GROWING HOME host Marla Camp, publisher of Edible Austin moderated an on-stage conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson when they came to Austin in December of 2011 to lend their support to Edible Austin's annual fundraiser for two central Texas food nonprofits, Urban Roots and Sustainable Food Center. They shared their thoughts and wisdom with a sold out house—a show produced by Edible Austin with support from University of Texas professor Robert Jensen and the Paramount Theatre. The following special episode of Growing Home is an excerpt from that show.
So, what to do? Wendell Berry knew, way before Google existed:
So, friends, every day do something that won't compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
And he has some advice for us about how to know what is right in a world with so many questions:
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask youself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?
His topics: agriculture, war, coal mining, nuclear power. His stance (simplified here, of course): love the land, be of the land, love each other. Berry, to me, feels like a conglomeration of his peers. He has Carson’s mastery of fact and research, Krutch’s fascination with the evocative moments nature provides, Hoagland’s gentle and non-judgemental observations, and, yes, wrapped in the same bundle, Abbey’s radical streak. Just a year ago, in February, 2011, at age 76, Berry participated in a sit-in to protest mountaintop removal coal mining in his native Kentucky.
I have always been suspicious of people who seem to devote their entire lives to forms of protest. We all ought to have better things to do. Ken Kesey once said that the reason not to resist evil is that such resistance is dependent on evil; it makes you dependent on evil. He was right. And Edward Abbey said that saving the world is a good hobby—though he worked hard to save at least parts of it. As for me, the older I get, the less happy I am to leave home. All the places I go seem to be getting farther away. Frankfort, Kentucky, now appears as far off as the planet Saturn, and I wish it more remote.
When my fiancée, Juliana, and I were farming, we grew the most beautiful produce I have ever seen. I do not mean to brag. It is sort of like being a parent, or a pet owner. Anyone who has grown food with love probably feels that way about the product of his or her labor. We grew 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, many heirloom varieties, and ingredients for cooking food from so many traditions. We sold them at a farmers' market in a well-heeled neighborhood, and we charged a lot of money. We did not think twice about charging $16 per pound for salad greens. We knew what work went into it, we knew how good it was, and we knew it was worth it. We sold out. And we made $12,000 a year between the two of us. We thought we were doing pretty well.
When low-income people came to our stand with food stamps, we gave them two or three for the price of one. But something was broken. At $12,000, we had low incomes ourselves, and the only people we could feed had high incomes. I wanted to change the world, and I saw farming as a piece of that work. Fairness for the farmer seemed to mean injustice for the eater. Fairness for the eater seemed to mean injustice for the farmer. How could we simply choose to fight for one, with the knowledge that it undercut the other?
While reading Wendell Berry’s essay, “Wallace Stegner and The Great Community” I found the following quote by a Stegner from his essay, “The Book and the Great Community” worth further contemplation.
“Thought is neither instant nor noisy…It thrives best in solitude, in quite, and in the company of the past, the great community of recorded human experience. That recorded experience is essential whether one hopes to re-assert some aspect of it, or attack it.”
The first half of the quote, “thought is neither instant or noisy,” I consider an expectation. Those words ask that I wake up earlier than absolutely necessary in the mornings and dedicate time to contemplation, to reading and writing, and to working on my photography.
I wasn’t intellectually persuaded by Mr.Berry. Rather my heart was reordered. He helped me to love that which I had previously found unloveable. And I knew, on some deep level, that all of the trappings of modernity, that which I had held to be superior, were really the cause of all my feelings of isolation and alienation and fragmentation. At last I had discovered what my soul was missing. And I was faced with the great irony that my whole life I had been celebrating the death of the very things that were, in fact, life.
I mention Berry because Berry is a man who has ruthlessly lived out his values. He became convinced that living normally in the modern economy is morally illicit and so he has decided to live in a radically different way. I wish I could say the same about the Occupiers.
The panel, conducted a few days ago, was full of the usual Occupy silliness. It was incoherent from the start. It was meant to be a panel on the intersection of spirituality and the Occupy Movement, but hardly any mention of religion was made at all. At the beginning, all the students who were involved in the Occupy movement were asked to stand up to be applauded. They were praised for engaging the community in "meaningful dialogue" (what dialogue?) The fact that literally nothing has changed because they wanted to hang out in tents for a few weeks was passed over.
In big ways, the modern food movement goes back to an eccentric, powerful, and often beautiful book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. Writing in 1977, as the first popular wave of environmental awareness and activism crested, Berry tied ecological destruction to the American food economy. In the move from diversified, small-scale agricultural to industrial production, he saw a larger decline in miniature: from integrated organic fertility to systems that import artificial fertilizer to the farm and discard rich manure as a pollutant, breaking (in Berry's phrase) one solution into two problems; from intimate knowledge of a piece of land and its species to the tunnel-vision ignorance of the industrially enabled, public subsidized ignorance of someone who produces of one thing, whether corn, wheat, or pork, in a radically simplified system; from respect for the hard but sometimes good work of farming to dislike, even contempt, of labor, which came with a willingness to make agricultural labor, in industrial poultry plants and slaughterhouses, as degrading as it has ever been.
BB: I’m interviewing you for CatholicVote? What does this book offer for the American Catholic?
NS: Although Berry comes from the Protestant tradition, his Catholic admirers are struck by the “Catholic imagination” that suffuses his work. Readers will find in his writings an indirect but eloquent defense of many of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching (e.g. the comprehensiveness of the faith, stewardship, subsidiarity, the evils of consumerism, etc.). Our collection includes a number of prominent Catholic contributors, such as Antony Esolen, Anne Husted Burleigh, Patrick Deneen, and William Fahey, who in one way or another bring out these connections. They do so in part by showing how Berry’s fiction offers a concrete embodiment and imaginative elaboration of those principles. The imagination matters greatly for how we live, and art plays an important role in shaping that imagination. Catholics need to take this seriously, not by retreating to crude didactics, but by immersing themselves in great works of literature that inform the moral imagination. Very good artists can imitate evil in art without relying upon sensationalism, but only great artists can imitate goodness without being sentimental. In this respect Berry’s poetry and fiction are singular. They give his readers a taste of goodness that is both wholesome and hard, while providing some inoculation against the false premises of modern culture and liberal utopianism.