Nature as an Ally: An Interview with Wendell Berry

Each generational wave of environmental concern seems to lap at Wendell Berry’s doorstep. He gave up teaching and writing in New York in the sixties to return to Kentucky, establishing a small farm at Lanes Landing near Port Royal, and dedicating himself to writing about the roots of the life he leads there. Readers have sought his inspiration to overcome the incessant churning of environmental destruction and industrial food production. Berry embodies a certain sort of alternative. When I arrived at Lanes Landing, I knew that many seekers had come before me to put a face to the writing, and to see this life for themselves.

Berry is best known for his attention to place—an insistence on community and an intimate knowledge of home, from the soil to the weather patterns to the human history. I initially came to his work through the Southern Agrarians, a group of twelve Southerners who in 1930 published I’ll Take My Stand, a manifesto against Northern industrialism and the loss of a romanticized, rooted, agrarian life. Berry’s resistance to capitalist definitions of progress rhymes with a long intellectual tradition of skepticism of American urbanization, mechanization, and hypermobility. His 1973 “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” begins with the image of the uprooted, commercially oriented modern:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Even as he subjects market society to a scathing critique, he seeks out the tensions that remained deeply unresolved in the writings of the Agrarians: how people might become more free—free from patriarchy, racism, and so on—without becoming deracinated. In The Hidden Wound, Berry explored race through his experience growing up on a Kentucky farm, and in essays like “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” he set freedom in relation to the productive household economy; feminism for him, and male freedom too, is full and free employment within an independent household, minimally reliant on commodities.

Berry’s influences can be traced beyond the Agrarians to ecological and religious conceptions of nature. He asks how we can develop our understanding of our environment so that we can respect its limits as we arrange our human lives. He therefore opposes the national-parks model of conservation: purity on this side, despoliation on the other. “Agriculture using nature,” he has written, “…would approach the world in the manner of a conversationalist….On all farms, farmers would undertake to know responsibly where they are and to ‘consult the genius of the place.’”

All of this raises serious questions about a sort of agrarian epistemology. If we can’t count on technocratic solutions, how can we determine our limits? How do we consult the genius of place? Berry approaches this question through discussions of the farming life, but through religion and poetry as well. His most recent book, The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford, is a tribute to the poet whose work explored Paterson, New Jersey, with all the sensitivity and accompanying understanding that Berry brings to poetic explorations of his own place.

Lest this all sound too abstract, the first thing Berry placed in my hands, after a glass of water, was the 50-Year Farm Bill, a long-term proposal largely devised by his friend Wes Jackson of the Land Institute “for gradual systemic change in agriculture.” The proposal focuses on redeveloping the natural biodiversity of land, and Berry has been to Washington to lobby on its behalf. Berry has been active as well in opposition to the coal industry in Kentucky, and recently withdrew his papers from the University of Kentucky after it accepted coal money to build a dormitory for the basketball team.

Berry, now seventy-seven, has received many accolades for his work. This year he was chosen to give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the federal government’s top honor in the humanities. The Michael Pollans of the world pay him tribute openly and often. But the state of ecological affairs in America and the world is now more dire than when he started writing.

Berry’s farmhouse sits on a steep hillside overlooking the Kentucky River and land about which he has long written, “a place I don’t remember not knowing.” It is heartening to see Berry honored and his works quoted, but Berry asks us to be concerned with the whole agricultural process, from the land to the workers, all the overlapping realms of economy discussed by the authors in this special section. This is not an easy thing to do in the face of impending environmental catastrophe, a situation that would seem to demand quick fixes. We began with Berry’s lamentation that food alone should so dominate public discussion.

-Sarah Leonard

Wendell Berry: The discussion about food doesn’t make any sense without discussion at the same time of land, land use, land policy, fertility maintenance, and farm infrastructure maintenance. How are you going to get the best farming and the best food from a landscape that has removed its fences, which means the animals have been removed from agriculture? Without animals, something essential is removed from the minds of the farmers. Corn and bean people, I’m afraid, have extremely specialized minds.

Sarah Leonard: Can you talk about how you think about your farm working?

WB: [The British agricultural scientist] Sir Albert Howard said that in her management of the native forest—and, [Land Institute founder] Wes Jackson would say, of the native prairie—nature never farms without livestock. And Howard’s understanding of nature’s “farming” in undisturbed ecosystems is the scientific bedrock of organic agriculture….The difference, then, between a large Midwest farm practicing a corn and soybean rotation on every tillable acre and a good small farm with an orderly diversity of plants and animals is one of structure, and this is a critical difference. There is no structural complexity at all in a corn and bean rotation. The connections between people and land are dangerously oversimplified and mainly technological.

SL: And more grotesquely in meat production.

WB: You’re talking about the industrial system that confines the animals closely in one place and grows their food in another place, usually distant. This breaks the fertility cycle and violates all the principles of nature on which sustainable agriculture and a dependable food supply depend. The proper role of animals in agriculture is to complete the ecological integrity of farms, and to produce food for humans from pastures—especially pastures on land that is mainly, or entirely, suitable only for grazing.

Do you know the phrase “mind-numbing work”? This is a cliché that for a long time has been used to denigrate farming. If your economic policies drive farmers off the land, you are pleased to have saved them from “mind-numbing work”—which is usually associated with smaller farms. But if you have several thousand acres of corn, and you’re getting up in the morning to spend all day long driving a cultivator, or a sprayer, or a combine through those identical rows, day after day. . . that’s dull. And it would dull your mind. But suppose you have, say a hundred or a hundred and fifty acres of rolling land, maybe twenty-five Jersey cows, a few hogs, a garden, flowers everywhere, cliff swallows nesting against the barn wall, and children playing and wandering about. That isn’t dull. That requires hard work, of course. But it also requires constant attention and intelligence; it gives a lot of pleasure, and you’ll probably find that it depends on love.

SL: Do you think that a large portion of the population would be happy doing this kind of work?

WB: Maybe not. . . .But, you’ve switched the conversation to the question of vocation. It would be wrong to assume that every person is called to be a farmer. To use the Amish example, the agrarian community needs mechanics, manufacturers (there are things they need that we don’t make), farriers, harness makers, horse breeders, carpenters, and so on. I have never, ever said that everybody ought to be a farmer. But I do say that everybody ought to work at something useful and necessary, and not destructive. Our substitution of “job” (any “job”) for vocation is disastrous.

SL: Why do you think urban agriculture has gotten so much attention?

WB: We have everything to gain from urban agriculture. But that’s not farming. Louisville, Kentucky, for example, is not going to feed itself from gardening alone. They need milk and meat—things that you can’t produce in the city. Every time someone in Louisville plants something to eat, we’re better off out here. Urban gardeners know something of the biology, the art, and the chanciness of growing food, which makes it possible for them to imagine the life and work of farming out in the countryside. From this and the interest in local food, you get an urban agrarianism that I think is simply indispensable.

SL: Why do you think the emphasis has been so heavy on urban agriculture, and not on things outside the city?

WB: Well, urban people have been permitted, by cheap fossil fuel and other subsidies, to think of themselves as somehow islanded. Independent. And you could contrast that with the ancient Greek idea of the city, which included both the built-up urban center and the tributary landscape. Ancient Greek cities and towns had granaries and stables. Harvested grain would be brought into the city, and the flocks and herds would be driven into the city at night for safety. That was an immediate contact between city and country, and we’ve lost that. Louisville lost the Bourbon Stockyards and much of the meatpacking industry that was there, and most Louisvillians seem to have counted that as progress. I tried to help an effort to relocate a stockyard in the Lexington, Kentucky, neighborhood but the people didn’t want it at all, anywhere. They wanted the meat, but not the live animals or the manure. That’s hard to deal with, also crazy. You’ve got to put your mind on the whole fundamental economic structure, from field and forest to city, so that you can have economic justice (some sense of parity along the line), and you don’t have any demeaning work. If you’ve got a large-scale meat-processing industry, for instance, where some poor soul has to knock cows in the head all day, that’s demeaning to everyone involved.

But any kind of drudgery is horrible. Drudgery is having too much repetitive work to do, for too long, with no choice but to do it, with no sense of vocation, and under the rule of a boss. When everybody here had a tobacco crop, an uninitiated person from some suburb or city who came to our work at harvest time would just be horrified. It was extraordinarily difficult work. Hot. Long days, virtually from dark to dark, and strenuous. But that didn’t last all year around. And we were doing it with our neighbors and for no pay. (The old rule was, nobody’s done until everybody’s done.) This was not drudgery.

SL: One of the trends among young people (maybe a bit of a revival?) is WWOOFing [Worldwide Opportunity on Organic Farms]—in which people travel and work on organic farms for a time. The farms are all listed in a book and online now. The young people can go and work on the farm. The time you stay can range wildly. It’s agriculture without place. People use it to travel…

WB: To really be effective, the apprenticeship probably needs to last a whole year—to get the annual cycle and see how the whole thing works.

SL: I think for people who want to go work on a farm, it seems like it would be fulfilling. It takes on a therapeutic ethos.

WB: You have to see the whole picture. Nobody comes to farm to dispose of dead livestock or to cope with a disease outbreak. Nobody comes to mend fences, although I happen to like mending fences myself. You have to have some sense of how each task is gathered into the larger pattern.

SL: A lot of people—not just supporters of agribusiness—wonder if there were a world of small farms, could we feed the world population as it exists now?

WB: No, it can’t be definitively answered. For one thing, we don’t know anything about the future. For another thing, the “small farm” can’t be defined once for every place. There are all kinds of critical questions requiring answers. Is there such a thing as a bad small farm? Are there good large farms? You have to study and evaluate a range of examples. If you have a lucrative grain market, and virtually every farmer is growing soybeans or corn on every acre that’ll hold up a tractor, and fertilizing it with chemical fertilizer, the inevitable runoff going into the local watershed and on into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico—that so-called dead zone in the Gulf—you can say that is wrong. There is nothing in that scheme that guarantees you a long-term food supply. You are destroying the land resource, the land communities, and the soil itself. The soil is part of the land community, which is where you have to start, and that’s where the 50-Year Farm Bill starts. It addresses not food production but the problems of agriculture as it now is: erosion, toxicity, and the destruction of the husbandry cultures in local communities. If you are feeding people by destroying the land, and the rural communities, and polluting the water systems—and if you consider that damage to be a sustainable cost—you’re crazy.

This turns us toward the need for a better general criticism than we have of the economy and the culture. One crucial thing to consider is what Wes Jackson calls the “eyes to acres” ratio. If you’re going to take care of the land well you need to have enough people caring for it and watching over it. In industrial agriculture, a few people “farm” a lot of land with big machines and a lot of chemicals—with the results I’ve just described. That’s the large-scale farming some people think will “feed the world,” the billions of people now mostly in cities. It’ll feed them for a short time. But we need to feed them for a long time. My side of the argument says it’s possible to have a more complex, long-term structure. It’s possible to have a farming culture in which everything helps everything else—following the example of nature. A good farmer I know used to say, “It’s good to have nature working for you. She works at a minimum wage.” Nature is a powerful ally, if you respect her and her ways.

If you work against her, as we are now doing, she’ll work against you. The penalties may be severe.

The agri-industrialists have what they think is a rhetorical question addressed to my side: “If you farm by your principles, who’s going to decide who’s going to starve?” We could put that question back to them: “Who’s going to decide who is going to starve when you get done polluting and eroding the arable land, and destroying all the world’s cultures of land husbandry?”

SL: The Southern Agrarians looked to religion to do what nature does—to be something all powerful and uncontrollable and mysterious.

WB: Nature has a very high place in poetic tradition. What I want to insist on about religion is not that it’s spiritual, but that it’s economic. The practice of religion is economic. And that’s more or less insisted upon in the Bible. Ellen Davis at Duke has written about that in her book Scripture, Culture, Agriculture.

SL: If, in America, we were to develop a system of farming that was not corporate, the scale of the change would be enormous, it would take politics.

WB: I’m committed to the 50-Year Farm Bill, which is directed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s one of my last causes. When they ask me to go to Washington and advocate for that bill, I will go.

SL: Is that, in fact, happening?

WB: Well, Fred Kirschenmann [of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University] and Wes Jackson and I did carry that bill to Washington, and were kindly received by [Deputy Secretary of Agriculture] Kathleen Merrigan and her staff in the Department of Agriculture, also a few senators or their staff people. Since then, the bill seems to have gained more attention and maybe a little momentum. Maybe you could call it the beginning of a significant change.

So I’m hardly against politics. I’m committed also to the movement against mountaintop removal. That movement is certainly growing, and it is drawing more attention. But state government here is mostly owned by the coal industry. It’s hard to influence people who are corporate properties.

SL: Do you think of good farming, or farms that are on a proper scale, to be compatible with capitalism or with free markets?

WB: To have good farming or good land use of any kind, you have got to have limits. Capitalism doesn’t acknowledge limits. That is why we have supposedly limitless economic growth in a finite world. Good agriculture is formal. You can have limits without form, but you can’t have form without limits. If you look around the country and find small farmers who have prospered in hard times, you’ll probably find that they’ve prospered because they’ve accepted their limits. Among other things, they’ve increased production by complicating structure.

But good agriculture is a community enterprise, too. The Amish prosper and net a high percentage of gross, partly because they are good neighbors to one another. The great Amish asset is neighborliness. That’s a religious principle: Love thy neighbor as thyself. But it’s also an economic asset. If you’ve got a neighbor, you’ve got help, and this implies another limit. If you want to have neighbors, you can’t have a limitless growth economy. You have to prefer to have a neighbor rather than to own your neighbor’s farm. There’s a fundamental incompatibility between industrial capitalism and both the ecological and the social principles of good agriculture. The aim of industrialization has always been to replace people with machines or other technology, to make the cost of production as low as possible, to sell the product as high as possible, and to move the wealth into fewer and fewer hands. People talk about “job creation,” as if that had ever been the aim the industrial economy. The original Luddites were right. The aim was to replace people with machines.

SL: Are you a socialist?

WB: From what I’ve read and heard, socialism and communism have been just as committed to industrial principles as capitalism. My own inclination is not to start with a political idea or theory and think downward to the land and the people, but instead to start with the land and the people, the necessity for harmony between local ecosystems and local economies, and think upward to conserving policies such as those of the 50-Year Farm Bill.

SL: Are there political figures who you think have been good at this?

WB: No. No politicians are standing up for this. No politicians. And the prominent economists whose work you see in newspapers or magazines never mention the land or the land economies.

SL: Michael Pollan figures…talk about food and maybe less about farming. Do you think that the people who have taken up this burden are as concerned with the farming as you are?

WB: I don’t know—I don’t know how you’d measure somebody’s concern. I know that Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and others know what is wrong with the industrial food production systems, and that includes farming. There are several good younger writers now writing about agriculture, and I’m more grateful for them than I can easily say.

It may be that a lot of the people most disposed to go back and farm are those with the least farm experience. Too many farm-raised young people want to work in industry or the professions to get away from the economic constraints their families have suffered. Their families are telling them “Get out of this,” and you can’t blame them. I was talking to a group of people in Central Kentucky about the importance of keeping the farm-raised kids in farming. Someone in the audience said, “By the time they get out of college they have so much debt they can’t afford to farm.” I said. “Then we’ve got to keep them out of college.”

SL: I want to get at this idea of looking for some intrinsic value in what’s around you, a persistent theme in your nonfiction and your poetry. I wonder if it could be described as … “wonder”?

WB: “Wonder” is a word that applies. To live and work attentively in a diverse landscape such as this one—made up of native woodlands, pastures, croplands, ponds, and streams—is to live from one revelation to another, things unexpected, always of interest, often wonderful. After a while, you understand that there can be no end to this. The place is essentially interesting, inexhaustibly beautiful and wonderful. To know this is a defense against the incessant salestalk that is always telling you that what you have is not good enough; your life is not good enough. There aren’t many right answers to that. One of them, one of the best, comes from living watchfully and carefully the life uniquely granted to you by your place: My life, thank you very much, is just fine.

SL: Andrew Nelson Lytle in I’ll Take My Stand writes something similar. I know you’ve written about the Twelve Southerners, too. I wonder if you ever think about region as useful to thinking about agriculture, whether it obscures the way people think about land and agriculture.

WB: I did talk about that in an essay on the Civil War. The South is a region, but mainly in the political sense. Geographically, ecologically, even historically, the South has many regions. Kentucky has many regions. But that won’t tell you how to farm. What we’re talking about is adapting the farming to the farm, and to the field. . . . John Todd wrote a sentence that has mattered immensely to Wes Jackson and me: “Elegant solutions will be predicated on the uniqueness of place.” One of the wonders of modern agriculture is that agricultural science—like all other science—is founded on evolutionary biology, which sees local adaptation as an absolute necessity for every species, but we have we managed to exempt the human species.

SL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WB: Here’s the tragedy of agriculture in our time. In the middle of the last century, Aldo Leopold was writing and publishing on the “land community” and ecological land husbandry. Sir Albert Howard and J. Russell Smith had written of natural principles as the necessary basis of agriculture. This was work that was scientifically reputable. At the end of the Second World War, ignoring that work, the politicians, the agricultural bureaucracies, the colleges of agriculture, and the agri-business corporations went all-out to industrialize agriculture and to get first the people and then the animals off the land and into the factories. This was a mistake, involving colossal offenses against both land and people. The costs have not been fully reckoned, let alone fully paid.