Wendell Berry in conversation about local economies

Listen to a conversation between two giants of the local economy movement in this extended episode. Helena Norberg-Hodge founded Local Futures, produced the film The Economics of Happiness, and wrote the book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Wendell Berry is a poet and activist, an author of over 40 books, and a lifelong advocate for ecological health, the beauty of rural life, and small-scale farming. Their far-reaching discussion touches on human nature, technology, experiential knowledge, agriculture policy, happiness, wildness, and local food systems.

Listen to "Beautiful Places: A Conversation with Wendell Berry" at Local Futures.


Concerning new Wendell Berry collection, "The World-Ending Fire"

It would be as reductive to call Wendell Berry a conservationist as it would be to call him an essayist. In the 31 pieces collected in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, the National Humanities Medal-winning poet, novelist, essayist, conservationist and farmer expounds on topics that range from farming, technology, economics, man’s proper relationship to nature, government, and social movements, to industrial disasters, marriage, the human acquisition of knowledge, drowning, labor, animal husbandry, eating, education, the Bible, Huckleberry Finn, and pleasure. Written between 1968 and 2011, all of the essays are ultimately about the same thing: how to live a rightly-ordered life.

Berry is not the type of chipper environmentalist who believes that capitalism can persist unabated as long as we install more solar panels. Nor is he the type of cerebral climate catastrophist who considers all action futile, opting instead to mutter into his wine glass about the anthropocene. In his view, the rightly-ordered life respects nature’s ability to give us sustenance and to destroy us, as it brings both the yearly flowering of bluebells and the deadly currents of the flooded Kentucky River. Topsoil is “Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence.” Nature is, in the words of the poet Edmund Spenser, “the greatest goddesse… the ‘equall mother’ of all,” who “knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.’” She operates as God’s deputy to mete out earthly justice. And she has a warrant out for us.

Read "What Wendell Berry Wants" by Colette Shade at The New Republic.

The World-Ending Fire will be published on May 8, 2018 by Counterpoint.


Wendell Berry on dairy overproduction and the destruction of small farmers

For its mistreatment of its until-now faithful suppliers, Dean Foods passes the responsibility to Walmart, which has built its own milk-bottling plant and, as usual, is competing against everybody.

The problem is a surplus of milk. Sharon Burton’s editorial, also in “The Farmer’s Pride” of March 15, and on the same subject, contains a penetrating insight: “I’m not talking about dairy farmers…I’m talking about rural America.” She is right. The story of Dean Foods’ cancelled contracts is a representative piece of the story of rural America since the 1950s, when Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture told farmers to “get big or get out.”

From then until now the ruling assumption among the experts has been that there are “too many farmers.” The instrument for getting rid of the dispensable farmers has been uncontrolled production. Farm surpluses depress prices, and low prices benefit the agribusiness corporations by ruining farmers.

And so the story of rural America has been the story of the dispossession of millions of farm families, the disintegration of rural communities, and the destruction of small businesses and small towns. Carilynn Coombs’s family is one of the two in Henry County whose contracts have been broken. And those are two of the remaining small handful of families in Henry County who still live by farming.

So it has been, and so it is, everywhere in rural America.

Read the whole article by Wendell Berry at Henry County Local.


On Wendell Berry's "The Art of Loading Brush"

In the end, Berry’s mournful story teaches us that it is not utopian, not ridiculous, to insist upon a different economy than a profit-driven capitalism, a different community than one separated by an industrially determined notion of individual freedom from a sustainable and local engagement with the land. It will take time to do, it will be complicated, it will probably not last forever, it will not satisfy everyone, and in the meantime it will have costs. But to take those caveats as proof that a thing cannot be done, that the economic and technological logic of growth is simply and always inevitable, is to blind oneself to a deeper set of possibilities: the possibility of taking collective responsibility for one’s place, emphasizing provision over profit, prioritizing public goods and public safety over corporate balance-sheets, and working out, one bit at a time, in Berry’s words, “a harmonious balance among a diversity of interests.” When it is done right, he concludes, for however long it lasts, “it is a grand masterpiece to behold”

Read "What Wendell Berry’s Brush Teaches Us About Capitalism, Community, and 'Inevitability'" by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic.


On Wendell Berry's idealism and reality

It would be years before I learned to appreciate rural places in their complexity, to see their beauty without sacrificing their reality.

Because, like most rural communities, my small town is and was a complicated place. The rural communities I serve now are just as complex.

There might be rolling fields of produce, but they employ fewer and fewer people. People are friendly, but often only after a long initiation (my parents bought our house in 1989, but my father is still not considered a local). And in an age where fear is the dominant political language, suspicion of the stranger can twist strong community ties into an impenetrable knot.

Berry, of course, recognizes that the communities he writes about aren’t simple. In several of his essays in “What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,” he insists on understanding the complexity of an economy and rebukes the fantasy of simple solutions.

In his work, I catch glimpses of the places in which I’ve served and lived. Berry knows about and portrays this other version of rural. But he doesn’t linger in the grittiness of it before moving back to the ideal.

Read all of "Why I hate Wendell Berry" by Allen T. Stanton at Faith & Leadership.


On Wendell Berry, Options, and Fatherhood

And while farming is not really an option for most, I do think that it is in our work that we men, as fathers, can have the greatest impact on how our lives unfold in more human ways into today’s societal environment.   We long for our “vocation” and our “work” to be the same thing, which is actually another common thread in Berry’s work, because, especially for the laymen, those things ought to be united in the common idea of “economy” – the union or meaning, work, place, and home.  Berry’s idea holds a fuller understanding of vocation than either the typical Catholic or secular society does.  “Vocation,” to many Catholics, means the overarching “state” of religious, clergy, or lay that a person is called to. “Vocation” in secular society means your trade, generally, but one merely chosen and trained for.  But to Berry, vocation is that particular state that includes a “thing” you make because we were made to make, and this he presents in contrast to a mere “job”, which is had for the sake of money alone:

“[Vocations] are specific kinds of work to which [people] are summoned by God or by their natural gifts or talents.  The kind of work may be cabinet-making or music-making, cooking or forestry, medicine or mechanics, science or law or philosophy or farming – any kind of work that is whole…  A “job,” by contrast, is understood as any work whatever that one can earn money by doing…” (Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, 79).

Read the complete essay by Jason Craig at Catholic Exchange.


Wendell Berry's "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age"

I want to say something about the decline, the virtual ruin, of rural life, and about the influence and effect of agricultural surpluses, which I believe are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic “factor.” This is a task that ought to be taken up by an economist, which I am not. But economists, even agricultural economists, farm-raised as many of them have been, do not live in rural communities, as I do, and they appear not to care, as I do, that rural communities like mine all over the country are either dying or dead. And so, only partly qualified as I am, I will undertake this writing in the hope that I am contributing to a conversation that will attract others better qualified. 

I have at hand an article from the Wall Street Journal of February 22, 2016, entitled “The U.S. Economy Is in Good Shape.” The article is by Martin Feldstein, “chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan . . . a professor at Harvard and a member of the Journal’s board of contributors.” Among economists, Prof. Feldstein appears to be somewhere near the top of the pile. And yet his economic optimism is founded entirely upon current measures of “incomes,” “unemployment,” and “industrial production,” all abstractions narrowly focused. Nowhere in his analysis does he mention the natural world, or the economies of land use by which the wealth of nature is made available to the “American economy.” Mr. Feldstein believes that “the big uncertainties that now hang over our economy are political.” 

Read "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age" at Sierra.


Q&A with Wendell Berry

Your wife says your principal asset as a writer has been your "knack for repeating yourself." Why keep repeating yourself?

Because things aren't improving out here in this newly discovered rural America. Actually, it was discovered a long time ago by the Republicans and the corporations — the Democrats had forgotten it for quite a long time, and they've just rediscovered it. Forty years ago, I wrote a book called The Unsettling of America. The tragedy of that book is that it's still pertinent. If it had gone out of print because of irrelevance, it would have been a much happier book. In 1977, I thought that the farming population was at a disastrous low. Now it's somewhere below 1%.

Your main concern with economists is that they think commodities can always come from somewhere else.

This has been a dominant idea throughout our history: if you don't have it here, you can get it from somewhere else. If you use up this commodity here, you can't produce it here anymore, you've worn out the possibility here, get it from somewhere else. Or if you're short of labor or you're too good for certain kinds of labor, go to Africa and get some slaves. That recourse has haunted us, has plagued us to death.

Read the complete interrogation by Sarah Begley at Time.


On Wendell Berry, the Church, and the economy

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):

Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.

Read the full, brief, but provocative thoughts of Jonathan Melton on this Wendell Berry quotation at The Patience of Trees.


Quoting Wendell Berry in and out of context

But the misappropriation of the Wendell Berry quote takes the cake, which comes at the summation of Walcher’s column, in which he correctly identifies Berry as “one of conservation’s most prolific and gifted writers” and pastes:

“To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortunes of the people. If history teaches anything, it teaches that.”

The quote is a misappropriation because it ignores all context and the body of Berry’s life and work. And because the ‘absentee’ authority Berry decries that are holding rural communities back are not the environmental agencies or the pubic health officials–in Frankfort or in DC. No, Berry’s criticisms are directed at the absentee coal baron, the Texas oil man, the faraway capitalist figuring on a ledger sheet that human health and local wealth is less important than what shows up on his side of the balance sheet, that are holding rural communities, too long shackled to boom and bust volatile economies, back.

If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.

Read the complete article by Pete Kolbenschlag at Colorado Pols.

The article by Greg Walcher to which Mr. Kolbenschlag refers can be found HERE.