"Eating as Discipleship"

Wendell Berry's famous statement that "eating is an agricultural act" has motivated many to reconsider the agricultural systems our eating habits promote. Yet Berry's writings also contend that eating is a spiritual act; when we eat, we enact our relationship with the rest of creation and with the Creator. Unfortunately, the social architecture of the developed world encourages us to imagine food as a fuel that we consume. We're trained to treat food as a commodity whose sole purpose is to satisfy our desires and give us energy. 

Lisa Graham McMinn's To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community joins a chorus of other books that call Christians to resist this consumerist view of food. McMinn's book begins with Leslie Leyland Fields's proclamation that "food is nothing less than Sacrament." In defending this view, McMinn—a sociologist and co-owner of a CSA—adds her voice to the growing number of books and blogs celebrating farmers' markets, gardening, and home cooking.

Read all of "Eating as Discipleship" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Comment.


A 2008 letter from Wendell Berry

After returning home (following a "craftsmanship" tour of the Jack Daniels whiskey distillery), the students organized fifteen key questions that seemed the most important to them from all of our readings. I mailed them to Mr. Berry and he kindly responded with the letter posted to the right, along with typewritten responses to each question. I'm providing them for you here:

1. How much, if any, of Andy Catlett did you base upon your own life?
Andy Catlett 
is derived fairly directly from things I learned and that I remember from this part of the country at the time of my childhood. At the same time, it is very much a work of fiction. It had to be an imagined work simply because my memories are not complete enough to give me a whole story. And so Andy's bus ride, for example, is entirely imaginary. So are several of the characters and a good many of the events.

2. Where did industry go wrong, and why?
One of the large errors of industrialism is that it treats the ecological support system as "free." That is, it does not deduct ecological costs. To that I would add the tendency of industrialists to work on a scale so large that damages to ecosystems and human communities are inevitable.

Read more of this letter at Eighth Day Institute


Mary Berry Interviewed

Founded in 2011, the Berry Center aims to put her father’s writings to work: advocating for the farmers, land conservation and healthy regional economies. Berry spoke to Jane Black about her family’s legacy and her vision to support small sustainable farms. Edited excerpts follow:

Black: Your father, Wendell Berry, is a hero to so many people in the sustainable agriculture movement. But your work at the Berry Center honors not only his work, but your uncle and grandfather’s too.

Berry: My father says that his father did the important work. He and John, his brother, took it up. The work my grandfather did—and he would not have said it this way, but I will—was as the principle author of the Burley Tobacco Program, which was voted in in 1942 and ended about 11 years ago. It brought a stable economy to farmers in the eight-state Burley tobacco region. It protected them from over production, allowed them to plan an economic year, and it fostered a lot of intangibles like the ability for rural life to thrive.

Black: What did the program do?

Berry: It offered price support, not a subsidy. And it didn’t cost the federal government anything. It offered farmers stability—a market they could count on. For example, years ago we bought a 200-acre farm with a five-acre tobacco base, and that’s what we made our farm payment with. We borrowed money against the tobacco crop because we knew what that tobacco would bring. The rest of the farm was highly diversified. It was farming that fit the farm.

Read more at Stone Barns Center


Wendell Berry writes to NYRB

Though I am not an economist, I do read articles and columns by economists. One of my interests in doing so is to see if any attention is paid either to the natural world or to the economies of land use. Though “the economy” obviously depends upon both nature and land use, those subjects are rarely mentioned, let alone attended to.

At the risk of trying your patience, I will point out that “What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?” [NYR, August 13] by Edmund Phelps makes no mention of nature or “natural resources” or any land-using economy. He speaks once of “rural life” in order, tritely, to dismiss it from any concern or importance. And he speaks once of “the crops”—“the crops may be growing…”—but that is a trope. The crops in fact “may be” growing, but he takes for granted that they are.

Read more at The New York Review of Books


Reflection on Wendell Berry and Pope Francis

Francis and Berry both preach against an individualism that trumps community and compassion; note the Creator’s love for his creation regardless of its utility to humanity; and affirm a special status for people but rebuff a theology that equates our “dominion” with an unfettered domination. They decry what Francis calls the “rapidification” of culture and the over-specialization of knowledge; reject a hyper-dualism that completely severs body and soul, the spiritual and the earthly; and are even similarly wary of our relational reliance on electronic screens. Berry famously described “eating” as “an agricultural act.” Francis, quoting his predecessor Benedict XVI, makes a similar, if broader, point: “Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act.”

The two also offer extended criticism of what the Pope calls a “deified market” and Berry deems “an opposing religion, assigning to technological progress and ‘the market’ the same omnipotence, omniscience, unquestionability, even the same beneficence that the Christian teachings assign to God.” Moving on from the shared renunciations, they each praise the actions often taken by small landowners and local peoples and affirm the value of physical work and artistic beauty. In short, both men refuse to swallow the myth of progress or, conversely, diagnose humanity as a planetary cancer.

Read more at First Things


Wendell Berry and "Laudato Si"

As it turns out, a US author from Kentucky came to Francis' same conclusions a little over thirty years ago. Award winning author Wendell Berry advocated in his 1983 essay "Two Economies" for a system that would prioritize the spiritual "Kingdom of God" without neglecting economical necessities. 

Berry has often criticized electronic communication and modern agricultural techniques. That said, at a more universal level, this essay advocated for a practical harmony that both shaped the environment through human invention and allowed the environment to provide practical aids and limits on human development. Berry used topsoil as an example. He argued that industrialists overlooked complex ecological systems by replacing the double function of topsoil, water retention and drainage, with machines and dams that performed merely one or the other task, risking eroded ecosystems. In short, in the name of efficiency, technocrats had overlooked and reduced nature's efficiency. Turning to the ironic belief that we can or ought to control nature, Berry asked: "What is to be the fate of self-control in an economy that encourages and rewards unlimited selfishness? (68)"

Read more at Huffington Post


Wendell Berry, Almonds and Rugged Individualism

To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.

When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

 Read more at Brain Pickings


Wendell Berry on the Value of Local Economies

As often before, my thoughts begin with the modern history of rural Kentucky, which in all of its regions has been deplorable. In my county, Henry County, for example, as recently as the middle of the last century, every town was a thriving economic and social center. Now all of them are either dying or dead. If there is any concern about this in any of the state’s institutions, I have yet to hear about it. The people in these towns and their tributary landscapes once were supported by their usefulness to one another. Now that mutual usefulness has been removed, and the people relate to one another increasingly as random particles.

To help in understanding this, I want to quote a few sentences of a letter written on June 22, 2013, by Anne Caudill. Anne is the widow of Harry Caudill. For many years she was involved in Harry’s study of conditions in Eastern Kentucky and in his advocacy for that region. Since Harry’s death, she has maintained on her own the long interest and devotion she once shared with Harry, and she is always worth listening to. She wrote:

The Lexington Herald Leader last Sunday ... published a major piece on the effects of the current downturn in the coal industry ... Perhaps the most telling statement quoted came from Karin Slone of Knott County whose husband lost his job in the mines ... finally found a job in Alabama and the family had to leave their home. Karin said, “There should have been greater efforts to diversify the economy earlier.” [Fifty] years ago and more Harry tried ... everything he could think of to encourage diversity. My heart goes out to those families who yet again are being battered by a major slump in available jobs. ... Again they are not being exploited, but discarded.

This is a concise and useful description of what Anne rightly calls a tragedy, and “tragedy” rightly applies, not just to the present condition of Eastern Kentucky, but to the present condition of just about every part of rural Kentucky. The tragedy of Eastern Kentucky is the most dramatic and obvious because that region was so extensively and rapidly industrialized so early. The industrialization of other regions (mine, for example) began with the accelerated industrialization of agriculture after World War II, and it has accelerated increasingly ever since. The story of industrialization is the same story everywhere, and everywhere the result is ruin. Though it has developed at different rates of speed in different areas, that story is now pretty fully developed in all parts of our state.

To know clearly what industrialization is and means, we need to consider carefully some of the language of Anne Caudill’s letter. We see first of all that she is speaking of a region whose economy is dependent upon “jobs.” This word, as we now use it in political clichés such as “job creation,” entirely dissociates the idea of work from any idea of calling or vocation or vocational choice. A “job” exists without reference to anybody in particular or any place in particular. If a person loses a “job” in Eastern Kentucky and finds a “job” in Alabama, then he has ceased to be “unemployed” and has become “employed,” it does not matter who the person is or what or where the “job” is. “Employment” in a “job” completely satisfies the social aim of the industrial economy and its industrial government.

 Read more by Wendell Berry at In These Times


Wendell Berry on Deserted Farmlands

The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.

This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.

To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables. The need for the right eyes-to-acres ratio appears nonetheless to have the force of law.

Read it all at The Atlantic


Just Found: 2000 Interview with Wendell Berry

As the world’s growing environmental crisis becomes more publicized, is there a risk that it is also being too simplified?

The “environmental crisis” has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household
of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of “raw materials,” and that we may safely possess those materials by taking them.... And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as “environmental” problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them.

What do you mean by “economic oversimplification?”

What has happened is that most people in [the developed world] have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and elderly, and many other kinds of “service” that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities....
The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.... The “environmental crisis,” in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies.

Read more at World Watch (opens as a pdf)