His old Kentucky home

Farmer, poet and moral essayist Wendell Berry shares thoughts on small-scale living

Here’s Wendell Berry carefully thinking about practical issues.

Here’s Wendell Berry carefully thinking about practical issues.

Illustration By Marianne Mancina

Wendell Berry was running a bit late for his recent telephone interview with SN&R. “I’ve been at work in my writing place and out among my animals, and the time slips by, and I don’t know it,” he apologized. Berry has the soft accent of his native Kentucky, warm and husky. He speaks with the deliberation of a philosopher—an appellation he waved off.

“I’m not a philosopher,” Berry insisted. “I’ve no gift for abstract thought at all. I’m simply a person who is trying to think carefully about practical issues.” This careful thought has produced an impressive body of work—one that might be mistaken for the work of a philosopher, if he didn’t insist otherwise. Since 1960, he has written 17 collections of essays, 15 volumes of poetry and almost as many works of fiction.

Berry, who takes the stage at the Crest Theatre next Thursday as part of the California Lectures series, has eloquently championed agrarian issues in many of his essays. He’s worked his family’s farm in Kentucky’s Henry County for most of his life, which gives him experience to draw upon as he writes about the natural world and humanity’s place in it.

Berry’s most recent collection of essays, Citizenship Papers, opens with a series of essays about life in a post-9/11 world. His interest, as always, is in thinking carefully about practical issues—in this case, national security in the age of terrorism. One of the things he questions is whether the current administration’s policies actually will lead to more security for citizens.

“The right to question is the fundamental responsibility and right of patriotism,” Berry said. “It’s a fundamental requirement of patriotism. If we’re going to be fundamentalist, we need to be right about what it means.”

Some of Berry’s points in these essays seem prescient in light of recent events. For example, in an essay from 2002, he pointed out that the United States could not hope to be secure from terrorism without addressing the lack of security in our national food supply. He takes no delight in outgoing Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge’s recent statements about the vulnerability of that food supply.

“Everybody who knows anything about farming knows that the food supply’s been in danger for quite a while in a lot of different ways,” Berry said. “It’s been in danger from pollution and from too narrow a genetic base, and if you put terrorism into the mix, then you’ve got the vulnerability of long-distance transportation, as well as the vulnerability of a food system that’s both extensive and centralized.” He pointed out that when consumers buy cherries in the Northern Hemisphere in January, they should know that the fruit didn’t come from the United States. “We’re gathering food from the whole world,” he noted.

The ability to gather food from the entire globe is dependent upon the ready availability of transport. It makes those who rely on imported food vulnerable to a multitude of dangers that range from scarcity to contamination at any point in the supply chain.

Berry long has encouraged the development of local economies and local food supplies. Such small—one might say human—scale is desirable, and not simply for ideological reasons. There is also the practical reason that, unlike a global economy with industrially produced foods, community-based economies and foods are less vulnerable to the vicissitudes of international politics, including the price of oil.

“Industrialized agriculture is allowed by one thing and one thing only: petroleum,” Berry said. “Up until the beginning of the last century, our agriculture was mostly solar-powered, dependent on the sun, and since then, it’s been based on fossil fuels. We are now eating and wearing fossil fuels, because the synthetic fibers all come from fossil fuels. The pesticides come from fossil fuels.” Such dependence on one source of energy to produce food leaves us all in danger, Berry believes, whether from terrorism or environmental degradation. In this sense, agricultural issues are universal issues, since we all rely on agriculture and those who practice its arts for our survival. We all have to eat.

So, how do we begin to change our attitudes toward industrialized agriculture? “I have an essay called ‘Compromise, Hell!’ that is about that question exactly,” said Berry. Despite its sensational title, he said, the essay makes the point “that some things ought not to be compromised, and one of them is the health of the world.” Berry doesn’t mince words on this subject. “If you don’t take care of the world, then sooner or later you don’t have a world. And it’s no solution if you say, ‘Well, we’ll use it up just a little at a time.’ You don’t compromise with utter destruction.”

As an example, Berry cited strip mining. “[It] utterly destroys everything, including the coal,” he said. “Strip miners do it because it makes a short-term kind of economic sense, but people are beginning to see that one of the answers is better accounting.” That means running the numbers over a longer term—thinking beyond immediate profits—and including what might not be considered quantifiable costs initially. The sustainability of a practice must be examined over not just a single lifetime, but many lifetimes.

This way of thinking, Berry said, “can be reduced, for convenience, simply to the idea of taking care of things.” There’s a basic moral imperative at work here. “We’re supposed to take care of things: each other, everything that’s dependent on us and subject to us, everything we depend on.”

This belief that conservation “means taking care of everything— everything” is at the root of Berry’s dissatisfaction with contemporary thinking that reduces the concept of conservation to protecting wilderness areas only. Preserving a few pristine natural spaces isn’t going to cut it. “If you stop taking care of it all, you’re done for,” he said.

Such an obligation to be stewards or caretakers of everything is a pretty tall order, one that might intimidate most people. Still, Berry thinks it’s a worthwhile endeavor to take on the Buddhist vow to save all beings. “It’s a quandary that’s good for humans to be in,” he said. “If you get yourself into that sort of quandary, you’re not going to presume on our own intelligence. It’s a charm against hubris.”

Berry’s Sacramento lecture, titled “The Way of Ignorance,” will address the hubris that can occur when humans become overly reliant on their own abilities. The lecture developed from an ongoing conversation with his friend Wes Jackson, a scientist who is the founder and director of the Land Institute, a think tank dedicated to studying sustainable agriculture. Berry said the conversation began with the question “What’s the difference between acting as if you had adequate knowledge and acting as if you are irreparably ignorant?”

“The person who thinks adequate knowledge is somehow available is going to work on a big scale and take big chances and risk big mistakes, big damage,” Berry said. Because this is the rationale for industrialism, examples of this way of thinking abound, such as building nuclear power plants without having a clear idea of how to handle the waste generated and assuming that somebody will figure it out at some point. “People who acknowledge their own ignorance understand the need to work on a small scale.”

Berry doesn’t specifically call this attitude humility, though it certainly is implied in his description of it: “We don’t have adequate knowledge, and we can’t be sure that adequate knowledge is going to become available.”

Ultimately, though, Berry believes that understanding the world we live in and the best way to care for it comes from a different sort of knowledge, the knowledge that comes from affection. “There are certain things that are revealed to affection that are not revealed to scientific inquiry,” Berry said. “The whole life of a place is what reveals itself to you by way of your affection for it.”

Such a revelation occurs, Berry said, when we stop seeing the world as something that can be categorized. A dog is not just a dog, but that dog, and anyone who’s ever loved a dog knows that one dog can’t be exchanged for another. Instead of viewing creatures, including other humans, as representatives of a type, we must see them in their particulars.

“The proper job,” said Berry, “is simply to make as much sense as you can.”