to go back to, because that history so far has been unsatisfactory. It has been unsatisfactory for the simple reason that we haven’t produced stable communities well adapted to their places.

What I’m talking about in my work is the hope that it might be possible to produce stable, locally adapted communities in America, even though we haven’t done it. The idea of a healthy community is an indispensable measure, just as the idea of a healthy child, if you’re a parent, is an indispensable measure. You can’t operate without it.

Berry is the philosopher of the local and what, specifically, being local entails. America has inflicted a number of wounds on itself the past several decades in the name of “free markets,” still clinging to the myth that there is actually such a thing. Berry isn’t much of a fan of these, actually. What he is a fan of is the dignity of work (remember that?), and the notion that we should take care of ourselves, particularly how we care for the land that supports us. And that we should have local knowledge–about the land, of course, but also about how to do the things we need to do to occupy the land–how to maintain and sustain it in particular. Well, at a time when externalities are catching up with us rapidly in any number of areas (global warming being the most obvious), we really need to pay more attention to what Berry is saying. And that means a return to the local. Berry has a number of mantras—the most recent is “Eat responsibly.” And by this means not just know what your food is, and whether it’s good for you or not—but where it comes from, how it was produced, under what conditions, and subsidized by whom? Sounds easy, but in modern America, and increasingly here in the UK, this is getting harder and harder to do.

I’ve been reading Berry for decades now, and his place in modern American thought is still a bit of a mystery. He’s written one of the best American novels of the century (A Place on Earth) and a number of volumes of pretty good poetry (particularly Farming: A Hand Book). He honed his craft at the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University, where he hung out with Kesey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurtry. Most importantly, he has produced a series of essays over the years that stand as a testament to sound judgment. In many ways, conservative judgment as well—because Berry wants to conserve things.

This has led to many fun and enlightening exchanges within the conservative and libertarian blogging community. When did Berry, the arch-Luddite opponent of modern agribusiness, militarism and word processors, become a crunchy-conservative icon? Pretty recently, judging by some of the commentary I see occasionally on blogs like the ones cited above. And hardly a week goes by over at Front Porch Republic that someone doesn’t make a specific reference to Berry. I think this is great.

And where are the liberals on Berry? Generally, not to be found, which is a pity. Have liberals become so entwined on the wrong side of the globalization debate that they’ve lost all perspective? I’m way over-generalizing here, of course, but still, I seldom see anyone on the Democratic side speaking up for localism. Instead, we get Larry Summers and Bob Rubin, and Obama, for all his many virtues, still behaving like a farm state senator. But if liberals really want to pursue a more just society, the place to do it as at the local level. The far right understands this better than the left—hence the attacks on ACORN, which is essentially local political action. Look, you want better schools? Run for the school board. You want better food? Get on the planning board and make sure that the last local farmland isn’t being ploughed under for yet another housing development. You want better communities? Run for the city council, or whatever it is you’ve got. That Think Globally, Act Locally bumper sticker that we seldom see any more had it about right.

As Bill Kauffman has noted, “Among the tragedies of contemporary politics is that Wendell Berry, as a man of place, has no place in a national political discussion that is framed by Gannett and Clear Channel.” This may be changing. For one thing, Berry is still writing, and more and more people keep reading. I don’t think there’s a single book in his back catalogue that has ever gone out of print—pretty impressive for a writing career than spans over four decades. For another, Berry, bless his heart, just won’t shut up. Here’s Berry and long time co-author Wes Jackson in The New York Times earlier this year:

Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.

To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.

For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.

And then the kicker—we don’t get a bunch of starry-eyed idealism, but a bunch of necessary, practical and achievable measures to take to redress these problems:

Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals.

But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution.

Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

No wonder most Reagan conservatives can’t stand the guy. A 50-year farm bill? But that may be how long it takes to re-capture the kind of localism that will provide us with a sustainable agricultural system. But Russell Kirk would probably take a look around at the mess we’ve made, and agree.

Did I mention Berry is a poet as well? The Mad Farmer poems in particular are worth a look. Let’s close with “The Farmer and the Sea” (initially published in Farming: A Hand Book):

The sea always arriving,
hissing in pebbles, is breaking
its edge where the landsman
squats on his rock. The dark
of the earth is familiar to him,
close mystery of his source
and end, always flowering
in the light and always
fading. But the dark of the sea
is perfect and strange, the absence of any place, immensity on the loose.
Still, he sees it as another
keeper of he land, caretaker
shaking the earth, breaking it, clicking the pieces, but somewhere
holding deep fields yet to rise,
shedding its richness on them
silently as snow, keeper and maker
of places wholly dark. And in him
Something dark applauds.

To learn more, this is a pretty good place to start.

9 replies »

  1. Masterful, wuf. Thanks.

    I was a journalist in a rural New England county during the ’70s and ’80s. I witnessed and wrote about the social and physical erosion of the local farm economy. Now that county is little more than a bedroom to a large university.

    Tourist-friendly farmers’ markets on a Saturday morning do not by themselves a healthy, local community make.

    • I need to pick up some of Berry’s books, I guess. This all seems very much in line with Affluenza, which I read recently. It made me hate just about everything, including the economic structure of my own life.

      Great piece….

  2. Do so. He’s not just a vitally important thinker–he’s a fine writer too. His novels are a pleasure to read, especially A Place on Earth. He’s honed his craft well.

    And go to your library!

  3. Thanks, wufnik, it was a well-crafted tribute to a great American who’s terribly under appreciated.

    The political left ignores Berry for the same reason that the Reagan conservatives hate him: he actually speaks to the common man. He never seems to call for rising up so much as simply doing what’s right. That’s dangerous to the political class. Why the rest of the left ignores him is beyond me. Maybe it’s because many of the people pushing the issues from the left are affluent(ish), urban activists and Berry’s too plain spoken (eloquent, but plain). He also runs afoul of much of the movement because he’s all for farming animals…or perennial grasses as the case may be.

    He’s too far to the right for most American leftists and too far to the left for most American rightists, but for me he’s about right (as in correct). I should go back and look again, maybe he has the key to developing libertarian-socialism.

    Thanks, man

  4. It’s amazing how few writers look at politics or the environment through the eyes of a farmer. Thanks, Wendell.
    Nice to read this article after spending my day cutting weeds and planting pineapples and eating homegrown bananas.

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