Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Inspiration of Wendell Berry

Before you get too I have not gone to visit Wendell Berry. I thought about it, but I am way too unfamiliar with his body of work for him to waste his time on this point anyway. I do aspire to meet him one day...when I have begun to unravel the great workings of his mind.

If you haven't heard of him (which isn't entirely unlikely), Wendell Berry is the premiere proponent of American agrarian ideals. In addition to his prolific writing of fiction, poetry and essays, he has been a farmer of corn, tobacco, and grains in Henry County, KY for most of his adult life. He's also an English major providing encouragement that my own English degree is not as frivolous as modern society has led me to believe.

Susanna (of Salamander Springs Farm) and I discussed Berry and his influence in modern agriculture and she told me I should really read "The Unsettling of America." She has known Berry personally (he's just human she says, even describing him as curmudgeonly) and agreed that I should study him before meeting him. I took the advice to heart, and then fate took me to the book, as my very next stop at St. Catherine's convent put a copy in my hands. St. Catherine's is a Dominican convent established in 1909 where they now operate an organic farm, a CSA, grow 50% of the food that the sisters eat, and raise and sell antibiotic and hormone free, intensively grazed beff cattle. They also have built two sustainability cabins, one of which I was fortunate to serve as guest in for two days. The cabins, as I've mentioned before receive their water from rain collected in cisterns from the roof, utilize composting toilets, and run on solar energy. Each cabin had a small library of earth friendly books and there, lo and behold was the book I had been looking for, "The Unsettling of America."

The whole time I was there I poured myself into the book and Berry's powerful perspective spoke directly to my experiences and observations over the last month.

The book begins by describing how dramatic a change ("revolutionary" is the word Berry uses) that the basic staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water; are now beyond the means of independent access. Man can do nothing for himself unless he is a consumer.

Getting Something for One's Self

I'm not sure if it holds as true today as it did when I was growing up, but one of my parent's primary ambitions in my upbringling was to give me more than they had growing up. I don't entirely blame them for what seems like a natural instinct to provide for your children, but it is a simplistic and culturally shallow goal to provide materially for your children while they are morally and spiritually starving.

The chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a Lifetime." acknowledges the responsibility of teaching our children, and those with a child-like mind the benefits of providing for one's self. The joys of producing something for myself came later, when I realized that nurturing something with one's own hands offered tenfold benefit to being handed all the riches of the world.

Berry would describe those who know how to fish as Nurturers. These are the people who during westward expansion eventually said, "This is the place," it is here that we will remain and prosper. In that staying, they began to accumulate memory, tradition, and knowledge of place.

True farmers posess that nurturing spirit. They approach their work with care, they invest in health (their own and that of their family, community and country). They serve the land, their household, their community, their place. And it is because of these investments and their practice (like becoming a good fisherman) that they develop character, conditioning in the land, and quality in their goods.

The division within our country and within ourselves arises from the mentality of Exploitation, a mentality deeply rooted in our history. The attitude of the conquistador is still very much alive in our society today. There are those who do not look upon place as a homeland and therefore measure their accomplishments in efficiency rather than care, in profit rather than health, and serve an organization (or themselves) rather than community. Such a mentality has consistently displaced the established nurturing class, often through sheer force. Native Americans were exploited by colonists, who were then exploited by the imperial powers, and after throwing off this yoke and becoming small farmers, these have now been exploited by an industrial society. What remains are bands of vicitims with names like Save our Streams, Save our Farmland, or the lone voice at the commission meeting describing the despoiling of his property. "It's a shame to see what's happening," are words I heard on many occassions. Many lifetime's of tradition despoiled. Whereas both an exploiter and a nurturer ask, "what can the land produce?" only the nurturer follows with "without diminishing it and for the long-term." And the line between exploiter and nurturer has become a thin one. We all contribute in some way to destruction.

Berry acknowledges that there are no saints and sinners in this reality, but there are differences in degree and and consciousness. Some are less destructive than others, some are more conscious of their destruction.

The difference between these two view points may rest in an individual's ability to see connections, to comprehend unity and wholeness; the generalist versus the specialist. Our society supports specialization and in the process each individual abrogates their responsibility to others. We leave our drinking water to municipalities, our health to the physicians, and our food not the farmers, but to agribusiness.

The specialist from morning till night does not touch anything that he has produced for himself, in which he can take pride. He is completely powerless. He has not the power to provide himself anything but money.

I am discovering out here on the road how my decisions about food and my own health are based on total ignorance. The anxiety of the modern age is tied to this helplessness in our basic staples.

Perhaps that is why the example that Susanna Lein provided is the most pure of those I have seen thus far. Every aspect of planning on her farm has been toward nurturing and away from exploitation. Most of the materials that have gone into construction were recycled. She utilizes the duck week that accumulates in the pond that captures water from her produce washing shack and applies it to her fields as a fertilizer. When I asked her why she didn't do one big crop of strawberries as a way to bring in some rapid income, she stated that she wasn't interested in any monocultures because that type of farming is ultimately harmful to the land, that her effort emphasizes diversity because that's the model which nature presents and that's what keeps order and balance.

I'll leave you with the opening quote to Berry's book.

"Who so hath his mind on taking, hath it no more on what he hath taken"
-Montaigne, III, VI

This entry was posted on 7/15/2006 9:39 AM

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