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Wendell Berry inspires young farmers

As college graduates flounder in dehydrated job markets, spending a few months working on farms doesn't look quite so bad when the alternative is moving back in with Mom and Dad.

Jenne and I were inspired, however, neither by trendy foodies nor by any pressing economic imperative.

Our catalyst was an essay written by Wendell Berry, the septuagenarian author, lifelong farmer, avowed Luddite, and longtime advocate of sustainable agriculture. (Forget pesticides; Berry is against tractors.)

When I came across The Necessity of Agriculture in Harper's Magazine last December, I knew almost nothing about Berry's vast body of work (it spans 50 books over five decades) or about his career as a farmer.

But I was moved by his message, which amounted to a kind of plea.


Blog Watch: On Wendell Berry's "Free"

“For a time/ I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

I have sometimes suggested to teachers that they ask their students to explore what Wendell Berry might mean by the use of the word “free” in this line.

I’m sure you recognize it as the last from his well known poem The Peace of Wild Things:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought 
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I have blithely offered that as an exercise for students, but I have not taken the time to really explore it myself. So, I ask myself, just how is Wendell Berry “free” when he rests in the grace of the world?


Berry noted in "This is Not My Beautiful Lawn"

When the concept that the lawn was essential to residential landscaping first gained traction in the U.S., synthetic fertilizers didn’t exist. Lawns were a mix of various “meadow grasses” and white clover, weeds were ignored or pulled by hand, and lawn mowers were powered by human muscle. In 1844, A. J. Downing, who did as much to popularize the lawn as anyone, recommended that lawns be top-dressed in early spring with compost “of any decayed vegetable or animal matter.” In 1900, such authorities as the Columbus [Ohio] Horticultural Society recommended spring fertilization, saying that the new chemical fertilizers could be used, but that fine ground bone meal and cottonseed meal would work as well at lower cost. That year, total synthetic fertilizer use in the US totaled 2.2 million pounds.

In the familiar hockey stick pattern of other, related, increases such as CO2 parts per million, resource use, and population, total synthetic fertilizer use went up, slowly at first, to about 8.2 million tons in 1940. After World War II, marketing forces that shaped cultural norms combined with the “Green Revolution” to drive sharp increases in the U.S. Recommendations for lawns increased from one to four applications over the growing season. In 1981, when the Talking Heads often performed their song in concert, total synthetic fertilizer use was up to 54 million tons. But lawns rapidly gained market share: According to the EPA  approximately 13.5 million tons of synthetic fertilizer were spread over American farmland in 2005 and 2006, covering about one-eighth of the continental land mass. Yet in 2004, about 70 million tons of fertilizer were used on U.S. lawns. And while agricultural use has declined somewhat, lawn use continues to increase: lawn acreage continues to expand, and there is more input per acre than on agricultural land.


Blog Watch: "Ethics of Western Kentucky Coal"

On a recent trip to the town that I grew up in, I looked over the latest political ads and listened to comments people made about the upcoming election. Aside from the expected vitriol, there is also the undercurrent that I heard a few times that those who are “anti-coal” cannot win in that town.  Coal is not even an issue in this election—this is simply a presupposition held that prevents it from being an issue going into the political realm there.

I grew up in Western Kentucky; my grandfather and other relatives spent time in the mines and they hardly glamorized or praised it—it was simply what you did to put food on the table, it was a job waiting for folks in that part of the country when they came home from the war. Sometime less than 10 years ago, mining came back in a big way to that part of the state. I don’t recall too many of the guys from my older siblings generation (about 10 years older than me) being in the coal business, but I would estimate that more than half of the males I graduated high school with who remained in the county went into the mines.


Blog Watch: "Sowing Clover"

For many months, I've thought about the name of this blog. When I first started writing, I wanted this to be a place to show my crafting process. It has now morphed to a blog about crafts, food, gardening, cooking, and my everyday life. This isn't just a knitting blog anymore. I knew that the new name had to be something more inclusive. "Sowing Clover" came from a favorite Wendell Berry poem of mine. While short in length, it brings me hope.

February 2, 1968
In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.


Blog Watch: "A Chicken, A Red Rudge and A Pair of Shoes"

My old bike, at its time, was a very good one. It was a ten-speed manufactured in the early 1960s with a hand built thin walled, lugged, steal frame. I asked Ed, my local bike shop owner, if it made sense to rebuild my old ten-speed into an urban commuter. Absolutely he said. He put Nick, a college aged young man, in charge of the project.
My old red Rudge was reborn with upright bars, a classy and comfortable leather saddle, new rims and rubber, new chain and bearings and a slick 8-speed internal hub. Here is a sensible example of the proper economies of scale. It wedded my household economy, the stuff at hand, with economy of my local bicycle shop. The $400 give or take that I could afford on a bike (mostly give in this case, but in that range) were dollars spent in my community and largely remained in my community.

Indianapolis this weekend: "A Rooted People: Church, Place and Agriculture"

Ours is a world in which transportation is becoming extremely costly (as was highlighted by the massive costs of the BP Oil Spill) and yet at the same time is a world that is becoming increasingly urban. Common sense would seem to indicate that these trends will impact in a major way our food systems and the way we eat. Given these factors, what is the church’s redemptive role in caring for the health and wholeness (shalom) of not just humanity, but all creation? Englewood Christian Church has invited several speakers with rich experiences in sustainable agriculture to lead a conversation reflecting on this question and related ones about church, place, food, community and agriculture, and we invite you to join us