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 lovely 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 anysense 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 yourterms 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 ofthe 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 consult 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, 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 ofannual 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. Over the next 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 economics 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.