Wednesday, January 1, 2014
I received in the mail earlier this week a very special gift from a thoughtful friend who's known me all of her young life - an inscribed copy of Wendell Berry's latest book. She's now a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry; he was there for a symposium. I've long hoped to meet Berry and doubt that will ever happen.
Berry is an author, activist, and farmer. His dozens of novels of the fictional Port William community chronicle six generations of rural small town and small farm life in Kentucky, doing so with a depth that astounds, an abundance of generosity, and a healthy dose of gritty realism. His poems are accessible, often spiritual, and frequently very moving. In his non-fiction, he focuses a pithy wit and keen analytical sense on the bloated target of modern culture in general and large scale industrial agriculture in particular. He understands the severity of the climate crisis and the enormous extent to which modern agriculture has contributed to that crisis.
Berry's most noted work of non-fiction is The Unsettling of America, published in 1977. It's a comprehensive critique of modern agriculture with its focus on mechanical efficiency, over-reliance on petroleum and petroleum-derived chemicals, abusive exploitation of animals, and obsession with monoculture. Berry connects the dying of the soil - through erosion, poisoning, and paving - with the loss of community at all scales of public life. A line from "Unsettling" - The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all - could serve as epigram for the entirety of the Port Williams fiction.
Another quote from "Unsettling" captures both the wit and the thrust of Berry's critique:
Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.
Reading Berry might be more fun if he were less right. He is right - profoundly and fundamentally so - and the world will catch up some day. There are glimmers, such as last month's United Nations Commission on Trade and Development report titled "Wake Up Before It's Too Late," concluding that small-scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world.
We need, according to UNCTAD, "a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers." Without the hyphens and tech-speak, it could be Berry.
2014 is the International Year of the Family Farmer.
Thank you, Maggie, thank you, Wendell, and Happy New Year to everyone!