Thoughts about Wendell Berry and the UK

There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:

“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”

“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.

I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).

Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.

Read the whole article by Chris Smaje at Small Farm Future and Resilience.


Review of recent UK Wendell Berry collection

In the end Chesterton’s mock-medievalism – his idea that we should all be much better off with a pig than a radiogram – defies most of the classifications of contemporary politics. In his brief introduction to The World‑Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth makes the same point about Wendell Berry’s half-century campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism, the sanctity of the dairy farm and the sharecropper’s 40-acre plot. From one angle, Berry (born 1934), with his sonorous, preacher’s style and his horror of colonising concrete, looks like an arch-conservative, and yet money, markets and corporatism are forever looming into his sights. From another, he looks like a classic eco-lefty pitting himself against the big battalions of agri-business, and yet his assaults on individualism, rootlessness and urban snobbery will be enough to leave most leftwingers feeling deeply uncomfortable.

All this is further complicated by the particular locales (or rather, locale, as the author has stayed tethered to his native Kentucky for the last 50 years) through which Berry so observantly passes. He is not, for instance, a great-outdoors merchant in the manner of Edward Hoagland and Annie Proulx; he is more interested in soil quality than fauna. The mistiness that most British writers bring to considerations of that tantalising notion of “the land” is altogether beyond him, and on the evidence of the 30 or so pieces collected here, he never wrote a sentimental line in his life. About the closest equivalent to his tough-minded, small-scale environmentalism on this side of the Atlantic would be the George Ewart Evans of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay or the John Stewart Collis of The Worm Forgives the Plough, and even that is not very close.

Read the complete review by DJ Taylor at The Guardian.


A British Appreciation of Wendell Berry

His best work is contained in his frequent salvos of essays, which I have been collecting during trips to America for much of my adult life. I first came across his work in a bookshop in Devon, where I was struck by a slim volume with the brutal title What Are People For?. It’s impossible not to wonder about the answer, so I read on and slowly accumulated a small library of books with names such as Standing by WordsThe Long-Legged House and Another Turn of the Crank (Berry is drily aware of his reputation).

He writes at least as well as George Orwell and has an urgent message for modern industrial capitalism, which he considers to be a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. It is an apocalyptic message but conveyed with a gentle humour and defiant belief in the possibility of social reform that keep you turning the pages. Yet he can be a difficult sod, fiercely independent and, as the Americans would say, ornery. Back in the 1990s, I wrote to Berry asking him to allow me to edit a selection of his writing to be published for a British audience, preferably by Penguin. He said no. For one thing, he did not want to be published by any of the big houses – he had a strong loyalty to the small, independent San Francisco publisher North Point Press. And there was no question of him coming here to do interviews or publicity or anything like that: he won’t travel by aircraft.

The project died. And now, with Berry in his vigorous eighties, the writer and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth has finally teamed up with a Penguin imprint to produce an excellent selection of his essays, The World-Ending Fire.

Read the entire article by Andrew Marr at The New Statesman.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry, that Film, and His Not-Quite-Rockstar Status

Three years ago I had the pleasure to attend a talk between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson at Cooper Union in New York City (my first time in New York City as an adult, which was a story in itself), moderated by New York Times columnist Mark Bittman. Wanting to quote a particular exchange between Berry and Jackson for a recent post here on From Filmers to Farmers I listened to the audio recording of the event to transcribe what I was after. While I was able to locate the sought after passage, I was aghast to find out that my favourite portion of the entire event was absent from the publicly available recording, something that was relevant to this post you're currently reading. So not only do I unfortunately not remember the lead-up to the particular exchange between Berry and Bittman, but I'm also forced to quote from memory. As I recall:

Bittman: You're a rock star.

Berry [quietly and sombrely]: No.

That got a bit of a giggle out of me. But as my sense of humour's fortune would have it, Bittman wasn't about to give up so easily.

Bittman: Yes, yes! You're a rock star, you're a rock star!

Eschewing an elaborate retort or explanation, and even more quietly and sombrely the second time around, Berry lowered his head, ever so slightly shook it, and once again simply said –

Berry: No.

Well that was just too much for me, and as I kid you not that that was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen and heard in my life, I couldn't help but instantly burst out with an appropriately over-the-top boisterous laugh. Thing is, and as I just as quickly noticed, not a single other person in the entire audience was laughing as well – not even a peep. So just as fast as I started laughing I somehow managed to contain my convulsions, kind of clearing my throat and sheepishly hoping that my tiny outburst could somehow be disguised and confused for a weird sounding cough.

While I of course wondered to myself why nobody in the entire audience seemed to have even snickered (Cooper Union – and the rest of New York City – was full of rock stars?), and more recently have wondered why said portion was edited out (I wanted to see if I could hear my "cough" and what it sounded like!), the more pertinent question is, Why did Berry disagree with being called – appropriated as? – a "rock star"?

This is just the beginning. Read the complete essay by Allan S. Christensen HERE.


Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Mary Berry in Conversation

The 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures featured Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson in a conversation moderated by Mary Berry, Wendell's daughter and the founding Executive Director of The Berry Center. The conversation took place on Saturday, October 22nd, 2016 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA.

See also at Resilience.


Wendell Berry delivers 17th Annual Dodge Lecture

On December 8, 2016 Mr. Berry delivered a talk entitled "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age." The event was held at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was sponsored by The Center for a Livable Future and the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Introductions begin around 9:20. Mr. Berry begins at 17:50. Johns Hopkins Livestream


The Berry Farming Program and the Closure of St. Catharine College

Leah Bayens, director of The Berry Farming Program, offers an in-depth reflection on circumstances surrounding the closure of St. Catharine College and its repercussions for The Berry Farming Program.

Since June, I have held a heavy heart. I have also been angry, indignant, disoriented, and harried. This stands in sharp contrast to my springtime rhapsodizing, in an essay so long it had to be published in two parts, about the Berry Farming Program’s beautiful and fitting place at St. Catharine College. I wrote about the last four years my colleagues at The Berry Center and I spent establishing an experiential, transdisciplinary sustainable agriculture and agrarian studies program modeled on the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry. I sung the praises of students who accepted the idea of a “major in homecoming,” that is, a course of study that would help them “return home, or go some other place, and dig in,” as our friend and supporter Wes Jackson put it.1 I waxed poetic about the radical Dominican Sisters of Peace, who founded the college and provided a touchstone model for how to institutionalize ecological and cultural stewardship.

Less than three months after penning that tribute, I sat with fellow faculty and staff in a small auditorium and listened to the president of our board of trustees tell us that the college would close by the end of summer. July 31 marked the end of almost two centuries of the Dominican Sisters’ community-based education in Washington County, Kentucky. The announcement came just weeks after six remarkable Berry Farming Program (BFP) students graduated with degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism. The rest of our students were left homeless for the fall semester, and nearly 120 faculty and staff scrambled to file unemployment while searching for last-minute hires. The closure created a social and physical vacuum for the community as the classrooms, library, dorms, and offices sit empty in the midst of cattle and sheep pastures while a national bank’s receiver tallies the assets (including, I might bitterly add, the BFP’s brand new walk-behind tractor and implements).

Read the complete article by Leah Bayens at The Whole Horse Project.


Post-Election Thoughts from Mary Berry and Other Environmental Leaders

A number of environmental leaders have spoken to Grist.org. Here is Mary Berry's reflection.

While I deplore the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, I wouldn’t say that I was particularly hopeful about either candidate making much difference in the place I love the most.

My home is farm country in north central Kentucky. It has been in decline through many presidents, both Democrat and Republican. Kentucky’s raw materials have been sold to the highest bidder for most of the last 200 years under, mostly, Democratic governors. So my hope doesn’t lie with politicians and it never has.

I have often needed to try to convince our friends and allies that what they think is happening in rural places is not happening. Symbols are important, but a vegetable garden on the White House lawn does not mean that anything is actually being done to level the playing field for small family farmers. The urban demand for well-raised food is going up as the rural culture is coming down.

Now a man who is a product of television and capitalism has won the presidency, and there is no pretense that he is anything else. Now we know, the cavalry is not coming.

So this my hope, that things will never get so bad that a well-intentioned person can’t do what is right in front of them to do. If they are working on what is right in front of them, then the work is local work.

My father [author and farmer Wendell Berry] says that hope is a virtue. That to have it, we must work at it. He has kept alive in my mind, as we have watched the place we love the most decline, that what we are after is possible, that we don’t win but we don’t lose either, we just keep on.

See all other responses at Grist.


Wendell Berry - Wes Jackson Conversation Sold Out

The Schumacher Center has announced that the October 22 conversation between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson (The Land Institute) has been sold out. But the event will be filmed, so watch The Schumacher Center for news of that.

The Center has described the event as follows:

On Saturday October 22nd at 7:00 pm, award winning author Wendell Berry and The Land Institute's co-founder Wes Jackson will share the stage at the historic Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in the heart of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They will hold a conversation about the 50-Year Farm Bill, their work, and their long friendship and collaboration in support of rural communities.
 
The occasion is the 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, a tradition that Mr. Berry and Mr. Jackson launched when they spoke to a full house in October of 1981 on the theme of People, Land, and Community.  Over the years the Annual Schumacher Lectures have provided a platform for some of the most powerful voices for an economics that supports both people and planet – voices that include Jane Jacobs, Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, Van Jones, Judy Wicks, and Otto Scharmer.
 
Much has changed since the first Annual Lectures. The promise of the global economy has faded in the face of ever-greater wealth inequality and environmental degradation. There is a groundswell of interest in building a new economy that is just and recognizes planetary limits. All of us at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics are delighted that Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have accepted our invitation to come back and share their perspectives on how far we have come, where we are, and where we believe we should go next.

For more, visit The Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

Follow The Schumacher Center at Twitter.