Previous month:
February 2015
Next month:
April 2015

On Wendel Berry on Vanishing Black Willows

Gracy Olmstead points out that Mr. Berry has written:

I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.

The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.

Read her thoughts on this at The American Conservative

Wendell Berry on The Future

So far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong.

The End of Something—history, the novel, Christianity, the human race, the world—has long been an irresistible subject. Many of the things predicted to end have so far continued, evidently to the embarrassment of none of the predictors. The future has been equally, and relatedly, an irresistible subject. How can so many people of certified intelligence have written so many pages on a subject about which nobody knows anything? Perhaps we need a book— in case we don’t already have one—on the end of the future.

None of us knows the future. Fairly predictably, we are going to be surprised by it. That is why “ thought for the morrow...” is such excellent advice. Taking thought for the morrow is, fairly predictably, a waste of time.

Read an adaptation of this essay from Our Only World at Yes! Magazine

Thinking about Wendell Berry on Personhood and Corporations

 I am enjoying reading through Wendell Berry's most recent essays, just published (2015) as Our Only World.  In one of his essays, entitled "On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes," he begins this way:

     "When we were notified of this award my wife, Tanya Berry, uttered a sound that closely resembled laughter.  She better than anybody knows how willingly I have risked controversy, and how much I have enjoyed it, especially when I was young.  In my favor I can only say that I have never killed or physically harmed any of my enemies, or wished to do so, and that I don't carry a pistol.  The only thing I would really enjoy shooting is a drone."

Which reminded me about drones.  Which in turn reminded me about corporations.

Read more at Sycamore Three

Wendell Berry and the Prince

Berry introduced the prince as "our worthy neighbor" and someone who has nearly been alone among world leaders in speaking out about how, just by food choices, industrial economies are "running up a huge ecological debt."

The audience gave Berry a cheering standing ovation. And the prince said Berry "has long been a hero of mine."

Prince Charles plugged an idea called "true-cost accounting" as a solution, where all the costs associated with business activity must be tallied, such as pollution and soil depletion.

He said change can only come with new financial incentives and disincentives.

"We must see we are part of the natural order, not isolated from it," he said.

Read more at USA Today

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

Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" Reviewed

At 80 years old, Wendell Berry shows no signs of slowing down. Usually courting controversy is a young man’s sport, but in his latest collection of essays, Our Only World, the prolific writer reminds his readers that he’s not settling into a quiet retirement! His willingness to risk controversy—and even enjoy it—motivates him to take on some of the most divisive issues of our day. And in typical fashion, he offers no easy solutions, no party talking points, while taking positions that will likely anger folks on both sides. In other words, this book is terrific!

In this collection of ten works (essays and speeches), Berry tackles issues ranging from the importance of local, land-based economies and the violence inherent in our modern industrialized way of life to climate change and the problem of “joblessness” to the Boston Marathon bombing and the inability of politics to fix any of this, and to a host of other seemingly unrelated topics that Berry brilliantly points out are all connected. 

He rpeatedly rejects any attempts to oversimplify the problems of our day, and he challenges many of our basic assumptions: namely, that big problems require big solutions. On the contrary, Berry believes that the only solutions to our big problems are small, local, personal solutions.

Read more at Circe Institute

Wendell and Mary Berry welcome Prince Charles


Your presence among us honors us. We have taken courage from your courage in opposing those who destroy for short-term profit the substance, health, and beauty of this world, which we did not make and cannot conserve except in obedience to its natural laws and to the divine imperative of human stewardship.

You will not be surprised to learn that in Kentucky, as in much of the world, the ways of conserving the land, the water, and the air are repeatedly blocked by the combination of corporate wealth, political connivance, academic complacency, and a deficit of hope where hope is most needed.

Here as elsewhere, the damages done by surface mining are severe, permanent, and largely unrestrained; the loss of land to "development" is, arithmetically, unsustainable; our use of our forests is for the most part ecologically unsound; our farmlands are eroding under an increasing burden of annual grain crops; those lands are priced beyond the reach of aspiring small farmers; and our streams are everywhere degraded by chemical and other pollutants.

But I believe you will be unsurprised also to learn that in Kentucky, as in places similarly exploited and threatened all over the world, there is a growing number of people and groups of people competently aware of, and determinedly opposed to, the diminishment of the natural health and beauty of our state and our world. We are proud to welcome you into the company of friends and allies who, like you, are unrestingly committed to the work of ecological sense and sanity.

Read more at The Courier-Journal

Wendell Berry and "Interstellar"

Interstellar challenges the traditionalist orientation of agrarian conservatives such as Wendell Berry. According to Berry, we should take our lead from the “stickers,” who devote themselves to the community that develops in a particular place and who are tied to the land of their small part of the planet. Opposed to the stickers are the “boomers,” who are never satisfied with what they have and exploit particular communities and parts of nature for money and power. For Berry, the most destructive boomers are the engineers, who transform human places rather than cultivate them.

Interstellar, rather like Berry, presents people as divided into two types: engineers and farmers. The family at the center of the film is made up of two engineers by nature—Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter—and two natural farmers, Cooper’s son and his father-in-law. That’s two brilliant, bookish, and restlessly inquisitive explorers and two stay-at-home family men with good hearts who readily accept their world’s and their own limited horizons. But the explorers aren’t Berry’s displaced parasites; they, too, are moved by personal, familial love.

Read more at Intercollegiate Review

Reflecting on Wendell Berry's "The Vacation"

Wendell Berry has written a poem that haunts me frequently. As a creative writer, the act of paying attention is both a spiritual and professional discipline. But far too often my aspirations for paying quality attention to everything dissolves into something more like attention deficit disorder. As it turns out, it is quite possible to see and not really see, to hear and not really hear. And this is all the more ironic when my very attempts to capture what I am seeing and hearing are the thing that prevent me from truly being present. Berry’s poem is about a man on holiday, who, trying to seize the sights and sounds of his vacation by video camera, manages to miss the entire thing.

Read more at Daily Devotions, News and Information