As the heavy heat of summer presses down on New York City, coming up the stairs to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, I'm met with new company. Looking across the green roof toward the East River, one sees the flowers and herbs first, then the vegetables, and then, behind the towers of cucumbers that match the distant Manhattan skyline, a small flock of chickens.
The hens' coop sits at the far end of the farm, in the last row before the parapet and three-story drop to the street. As I climb the last few steps, the birds come barreling into the long chicken wire-covered run like billiard balls after the break, crowing and crying out. They're hungry, as all animals suddenly are when they see someone who regularly feeds them.
In an interview with Paula Crossfield, Dan Imhoff, author of the new CAFO Reader, a collection of essays that is required reading for anyone thinking about factory farming, describes the peerless Wendell Berry's contribution:
Wendell [says that] when you lose your small farmers, you lose your community. When you lose your community, you lose your reverence for the land. When your reverence for the land is turned over to this higher corporate economic power, then everything becomes commodified. Then we lose the beauty and our control over a healthy life, the fabric of our country. And these are the issues that are at stake here.
Returning to the wilderness,
we become restorers of order, preservers.
We see the truth, recognize our true heirs,
honors our forebears and our heritage,
and give our blessings to our successors.
We embody the passing of human time,
living and dying with the human limits of grief and joy.
I remember once in high school the rector of our school came up to me and complimented me on something I had done. I, in reply, said something self-deprecating, trying to be humble, like “Oh, it really wasn’t that good, I really kind of messed up here or there…” And he got up on his toes (as was his way) and looked down at me and said “Domine, [he was also a Latin teacher; that was basically his way of saying, “Listen to me, Mister…”] the word ‘humble’ comes from the Latin word humus which means ‘the ground, the earth.’ And the ground is real, it’s just simply real. There is no need to put on false humility. Just be real, like the earth. You did a really good job.” I’ve never forgotten that, especially after a concert or a talk somewhere when folks come up and compliment me.
A friend sent me the following quote about freedom. Back in 1972, Wendell Berry speaks straight to the heart of a problem that’s only intensified since then. When we as people cannot supply our own needs because of man and his system, we are not free. When someone cannot find work from an employer, he feels helpless. Why? We’ve become conditioned to the idea that we must depend on someone or an organization. Very few are free.
A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free. He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers. How can he be free if he can do nothing for himself? What is the First Amendment to him whose mouth is stuck to the tit of the “affluent society”? Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free.
–Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope” in A Continuous Harmony (1972), pp. 124
"New Stories from the South" features stories that have been published during the previous year in more than 100 of the finest general interest and literary magazines in the country. Some of the writers are familiar names (Dorothy Allison, Wendell Berry, George Singleton, Elizabeth Spencer and Brad Watson, among others); others are up-and-coming, but the unifying idea is that the stories chosen have some quality of "Southernness."
The story, "A Burden," was originally published in The Oxford American.
The ravages brought upon people and place by corporate industrial agriculture are a mirror of the ideological system that engineered it. Wendell Berry argues in his essay Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems that the logic of industry will never solve the problems that it has created, because , as efficient and redemptive as it claims to be, it is “characterized by exhaustion and contamination”. He believes that the dire problems that we face must instead be solved by taking cues from biological systems where waste does not occur, and by following the lead of human cultures who have designed agricultural systems around these principles.
I was warned about this book before I read it. Good thing too, because it is the sort that turns your eyes from its pages into a firm, if gentle probing into your own life. Such a simple book, just the life of Kentucky farm wife in the years during and after WWII, told in her own quiet, unflinching voice. But oh, the beauty of it. I have said before that Wendell Berry is a writer who settles you down into his story, and thus, into your own life.
Jayber Crow opens with a riff on the opening of Huckleberry Finn*, admonishing interpreters and explainers of the novel, taking a more fitting revenge on the offerors of cheap analysis than the summary execution that Twain recommended. (As for me, the subtext is staring me right in the chops, so it's with a heavy heart that I accept my banishment.) It's an interesting contrast. I read Twain with a cutting sense of humor and sarcasm, a conflicted soul and a precise stylist, a sense of innocence that he embraced or lambasted with varying degrees of intent. I confess to a preference for the more playful style, and with Twain I do feel a certain sense of Yankee homerism, as well as a minor resonance with a tone that I often try to achieve. I'd say it's that divided spirit, but then here's Berry again, telling us that someone must be "troubled enough in their own hearts to have something to say." Maybe it's all a matter of delivery. Berry's writing is calm and mature, the narration clipped of any cynicism beyond maybe a gentle head shake as Jayber muses on the past. Words are chosen deliberately, in short sentences, and there are hardly any contractions used in the prose. It is a slow voice, like a beloved grandfather saying: stop, sit, listen. He weights everything with a sad foreknowledge of the future. There's a danger of saccharine here, but Berry is in command of the prose, and his heart is sufficiently troubled. The writing is often beautiful.
Allen Levi, Ben May, and I stood on Wendell Berry’s front porch as nervous as schoolboys. Allen had prayed aloud as we pulled up to the little Kentucky farmhouse that God would keep the visit from descending into some goofy hero worship, and that we’d remember who we are, that somehow our visit would amount to a blessing to the Berrys even as it would be to us. Basically it was, “Dear God, don’t let us be dummies.”