Farmer. Poet, novelist, essayist. Agrarian philosopher. For more than 40 years Wendell Berry has been warning us about the moral, social, and ecological bankruptcy of industrial society. His influence is immense, as his ideas appeal to both progressives worried about environmental limits and conservatives who appreciate his celebration of tradition; Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, for example, was in the audience when Berry delivered the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities’ Thomas Jefferson Lecture. It is no exaggeration to say that Berry is one of the most important thinkers about humanity’s relationship to nature of the last several generations.
Berry’s seminal work was the 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which decried the disintegration of communities and the exploitation of land associated with the rise of giant agribusiness corporations. The book made a sharp distinction between “exploiters” and “nurturers.” He wrote: “The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place.”
This affection for place has been a constant thread of Berry’s work. Many of his novels are based in imaginary Port Williams, Kentucky, a place with as rich a history and as carefully constructed a geography as William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. And Berry has translated his visions from the page into his real life. In the 1970s he abandoned a promising teaching career in New York to return to north-central Kentucky, where his family had farmed for generations.
Now 80, he continues farming, using a horse team to do so. This suspicion of modern technologies – or call it an appreciation of appropriate technologies – extended to our interview. This conversation took place the old-fashioned way, via a series of letters exchanged by mail.
Altogether, Berry is the author of more than 40 books, including works of fiction, poetry, and essays. He is also a public citizen. Berry has been arrested (or risked arrest) protesting nuclear power, mountaintop removal coal mining, and the reckless burning of fossil fuels. While he acknowledges that, in his words, “ways of land use and ways of consumption are becoming more violent,” he remains hopeful that industrial society might eventually make a course correction. As he wrote to me at the end of our correspondence: “Hope is an obligation.”
Having been one of the early inspirers of the now evolved organic farming movement in the US, what is your feeling about the state of the sustainable food movement today?
“Organic” is as “organic” does. The word has often been too negatively defined: a list of things not to do. And it has always been too useful as a label, attachable to farms too industrial or too big or too simply structured, or (more and more) to products made or sold by corporations. “Sustainable” is better, but who in the US has sustained much of anything for very long? So let’s call it the “local food movement,” even though “local” is a term easy to abuse, mainly by stretching.
I think one can be honestly encouraged by this movement. It has come along at a rate certainly surprising to me. It has been genuinely instructive to a significant number of producers and consumers. It appears to be soundly based on good agricultural practices and on the preferences of informed consumers. And it is preserving the health of some land.
The problem is that the land so far under the influence of this movement is still pitifully small. A vast acreage in this country is still planted in annual monocultures that involve obviously unsustainable toxicity, erosion, damage to nature and human communities, and the destruction of husbandry – all as acceptable “production costs.” This way of production-by-destruction is apparently of little interest to conservationists, environmentalists, politicians, intellectuals, professors, journalists, or “the public.”
Why do you think that, especially in the last 10 years, we’ve seen such a blossoming of interest in organic and sustainable foods and a renaissance of craft foods?
Some people still have enough independent use of their minds to know, from good evidence, that industrial food production or “agribusiness” has failed – has failed conspicuously and flagrantly – to meet its responsibilities to the land, to the land communities, to the primary producers, and to consumers.
What happens when the idealism of the organic movement meets free market capitalism? What is gained and what is lost?
I've already explained my distrust of the term “organic.” So I can hardly be expected to know the ideal of “the organic movement,” let alone its idealism. If organic idealism should meet free market capitalism, I suppose that would be nice, but they would have to be introduced by somebody besides me. Again, if we are going to talk about a movement, I would prefer to talk about the local food movement, which I think I understand, because I think I understand its purpose of establishing food economies limited to, and adapted to, localities.
It seems likely to me that people who are interested in local economies have already met free market capitalism, understood its purposes, and are appropriately fearful of it. The “free market,” like the “global economy,” was invented by the great corporations for the purpose of plundering any and every locality of its “raw materials,” its labor, and its people, especially the most capable of its young people. The only conceivable defense against so great an economic force, which has always been “global,” is a local economy founded upon local land, local nature, and the cooperation and mutual trust of local producers and consumers.
The establishment of a local economy, then, involves the establishment or re-establishment of the local community. This effort will be complicated and difficult. It will require a lot of thought and a lot of patience over a lot of time. It may be hastened somewhat by the failures of the corporate economy: its wastefulness, its declining trustworthiness, its increasing toxicity, its more and more obvious un-neighborliness, etc.
You’ve written that the art and craft of farming enter us into a conversation with natural systems. What do you think it is that we gain, or that wild nature gains, from that conversation?
I don’t see a difference between “wild nature” and “nature.” And “wild” as a term of approval is overused, trite, and vague. Our interest and nature’s interest are first and last the same. We are absolutely dependent on nature, our health on nature’s health.
How has being a farmer changed you and your relationship to and with nature?
Farmers, whether or not they know or acknowledge it, are directly dependent on nature. Farmers who have livestock are more likely to understand this than are farmers who are merely raising crops. But farming, good or bad, can only take place in nature. Farmers who are aware of this pay attention to the natural circumstance and so learn about it. I was brought up under the influence of farming, hunting, fishing, and other pursuits of country life, and so was never “changed” in the way your question suggests. I have only learned and thought more and more about the inescapable relationship between farming and nature.
For you, is farming more of an art than a science?
To farm you have to know, which is science, and you have to do, which is art. In practice it is impossible to draw a straight or firm line between knowing and doing. When this line is drawn, as in the departmental structures of schools, it is at best tentative and suppositional, at worst false.
“If organic idealism should meet free market capitalism, I suppose that would be nice, but they would have to be introduced by somebody besides me.”
As I understand it, you still do some of your farming with draft animals. Why? Why not use a tractor?
I have a team of Percheron geldings, and I still use them for clipping pastures, hauling manure, bringing logs out of the woods, plowing and disking the garden, etc. When necessary, sometimes when convenient, my son helps with a tractor.
Why horses? It obviously is good, it makes sense, when the work of the place is done mainly with energy produced by the place. Also I love my horses and I love working with them. I never met a tractor that I even liked.
Having given up the life of a New York writer to return to farm in Kentucky, you’ve become a prominent voice for the virtue of rootedness and the power of place. Americans, though, are a famously footloose people. What do you think we sacrifice when we don’t have a close connection to place?
I don’t think Americans can be accurately described as “footloose.” They generally are wheel-loose; few go where they can’t drive. And a lot of them are mind-loose.
What do people lose by uprootedness or “mobility”? Knowledge of local nature, local history, local culture (the little that is left), friendship of older people, the sense of context, the sense of consequence.
You have been, at times, a constructive critic of the wilderness ideal and of parks and preserves and the like. Yet you also celebrate wildness. What is the difference, to you, between wilderness as a legal designation and wildness as a characteristic, a way of being?
See my answer to your third question. “Wilderness,” I suppose, is a term fairly dependably defined and understood: a part of the world that humans have decided to leave unexploited or that they so far haven’t got around to exploiting. But I’m not confident that “wilderness advocates” would attach sufficient value to a woodlot or patch of prairie protected by a farmer or rancher.
“Wild” is not nearly so stable a term as “wilderness.” A “wilderness area,” I guess, can be described as “wild,” but so can a street gang. If “wild” means uncontrolled, then our present economy and “domestic life” are “wild.” So are our multiple epidemics of invasive species. So is our plague of toxic chemicals. If “wild” means “natural” then our domestic and economic life is “wild” because of its absolute dependence on nature. Your suggestion that “wildness” is a “way of being” reveals the difficulty, for the two terms are in contradiction. Ways of being, as careful observation of “wildlife” will tell you, are domestic. All species – except, temporarily, industrial humans – have to “make themselves at home.” They have to live in places to which they are well enough adapted to find food, raise young, survive winter, etc. And so I’m no longer comfortable in speaking of indigenous creatures as “wild.”
I think “wilderness areas” are necessary. But I am opposed to efforts to establish wilderness areas and parks by using eminent domain to drive out settled human populations. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s expropriation of farmers native to the Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky in the 1960s was of a piece with our treatment of the Indians. It was an exercise in government tyranny. There is no necessary conflict between “wilderness values” and well-husbanded human home places. There is no sense in driving out people who belong to a place and replacing them with people who don’t. Better a settled human population than a population of tourists, police, “nature writers,” and “wildlife photographers.”
For some 40 years you’ve been a voice for the importance of human-scale industries, local economies, community resilience. And while we’ve seen some progress, I think it’s fair to say that, in general, things continue to move in the wrong direction toward more centralization, specialization, and gigantism. Why haven’t we been able to turn the tide? And, perhaps more importantly, what sustains your personal hope?
You’re right. Things are still moving massively in the wrong direction. Ways of land use and ways of consumption are becoming more violent.
“I love my horses. I never met a tractor I even liked.”
“We” haven’t been able to turn the tide, I assume, because “we” aren’t ready to, and don’t much want to. When conservation organizations begin to advocate for rationing energy use, I will perk up a little. If they ever quit promoting synthetic fabrics, aluminum tableware, and other industrial amenities of “wilderness experience,” I will perk up a little more. If they ever begin a knowledgeable opposition to industrialized and market-determined forms of land use – that is to say an opposition based upon competent knowledge of better forms of land use – then I will suppose that “we” have made a start in the right direction.
I have hope because I know that there have been, and are, better ways of human life than the industrial way. The industrial way is to conform our use of the land to the capabilities of technology rather than to the nature of places. It is possible, as we know from examples, to fit the farming to the farm and the forestry to the forest – not perfectly, we had better suppose. But you can’t be responsibly hopeful while waiting for perfection.
Given the opportunity, what life advice would you today convey to a younger Wendell of 60 years ago?
Learn more science, especially biology, more foreign languages, more history. Be kinder.
What outstanding writing and or life lessons did your time with Wallace Stegner at Stanford grant you?
I suppose I'm still under the influence of Mr. Stegner's devotion to the principles of responsible workmanship and responsible stewardship of the land. One's relationship to good teachers has no past tense. They stay with you.
What have you gained from your wholesale avoidance of electronic media?
The avoidance is not “wholesale,” which it cannot be. When I want to, I listen to the radio, and television is unavoidable in airports, some doctors' waiting rooms, and other public places. I have a telephone. And a writer does not dare to submit work to most publishers except by email. I have a very capable friend who does this computer work for me.
I try to keep away from screens of all kinds, and I am less and less attracted to the radio. There are three advantages, or three results, that are important to me: a fairly continuous awareness of this place in which I live and of which I limitlessly desire to be aware; freedom from the talk of media people who are afraid to be quiet; and maybe enough time for reading.
As an anti-war activist, do you see hope for a conversion from the war economy and culture found in the US to one dedicated toward peace and restoration?
I don't know that I am an “activist.” But I certainly don't see war as a solution to much of anything. It certainly has never led to peace. Wars are profitable to the wrong people, they follow a logic of power and revenge that proposes no end, and their effects outlive them for centuries. The damages of our Civil War is still with us, still continuing.
Hope is an obligation. I am always trying to have it, not without help. Jesus told us to love our enemies. Good advice, hard to take, but it's a help. I need all the hope I can get, because I have no confidence at all that the US is dedicated to, or even much interested in, peace and restoration.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Environmental writer-activist David Kupfer has been contributing to Earth Island Journal since 1993.