Two Days with Wendell Berry

Berry's reading and discussion at BAM
"Don't try for Victory, try for clarity," Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry is a humbling man who loves his family, his friends and nature. In a conversation with scholars he can't help mention his wife several times and tell stories about back home in the farm in Kentucky.  He is also regarded by many great minds as one of the brightest men of letters of modern time, and has been called or "accused" (as he would say),  of being a modern-day Thoreau and the father of the sustainable food movement.  But to those "accusations" he replies that he's not a philosopher, because he doesn't have a strategy. "I didn't write to illuminate anyone," he says. "I was scared, and I wanted to do something."

"Anything that I will ever have to say on the subject of agriculture can be little more than a continuation of talk begun in childhood with my father and with my late friend Owen Flood. Their conversation, first listened to and then joined, was my first and longest and finest instruction. From them, before I knew I was being taught, I learned to think of the meanings, the responsibilities, and the pleasures of farming," Wendell Berry.

We love Berry here in Berkeley because forty years ago in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture he foresaw, in the midsts of the so called agricultural "boom," the bigger more tragic picture that had affected his family's small farm. He was also reading J. Russle Smith and Aldo Leopold's attempts to warn people about the consequences of disrespecting the land and agricultural traditions, and advise to stop and restore the damage caused to the soil by revisiting the wealth of agricultural knowledge inherited from our ancestors, the natives that worked and came to know the land intimately for thousands of years before us.

"Indeed we Americans, though new upon our land, are destroying soil by field wash faster than any people that ever lived—ancient or modern, savage, civilized, or barbarian. We have the machines to help us to destroy as well as to create. Even Oklahoma, newest of the new, so recently wrested from the Indians, who did not destroy it, has its million miles of gullies and a kingdom of good land ruined and abandoned. Field wash, especially in America, is the greatest of all resource wastes. It removes the basis of civilization and of life itself. It is far worse than burning a city. A burned city can be rebuilt. A field that is washed away is gone for ages. Hence the old world saying, "After man the desert." Can anything be done about it? Yes, something can be done. Therefore, this book is written to persons of imagination who love trees and love their country, and those who are interested in the problem of saving natural resources—the basis for civilization," excerpt from Tree Crops 1929 by J. Russle Smith.

The current sustainable food movement, which has been popularized by key figures such as our own Michael Pollan and Alice waters, who have stir up the movement through grass root efforts here in Berkeley, is really a revival of the movement that should have happened a long time ago, even before Berry's generation. It stemmed from the concerns of many experts in many fields, including environmentalism, conservation, biology, agriculture, economics, geography, culinary arts... Their initial concerns were with the health of the soil and conservation issues,

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such," excerpt from A Sand County Almanac 1949 by Aldo Leopold.

...yet, not only has the corporate agricultural industry irresponsibly ignored these alarming ethical concerns, but to them have added the introduction of poisonous chemical pesticides and fertilizers into our soil and food chain to deal with the consequences of their disrespect of the land; and despite the industry's failure, the government keeps supporting these big agro corporate companies/people in their crime by allowing the monopolization of food and patented GMO seeds.

But we've all played a part, the Big Food industry has made us all accomplices, as for over 100 years we have been actively participating in the consumption of their products and have been passively witnessing the rape of our land. Accepting in the sake of "progress." But who's progress is it but a few big company's own financial progress? Certainly not ours, most Americans are growing sick and starving in fatness and greed.

This lack of conscience speaks volumes of the evolution of our a species post capitalism. A genus that lacks character, respect, and integrity; who only cares about personal financial interests. "Boomers" in Wallace Stegner's (one of Berry's professors at Stanford University) definition— “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street. The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power; "  and contrary to the alternative, those whom he referred to as the "Stickers" those who "are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it."

"But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours," excerpt of Wendell Berry's lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Berry and I may have had completely different upbringings. In this new America I'm not a land-owing white man who grew-up in a farm and visited the city for education and entertainment, I'm a city woman who visits the country side and farm for appreciation, education, and entertainment.  But no matter where or how we live or grew up, we all have one thing in common—we all eat, drink, and breathe to be alive. So Wendell Berry and his contemporaries' social commentary in conservation and agrarian philosophies, as well as the preservation of native traditions and practices, should be of interest to everyone who is human.

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,"  Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac 1949

We have a choice to start doing the right thing now by consuming consciously every day, by supporting small organic farmers who are doing things right and ethically, and by voting with our votes and our forks tomorrow. Lets start the process of reversing the damage NOW— Vote Yes on Proposition 37! And beyond tomorrow, lets remember we make a vote with our forks three times every day.

More on Berry
Great article on Berry by Grist: http://grist.org/article/engler-berry/
Wendell E. Berry Lecture It All Turns On Affection: http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture
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