Freed-Market Anarchist Considers Wendell Berry

For many years, I have encountered repeated references to Wendell Berry, the venerable farmer-sage of Kentucky: novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher and environmental activist. And I lazily assumed his writings to be in the category of things that are Good For You, but probably dull, like stodgy health food. But then I came across The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of Berry’s essays on what he calls “agrarianism”, and I found his writing electrifying. Berry has a well-thought-out, far-reaching, passionately articulated analysis of what is wrong with the prevailing political/economic/social system in America, which extends with minimal adjustments to much of the rest of the world. It’s different from the sort of political analysis typically seen at – not incompatible with it, but, I would say, complementary to it. I think it’s therefore fruitful to examine Berry’s political/economic/social philosophy from a freed-market anarchist (FMA) perspective, noting the substantial points of agreement, but also the areas where Berry’s agrarianism perhaps contributes something missing from FMA discourse, and vice-versa.

The Art of the Commonplace consists of essays dating from 1969 to 2002, on a range of topics including racial justice, sexual politics, the arts, religion, as well as Berry’s more central concerns: farming, land use, environmentalism, and economics. But despite the fact that many of the writings date from thirty-some years ago, all of them remain surprisingly timely. Running through them all is a single unifying premise: no society can remain healthy if it fails to care for the soil and water from which its food comes. And Berry presents compelling arguments that many superficially unrelated social ills can be traced to this central sin (yes, that’s Berry’s term for it). The problem lies in a constellation of attitudes, practices and technologies that Berry labels “industrialism”.

Read the complete article by Robert Kirchner at Center for a Stateless Society.

NPR on "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

Wendell Berry's condemnation of modern farming has brought him back into the public eye in recent years. He despises how big farming has become, and how technology-driven.

Dunn's film goes deeply into the business of farming. She speaks with migrant farm workers and big-time farmers, deeply in debt. "Ten years ago I would have never dreamed it would cost what it does to put a crop out now," says one farmer, with a haunted look in his eyes. "It's just crazy what it costs. And sometimes is gets a little hard to sleep at night. Toward the end of the year, all the crops are in the ground, all the money's spent, and we just need a good crop to pay the banks back."

Dunn replays video of a speech that Wendell Berry gave in 1974. Already at that point, he was arguing that when big farms grow and small ones disappear, communities are destroyed, along with the values that sustain those communities — values like loyalty, neighborliness, kindness.

"I don't think that you can love those old values, and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time," he told his audience.

Read it (and hear it) all at NPR.

On Wendell Berry and Institutions

Institutionalization is neither fundamentally conservative nor liberatory; it depends entirely on the nature of the original concept and how it is established and maintained. To preserve the ethos driving ecological agrarianism, we must insist over and again that the complexities of “nature’s standard” not be simplified and that experience in and service to actual places not be supplanted by placebos. Failing these, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate the sort of affection necessary for the paradigm shift an ecological worldview entails.

In this light, I ask: What would it mean for ecological agrarianism to become the established custom? Institutionalizing ecological agrarian thought will mean making a fundamental shift in our minds and, thereby, our cultures. Compassion, collaboration, and respect must guide our actions. In other words, we will be guided by affection. We will be asked to see ourselves as absolutely placed in particular, rather than abstract, locations because a “mind so placed meets again and again the necessity for work to be good.” In this vein, Berry writes in “The Whole Horse”:

[T]he agrarian mind is less interested in abstract quantities than in particular qualities. It feels threatened and sickened when it hears people and creatures and places spoken of as labor, management, capital, and raw material. It is not at all impressed by the industrial legendry of gross national products, or of the numbers sold and dollars earned by gigantic corporations. It is interested—and forever fascinated—by questions leading toward the accomplishment of good work…. questions which cannot be answered in the abstract, and which yearn not toward quantity but toward elegance. Agrarianism can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.

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

This is Part 2 of an essay by Leah Bayens. See Part 1 ("A Way of Thought Based on Land") HERE.

On Wendell Berry, Farming, and Churches

In his book Remembering, Wendell Berry tells the story of two farmers. The first has acquired 2,000 acres through a patient buying out of his neighbors’ farms. He converted all 2,000 acres to corn fields, because corn produces the most cash. In order to farm all of those acres, he went into debt so as to have the necessary machinery and so as to buy all of the necessary chemicals, and “farms” from his plush office while the stress of his vocation slowly eats away at his body in the form of an ulcer.

The other farmer is Amish, and farms his 80 acres with plough horses. This farm is diversified, and is an economy unto itself, for the fertilizer comes from the animals, and the work is no more or less than can be accomplished by the farmer, his wife, and their children and neighbors. This farmer does not have an easy life, but has an ease born of the freedom of a right-sized agricultural enterprise.

(Somewhere, I’m told, Eugene Peterson has written that when Wendell Berry speaks of farming we are to think of the church. No matter if Eugene ever really said this, as my friend Andy Nagel has encouraged the same correlation, and his advice is more important to me than that of North America’s favorite grumpy pastoral theologian. No matter, too, if Berry himself would approve of the correlation. My hunch is that he wouldn’t, and would rant and rave–and who can rant and rave like Berry?–that he was talking about farming, da_ _’t! We are impervious to this rant because of that handy tool of postmodernity, the intentional fallacy.)

Read the complete article by Jeff Hoffmeyer HERE

"The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry" and Small Farms Considered at NPR

"A little nowhere place," Berry says, that's what these small rural towns are called now. Rural folks know all too well the prevailing sentiment in the country at large that, as Mary puts it: "If you were smarter, you'd do something besides farming."

And, of course, more of us than ever before are doing something besides farming: Once 45 percent agrarian, the U.S. is now only 4 percent agrarian. As Berry wrote in his now classic, non-fiction book The Unsettling of America, first published in 1977 — and as is heard again in the film — the decline in farming over time is tied to agribusiness. The expensive materials that make farming more efficient, all the technology and all the chemicals, cost so much that more acres have to be planted, and then those acres have to be farmed more efficiently, and so it goes, around and around.

Read it all at NPR.

Having Seen "The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry"

The first four minutes or so of The Seer offer a vivid fabric of sight and sound that states The Problem. Guided by Mr. Berry’s voice reading a Sabbath poem from 1997, we see and hear a critical—even bitter—meditation on who we have become as a people and a culture. Then sudden darkness. Rise to light on a wooded path, footsteps. And then, Wendell’s voice speaking of a life-long friendship. This movement suggests that if there is hope for any of us, it lies in actual, lived relationship with others ... in some real part of the actual world.

Laura Dunn’s film is just terrific—a beautiful, rich consideration of Wendell Berry’s thought … of and in its proper place. In its attention to this, The Seer stays clear of a plodding biographical narrative and wall-to-wall interviews concerning the wonderfulness or weirdness of its subject. 

The film rightly avoids canonizing Mr. Berry, an impulse that we long-time readers are sometimes prone to. It presents, in fact, a fairly oblique take on him. He is there, of course, in the right place, throwing some light on the damage that has been done to that place … and on the hope that remains. As the filmmakers put it, "Rather than lens the way the world sees Wendell Berry, let us imagine the way Wendell Berry sees the world."

That place is, of course, Henry County, Kentucky. We are able, via the fresh camera work, to move through it. The voices of some younger and older farmers of Henry County make clear the problems created by industrial agriculture in their lives and work. The voices of Tanya and Mary Berry, Wendell's wife and daughter, also speak not only of him but of their own ongoing relationships to the place and its people.

And it’s good to see the filmmakers use footage of Wendell’s 1974 speech in Spokane, Washington. At that time, these deeply felt words provided fuel for an emerging alternative agriculture movement in the Northwest and were a crucial step toward the composition of The Unsettling of America. His words are also, sadly, as apt in this time as they were forty years ago.

But it's not all doom & gloom. The Seer reminds me of just how great it is to live on a planet that’s so productive of trees and pigs and shining days and cattle and babies and old barns and grass and fog and rivers and dogs and shadows and music and life and all. I shift from the film back to the solid world with a deeper appreciation of the goodness of creation and all its members.

A bit of proof-reading: I notice that in the final credits the name of a printer I’ve known as Gray Zeitz, founder of Larkspur Press, may be misspelled (if that's the person to whom they refer). Oh well, if that’s the biggest problem I can find …

This is a wonderful and important movie. It still needs some help. Support it HERE if you can (and maybe get some good stuff).

[UPDATE: I'm told that the misspelling of Mr. Zeitz's name will be fixed :-)]

Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and The Berry Center Respond to NYT Op-Ed

Mary Berry writes:

The New York Times published an op-ed written by Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner and entitled “We Need a New Green Revolution” on January 4, 2016 (page A19).  My father Wendell Berry, friend Wes Jackson (The Land Institute), and I wish to share our response to this op-ed submitted to the New York Times

And they write within the piece:

We are obliged to conclude that even eminent scientists, who propose to improve agriculture exclusively by scientific research and technological innovation with no regard for land and people, know little about agriculture. The ignorance of Professor Sharp and Mr. Leshner is revealed by their failure to speak of the solutions to agricultural problems that are well-known but are not used. For example, the necessary solution to the problem of dry weather is a healthy soil capable of absorbing and holding the available water. And desert lands should not be farmed if they can be farmed only by the depletion and eventual exhaustion of aquifers. For another example, probably the most necessary ways of controlling pests, pathogens and weeds are crop rotation and the use of a diversity of crops and animals. For another, the sure solution to disease epidemics in confinement poultry factories is to disperse the birds outdoors in the care of independent farmers. For another, the only solution to soil erosion is to quit cropping on slopes and to provide adequate year-round plant cover upon the fields.

Read the complete article at The Berry Center.

Wendell Berry Farming Program featured on PBS

Wendell Berry, the 81-year-old award-winning poet, fiction writer and essayist, has continued throughout his life to care for the Kentucky farm that generations of his family have tended. Seeking to pass on their farming legacy to a new generation, Berry and his family have formed an alliance with Saint Catherine College, a small Catholic liberal arts college run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Correspondent Judy Valente talks with Mary Berry, Wendell Berry’s daughter, and with nuns, students, and faculty members at the college about the lessons and values that spring from having a spiritual kinship with the land.

View Judith Valente's report at Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS

Also HERE.