On Monday night, I went to hear Wendell Berry speak. The great majority of our time was spent listening to him read one of his stories. After he finished, he answered a few questions and the last was regarding immigration law and the controversy which is very tender here in Alabama. He said some things about the matter and made sure no one walked away justifiably smug. Though I'm sure some did.
But the last thing he said is what got the applause and has stuck with me. He said with all the deliberateness of a man his age, with so many years of life saved up, something like - "Let's stop being mean to people."
Now granted, Berry could say, "look at that cat" and everyone would clap and cheer. But it's good advice.
Regarding challenges of feeding a world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, Berry advised against overreaction that could lead to improper profits for some companies and still not solve the problem.
“It’s a burden to ask people to be patient in an emergency, but that’s what sensible people need to do,” he said. While toxic agriculture and a polluted water supply make the U.S. less capable of feeding people now than it was 50 years ago, the answer is not to crank up technological enterprise. But rather, he suggested, identify the real requirements for food production and address the amount of food that is wasted.
“We must do things that can be learned and done now rather than putting faith in the hands of a few technological corporations,” he advised.
On the writing process, Berry said he waits for the muse, adding that sometimes he may know a story for 50 years or more before he writes it. “Somehow, it comes to mind. I don’t try to drum up trade,” said Berry who no longer lists favorite writers or books, although many writers and non-writers have been necessary to him at different times.
This evening, Berry spoke to an audience of more than 900 at Samford's Wright Center. He read one of his newer short stories, "Sold," set in the fictional town of Port William -- the setting of many of Berry's stories. It's the tale a woman recounting the life and death of everything she held dear in Port William -- her family, her neighbors and her farm.
Berry also answered several questions from the audience on a wide array of subjects including agriculture, theology and writing.
Increasing numbers of our Tennessee mountains are slated to be robbed of their ability to do the miraculous work only they can do. So much of what is life-giving about the mountain is its way with water. Wendell Berry, Kentucky advocate for the mountains, says it so well in the Afterwards for Missing Mountains.
“And so on any still intact slope of Eastern Kentucky, we have two intricately living and interdependent natural communities, that of the forest and that of the topsoil beneath the forest. Beneath them, moreover, the forest and the soil are carrying on a transaction with water that, in its way, also is intricate and wonderful. …..the rain does not fall upon the forest as upon a pavement; it does not just splatter down. It’s fall is slowed and gentled by the canopy of the forest, which thus protects the soil. The soil, in turn, acts as a sponge that absorbs the water, stores it, releases it slowly, and in the process filters and purifies it. The streams of the watershed — if human dwellers downstream meet their responsibilities — thus receive a flow of water that is continuous and clean.”
Berry believes the way for people to protect themselves is by developing a local economy, beginning with the idea of a local food economy, which shortens the distance between producers and consumers, to make the local economy benefit the local community, to preserve the livelihoods of local farm families and farm communities, to give consumers influence over the quality of their food, and to preserve the land. In doing so, people begin to see the difference between a local business that shares the fate of the local community and a large absentee corporation that is set up to escape the fate of the local community ruined by corporate malfeasance.
As Berry says, “To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers. From the standpoint of corporations, the corporate economy brings unprecedented economic growth, but from the standpoint of the land and its local populations … [a corporate economy brings] destruction and slavery. Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.”
For those in favor of environmental protection in an increasingly consumer-driven society, these sci-fi inspired patties could be part of the solution to today’s ecological crisis. Unfortunately, such scientific manipulation could actually serve to drive a deeper wedge between humanity and the environment that sustains us.
As Wendell Berry and other agrarian thinkers have suggested, a true appreciation for creation can only be fostered when we recognize the inherent relationship between the land and the products it provides. For example, in today’s society, it is not uncommon for children to grow up having no idea where their food comes from. In fact, some children cannot even identify what the beef on their plates is, let alone where it comes from.
Wendell writes an impressive critical analysis of the writing of William Carlos Williams. Honoring Williams' commitment to his own local community, Berry praises his efforts to find a language that expresses Rutherford, New Jersey and the people and things of that locale. At the time Williams was writing, New Jersey was considered "provincial." Most of his poetry peers traveled and lived in Europe.
As a doctor, he was of use to his community and as a poet, he sought to be of use to Rutherford and America. Instead of separating himself, becoming academic or writing in the classic forms with meter and rhyme, Williams had the courage to inhabit his own place in the world of writing. Berry borrows the ecological term "local adaption" to express the effort to connect oneself to place. This is the goal of the writer, to find the right relation to the land and community where he or she lives; Berry contrasts this with the focus on self or autonomy in the phrase "identity crisis."
The prolific Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry received one of the highest forms of social media flattery.
A fake Twitter account.
Berry should be lucky, however, because @notwendellberry has no malicious or satirical intent.
The setting was a conference about the future of food at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
As the keynote speaker began to talk, people in the room took special note, and not just because they were listening to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
"Honestly, as I was listening to him speak my jaw dropped, along with everyone else's, because the speech was such a clear and comprehensive explanation of what has gone so wrong with how we produce food in this country and what we need to do to get back on track," recalls Laurie David, an award-winning producer.
The Berry Center has revamped its website.
The Berry Center was established to continue the Berry family's work in culture and agriculture by working on issues of farmer education, consumer education, land use, agricultural policy and urban / rural connectedness. We are committed to the idea that we can live well without doing harm.