Previous month:
February 2011
Next month:
April 2011

Sandra McCracken: Visiting Mr. Berry

Over the years, I have started several unfinished thank you letters to him in my head, or scribbled them on the pages of a journal or in the margins of his books. I’ve had a growing sense that I somehow needed to communicate to him how much his work has shaped and enlightened me. So last fall I took out some construction paper and a pen and finally made it happen. It went something like this:

Dear Mr. Berry,

I have begun this letter so many times over the years. Why is it that the most significant things we do are often the things left undone? I should have written it years ago, but here it is now . . . Your writing enables me to crave and long for the country while I live in the city. It urges me to slow down when the pace around me is whirring. And it hushes my spirit when my world is full of noise. I wanted you to know that I am one of many who has been profoundly affected by your mentoring. God speaks through your narratives. His beauty is in your poetry, your disruptive encouragement, and your written voice. May God cause your work and art to take deep root, springing up new beauties in my heart, in the hearts of my children, and in the hearts of many others.


On WB "Getting The President To Laugh"


The kind of readers who visit this website may have noticed that one of our heroes, Wendell Berry, made President Obama laugh right out loud the other day. Wendell recently received a National Humanities Medal in Washington, and when the President leaned forward to drape the award over Wendell’s shoulders, the two exchanged whispers and the President broke out in a huge grin. It is a wonderful picture and appeared in many newspapers. To be able to get the president of the United States to laugh like that in front of the whole world in these awful times… well, that’s a real accomplishment. I am not surprised, however. If you know Wendell, he can make very funny remarks at the most unexpected times. I asked him what he whispered to the president but he’s not talking. Says he can’t remember.


"A Conversation With Wes Jackson"

Even when he's lecturing you over the phone about the effect of the hydrological cycle on soybean yields in Brazil's Amazon Basin, Wes Jackson sounds like a cowboy storyteller with a slight drawl. His campfire tales, however, are historically minded and deeply academic: he can take you from Brazil back to his native Kansas with the deft phrase, "Let's go back to the Bronze Age for a minute."

Jackson talks a lot about "the 10,000-year-old problem," the problem of how we grow our food. The solution may exist at the Land Institute, where Jackson leads research into new agricultural practices that combine earth-conscious farming practices with whiz-bang new plant breeds and genetic technologies. Here, he talks about perennials, the end of fossil fuels, and the very worst kind of fundamentalism.


WB cited in "Some Good News About Food"

The great American writer, thinker and farmer Wendell Berry recently said, “You can’t be a critic by simply being a griper . . . One has also to . . . search out the examples of good work.”

I’ve griped for weeks, and no doubt I’ll get back to it, but there are bright spots on our food landscape, hopeful trends, even movements, of which we can be proud. Here are six examples.


"Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism" | Front Porch Republic

The decline of community is a theme taken up by many today both on the right and the left. The solitary bowler, a memorable image from Robert Putman’s book Bowling Alone, represents the loss that many feel and confirms the intuition that, despite the many advantages the modern world provides, something has indeed been lost. But what exactly is a community? Does any group of individuals living in close proximity to each other constitute a community? Does a healthy community exist more easily in an urban, suburban, or rural environment? Although he does not argue that a good life is only possible on the farm, Wendell Berry writes out of the agrarian tradition, and his vision of community is articulated in a rural context centered around a small town. Berry’s work is useful in developing a sense of the various ingredients necessary for a viable community. However, it is necessary to ask if and how this vision of community, if indeed it is compelling, can be translated into urban and sub-urban contexts.


WB cited in reflection on hopeful practices

And then I came across an interview with Wendell Berry, arguably industrial agriculture's greatest critic, on the Earth Eats website. Berry was holding forth on what it takes to be a proper critic of industrial agriculture, the role I've chosen as my métier. Berry said:

But you can't be a critic by simply being a griper and collecting instances of things that seem to demand griping about. One has also to be a proper critic to search out the examples of good work, good land use, and of simple goodness that can give you some kind of standard of judgment along with the ecological health that is also an inescapable standard of judgment.

Berry's admonishment reminded me that as grim as the Big Picture often seems, it isn't the whole picture. Sure, Big Oil lurches on, unimpeded by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the slow-motion calamity of climate change. Nukes, too, will likely survive the latest proof that nuclear power concentrates too much risk to ever really make sense. Even so, millions of people are working across the globe to create clean, low-risk energy systems based on wind and sun, and community-sharing schemes like mass transit.


Personal Announcement: "Mourning One Great Soul, Helping Another"

I interrupt normal posting related to Wendell Berry in order to share with you this news from my friend Charlie Langton about a farm family in need. Many thanks for whatever you can do ... Br. Tom


Mourning One Great Soul, Helping Another

On Saturday, February 26, over 200 family members and friends gathered in Lansing, Iowa, to pay their last respects to Bill Welsh, a man of great personal courage and a true Iowa agricultural leader.

Back in the early 1980s, when I first met Bill, his wife Essie, and their large welcoming family, agricultural Extension Service reps were still insisting that chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides did not percolate into the ground water, small family farms were collapsing at an alarming rate, distraught farmers were blaming the farm crisis on the Federal Reserve and the Jews, and there were no organic standards and no viable local organic processors and markets. Bill and his sons Greg and Gary had just converted their farm to organic production and resolutely began speaking truth to power, helping disenfranchised farm families, combating fear-based prejudice, lobbying for clear, fair standards, assisting in organic conversions, and working to establish local organic processors. The panels they now would be welcomed to sit on back then would dismiss and condescend to them. I was fortunate to spend two and a half years accompanying them during the early days of that journey, learning from them and with them, and it is a time I will never forget and always cherish.

Frankly,  much of it was uncharted territory for them, too, and they did not always know what they were doing, but the possibility of making a mistake or two did not deter them from their goals: That takes a special kind of greatness. Always the concepts of healthy land, healthy food, and healthy people guided them. Eventually Bill would serve on the National Organic Standards Board and be instrumental in the founding and success of the Organic Prairie farmers’ cooperative, but that would have been hard to imagine during those uncertain early times. Essie was a rock for the entire family then, though certainly she was as uncertain as any of them about what they were taking on, and always at Bill’s side was his son Greg, an eloquent, energetic, but modest partner, whether they were giving an organic farm tour, advocating for farmers whose homes and livelihoods were in jeopardy, challenging current farming practices, or organizing to solve organic marketing challenges.

At Bill’s funeral the whole Welsh family mourned their guiding light, including Greg, standing strong despite having just finished weeks of daily radiation treatments for an inoperable brain tumor, still Bill’s modest and eloquent partner, still focused and determined, but now a loving husband himself, with two beautiful young children. As if grieving for his beloved father were not enough, the challenges Greg and his young family now face are hard to imagine as he continues his battle with cancer for the sake of those he loves.

There will be a benefit for Greg on May 14 in Viroqua, Wisconsin. For more information on the benefit, go to . One fun way to contribute is to look for one-dollar bills with a “G” in the circle on the left hand side—we’re calling them “G-Bucks”—”G” for Greg, of course. You can give them to me when you see me, or drop them off at the Oneota Community Food Co-op, or just bring them to the benefit. Hopefully we’ll have a mountain of them to present to Greg and Faye in mid-May. But of course feel free to donate anything you can, in any denomination available. You can send contributions other than G-Bucks to:

Greg Welsh Benefit Fund
Royal Bank
114 State Highway 171
Gays Mills, WI 54631