Wendell E. Berry
BY DAVID SKINNER
For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.
At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.
He is the sum of his beliefs. And those beliefs arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment. The word husbandry, in his usage, combines the commitments of a spouse with the responsibilities of the farmer to his land and his animals. And what care the farmer bestows on the land and his livestock may even be reciprocated in due time.
Berry is more than a naturalist. He personifies an American school of thought that was notable, but also contested, in the founding generation. In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems.
Born in 1934 amid the Great Depression, Wendell was the first of four children born to Virginia Erdman and John Marshall Berry. His parents came from farming families. His mother had been to college and was a great reader. While working on the congressional staff of Virgil Chapman, later a U.S. senator, his father attended law school. But instead of becoming a big-city lawyer, he returned to Kentucky to farm while also continuing to work for the New Deal. In the 1930s, John Marshall Berry helped set up a thirteen-state marketing cooperative for tobacco farmers—a cooperative that lasted for many years, and for which both Wendell’s father and, later on, his brother John Marshall Berry Jr., served as president.
Wendell grew up in Newcastle, Kentucky, working on his father’s farm and neighboring farms. He attended the Millersburg Military Institute and then the University of Kentucky, where he earned his Master’s and met Tanya Amyx. The first time he saw Tanya, Berry recently told Jim Leach in an interview in HUMANITIES magazine, she was standing in Miller Hall by a wooden post. Years later, after the university decided to renovate the hall, the wooden newel post ended up in the Berry family home, on the first floor, this symbol of their long union the first thing a visitor sees when entering their home. In addition to a literary career resulting in more than fifty books, in which Tanya has always played an important editorial role, their partnership has yielded two children, five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.
After studying at Kentucky, Berry became a creative writing fellow in the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University where he worked alongside Ernest J. Gaines, Ken Kesey, and several other writers who went on to achieve renown. Stegner supported Berry’s career in numerous ways, not least by his example as a writer of significant literary and moral ambition who devoted much of his life’s work to a place: its natural environment, its people, and its history. After Stanford, Berry started on what promised to be an itinerant existence as a professor of writing and literature, visiting Tuscany for a year as a Guggenheim fellow and then teaching at New York University for two years. An invitation to teach at the University of Kentucky, however, carried him back home. He bought a farm near Port Royal, on land adjacent to a farm that had been in his mother’s family, and pursued his vocation as a writer.
Another important example for Berry’s work was fellow Kentuckian Harry Caudill, whose elegies for the people and culture along the Cumberland Plateau are layered with a grave sense of injustice at the industrial exploitation of the region. Berry feels an affinity with artists whose work was dedicated to their home landscapes, like Thoreau in Concord or Cézanne in Provence or William Carlos Williams in New Jersey. He moves easily between poetry, fiction, and essays. But among his disparate efforts, continuity can be found. Whether in a verse concerning a yellow-throated warbler perched on a sycamore branch, or in his fictional stories of the people and times of small-town Port William, or in his essays discussing the dangers of erosion and pollution, there are several constants: admiration for nature’s ingenuity, respect for locals and local knowledge, and a deeply Christian appreciation for our obligations to each other.
Berry is especially well known for his skeptical take on technology. He has argued in favor of horse-drawn farming practices and against the use of computers. He owns no television and says he is increasingly wary of screens. Except for the four large pads of solar panels at his farm, Lanes Landing, the most advanced gadgets in his life are a push-button phone and a compact-disc player. In one essay, he talks fondly of the days when neighbors, for lack of anything else to do after sunset, would go visiting and tell and retell the stories of their people and their place. In his gentlest moments, Berry persuades and reminds us of the wisdom to be found on a well-visited front porch.
Lately it seems as if the world is catching up with the old-fashioned views of Wendell Berry, or at least some of them. His writings on good farming practices and our relationship to food have found admirers among the most influential commentators in this newly prominent area of American culture. Quoting Berry’s aphorism that “eating is an agricultural act,” Michael Pollan, in 2009, noted traces of Berry’s ideas in the policy thinking of President Obama and said there was little in his own commentary that couldn’t be found decades earlier in Berry’s writings. And there is an even broader audience, politically and culturally mixed, that knows and looks up to Wendell Berry, a community of readers who recognize the moral significance in his writing and see in his life’s work a kind of integrity that is not merely iconoclastic but deeply American.
The National Endowment for the Humanities would like to thank the following donors for their sponsorship of the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities:
The Owsley Brown Charitable Foundation
Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., President and CEO, TIAA-CREF
President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
The Kovler Foundation/Peter and Judy Kovler
Paul L. Peck
THE THING (OR THINGS) ABOUT WENDELL BERRY
BY MARK BITTMAN
That Wendell Berry is an anomaly is obvious to almost everyone who’s heard of him. That he is a hero, even an icon to some, is maybe saying something. I know of no one who so combines the qualities of being literate and down to earth; well educated and unpretentious; demanding and humble; country and sophisticated.
It doesn’t stop there. He’s never formally studied economics, but, in my opinion, he is a “better” economist—in the sense of smart, analytical, comprehending, comprehensible and most importantly sensible—than all but a handful of those we encounter at universities or in the press. (And, of course, only a small handful of economists would agree with that statement.)
Perhaps these seemingly contradictory descriptions could apply to people outside of the United States, but to me it makes Wendell uniquely American. Add to this that he is among our best-known, most-adored, most-prolific, and widely admired poets, essayists, novelists (he studied with Wallace Stegner, in a seminar with Ken Kesey and Ernest J. Gaines) and social critics, a writer of almost incomparable breadth.
Did I mention that he is also a farmer, a philosopher, a teacher, an activist? And that he’s been doing most of the things that I’ve mentioned here since the sixties, when he first spoke out against the war in Vietnam? And he continues doing most of them: Nearing eighty, he hasn’t slowed down so much as honed his focus. Last year, for example, he was part of a group that sat in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest mountaintop removal for mining.
So why is Wendell Berry not among our best-known national figures? I could be sarcastic here, and say that the answer is simple: He makes too much sense. But we have at least a few national figures who have made sense. The difference is that although Wendell is hardly a shy man, he hasn’t sought the spotlight, and he’s remained largely in his remote corner of Kentucky. This is because he believes in fidelity not only to family—his grown children and, of course, Tanya, his wife, are there also—but to land. It’s also because he likes it there. He’s at home, and he believes in being at home.
There’s another reason, of course: Wendell is controversial, unique, and not simplistic. You’re not going to see him on the Today show or in People magazine. He doesn’t speak in sound bites but in leisurely, often literary sentences that, while not at all difficult to understand, require actual concentration and thought, two functions that are sadly in short supply in popular culture.
Let’s examine the “controversial” description for a moment. Like so many others who are concerned about the way we raise and process food in this country and in this world, I came to “know” Wendell through his writing about food and agriculture. I don’t want to quote Wendell’s writings at length here, but I long remembered something I read by him back in the eighties about family farms in which he asked—as I recalled—“Do the people of this country own its land, or don’t they?” (The actual quote, which I just looked up, is this: “Shall the usable property of our country be democratically divided, or not?” You can find that in “A Defense of the Family Farm,” which was published in 1986 and is in the collection Bringing It to the Table.)
I guess I didn’t mention that Wendell is a radical, too. But he’s not an old-left or a new-left kind of radical; he is Wendell. He will argue—and I’m not sure I agree with him on this one, but I wouldn’t try contradicting him face to face, because he’d (verbally) clobber me—that college is not the best choice for all of our young people.
He will argue—convincingly, and on this I’m quite sure he’s right—that a sustainable, well-tended family farm run by thoughtful people who understand their land will generate more dollars per acre than any kind of industrial farm you can name. He has practical notions about farming woodlands—that is, working lumber as a sustainable and profitable crop—that could change the lives of rural people from Vermont to Minnesota, and of course down through Appalachia as well.
I know some of this because I’ve read Wendell’s work over the years (it’s helped me understand my relationship not only to the earth but to women as well; that’s another story). I also know it because I took this opportunity to visit with Wendell and Tanya and their daughter Mary a few weeks ago.
It was an early March weekend of winter’s last gasp: It snowed four inches the morning I drove out to Wendell’s house in Henry County, but Wendell was caring for his newborn lambs, and expecting further deliveries any hour.
One of the great ironies of Wendell’s life and work is that this region, the land he grew up on, and which has nurtured his family for five or six or more generations, is—or at least was—tobacco country. (You might have a look at the photo book Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, for which Wendell wrote a touching and nostalgic essay.) Tobacco and, more important, the farm-support policies it spawned, were a part of Wendell’s young life, and he still believes that the model of the tobacco program, which set maximum production levels as well as minimum prices, is one that could work to help young or otherwise struggling farmers, regardless of their crop or state: “It’s comparatively simple,” he said to me. “In trying to establish local food economies we’re trying to bring both the nightmare of supply and the nightmare of demand into existence simultaneously. Sometimes you may wake up in the night wondering, ‘Where’s the demand coming from?’ First thing you know, you’re waking up in the middle of the night saying, ‘The demand is there—where’s the supply?!’”
This is the basic problem in real family farming, not big farms that happen to be bought by people who are in families (there is a difference, obviously). The tobacco program, for a time, had that solved, and it wasn’t the tobacco program’s fault—really, it was just a coincidence!—that the product itself turned out to be problematic. Whether that particular model of government “intervention” (a kinder, gentler, and simpler word is “help”) can help us help family farms provide us with food remains to be seen. But something needs to happen, and that’s a fundamental message we hear from Wendell over and over.
Government can’t solve all of our problems, of course. We also have to listen to the land—Wendell cites Alexander Pope, who called it the “the genius of the place.” Some land “wants” livestock, some wants woods, and some wants row crops—often different row crops in different years. “Diverse is not only possible, diverse is necessary, because in real farming you can’t depend on any given crop to be good every year.”
One of our major and ongoing problems is that kids mostly leave farms. So even if you’re a real family running a real farm, if you think you’re going to farm your land for twenty or thirty years and your kids are going to leave anyway, all you need to do is buy a huge combine with a GPS and “put the chemicals on,” as they say, and—as long as you don’t care what happens to the land down the road—it’s a living.
Wendell argues, as many of us now do, that good farming practices not only preserve the land but produce good food, and good food will lower medical bills. That, in turn, means you can charge more for food and real (by which I mean, I guess, sustainable) farming becomes more practical for principled farmers.
That’s not enough, though. First of all, he says, “we must not, ever, forget the people in poverty who need affordable good food now.” He adds, “There’s not a small town in this county that isn’t either dead or dying, and that’s largely attributable to chain stores and buying discounts.” One way to fight that, we agree, is to encourage the government to boost family farms rather than industrial ones, as it’s been doing since at least the fifties. And, as he’s written recently, “the extreme destructiveness—and therefore fragility—of industrial agriculture is not a secret.”
Equally big, though, and huge in Wendell’s thought, is stewardship. (We didn’t talk about stewardship of the planet, but if you think globally while Wendell talks locally it’s easy enough to get the message.) Stewardship doesn’t mean only knowing your farm, although Wendell talks about that all the time, it means keeping people on the farms. One of our burning questions, he says, is, “How are we going to get a population of people on the land that aren’t telling their children, ‘Honey, don’t ever farm. Get out of here as quick as you can,’ but ‘There’s a place for you here. You can farm.’?”
Obviously the farm-leaving trend has been with us for a while, and the farm-staying thing hasn’t gained much traction, but this is why Wendell thinks “higher” education has been oversold, and that it’s time to rethink sending farm kids to college automatically. “By the time they get out, they’re so deeply in debt they can’t afford to farm. There is legitimate room in this society, and in this economy, for people who don’t want to go to college.”
Wendell has a way of talking to city people that allows us to empathize with the farm life, to understand its difficulties, its appeals, and its amazing different concerns. “There’s something that comes into a person from knowing how to work a team of horses that they can’t get any other way.”
But the pro-real-farm message is not all for romantic or nostalgic reasons, in case that’s the reasoning I’m mistakenly getting across. On the one hand there’s what Wendell calls the “internal” effort of people who want to farm; and we want to give them support because it’s good for the rest of us, and it’s good for the land. “But,” he says, “there’s also the set of external pressures.” By this he means the increasing cost of fossil fuels, of transportation, the environmental pressures caused by industrial agriculture, the “externalities” that are not currently reflected in the costs of food but will ultimately be paid.
“The great question,” he says, “is whether the internal efforts will be ready to meet the external pressures when they really begin to mount, and if we begin to see great disorder and violence. And this is something to think about, something that’s always, in human history, been necessary to think about.”
At the end of the day, he seems to believe, the solution involves some combination of economy (“Not,” he stresses, “economics. Economy.”) and passion, love, tenderness. “Of course, you can have all the passion but if you’re not making a decent living for your loved ones, it all goes for naught.” We need to make sure farmers are making a living.
“But at the same time, although it’s morally wrong to destroy the land community, people are going to sustain it not because it’s morally right but because they want to; affection is going to be the determining motive. Economic constraint might cancel out affection, but affection is going to be the motivating cause. So what it comes down to—and you can imagine trying to convince a politician in Washington of this—is that we need to subsidize affection.”
What’s more radical than that? I couldn’t ask, because it was then that Mr. Berry remembered there were seven new lambs to take care of down at the barn. It’s spring, after all.
On a damp Sunday afternoon in January, NEH Chairman Jim Leach traveled to Kentucky to meet and interview the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry, who is delivering this year's Jefferson Lecture, the federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. The author of more than fifty books, Berry is as well-known for his Port William fiction and his naturalist poetry as he is for his views on agriculture and politics. He is a writer whose work takes in all that he finds interesting as a human being, including his own personal life and family history; in print and in conversation, the lines separating one concern or genre from another tend to blur. Wendell's wife, Tanya Berry, was also on hand for the interview, as was Humanities editor David Skinner.
JIM LEACH: Thanks, Wendell and Tanya, for your generous hospitality in allowing David Skinner and me to join you around this wonderful oak kitchen table. Since your marriage and life on this rustic farm is foundational to any discussion of Wendell’s writings and ideas, perhaps I should begin by asking, where did the two of you meet?
WENDELL BERRY: We met at the University of Kentucky. The first time I ever saw Tanya, she was standing by that wooden newel post. It was in Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky. Years later, they started to remodel the place. I went over and said, "Look. When you tear that post out, I want it." When I went up to teach sometime later, one of the construction people said, "Pull your truck over," and they placed it in the back.
LEACH: Now, Tanya, I have a question for you. Do you agree with your husband’s observation that the most powerful and necessary pronoun is “ours,” rather than “mine?”
TANYA BERRY: Well, that's complicated. You can write it any way you want to, but there's mine and there's ours. There's his and there's ours.
LEACH: But you share a partnership?
TANYA BERRY: Of course. He's doing the writing. And it's important work, so I'm supportive. He supports my work, too.
BERRY: We're a he and a she, or you could say, we're two I’s. But at this point in my life I know I don't make any sense as an individual, partly because I don't make sense without her, any more than I would make sense without this place, or without the parents I had, or the friends and teachers I've had.
LEACH: Yes, let’s talk about your parents.
BERRY: My mother was born and raised in the town of Port Royal, up at the top of the hill. The land adjoining us belonged to her father. And she was one of the rare country girls in her generation here who went to college. She was a reader, she loved books, and I have an incalculable debt to her.
My father grew up on a farm about four miles south of Port Royal. He went to Georgetown College, a Baptist school in central Kentucky. And he came home to farm. This would have been in the twenties. There was already a farming depression then. And there simply wasn't a living on his home place for his parents and him too.
Virgil Chapman, who was later a senator, was running for the House of Representatives. Mr. Chapman came to Port Royal to speak. He spoke on the porch of the old hotel.
Port Royal was a self-sufficient little economic center at one time, sixteen commercial enterprises when my mother was a girl, even a millinery shop, but there probably were never more than about a hundred people in the town itself.
My father worked late and missed his chance to hear Mr. Chapman. But, after he spoke, my father was called on to speak, and Mr. Chapman heard him. At that time, there was agitation for a tobacco marketing cooperative, and my father spoke about that. In a few days, he got a letter from Mr. Chapman: "It looks like I'm going to win my race. And if I go to Washington, I'll need a secretary. Will you come?"
My father wrote back, "I'll do it if I can go to law school while I'm there." So, for several years, my father was Mr. Chapman's staff, his entire staff, and he went to law school at George Washington University.
Mr. Chapman and other older friends in Washington were determined that my father, a promising country boy, ought to ascend the professional ladder in some great city. They got him an offer from the Wilson Packing Company.
Mr. Chapman was eager for him to accept. But my father asked himself, Do I want to spend my life looking out at tar roofs? Or do I want to look at bluegrass pastures? He decided for the pastures, and he said, "Mr. Chapman, I'm going home."
After he came back, he resumed his involvement in the effort to establish some kind of a tobacco program. Finally he helped draft the enabling legislation under the New Deal. The first year the program was in effect was 1941.
TANYA BERRY: And he was also farming this whole time.
BERRY: He never could stop farming. He'd fly to Washington to defend the program against the ceaseless opposition to it. He would get back in the middle of the night, and sometimes he would drive all over the farm before he went home to bed. The federal tobacco program supported millions of farm people in thirteen states. The program was administered in Kentucky and four adjoining states by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, Burley being a variety of tobacco.
My father was its lawyer and vice president, eventually its president. He drove to Lexington every Wednesday for fifty years to serve that organization. The program combined price supports with production controls. And it worked.
So, I grew up under the tutelage of my father’s passion for farming and also his commitment to doing something for the small farmers. I've continued that, and my brother has, and my children are continuing it. My brother also is a lawyer. He lives on the home place where my dad was raised. And he, too, served as president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.
TANYA BERRY: And he was also a state senator.
BERRY: Yes, and a force for good in state government. The enemies of the program finally prevailed. They'd been laying for it ever since it was started. They put it under that label "big government," but, really, it was a local initiative. The growers periodically voted for it. As long as it lasted, the growers were in favor of it. There was initially little public cost, and finally it was run on the principle of “no net cost.”
LEACH: When you went to the University of Kentucky, did you consider becoming a lawyer?
BERRY: I don't think I had the aptitude for it. My father and my brother have very quick minds. I have a fairly slow one. I don't think I could have stood the pressure of a courtroom practice.
LEACH: After graduating from the University of Kentucky, you went to Stanford and studied in the Wallace Stegner program in creative writing. Did Stegner influence you?
TANYA BERRY: He was a great friend to us. He really was a great influence and a great helper.
BERRY: And his influence on me has increased over the years. It's rather odd. I don’t think I had a single literary friend who thought I'd done the right thing by leaving New York and coming back here to live. But, after I did, I understood Wallace Stegner a lot better than I had before. When I read Wolf Willow, I began to realize how responsible he had been to his region. That mattered to me immensely, and I began reading his books with a better understanding.
When I first went to Stanford in '58, I thought that I would move, the way a lot of writers have done, from university job to university job.
My education had implied, over and again, that you couldn't amount to anything in a place like this. I grieved over that. I liked the work of the farms. I liked this country, this place. But, at Stanford, I thought I was at the commencement of some kind of an academic vagabondage that would carry me I didn't know where. I was in no position yet to understand Wallace Stegner's commitment to the West and his long endeavor to understand the implications of aridity beyond the 100th meridian.
I began to accept the influence of Kentuckians who had brought their education home: my father, of course, and then Harry Caudill, who published Night Comes to the Cumberlands in 1963, and then other books, trying to stop the destruction of his region by the coal companies—which nobody so far has been able to do.
After we moved back here, I understood that my subject was here, and that, wherever I might have gone, I would still have been drawing on this country, because it was what I knew.
LEACH: When did you take your Guggenheim?
BERRY: '61 and '62. We spent most of that year in Florence. I had the vocation of a writer, I think, but I didn't know yet what to do with it. I was on my second novel, A Place on Earth. It came from my emotional and, I suppose, imaginative allegiance to this place.
But I have a tremendous debt to Tuscany. The Tuscans terraced hillsides as steep as these here, and made them wonderfully and diversely productive. I learned a lot from that.
LEACH: Did you see much art in Florence?
BERRY: We both did. We walked and looked and filled our minds. I had a student pass to the Uffizi. And this was a great thing. There weren’t many winter tourists then. I spent hours in the Uffizi when almost nobody was there but the guards and me.
TANYA BERRY: I was raised in museums, but Wendell wasn't, so he had his big museum experience there.
LEACH: What kind of artists were in your family, Tanya?
TANYA BERRY: My dad was an artist, and he finally taught at the University of Kentucky. My uncle was a sculptor, and my aunt was a painter. I was born and raised in northern California.
BERRY: After I came back here and understood my need, artists who had been devoted to their home landscapes began really to affect me. Cézanne, for one, became a sort of exemplar whose work I've looked at with a kind of recognition over and over again.
And, of course, I became consciously dependent on writers or writings you could think of as “placed”: Andrew Marvell’s great poem “Upon Appleton House,” Jane Austen, Thoreau, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mark Twain’s Mississippi books, Yeats, Faulkner, Stegner, James Still, and others. Several writers of more or less my own age have been devoted to places. I’ve needed and valued them.
LEACH: When you came back, you went to New York and taught for a couple of years.
BERRY: I did, at New York University, from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964—another stroke of good fortune, inestimably valuable. We took, I think, pretty full advantage of living in New York. It was an exhilarating time. Then I had an offer from the University of Kentucky. I'm virtually certain that Wallace Stegner was responsible for that.
TANYA BERRY: Well, I think he was behind the New York job, too, and the Guggenheim.
BERRY: I know that I don't yet know everything that he did for me, but he was a good friend. He was a good friend to all his students. I was out late one night. Tanya put the letter from the University of Kentucky on a chair just inside the door so I would be sure and see it when I came in.
We decided to accept the offer and go home, and this was just because we wanted to. We had no lofty purpose.
About everybody I knew in New York thought that this was going to be the end of me. They thought the direction from New York to Kentucky was inevitably backward and downward. Of course, there’s no knowing what would have happened had I followed their advice. There's no control plot for a person’s life, but I don't regret coming back here.
LEACH: When did you give up teaching?
BERRY: I had two spells at the University of Kentucky, one from 1964 until 1977. Then I quit and went to work for Rodale Press. They fired me pretty soon—in 1980, if I remember right. I think this was because I was more for small farmers than I was for organic farmers. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever been a very good employee. I stayed out of teaching until 1987, making our living then mainly by lecturing and giving readings, and with the help of a small “retainer,” as we called it, from North Point Press. I was asked to return to the English Department, and I did in the fall of 1987. I quit again at the end of 1993, and have stayed quit.
LEACH: Is it possible that you get more teaching done by not being involved with a formal academic institution?
BERRY: Well, I hear from readers a good deal, and I try to answer every letter. I think, because of my commitment to issues of conservation and good agriculture and peaceableness, they find something hopeful in my work.
TANYA BERRY: They're looking for a life instead of a career.
LEACH: What are the principles you encourage, then?
BERRY: When they say they’re planning to take up farming, I encourage them to be awfully careful. I have received a lot of letters saying, ‘I don't like my job. I don't like where I'm living. I'm going to sell out, and move to the country, and be a farmer.’ It seems to me that the only responsible thing, then, is to write back some version of ‘Be careful’ or even ‘Don't do it.’
TANYA BERRY: Or ‘Keep your job.’
BERRY: Yes. Buy a place in the country if you want to and live on it, but keep your job. Don't put your marriage at risk. Don't put your livelihood at risk. Because there's a lot to learn, and why should somebody who has a lot to learn try to take up farming when experienced farmers are failing? So, in writing favorably about farming, I’ve assumed a considerable responsibility that I've tried to live up to. People say, sometimes in alarm, ‘You're discouraging me.’ And I say, ‘Well, yes, to some extent. I'm obliged to encourage you to be thoughtful.’
LEACH: You make literary analogies about farm life. You talk about the farmer as a husband to the animals and say that starting a farm is like starting a marriage. It seems that the analogies tie everything together for you. Do they?
BERRY: Yes. Analogies have tied things together for me, personally. The fundamental one for me is the analogy between your relationship to your spouse and your relationship to your place. Both need to be a settled commitment and both involve continuous learning and adjusting.
If you have a wife of any spirit, she's not going to let you be married to her only on your terms or your assumption about what she is. Land, a place, by nature also is going to react. If you're wrong about it, you'll find out. The problem there is that your land, your farm, doesn't speak English. You're speaking to it in acts. And it speaks back to you in reactions.
If you've been badly mistaken, the reaction can be expensive—to it and to you. It's possible for the tuition to be too high, economically or ecologically or both. And that's why the destruction of the continuity of local communities and farm families is a significant loss. It's a loss that is practical. There's nobody to say, ‘Hold on a minute. That's been tried before, and it didn't work.’ If you can keep that voice alive, then you've kept culture alive, a local culture in which the generations talk to each other.
A great benefit, to me, of growing up in a tobacco-growing community was the talk. The work at times was very difficult and there was a lot of crew work—work-swapping—among neighbors. The talk was wonderful because the work was difficult. People talked for one another’s and their own amusement, for pleasure. The talk could be very rich, wonderfully funny sometimes. And it would be handed down, you know. People would remember.
DAVID SKINNER: If I may, one thing that's really appealing in your writing is the emphasis you put on how there should be pleasure in work.
BERRY: I'll tell you a story. There was a group of us who worked together all the time. Most of us are old or dead now. One of us was Eddie Sharp, who was not only built on a very slight frame, but had had a crippling childhood disease.
He had done as much hard work as anybody. And here there was no harder work than the tobacco harvest. It's heavy, unrelenting work in very hot weather. Your clothes get itchy with sweat and chaff. It could be fairly miserable.
By good fortune, I had a dear friend, James Baker Hall, who was a writer and a photographer. He was visiting us in 1973, and I said, "We're cutting tobacco at Owen Flood's place. You ought to come out with your camera." Well, he got a set of pictures of the tobacco harvest in a time now completely gone.*
Those pictures were shown at our daughter and son-in-law’s winery in 2002. There were a lot of people there who didn't understand what they were seeing. And I heard Eddie Sharp tell a group of them, "That was hard work. Wasn't any way you could do it to keep it from being hard. But you wouldn't believe the fun we had." Wasn't that a telling affirmation?
LEACH: Before coming down here, my wife asked me what you would talk about at the Jefferson Lecture. And I said, ‘Well, I hope his title will be 'Henry David Thoreau Is Alive and Well in the 21st Century.'
Then it dawned on me that your writings are more countercultural, even more revolutionary than Thoreau's, because your objection to the Industrial Revolution is far more comprehensive than Thoreau's idyllic love of his small pond.
So, my query is, How do you see Thoreau?
BERRY: My lecture is going to disappoint you, I’m sorry to say, but I think all of us who love the natural world are in the company of Thoreau. There's just no escaping him. I remember my first reading of Thoreau as I remember the day President Kennedy was shot. In Walden and his other writings, Thoreau’s wonderful appetite for the news that's coming in all the time from the natural world is unforgettable. But Thoreau didn't stay very long at Walden Pond.
What has, of necessity, concerned me, because of my family's continuity here to start with, and then Tanya's and our own children’s and my life here, is the question, How do you make an enduring domestic establishment in this place? How do you do it in the way that is kindest to the place?
In Thoreau's day and on into Robert Frost's, a writer could be fairly confident that there was always going to be a sufficient farm population. There would always be people of the land on the land. Then that confidence came to be no longer possible, and that has forced me into thoughts that Thoreau didn't have to think.
LEACH: You write by hand and, famously, do not own a computer. Is there some kind of physical pleasure to be taken in writing by hand?
BERRY: Yes, but I don't know how I’d prove it. I have a growing instinct to avoid mechanical distractions and screens because I want to be in the presence of this place. I like to write by the ambient daylight because I don't want to miss it. As I grow older, I grieve over every moment I'm gone from this place, because it is inexhaustibly interesting to me.
Unexpected wonders happen, not on schedule, or when you expect or want them to happen, but if you keep hanging around, they do happen. When I'm up in my writing place, which is a very small building on the riverbank, I’m making no noise. If a flock of wild turkeys gathers around that little building and under it, I hear them. Since I don’t have a screen in front of me, I see them. Or I may see otters playing in the river.
LEACH: You make an analogy to a tree and a piece of furniture. You trace the furniture from the tree. And if you have eliminated things on a computer, you lose the tracings, the path with each misstep along the way. Can you elaborate on this concern?
BERRY: Well, the computer script is made of light and it's not substantial. You can’t put it in your pocket. But you can't submit writing to a publisher without putting it on a disc. And so I do have a bit of commerce with a computer that belongs to a friend of mine, who does a lot of my typing for me.
One of the things that most impresses me is that you can lose things in a computer. It'll switch drafts on you. I've had publisher’s proofs that were from the wrong draft. So, the computer can cause trouble. I don't go back and look at my old drafts very often, but I like to be able to do that when I need to.
LEACH: But you have to save all these things. Someday someone will want to look at them.
TANYA BERRY: He does not save all of them.
BERRY: Well, I've got the old notebooks.
TANYA BERRY: But you toss drafts all the time.
BERRY: I do, because you get to feeling too self-important about such scraps. As for that analogy, I like the way that the history of the tree shapes the tree. There's no distinction between the tree and its history. You can lose yourself in that thought.
LEACH: And you write historical fiction too.
BERRY: It's kind of alarming for me to realize that, when I'm writing stories about times I remember, it's already historical fiction. The local life that I grew up in, and lived in for a good many years after Tanya and I settled here in 1965, is now “the past.” Good as it was in many ways, imperfect as it was in many ways, it is gone beyond recovery.
But some of my writing necessarily reaches back before my own time—occasionally as far back as the Civil War, which interests and troubles me more than I’ve so far been able to say.
The Civil War lasted in Kentucky, some say, until Governor William Goebel's assassination in 1900. But the old division may still be recognizable in the Black Patch War in western Kentucky, which was caused by the American Tobacco Company's monopoly in the first decade of the twentieth century.
When you have large-scale legitimated violence in a place that is divided as profoundly and bitterly as Kentucky was, the legitimate violence can cause illegitimate violence, a terrible local heartlessness and cruelty that feeds on itself and goes on and on.
LEACH: When you make observations about local history, do you analogize to international relations?
BERRY: Well, we seem to know that international wars also tend not to stop with their formal “peace treaties.” We seem not to have thought enough about the difference between the large official events of political and military history and their overflow both into recognized effects and into the lives of unofficial people who suffer them. There is a similar disconnection between government economy and personal economy. The so-called conservatives now are fussing because the government doesn't observe the same debt limits that people—or some people—observe in their private lives. I'm fully aware of the difference between a government and a household, but I think those people have a point. The Great Digest of Confucius makes explicit analogical links from the personal to the familial to the political. I believe in thrift as I believe in freedom, but I don’t support the plutocratic hostility to taxation, regulation, and protections of land, water, and air.
LEACH: So, there should be a greater sense of proportion. But don't laws and policies also matter? Because it's only through laws that you can have rules that make rivers cleaner.
BERRY: I agree absolutely. You've got to have principles. You've got to have policies. You've got to have laws. I don't quarrel with that at all. But I think that what I would call valid thought takes place between the abstractions and the particulars. For instance, the law, we know, works for justice.
LEACH: “Should” work for justice.
BERRY: Right. The law is meant to work for justice. But people who know themselves know that, at some point, justice had better be mitigated by mercy. And you don't get to mercy by a legal principle. You get to mercy by way of imagination, sympathy, tenderness of heart—which are not weaknesses.
LEACH: And there are other aspects of a society based on the rule of law that relate to the law but are not law itself, like respect for the other. Conversation or civil discourse becomes awfully important in a larger context. Does that make sense to you or not?
BERRY: It does. You're making the grant of affection, forbearance, mercy, out of your own experience and, of course, out of cultural tradition. You're saying, to use the well-worn analogy, if I love my children, that puts me under obligation to assume that other people love theirs.
There's no way to harden that into some kind of an “objective” or legally enforceable requirement.
LEACH: So, even as we think our way into the other person’s position, we are still rooted in the here and now of our own lives. Is that right?
BERRY: I have realized, more and more, that the impulse in my work is the impulse of local adaptation, which puts the burden squarely on my own life.
It is understood that nonhuman creatures adapt to their places or they don't live. And for some reason that I can't figure out, even the biologists have excused our own species from that obligation. I think there's going to be a biological penalty to be paid for that eventually.
But for humans it's not just a biological process. It's a process that involves us entirely: our imagination, sympathy, affection, our local culture and conversation, local memory. There isn't anything that can be ruled out as irrelevant to that effort of local adaptation, once we decide to make it. And it’s only in your own life, in your own place, that the effort can be made.
The scientists I know who are working consciously and conscientiously on local adaptation are at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Theirs is an interesting kind of science because it's developed in full respect for the local context. They would not, by policy, do anything that would harm the local ecosystem or the local human community.
They wouldn't run the risk of harm, as many modern scientists will do, in order to find the “truth.”
LEACH: You argue that the future is clouded, not just by war against foreign enemies, but war against the world itself. And you have analogized these wars by comparing coal extraction to rape. Could you elaborate?
BERRY: There is a fundamental contradiction between industrial technologies and processes and the necessarily biological and ecological basis of agriculture.
My friend Bill Martin who is a forest ecologist found in an engineering textbook the sentence, "Soil is that part of the earth's surface that does not require blasting." What we are seeing in land use everywhere now is what I take to be a military principle: maximum force relentlessly applied.
This is blatantly evident in the Appalachian coal fields right now. The coal companies are destroying mountains, watersheds, and people, with a military ferocity. But the same thing is happening more slowly in the corn-and-bean fields and animal factories of industrial agriculture.
Agriculture is now almost entirely market-determined. If the price of corn and beans goes up, larger expanses of the landscape will be devoted to corn and beans, even sloping and highly erodible land. That’s being made possible by chemical fertilizer, chemical herbicides, and chemical pesticides, all of which tend to be overused and are ecologically destructive. And the chemicals, like other industrial technologies, replace human work and husbandry, and displace the rural people.
The ecological principle in agriculture, by contrast, is to connect the genius of the place, to fit the farming to the farm.
LEACH: With chemical and industrial technology, we mistreat our land and our people in similar proportions. Is that what you’re saying?
BERRY: Yes. They are, as we have got to learn, one interest. They can’t be separated. To abuse the land is to abuse the people. And vice versa. We’ve got in agriculture the three great problems that the 50-Year Farm Bill is an attempt to solve: the problems of soil erosion, toxicity, and the destruction of rural communities and the cultures of husbandry. These are problems of the land and the people. They start from our present predicament, which Wes Jackson calls “the problem of agriculture,” the problem of annual crops.
At present, as the 50-Year Farm Bill says, eighty percent of farmable land in this country is in annual crops, requiring soil disturbance or herbicide or both. But only twenty percent is in perennial cover like any permanent pasture or any woodland. The 50-Year Farm Bill, then, says ‘We're starting with 80 percent annual, 20 percent perennial. In 50 years, let’s turn that upside down, to 80 percent perennial and 20 percent annual.’
Albert Howard, in the middle of the last century, said that if you want to know how to farm, you must look at the forest. Learn what nature does. You've got to imitate her methods. She always keeps the ground covered. She always farms with animals. She maintains the highest possible diversity of plants and animals. She wastes nothing. She maintains large reserves of fertility. She leaves, then, her crops to defend themselves against pests and diseases.
Now Wes Jackson and his fellow scientists at the Land Institute are learning to imitate Nature’s farming on the prairie. They are working to develop perennial grain-producing polycultures. That work, which once seemed to many scientists to be doubtful, is now firmly established. It’s a greatly needed source of hope.
LEACH: You've also taken on industrialization, although you use a car and you use a power saw.
BERRY: This is original sin, round two. There's nobody, including the Amish, who isn't involved in the fossil fuel structure. So all you can do is accept that. Plead guilty. And go ahead and make as much sense as you can on the terms that are available.
LEACH: Would you consider yourself a nonsocialist critic of the market economy?
BERRY: I would consider myself simply a critic of the market economy. My standard isn't primarily political. First of all, it's ecological. And then I get to matters that are social and cultural.
I'm not against government. I have explained that, as my father's son, I'm a child of the New Deal. The tobacco program came out of the New Deal. And for maybe sixty years it preserved the small farmers of its region, exactly as it was meant to do. It was not beyond criticism, but it was right in principle, and it did good. It is gone now, repudiated, but it was a valid answer to a real problem.
LEACH: Well, the minimal definition of socialism is government ownership of the means of production. And you certainly favor local ownership, family ownership, of the land. And then you have a wonderful quote on government: "I never think of it without the wish that it might become wiser and truer and smaller than it is."
BERRY: I would still say that. But that’s not a repudiation of government, for which there are authentic needs and uses. What intrudes into this argument, and makes it maybe eccentric for the time, is that the issue of scale, to me, is paramount. The measure of ecological health, closely related to the question of scale, is paramount. And I think the two great modern systems of capitalism and socialism have ignored both the propriety of scale and the standard of ecological health. Both are industrial systems, and they have made the same mistakes in some ways.
It might be possible, on the contrary, to think of government as rising from the needs of land and people rather than descending upon them from some master idea of economies or politics. One of its essential purposes would be to protect the health of the land and the people. If you apply the ecological standard, you recognize as fundamentals both the dependence of the people on land, water, and air, and the dependence of land, water, and air upon the people’s good stewardship.
If you apply the ecological standard, you're going to worry, for instance, about the quality of products. The best thing that could happen to the forest would be to have long-lasting wood furniture and durable wooden buildings.
If we're going to talk about local adaptation, we've got to be talking about keeping manufacturing as close to, and as kind to, its sources as possible, just as in the local food economies we’ve begun to talk about neighborly relations between consumers and producers. If you want a local forest economy, then you should have a local system of supporting industries for forestry. If you had a set of value-adding industries for forest products, you'd have, almost as a matter of course, a local lobby for sustainable forestry. This would be like Amish manufacturing. They have their own factories for products that large agricultural industries no longer supply.
LEACH: Including furniture, and in the Amana Colonies in Iowa, wonderful grandfather clocks.
BERRY: There are Amish factories that make farm equipment: plows, running gears for wagons, manure spreaders. A good example would be Wayne Wengerd and his family and their Pioneer Equipment company in Holmes County, Ohio. One of their rules is that the children can’t work in the factory until they’ve farmed awhile. Then they know what the customers are talking about, what their needs are.
My old friend, Gene Logsdon, who's a fine writer on agriculture, and lately a novelist, once asked an Amish factory owner, "Do you have a toxic effluent from your factory?" And the owner looked at him in horror. He said, "Our children play around this factory."
If you had a local slaughterhouse patronized by local people, who could watch the slaughtering and butchering of their own animals, you wouldn't need the government to inspect for sanitation. But the government shut down all the local slaughterhouses around here by applying to them the rules that it doesn't apply to the big meat factories. Eric Schlosser tells that story in Fast Food Nation.
So, you see, what I'm getting around to is the thought that if you establish, or reestablish, local economies on the right scale and with the right standard, then politics would come right as a matter of course. I don't know what you'd call the result—probably not capitalism or socialism.
LEACH: More accountable government, perhaps. Thank you for your wit, wisdom . . . and hospitality. It couldn’t be more appreciated.
BERRY: Well, I’ve had the advantage of good company and good questions. I thank you.
*Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,” [Margaret] said. “This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.
E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)1
One night in the winter of 1907, at what we have always called “the home place” in Henry County, Kentucky, my father, then six years old, sat with his older brother and listened as their parents spoke of the uses they would have for the money from their 1906 tobacco crop. The crop was to be sold at auction in Louisville on the next day. They would have been sitting in the light of a kerosene lamp, close to the stove, warming themselves before bedtime. They were not wealthy people. I believe that the debt on their farm was not fully paid, there would have been interest to pay, there would have been other debts. The depression of the 1890s would have left them burdened. Perhaps, after the income from the crop had paid their obligations, there would be some money that they could spend as they chose. At around two o’clock the next morning, my father was wakened by a horse’s shod hooves on the stones of the driveway. His father was leaving to catch the train to see the crop sold.
He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.
The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.
My effort to make sense of this memory and its encompassing history has depended on a pair of terms used by my teacher, Wallace Stegner. He thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”2 “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.
The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.
Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. He belonged to a family who had come to Kentucky from Virginia, and who intended to go no farther. He was the third in his paternal line to live in the neighborhood of our little town of Port Royal, and he was the second to own the farm where he was born in 1864 and where he died in 1946.
We have one memory of him that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.
It is not beside the point, or off my subject, to notice that these stories and their meanings, have survived because of my family’s continuing connection to its home place. Like my grandfather, my father grew up on that place and served as its caretaker. It has now belonged to my brother for many years, and he in turn has been its caretaker. He and I have lived as neighbors, allies, and friends. Our long conversation has often taken its themes from the two stories I have told, because we have been continually reminded of them by our home neighborhood and topography. If we had not lived there to be reminded and to remember, nobody would have remembered. If either of us had lived elsewhere, both of us would have known less. If both of us, like most of our generation, had moved away, the place with its memories would have been lost to us and we to it—and certainly my thoughts about agriculture, if I had thought of it at all, would have been much more approximate than they have been.
Because I have never separated myself from my home neighborhood, I cannot identify myself to myself apart from it. I am fairly literally flesh of its flesh. It is present in me, and to me, wherever I go. This undoubtedly accounts for my sense of shock when, on my first visit to Duke University, and by surprise, I came face-to-face with James B. Duke in his dignity, his glory perhaps, as the founder of that university. He stands imperially in bronze in front of a Methodist chapel aspiring to be a cathedral. He holds between two fingers of his left hand a bronze cigar. On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”
After my encounter with the statue, the story of my grandfather’s 1906 tobacco crop slowly took on a new dimension and clarity in my mind. I still remembered my grandfather as himself, of course, but I began to think of him also as a kind of man standing in thematic opposition to a man of an entirely different kind. And I could see finally that between these two kinds there was a failure of imagination that was ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history, and that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.
The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.
I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.
Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.
My grandfather knew, urgently, the value of money, but only of such comparatively small sums as would have paid his debts and allowed to his farm and his family a decent prosperity. He certainly knew of the American Tobacco Company. He no doubt had read and heard of James B. Duke, and could identify him as the cause of a hard time, but nothing in his experience could have enabled him to imagine the life of the man himself.
James B. Duke came from a rural family in the tobacco country of North Carolina. In his early life he would have known men such as my grandfather. But after he began his rise as an industrialist, the life of a small tobacco grower would have been to him a negligible detail incidental to an opportunity for large profits. In the minds of the “captains of industry,” then and now, the people of the land economies have been reduced to statistical numerals. Power deals “efficiently” with quantities that affection cannot recognize.
It may seem plausible to suppose that the head of the American Tobacco Company would have imagined at least that a dependable supply of raw material to his industry would depend upon a stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and upon the continuing fertility of their farms. But he imagined no such thing. In this he was like apparently all agribusiness executives. They don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line. Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations. Land, as Wes Jackson has said, has thus been made as exhaustible as oil or coal.
There is another difference between my grandfather and James B. Duke that may finally be more important than any other, and this was a difference of kinds of pleasure. We may assume that, as a boomer, moving from one chance of wealth to another, James B. Duke wanted only what he did not yet have. If it is true that he was in this way typical of his kind, then his great pleasure was only in prospect, which excludes affection as a motive.
My grandfather, on the contrary, and despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.
He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. A principled dissatisfaction with whatever one has promises nothing or worse.
James B. Duke would not necessarily have thought so far of the small growers as even to hold them in contempt. The Duke trust exerted an oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds. It was not, that is to say, a political oppression. It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the “side effects.” Confronting that purpose, any small farmer is only one, and one lost, among a great multitude of others, whose work can be quickly transformed into a great multitude of dollars.
Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo Leopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use.3 Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm. If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase their demands upon the land and decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town, and this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost. Or if there are such costs, then they are rated as “the price of progress” or “creative destruction.”
But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours.
And so it has seemed to me less a choice than a necessity to oppose the boomer enterprise with its false standards and its incomplete accounting, and to espouse the cause of stable, restorative, locally adapted economies of mostly family-sized farms, ranches, shops, and trades. Naïve as it may sound now, within the context of our present faith in science, finance, and technology—the faith equally of “conservatives” and “liberals”—this cause nevertheless has an authentic source in the sticker’s hope to abide in and to live from some chosen and cherished small place—which, of course, is the agrarian vision that Thomas Jefferson spoke for, a sometimes honored human theme, minor and even fugitive, but continuous from ancient times until now. Allegiance to it, however, is not a conclusion but the beginning of thought.
The problem that ought to concern us first is the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, “as gods.” We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our intelligence, like our world, is limited. We seem to have known and feared the possibility of irreparable damage. But beginning in science and engineering, and continuing, by imitation, into other disciplines, we have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence. Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have “economic growth” without limit.
Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as “the economy.” Their columns and articles rarely if ever mention the land-communities and land-use economies. They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”
In his essay, “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate gave us an indispensable anatomy of our problem. His essay begins by equating, not liberty and property, but liberty and control of one’s property. He then makes the crucial distinction between ownership that is merely legal and what he calls “effective ownership.” If a property, say a small farm, has one owner, then the one owner has an effective and assured, if limited, control over it as long as he or she can afford to own it, and is free to sell it or use it, and (I will add) free to use it poorly or well. It is clear also that effective ownership of a small property is personal and therefore can, at least possibly, be intimate, familial, and affectionate. If, on the contrary, a person owns a small property of stock in a large corporation, then that person has surrendered control of the property to larger shareholders. The drastic mistake our people made, as Tate believed and I agree, was to be convinced “that there is one kind of property—just property, whether it be a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky or a stock certificate in the United States Steel Corporation.” By means of this confusion, Tate said, “Small ownership . . . has been worsted by big, dispersed ownership—the giant corporation.”4 (It is necessary to append to this argument the further fact that by now, owing largely to corporate influence, land ownership implies the right to destroy the land-community entirely, as in surface mining, and to impose, as a consequence, the dangers of flooding, water pollution, and disease upon communities downstream.)
Tate’s essay was written for the anthology, Who Owns America? the publication of which was utterly without effect. With other agrarian writings before and since, it took its place on the far margin of the national dialogue, dismissed as anachronistic, retrogressive, nostalgic, or (to use Tate’s own term of defiance) reactionary in the face of the supposedly “inevitable” dominance of corporate industrialism. Who Owns America? was published in the Depression year of 1936. It is at least ironic that talk of “effective property” could have been lightly dismissed at a time when many rural people who had migrated to industrial cities were returning to their home farms to survive.
In 1936, when to the dominant minds a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky was becoming laughable, Tate’s essay would have seemed irrelevant as a matter of course. At that time, despite the Depression, faith in the standards and devices of industrial progress was nearly universal and could not be shaken.
But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.
In 1936, moreover, only a handful of people were thinking about sustainability. Now, reasonably, many of us are thinking about it. The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state. It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay—what Albert Howard called “the Wheel of Life”—should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted. For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.
That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it. This is because of the increasing abstraction and unconsciousness of our connection to our economic sources in the land, the land-communities, and the land-use economies. In my region and within my memory, for example, human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations. Our knowledge, in short, has become increasingly statistical.
Statistical knowledge once was rare. It was a property of the minds of great rulers, conquerors, and generals, people who succeeded or failed by the manipulation of large quantities that remained, to them, unimagined because unimaginable: merely accountable quantities of land, treasure, people, soldiers, and workers. This is the sort of knowledge we now call “data” or “facts” or “information.” Or we call it “objective knowledge,” supposedly untainted by personal attachment, but nonetheless available for industrial and commercial exploitation. By means of such knowledge a category assumes dominion over its parts or members. With the coming of industrialism, the great industrialists, like kings and conquerors, become exploiters of statistical knowledge. And finally virtually all of us, in order to participate and survive in their system, have had to agree to their substitution of statistical knowledge for personal knowledge. Virtually all of us now share with the most powerful industrialists their remoteness from actual experience of the actual world. Like them, we participate in an absentee economy, which makes us effectively absent even from our own dwelling places. Though most of us have little wealth and perhaps no power, we consumer–citizens are more like James B. Duke than we are like my grandfather. By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers.
The failure of imagination that divided the Duke monopoly and such farmers as my grandfather seems by now to be taken for granted. James B. Duke controlled remotely the economies of thousands of farm families. A hundred years later, “remote control” is an unquestioned fact, the realization of a technological ideal, and we have remote entertainment and remote war. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life. We may, as we say, “know” statistical sums, but we cannot imagine them.
It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate).5 The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.
The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers. We don’t understand them very well, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the “globe.”
When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it? Propriety of scale in all human undertakings is paramount, and we ignore it. We are now betting our lives on quantities that far exceed all our powers of comprehension. We believe that we have built a perhaps limitless power of comprehension into computers and other machines, but our minds remain as limited as ever. Our trust that machines can manipulate to humane effect quantities that are unintelligible and unimaginable to humans is incorrigibly strange.
As there is a limit only within which property ownership is effective, so is there a limit only within which the human mind is effective and at least possibly beneficent. We must assume that the limit would vary somewhat, though not greatly, with the abilities of persons. Beyond that limit the mind loses its wholeness, and its faculties begin to be employed separately or fragmented according to the specialties or professions for which it has been trained.
In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices.
But as I understand this dilemma, we are not completely isolated. Though we cannot by our own powers escape our limits, we are subject to correction from, so to speak, the outside. I can hardly expect everybody to believe, as I do (with due caution), that inspiration can come from the outside. But inspiration is not the only way the human enclosure can be penetrated. Nature too may break in upon us, sometimes to our delight, sometimes to our dismay.
As many hunters, farmers, ecologists, and poets have understood, Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction. As Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, and others have carefully understood, she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think. She tells us in the voice of Edmund Spenser that she is of all creatures “the equall mother, / And knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.”7 Nearly three and a half centuries later, we hear her saying about the same thing in the voice of Aldo Leopold: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”8
We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.
The discrepancy between what modern humans presume to know and what they can imagine—given the background of pride and self-congratulation—is amusing and even funny. It becomes more serious as it raises issues of responsibility. It becomes fearfully serious when we start dealing with statistical measures of industrial destruction.
To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”9—and that appears to have the force of truth.
It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.
Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change. Change of course is a constant of earthly life. You can’t step twice into exactly the same river, nor can you live two successive moments in exactly the same place. And always in human history there have been costly or catastrophic sudden changes. But with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call “revolution” for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution. We have had in only about two centuries a steady and ever-quickening sequence of industrial revolutions in manufacturing, transportation, war, agriculture, education, entertainment, homemaking and family life, health care, and so-called communications.
Probably everything that can be said in favor of all this has been said, and it is true that these revolutions have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain. It is also true that the industrialization of everything has incurred liabilities and is running deficits that have not been adequately accounted. All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.
The cost of this has been paid also in a social condition which apologists call “mobility,” implying that it has been always “upward” to a “higher standard of living,” but which in fact has been an ever-worsening unsettlement of our people, and the extinction or near-extinction of traditional and necessary communal structures.
For this also there is no technological or large-scale solution. Perhaps, as they believe, the most conscientiously up-to-date people can easily do without local workshops and stores, local journalism, a local newspaper, a local post office, all of which supposedly have been replaced by technologies. But what technology can replace personal privacy or the coherence of a family or a community? What technology can undo the collateral damages of an inhuman rate of technological change?
The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. The possibility of authentic correction comes, I think, from two already-evident causes. The first is scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community. The goods of nature so far have been taken for granted and, especially in America, assumed to be limitless, but their diminishment, sooner or later unignorable, will enforce change.
A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighborhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.
In this age so abstracted and bewildered by technological magnifications of power, people who stray beyond the limits of their mental competence typically find no guide except for the supposed authority of market price. “The market” thus assumes the standing of ultimate reality. But market value is an illusion, as is proven by its frequent changes; it is determined solely by the buyer’s ability and willingness to pay.
By now our immense destructiveness has made clear that the actual value of some things exceeds human ability to calculate or measure, and therefore must be considered absolute. For the destruction of these things there is never, under any circumstances, any justification. Their absolute value is recognized by the mortal need of those who do not have them, and by affection. Land, to people who do not have it and who are thus without the means of life, is absolutely valuable. Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth “something”; it is worth everything. And abused land relentlessly declines in value to its present and succeeding owners, whatever its market price.
But we need not wait, as we are doing, to be taught the absolute value of land and of land health by hunger and disease. Affection can teach us, and soon enough, if we grant appropriate standing to affection. For this we must look to the stickers, who “love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”
By now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honorable and necessary motive. Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly “inefficient” small farmers, was enabled by the discounting of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production, with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasing ecological and social cost. Far from the plain citizens and members of the land-community, as Aldo Leopold wished them to be, farmers are now too likely to be merely the land’s exploiters.
I don’t hesitate to say that damage or destruction of the land-community is morally wrong, just as Leopold did not hesitate to say so when he was composing his essay, “The Land Ethic,” in 1947. But I do not believe, as I think Leopold did not, that morality, even religious morality, is an adequate motive for good care of the land-community. The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely. And here Leopold himself set the example. In 1935 he bought an exhausted Wisconsin farm and, with his family, began its restoration. To do this was morally right, of course, but the motive was affection. Leopold was an ecologist. He felt, we may be sure, an informed sorrow for the place in its ruin. He imagined it as it had been, as it was, and as it might be. And a profound, delighted affection radiates from every sentence he wrote about it.
Without this informed, practical, and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.
In thinking about the importance of affection, and of its increasing importance in our present world, I have been guided most directly by E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Forster was aware of the implications of “rural decay,”10 and in this novel he spoke, with some reason, of his fear that “the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. . . . and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.”11 Henry Wilcox, the novel’s “plain man of business,” speaks the customary rationalization, which has echoed through American bureaus and colleges of agriculture, almost without objection, for at least sixty years: “the days for small farms are over.”12
In Howards End, Forster saw the coming predominance of the machine and of mechanical thought, the consequent deracination and restlessness of populations, and the consequent ugliness. He saw an industrial ugliness, “a red rust,”13 already creeping out from the cities into the countryside. He seems to have understood by then also that this ugliness was the result of the withdrawal of affection from places. To have beautiful buildings, for example, people obviously must want them to be beautiful and know how to make them beautiful, but evidently they also must love the places where the buildings are to be built. For a long time, in city and countryside, architecture has disregarded the nature and influence of places. Buildings have become as interchangeable from one place to another as automobiles. The outskirts of cities are virtually identical and as depressingly ugly as the corn-and-bean deserts of industrial agriculture.
What Forster could not have foreseen in 1910 was the extent of the ugliness to come. We still have not understood how far at fault has been the prevalent assumption that cities could be improved by pillage of the countryside. But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.
The argument of Howards End has its beginning in a manifesto against materialism:
It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?14
“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.
The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.”15 But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.
Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”16
In a speech delivered in 2006, “Revitalizing Rural Communities,” Frederick Kirschenmann quoted his friend Constance Falk, an economist: “There is a new vision emerging demonstrating how we can solve problems and at the same time create a better world, and it all depends on collaboration, love, respect, beauty, and fairness.”17
Those two women, almost a century apart, speak for human wholeness against fragmentation, disorder, and heartbreak. The English philosopher and geometer, Keith Critchlow, brings his own light to the same point: “The human mind takes apart with its analytic habits of reasoning but the human heart puts things together because it loves them . . .” 18
The great reassurance of Forster’s novel is the wholeheartedness of his language. It is to begin with a language not disturbed by mystery, by things unseen. But Forster’s interest throughout is in soul-sustaining habitations: houses, households, earthly places where lives can be made and loved. In defense of such dwellings he uses, without irony or apology, the vocabulary that I have depended on in this talk: truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a beehive. But in such words, in their resonance within their histories and in their associations with one another, we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger.
No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.
I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.
But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.
My grandparents were fortunate. They survived their debts and kept their farm—finally, and almost too late, with help from my father, who had begun his law practice in the county seat. But in the century and more since that hard year of 1907, millions of others have not been so fortunate. Owing largely to economic constraints, they have lost their hold on the land, and the land has lost its hold on them. They have entered into the trial of displacement and scattering that we try to dignify as “mobility.”
Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.
But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.
- Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991, page 355.
- Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Random House, New York, 1992, pages xxii & 4.
- A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966, pages 219–220.
- Who Owns America? edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 1999, pages 109–114. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1936.)
- “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Collected Poems, 1919–1976, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989, page 22.
- Last Rites, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, pages 31 and 35.
- The Faerie Queene, VII, vii, stanza XIV.
- A Sand County Almanac, pages 219–220.
- Opus Posthumous, edited, with an Introduction by Samuel French Morse, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957, page 176.
- Howards End, page 15.
- Ibid., page 112.
- Ibid., page 214.
- Ibid., page 355.
- Ibid., page 30.
- Ibid., page 303.
- Ibid., page 304.
- In Cultivating an Ecological Conscience, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011, pages 329–330.
- The Hidden Geometry of Flowers, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2011, page 39.