The recent article by Wendell Berry in the New York Times, written with his long-time associate Wes Jackson, on the loss of Iowa’s soil under the extreme storm events increasingly generated by climate change (see my January 14 post), sent me back to his writings, and to a rediscovered pleasure, and inspiration.
There is much about Wendell Berry’s work that one can place in the unique tradition of American letters that runs from Thoreau and Emerson, to John Muir and Aldo Leopold, to Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver. It has deep connections to one taproot of American culture (barely visible now) that begins with the Quakers and rises through the Shakers, the Amish and the Mennonites, and the small holdings that formed the fabric of the American rural landscape to the onset of World War II. There are echoes of the more interesting economists, such as E.F.Schumacher and Amartya Sen. There are other echoes of those who have sought out simpler forms of living, such as George Borrow, W.H.Hudson, Rowena Farre and, more recently, the blazing Jay Griffiths. Certainly one can see in it the carry of the back-to-the-land movement that was one of the more powerful streams to emerge from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, as those flood years broke their banks. And it is developed largely in parallel with the permaculture of Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.
But in the end, in the breadth of his interests and vision, the passion of his convictions, sustained across four decades, the cogency of his arguments, and the clarity and elegance of his writing Wendell Berry is, as he would wish to be, his own man. He stands, literally, on his own ground–Kentucky soil. His work has been built with the same authenticity, attention to craft and loving care as the homesteads he so admires. It is a work that is worth something. Its insights have never been more urgently needed than in these times, as humanity attempts to think its way through the overwhelming challenge of climate change. Wendell Berry may not have all the answers to our present predicaments, although he had remarkably clear presentiments of their probable onset, but he finds in the end the right kind of questions. As he probes, over decades, the inner spaces and far edges of his great subject–how to live sustainably–he assembles its terms of reference so comprehensively and persuasively that it is difficult to conceive of discussing this subject outside them.
His work, across four decades, is remarkably diverse and in the main highly original. It extends from the early book, “The Unsettling of America”, a passionate attack on the application of the interlocking paradigms of industry, business and science to agriculture, a critique which includes, as is appropriate to a young man writing in the middle 1970’s, a lacerating denunciation of modern materialism and its society; through a stream of essays, poetry and articles which encompass the conversation we have with ourselves, as a society, about the nature and purposes of our collective life. But his abiding theme is agriculture and agricultural living, and it finds, I believe, its best expression in the collection of essays entitled “The Gift of Good Land”, published in 1981. These are mature essays, with incisive analysis and insight on every page, and beautifully written. The comments that follow draw centrally on this book, and all the quotations are from it.
Although he doesn’t frame it in quite this way, the perennial question that occupies Wendell Berry is how to farm sustainably. It is characteristic of his insight that he understands this question as inseparable from the wider question of how to live sustainably; that is, the question of what makes up a fully human life, and how it is to be built into the life of farms and of farming communities. In the light of the current perception of a gathering crisis in global food security it is an analysis that could hardly be more relevant; no less relevant is his wider analysis of the nature of sustainable living to the challenge of climate change. Here then are some of the ways of thinking and guiding principles he has developed across the decades of a life’s work.
One way of approaching Wendell Berry’s thought is through his depiction of that system of farming which represents everything he is opposed to: modern agribusiness. Here, as he sees it, the products of farming are commodities which are bought and sold on the open markets, regional, national and international. The financial imperatives of those markets are therefore crucial—Wendell Berry would say, the determining—influences on farm decision-making. Farming practice becomes in fact, predominantly a business; hence ‘agribusiness’ rather than ‘farming’. Its metrics are those of business: profitability, cash flow and return on investment. Returns on the agricultural enterprise must be maximised in order to justify the investments made by owners, as against other possible investments they might make with their money. In farming terms this means the economics of efficiency: economies of scale, in bigger farms which can justify bigger machinery, and improve productivity; specialisation (a term which is anathema to Wendell Berry, in farming as in life) through monoculture or limited livestock-grain systems (hogs and corn, for example); pushing land for maximum production of these commodities; pervasive use of artificial inputs, like chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, which can be applied over wide areas to maintain high levels of short-term outputs; and so on. Travelling through the irrigated farming operations—cotton, alfalfa, sorghum, millet, sugar beets, and the like—around Tuscon and Phoenix, he writes:
“This is modern industrial farming in its purest form: enormous, costly fields, dependent for their productivity on large machines, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. . .and fossil water. . .The folly of this agriculture is most plainly evident in the fields that it has already been compelled to leave behind. The reasons for this abandonment are salination, caused by the rapid evaporation of the mineral-laden groundwater, and the cost of bringing groundwater to the surface, which increases prohibitively as the aquifers are pumped lower and lower. . .After the fields are abandoned, they produce only a very sparse growth of such plans as tumbleweed, cranesbill, and mustard, which cover the ground poorly. Nevertheless, the fields are then fenced and sheep are turned in to exploit their small remaining value as pasture. They are overgrazed, further exposing the ground to the winds, and allowing the dust to blow. . .As the dust blows away, the heavier particles of sand and gravel stay in place. The rain beats these into a tight seal over the surface of the ground. This is the final product of “agriculture” here. It is called “desert pavement,” and it is aptly named. It is as sterile as a concrete road, and feels the same underfoot.”
Contrasting industrial agriculture of this kind with the local Native American (Papago) system, he concludes:
“Because this Arizona farmland is marginal, it provides an indispensable standard by which to measure the performance of industrial agriculture. We must look at the producing fields not just in the light of their annual production, but in light of the sterile, abandoned fields lying next to them, and in light of the little Papago fields that in many centuries of use have never become sterile.” (63-66)
This is an insight to which we will return, as we consider the relevance of Wendell Berry’s thought to the history of Australian agriculture and to indigenous forms of making a living on the land.
Wendell Berry bluntly describes agribusiness as ‘mining’. This is a term which brings into relief its mechanical, rather than biological, orientation: its willingness to treat land resources as an exhaustible, rather than renewable, resource; its preoccupation with volume of output and economies of scale, hence size of operation and machinery; and its disregard of the degraded land it leaves behind after those resources are exhausted and abandoned in the pursuit of a new resource to plunder.
He goes on to note, too, that the human dimensions of such a system are characterised by dislocation and separation. The consumers of farm products simply consume: they play no part in producing their food; a loss of control, as well as of the pleasures of eating what you grow. More fundamentally, however, in considering the system by which under agribusiness food is produced (the terms ‘produce’, ‘products’, production’ are emblematic of the industrial paradigm which frames agribusiness farming practice) he sees the farmer as increasingly separated from his or her land. The push for economies of scale compels the land into the particular productive form required by business imperatives, rather than supports a working relationship with the land and its organic capabilities. Farmers become consumers: their food, too, is purchased from the supermarket, not grown on their own farms. They become operators on the land, not collaborators with it. Even the knowledge they employ in agribusiness practice is largely not developed by themselves but by university, government and business researchers, in which particular factors are extracted from, and manipulated outside, the farm as it is lived and worked. Under such a system, there is little room for farmers to participate in the cumulative development of farming practice. Applying knowledge they have not been part of developing, to land they have no incentive to understand or work with, to meet demands established by markets which take no account of the way in which the commodities they trade have been produced, modern agribusiness farmers are, in Wendell Berry’s analysis, literally strangers to their own land.
(For complete essay with all parts included, please follow this link)