In Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace, Kimberly K. Smith offers us a thoughtful roadmap to Wendell Berry’s environmental agrarianism. If, in the 21st century, we assume an easy combination of these divergent DNA strands, it is because of Berry, as Smith notes, “If Berry’s ecological agrarianism doesn’t look particularly innovative to us, it is because he makes the marriage of agrarian and environmental though seem so natural that we assume agrarianism always implied ecological sensitivity – or that ecological sensitivity always implied support for family farming.”
Berry’s value as a philosopher lies not in the creation of a new environmental or rural ethic, but rather his skilled blending of the two schools, and Smith’s task throughout the book is to navigate between these poles and illustrate Berry’s creative and thoughtful combination.
The most powerful way to draw a portrait of such an accomplished thinker and artist with a painfully lucid voice is to attempt to get behind his eyes and to imagine the world as he sees it. Rather than train the lens on Berry himself, as would be an expected and more typical approach, this film allows Berry, in a sense, to point the camera toward the stories and landscapes he would have us regard: the stories of small generational farmers in Henry County as a way to better understand the struggles, hopes and vital importance of rural land-based communities.
Food and agriculture have become popular topics recently, but of all the major voices on this collections of issues, Wendell’s is the only one coming from rural America. How can we have a real discussion of food and agriculture if we don’t begin to truly regard, understand and better care for our rural communities and farmers?
Joy was palpable in the air at the 6th National Young Farmers Conference, as Wendell Berry came to Stone Barns Center the first week in December to address the annual gathering of beginning farmers. Called at times the “prophet of rural America” and the “modern-day Thoreau,” Berry—poet, farmer, author and activist—has been writing about farming and our relationship to the land for more than four decades. In the process, he has influenced two generations of Americans to care for the land and take up farming, and many of them were present. To witness the meeting and mutual admiration between 20-something-year-old beginning farmers and 79-year-old esteemed teacher was nothing short of remarkable, and very moving. “Magical” and “life-affirming” were just some of the words farmers used to describe Berry’s presence among them.
Wendell Berry wrote in Conserving Communities of the need for farmers to stop looking for help where we continually fail to find it. Sadly, in my decade of food work in Maine I have found little direct financial support for farmers, and about zero discussion of improving wages and conditions for farm workers. We won’t get where we wish continuing the centuries old practice of devaluing farm work, pretending a generation of farmers and entrepreneurs can fix everything with low-interest loans. Or treating farm labor as an afterthought and separate from the “good food” movement.
1) Wendell Berry spoke at length about the value of what he calls “country pleasures,” like jumping in the river on a summer afternoon and walking home uphill after, experiences that are all but lost in a world where most people spend more time with screens than trees (a notion I was tempted to live tweet, but the irony was too great).
2) He decried the arrival of commodity soy and corn in his Kentucky county, comparing it to the foolishness of fracking. The only difference between fracking-enduced explosions and soy-enduced erosion, he sagely said, is speed. Erosion’s slower, but the result is the same: exhaustion of our most precious natural resources. Amen.
3) He spoke of another kind of erosion, that of community, and recalled the days when his neighbors took pride in helping one another, gratis. One farmer friend of his had, in his lifetime, helped every single farm on his road, and never accepted any payment except a shared meal when the work was done. By the end of Berry’s description, everyone in the room would have stepped into a one-way time machine.
4) In conclusion, he spoke of sharing his land with wildlife and reasoned that it is not they who should be called wild animals, as they build homes and raise their young, year after year. Rather it is the human race with our blind destruction of soil, who deserve that description.
When I sat down this morning to write my first post for this blog, I meant to focus on eating bugs — who eats bugs, why don’t we eat more bugs, why does it gross us out… recipes? I don’t know. But instead, this came out:
“There’s a type of cruelty that is inescapable; every person lives at the expense of another creature. We are not going to live to be innocent in our use of the world.”
With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location,
Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend.
Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global
gurus of sustainable agriculture.
This fall, St. Catharine
College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in
Washington County, started offering bachelor's degrees in farming and
St. Catharine's Berry Farming Program
incorporates Berry's sustainability philosophies and was developed in
conjunction with his family's Berry Center in the Henry County town of