Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Conversation with Wendell Berry

Taking Care of What We've Been Given

by Thomas P Healy

CounterPunch (April 15 / 16 2006)

For the past four decades, writer Wendell Berry has crafted a body of work within the "green" American literary tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey. His poems, essays and novels extol the virtues of agrarian life, lament the depredations of the industrial economy and celebrate the integration of ethics, responsibility and humility that come from devoting careful attention to the natural world. Berry also has been one of the most eloquent voices for peace in the period preceding the war in Iraq as well as in the catastrophic aftermath of the Bush administration's unilateral military action.

His most recent books are a collection of essays and speeches entitled The Way of Ignorance (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005) and Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christ's Teachings of Love, Compassion & Forgiveness (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005) which assembles citations from the Gospels of the King James Version of the Bible that serve as the foundation for his faith and advocacy of peace and justice. Berry writes and works the land on Lane's Landing Farm, five miles from his birthplace in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Madison, Indiana.

TH: You retired from teaching?

WB: I didn't retire. I quit.

TH: Was that a sweet parting?

WB: Oh, it was amicable enough. I didn't go away with any grudge. It was time for me to leave.

TH: I only ask because it was the opportunity to return to Kentucky to teach that brought you back from your wanderings. In a mid-1970s "debate" in North Manchester, Indiana, with then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, he chided you for having off-the-farm income. He said you were making his point for him, "get big or get out", but also that people need to work off the farm to generate income. If they have a small farm, they're not going to generate enough income to actually live off the farm.

WB: Just depends on the one you're talking to. I've never tried to live from farming. Farming has contributed to our living here. We still grow a lot of our food and we have a small sheep flock and we supply a lot of our own heating fuel from the woods on our place. I'm a very marginal farmer. I'm a very marginal writer too.

TH: You're kidding!

WB: Well, economically. I can't judge whether I'm marginal in any other way but I know damn well that I'm marginal economically. I don't write bestsellers. I have a cottage industry. My work sells in modest numbers that are economically significant for me. But I'm not a huge literary property.

TH: Writing about your early years - "Trying to become a Henry County poet", as you expressed it in a letter to Ed McClanahan that he published in the final "All About Kesey" edition of Spit in the Ocean (Penguin Books, 2003) - it seemed that at the time you were expressing an ambivalence about that desire. Have you succeeded in becoming a Henry County poet? And was it worth all the effort?

WB: [Laughing] Oh, I guess so. I've enjoyed being a writer and I s'pose I'm a poet and I certainly still am a Henry Countian, after a fashion. I live in Henry County and I like living here. I don't approve of everything that's happening here by any means.

TH: The erosion of agrarian life?

WB: Yes, absolutely. The ruin of the agrarian life, the disintegration of communities, a considerable amount of urban development in part of this county. Young people are not much interested in farming. There is a lot to worry about here.

TH: I remember reading that your children settled in the area and your son was farming. Is that still the case?

WB: My son and daughter both are farming here. My son is on a farm that my father owned for many years and he is farming with my brother too. He lives about five miles away. About ten or twelve miles away my daughter and son-in-law are farming. And now in addition to cattle they have a winery.

TH: Wineries are part of the big push in Indiana for "agricultural tourism" - getting city people to visit rural areas to stimulate economic development. The other big push is for increased pork production through Confined Animal Feeding Operations.

WB: Those are wrong. That's not farming. It involves an immense cruelty to the animals and to the people who work in those circumstances and to the neighbors, and it's not sustainable.

TH: Individual farmers are using Community Supported Agriculture to market directly to consumers, and we're seeing an explosive growth of farmers markets.

WB: That's a great thing. The health of farming now is up to the consumers. So it's very exciting that these Community Supported Agriculture farms and farmers markets are having some success. The success that they are having doesn't represent a victory for good agriculture, so far, because the corporate hold is still oppressive and depressive and destructive.

TH: You don't have much good to say about the industrial economy, calling it "oppressive", "destructive" and "predatory".

WB: I have nothing good to say about it. I don't think anything good is to be expected from it. The corporations don't fulfill any responsibilities to the public or to the land that they're not required and forced to fulfill. That's their record.

TH: The whole sustainable agriculture movement and farmers' markets are grassroots phenomena. They're not getting support from the land-grant colleges.

WB: Well, the attitude is changing, and changing significantly in some colleges of agriculture, and one reason is that the failure of industrial agriculture is now too obvious to be ignored by anybody - even its one-time advocates. We've got the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, we've got toxic ground water - there are places in Kansas where children and pregnant women are instructed not to drink the water.

TH: Indiana has fish consumption advisories on all streams and rivers.

WB: That is a result of agriculture to a considerable extent, and you can't call that an agricultural success.

TH: There are people of my generation who grew up on farms or their parents or grandparents grew up on farms and they say, "Without mechanization, I wouldn't have been able to go to college. My pa, my grandpa couldn't have earned a living off the land." They suggest we have to have industrial methods in order to feed people. Why does this notion have such persistent currency?

WB: People in prestigious positions persist in saying it but it's not true.

TH: In your book The Way of Ignorance, there's an essay "Imagination in Place", in which you object to "anybody for rating the land as 'capital' or its human members as 'labor'". Do you find these terms offensive?

WB: The issue is abstraction. The nature of things is that you can't properly value something on abstract terms. Every parcel of land in the country is a particular place, and you can't love it or care for it or use it properly in the abstract. To reduce it to money value obscures its existence as a particular good. And when you reduce human beings to an abstraction like "labor" or a "labor force", you obscure the whole issue of their community membership and their involvement in a particular economy and their particular worth as individual people, individual creatures - that's what I was saying in that essay. I'm against referring to people as "human resources" because it reduces them to abstract counters like dollar bills. I am insisting that you must not regard your community members as a labor force that is subject to being moved about at the whim of the economy. You must not accept the breakup of community relationships or homes as a normal cost of production. Communities shouldn't give up their members so easily.

TH: You maintain that the basis of the economy is the land, the air and the water, including the fertility of the land and the ability to make good use of it. Is that an accurate reading?

WB: That's right. Try to imagine an economy without fertile land or drinkable water or breathable air. You won't get very far. The people who've carried on this line of baloney about the "information economy" are fantasists. The idea that you can have a sound economy of money or stocks and bonds with a degraded landscape underneath it is preposterous.

We're investing in the development of fuel the effort and the economic power that we ought to be investing in taking care of our land and our forests.

TH: You mean alternatives to fossil fuels?

WB: No. Any fuel that's burnt is a very curious kind of property. When you think of fuel as a property, you're thinking about a property that is valuable only insofar as it can be destroyed, whereas land, as a property and given proper care, has a permanent value. Given the degraded state of a lot of our soils, it's a property that can appreciate as a "good" - on the condition of good treatment.

In Kentucky, we're destroying mountains, including their soils and forests, in order to get at the coal. In other words, we're destroying a permanent value in order to get at an almost inconceivably transient value. That coal has a value only if and when it is burnt. And after it is burnt, it is a pollutant and a waste - a burden.

TH: Your colleague Wes Jackson talks about "geologic time" - the tens of thousands of years it took to build up fossil fuels - and how we're using them up in "industrial time" - a couple of hundred years. We're spending the capital that has accrued over tens of thousands of years in hundreds of years.

WB: That's right. As Wes is pointing out to anybody who will listen, something like 99 percent of all the oil that's been burnt has been burnt in his or my lifetime.

It finally comes down to a question of the stewardship of natural gifts. You have to take care of what you've been given. We've arrogated to ourselves the right to destroy what we have judged to be worthless or of inferior worth - which, like the wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, turn out to have a very significant worth. The forested mountains of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia will eventually turn out to be worth more than the coal.

TH: I'm sorry to say that Hoosier John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, has written several briefs for Peabody Coal in support of "mountaintop removal".

WB: I know that, and I think you have to separate the sin from the sinner, if you can. You can't say that everybody who has written briefs in support of Peabody Coal is necessarily a monster of some kind. But you have to say that the result is monstrous.

TH: In your taxonomy of "ignorance" there's a special kind of ignorance for the corporate mind. So writing briefs in support of that corporate mind is a kind of willful ignorance of the values you hold?

WB: It is. The great writers have known - Shakespeare knew it - to make up your mind to be willing to commit evil is a very dangerous thing to do. It's always done on the assumption that "well, we'll do it a little and then we'll quit; we'll destroy the Earth just a little bit, then we'll quit". An eastern Kentucky politician said to me, "Well, we've got to have this coal. We can't say anything to the coal mine owners - can't require anything of them. We've got to indulge them because we need that coal to tide us over until we find something better."

TH: What about biofuels?

WB: Well, ethanol, from what I've seen in test reports - and I've seen significant ones and several, and from what I get from Wes and his people at the Land Institute - the conversion ratio on ethanol is a laugh. The ratio between the energy you put in and energy you get out is about one to one. A little more or a little less than one to one, even according to the USDA. So ethanol is just a way to get rid of surplus corn.

TH: And it's not going to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuel.

WB: No. And to start raising a burnable fuel from your cropland at the present cost in erosion and soil degradation and toxicity is a fool's bargain.

TH: Do you consider yourself a spiritual man or a religious man?

WB: Well, I don't like that dichotomy of matter and spirit very much, so you can say I consider myself a religious man.

TH: In your essay "Compromise, Hell!" you write, "If we believe, as so many of us profess to do, that the Earth is God's property and is full of His glory, how can we do harm to any part of it?" And in several other essays you ask, "How do we create an economy that makes love an economic practice?"

WB: That's right. I've developed that idea most painstakingly in the essay "The Burden of the Gospels". If you take love as the prescribed way of life, how do you make that an economic practice? That's the crisis question. A lot of people who accept that gospel of love don't think of economic practice as having any religious significance at all.

TH: And not just from an agricultural or economic sensibility. We're also talking about a peacemaker sensibility, especially if you look at the terrible violence in everyday life in America compared to the rest of the world.

WB: [Chuckling] It's very interesting to try to think of our nuclear stockpile as a property of Jesus.

TH: I can't see it. But there are so many people who wrap themselves in the pages of the Bible, using that sort of unctuous righteousness to promulgate horrific policies that really injure people, the planet and everything we hold dear.

WB: That's been true ever since Constantine, so we shouldn't be surprised.

TH: When you align secular political power with the presumptive moral authority of the religious community, you get problems.

WB: You sure do.

TH: I have thought that changes in the country could emanate from the Heartland here in the Midwest. After reading The Way of Ignorance I got to thinking that the Heartland is an abstraction, isn't it?

WB: Yes.

TH: So I'm way off base thinking that the Heartland is going to transform either East Coast or West Coast sensibilities.

WB: The Heartland could do it but the Heartland can only do it if it's willing to take national security or regional security as the complex issue it really is. If the powers that be in Louisville and Indianapolis, for instance, were to ask themselves, "Why should we be living like Phoenix, trucking in everything we use, when we're sitting here in the middle of a fertile, well-watered landscape? Why should we be dependent on long-distance transportation for our food?"

TH: That's a great question that's not being asked.

WB: It's a real question. It's a valuable question. They won't ask it until they ask another question, and that is, "If you take our present life and subtract cheap fossil fuel from it, what would we have left?" That's the first question and it would lead naturally to the second one. That question is an exercise that I learned from Wes. It has certainly been the burden of a lot of conversation between us. Ask it of almost anything you can think of - the school system, for instance. Suppose you subtracted cheap fossil fuel from the public school system. It's a petroleum-based education. And it's a cheap petroleum-based education, moreover. Things will change as we leave this cheap fossil fuel, cheap energy economy.

TH: That's going to require a huge shift in perspective in how we view the natural world and how we view our work.

WB: Yes. You have an obligation to see that people can answer their calling. You have to take vocation seriously and then we've got to learn to pay the essential people fairly. We're living at the expense of basic or primary workers, primary producers. We're living off the backs of small farmers and Central American and Mexican migrants. And all the while we're congratulating ourselves for getting over slavery. And that hasn't happened.

And there are a lot of people in well-paid jobs who consider themselves slaves. When you have a workforce whose motto is, "Thank God, it's Friday", you're in the midst of a very serious cultural and economic failure.

Thomas P Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at

Bill Totten


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