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Wendell Berry: Renewing the Margins of Farming

November 7, 2017
We will be returning to Wendell Berry in Journey 4 as we focus in on the “art of farming”–that is, exploring issues in agriculture from a humanistic perspective. However, as you head into Journey 3, you might look for aspects of Berry’s vision (as read in “Solving for Pattern” and “Preserving Wildness”) in Belize and Guatemala, in encounters with small-scale farming. For that reason, I post this commentary on Berry now.

Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist and one of the leading voices (particularly in his essays) in American nature writing today. He is also a farmer (from Kentucky); his vision combines thinking about the poetics and humanities of nature from the perspective of being what he calls a “marginal” farmer. We see the autobiographical roots of his environmental vision in his essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” Recall, as well, that Berry is mentioned in Wennersten’s environmental history of the Chesapeake Bay (p. 220-221: his vision of land stewardship is compared to the legacy of John Beale Bordley from the Chesapeake in the 1780s). The link between Bordley and Berry concerns husbandry, which we know from “Renewing Husbandry” Berry promotes. Elements of Berry’s vision of husbandry, and his understanding of the importance of pattern, might be compared to the concept of permaculture. So, what from Berry can we apply to the Chesapeake Semester?

In addition to his significant writings in nonfiction, largely essays such as “The Making of a Marginal Farm” about his own experience living on and restoring the land, or the more recent “Renewing Husbandry,Wendell Berry is known as well for his poetry and fiction.

But it is Berry, the essayist, we give  our attention to in this course. And so, with the genre and tradition of the essay in mind, I suggest that we can approach Berry’s agrarian–one might even call it, pastoral–vision from three perspectives that also comprise an essay. In the terms of classical rhetoric, a writer or speaker can appeal to an audience in one of three ways, ideally engaging in all three: ethos (credibility, character of the speaker), pathos (empathy, engaging the feeling of the reader), and logos (evidence).

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” a well-known essay that is first published in The Orion magazine, we see Berry focus on loss and restoration, on land and love, on responsibility and reclamation–in both the cultural and agricultural senses of those words. [Indeed, the subtitle of one of his many collections of essays is: Essays Cultural and Agricultural] The idea of loving the land seems crucial to Berry’s vision. So, too, being responsible to the land on which we live, the place from which we are from. We heard this initially from Leopold. As Berry puts it memorably, he is not talking about a pastoral vision, about “living an idyll.” What he has in mind is something more…basic, if not boring:

One’s relation to one’s subject ceases to be merely emotional or esthetical, or even merely critical, and becomes problematical, practical, and responsible as well. Because it must. It is like marrying your sweetheart.

What do you make of Berry’s notion of love as a model for environmental ethics?

Seems to me that in both cases, the case of mourning a loss and the case of marrying a sweetheart, there is a relation to the natural world (not the world made by machines) that Berry seeks that locates responsibility in some sort of heartache or love. What could that mean? One answer could take us back to “Solving for Pattern.” Berry has in mind a responsiveness that he names pattern–and defines, in some specific senses of the term, organic. Another answer could take us back to Thoreau: “I love a broad margin to my life” he writes in Walden, though that also means not farming all the time.

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” Berry calls the farm–and I would say as well, the essay–a “reclamation project.” Berry’s philosophical-rhetorical-poetic project, I would argue, can be characterized with the various words of return, words with the prefix “re,” that he often uses quite deliberately: reclamation, restoration, renewal, remedy, responsibility–and ultimately, the keyword relation.” These words mark places where Berry’s ethos emerges with his logos and pathos. For good reasons these essays sound like a jeremiad, essays or narratives denouncing and decrying the current state of society; but like the prophet speaking from the margins of the society, Berry understands that we can learn from the margins–ironically–about how to restore to the  center the complexity it lacks.

The margin reappears in Berry’s essay “Preserving Wildness.”  I would highlight for our initial discussion of Berry two places where he elaborates further his understanding of love and of margins. In both cases, in redefining and repurposing some words we otherwise and more commonly (Thoreau might say, too cheaply) use, I think we also find an example of his underlying premise, that the natural and the cultural, the human and the non-human natural world, for better and for worse, are inextricably linked.

523: “I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place a proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our town and households, and I think the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.”

529:” Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins–lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like–are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.”

Living in these margins, marrying one’s sweetheart may not be as boring as I had presumed. Berry’s invocation of love–as in marriage, as in “loving economy”–weaves together his ecological philosophy, poetics, and rhetoric. Love, he argues, is what moves us. In the preface to Home Economics, the collection in which “Preserving Wildness” is published, Berry writes of his essays in the root sense of the genre: “my essays as trials, not because I think that they render verdicts, but because they make attempts, trying out both their subjects and my understanding. Often, too, they try my patience.”

Berry was recently awarded the Jefferson medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can read the lecture he gave in Washington, “It All Turns on Affection.” In it, he explores and attempts a case for the ways imagination (call it poetics) leads to sympathy (call it rhetoric) and ultimately to his key value (philosophy), love and affection for one’s place: “As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” You can watch a video of the lecture here.

For a sense of Berry’s voice and vision–listen to this reading, introduced by Bill McKibben.

For specific discussion of his views of education and the need for local culture, see the introduction to this 2012 reading (Circe Prize Acceptance).

For a reference point on Wendell Berry’s philosophical, poetic, and rhetorical influence in current environmental writing and thinking, consider Michael Pollan’s panegyric that positions Berry (in contrast to Thoreau and wildness) as the important voice in the current environmental focus on the food system, “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom”:

It was Wendell Berry who helped me solve my Thoreau problem, providing a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture. Using the farm rather than the wilderness as his text, Berry taught me I had a legitimate quarrel with nature–a lover’s quarrel–and showed me how to conduct it without reaching for the heavy artillery. He relocated wildness from the woods “out there” (beyond the fence) to a handful of garden soil or the green shoot of a germinating pea, a necessary quality that could be not just conserved but cultivated. He marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.

Obviously much more is at stake here than a garden fence. My Thoreau problem is another name for the problem of American environmentalism, which historically has had much more to say about leaving nature alone than about how we might use it well. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started with sentences like these:

Why should conservationists have a positive interest in…farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can’t be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to resume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their previous concerns for the welfare of nature. –”Conservationist and Agrarian,” 2002

That we are all implicated in farming–that, in Berry’s now-famous formulation, “eating is an agricultural act”–is perhaps his signal contribution to the rethinking of food and farming under way today.

Knowing Berry’s critical views of food and animal science, one can only imagine what he would say of this short video from the Food Science trade group. Pollan links to this, asking: How did we ever eat before food science?


Photo-Essay: Big Food

November 2, 2017

Here is a photo-essay published in the New York Times on “big food,” “The Dizzying Grandeur of 21st-Century Agriculture.”

Gives you some things to think about as we head toward more direct study of agriculture and issues of food into Journey 3 and back home for Journey 4–and as you continue to use the photo-essay as a rhetorical/aesthetic means of expression.

Rethinking the Rhetoric of Wilderness

October 7, 2017

The time has come for us to rethink the Chesapeake. Why and how should we do such rethinking?

Both Wendell Berry (“Preserving Wildness”) and William Cronon (“The Trouble with Wilderness”) make an argument for rethinking wilderness form the perspective of a “middle” ground. This is the middle between the extreme positions that all is human culture and all is nonhuman nature. The problem with those extremes, both argue, is that it denies the indivisibility of the human and the natural. Instead, Berry urges us to look to the interchange of “the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins” (529). Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” one could argue, previews this vision toward a human-nature harmony in its ethical outlook: a thing is right when it preserves the stability  (nature)) and the beauty (culture) of “the biotic community.”

Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Berry’s idea of natural-cultural diversity, and its absence, in the monocultures of farming and housing that characterize much of how we live today, seems vividly evident in a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine. It’s about the blooming of McMansions in former rice fields in China. The images illuminate the sort of cultural and natural hybridity that these writers have in mind, the ways the cultural (in this case, human homes) are intertwined with the natural. Berry in his essays reminds us of this consistently when he describes his essays as “cultural and agricultural.” The problem all three thinkers are worrying: when this intertwining is viewed or manipulated as exclusively cultural (Berry’s monocultural) or exclusively natural (Cronon’s wilderness mythology of the sublime and the frontier).

As you head further into the nature and the culture of the Chesapeake Watershed, and particularly as you head into the “margins” and edges of this region, take these arguments about the rhetoric of wilderness with you. Is there a wilderness mythology of the Chesapeake of the sort Cronon identifies at large in the history of American environmental thinking? Do you encounter the sort of extremes of nature and culture that Berry worries about? Can you find, at the same time, a livable margin and middle ground?

We can also learn from, and continue to explore, a rhetorical perspective that both Berry and Cronon  not only argue for, but also enact in their writings. An effective rhetorical perspective also seeks a middle ground, the place where humans live, as Berry reminds us. This is a view of rhetoric as fundamentally an act and art of cooperation. But this “middle ground” should not be misconstrued as refusing to take a position or the inability to stand one’s ground. This is not, as I understand these authors, a matter of indifference (whatever?!) or the kind of false argumentation that we find often on cable television: you have your position and are entitled to be wrong.

Rather, these essays, as they develop an ethical and aesthetic perspective that challenges us to rethink our definitions of wilderness, do so through a rhetorical perspective that challenges us, and challenges themselves, to rethink our and their own positions. A rhetorical strategy that can help us think about this, and help you put it to work in your projects this semester, is Counterargument. We will talk more about it in coming classes. You can think of it as a strategy in which controversy, something you are focusing on extensively this semester, is engaged dynamically rather than statically. When we engage in counterargument, we show that our own argument and claims, our own position that we are developing and proposing, itself participates in the controversy that we are discussing and responding to. This is what makes our position arguable, and therefore worth listening to. An argument is, fundamentally, a response to a problem with a given or conventional or established way of understanding something that the rhetor (the person doing the arguing) puts forth. Even more basically, a thesis or statement of an argument always has its counterargument wrapped up in it. In this way, an effective argument uses counterargument to solve for pattern, rather than merely solve a problem that it, ironically, adds to by neglecting its larger contexts. Those larger contexts include the very real and necessary possibility that I, the person making the argument, could be wrong to the extent that I can’t present or even see the whole picture.

Berry’s (and following him, Cronon’s) “middle ground” is where we can find what he calls “proper relation,” proper limits, proportion. The adjective “proper” is one of Berry’s keywords. Consider the word’s etymology: that which is particular, specific, owing to the self. I would suggest that “proper” is also a key to our three perspectives. Ethical perspective: where we seek proper relation to others; Rhetorical perspective: where we seek proper balance and limits in our expression; Aesthetic perspective: where we seek proportion, proper balance or harmony in sight, sound, taste.

For some further reading on this rhetorical concept of Counterargument (a strategy for achieving proper balance), I recommend this brief discussion from Harvard’s Writing Center. Think about bringing counterargument into your next Stalking. Think about the ways your own positions on the Chesapeake Bay might begin to sound or think like Cronon’s: The time has come to rethink…


Stalking feedback: you got a problem with that?

September 26, 2017

Here is the basis for any argument–which is another way of saying (to use one of our key phrases), the basis for an effective or proper rhetorical perspective: a conventional/received/given view of some topic; a question, problem, confusion, trouble, limitation, disagreement, or other way of proposing that we need to rethink the conventional; the response to the question/problem, the specifics of how you propose to pursue that rethinking and what the implications are, the new way to think or understand things.

As you will see in your next reading, this is what Cronon is doing in “The Trouble with Wilderness” and what Berry is doing in “Preserving Wildness.” You can go back to each essay and identify these three elements: given, problem, response. And you should also be able to identify these three elements in your own Stalkings; I am looking for them there, and we can work on strengthening your complexity and clarity by improving this structure of given/problem/response. Kelsey’s first stalking has this basic structure at work in her first paragraph. It is basic, but highly effective in setting up the foundation for the complication and rethinking that she proposes in her position.

Why do we need problems? What, as someone asked, do we professors always think of things as problematic or (to use the verb form I like) in need of problematizing? Because that’s the way we generate new ways of thinking while also relating those new ways to existing and older ideas. Without a problem, or a different way of thinking about something, who cares? what’s the point? An argument (a thesis, a claim, a position) has to be arguable in order to be an argument. In other words, someone else has to be able to disagree, view it differently, find limitations in the argument. In other words, has to understand it as a problem (or question) that might have a different solution. That’s the basis for growth and renewal in thinking. In the Chesapeake Semester of the easy places you can look for problems, for differences and complications in perspectives, comes from a required element for the Stalking (and later for the Final Project): bring in a perspective (an idea, a source) that you cite from another course. So, while exploring Jamestown from the perspective of the social sciences (history, archeology, sociology), turn to Humanities or Natural Science to ask: how might we look at this differently? What analogies might these other disciplines and perspectives provide us? A reminder of this requirement from the Stalking description:

you must make connections to at least 2 of the 3 courses (Humanities, Natural Science, Social Science) in the process of stalking the ideas/experiences from the journey: reference to a lecture or quotation from a text, etc.; citations to texts and other sources must be provided.

Counterargument also provides a tool for clarifying the problem you are stalking and seeking to solve. Counterargument also anticipates and answers possible objections. Your argument has the counterargument wrapped up in it. Someone else might respond to the question or problem differently. In fact, someone else has to respond differently–otherwise no need to make the argument. [More reading on counterargument here.]

A good title can help start the reader to focus on the argument: the problem, the response, possibly both.

For further discussion of the ways that a good argument is built upon the response to a problem, you can read this post from my English 101 blog.

Revision. Unlike the blog posts, the Stalking is a more formal writing assignment. You should do some revision and editing. To help you think about revision, see this post from my Nonfiction/Essay course–where I identify 4 revision questions you can ask: What’s the project? What’s working? What else? What’s next?

Leopold’s Land Ethic and Aesthetics and Rhetoric

September 23, 2017

Among the environmental writers we have read thus far, Aldo Leopold is our first professional ecologist: not just the amateur naturalist/saunterer of Thoreau or Burroughs, or the poet-farmer like Berry but someone who studied (Forestry) and taught subjects relating to the environment.  From that vantage point, it does seem that we have left the poetics of Thoreau behind. Possibly. At least in Leopold’s more professional engagement with science and such things as the ‘land as an energy circuit’ and the biotic pyramid.  This could be discussion from an ecology text; in a sense, it is. I suspect that many of the environmental studies majors will be familiar with his concepts, if not the text itself. His most famous work is “The Land Ethic,” a series of writings and essays included in his book A Sand County Almanac.

But notice this idea at the heart of Leopold’s ecological thinking. The idea is that in order to be more ecological in our human perception and appreciation and understanding of the biotic community of which we are a part (and only a part, not the center), we need something that the poets do well. We need representation; relation. We need images and figures that foster love, faith, feeling, understanding. In order to think like a mountain we need, in part, writers like Thoreau (and Leopold himself). We need to imagine the mountain and its metaphorical thinking.

Consider how Leopold begins the section on “The Land Pyramid” by calling for a new figure of speech and mental image to understand and love the biotic mechanism. Plato be damned: we need the poets (the image-makers) in order to be more philosophical.

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

Ecology needs poetry. The biotic community, to be understood, needs to be dramatized. I would suggest that such poetry is evident in Leopold’s writing–though he may not be as interested or as gifted (in other words, as wild) as Thoreau is with his paradoxes. But I hear it in his evocation of elegy; in the alliteration of his ‘listening land’; in his “biotic drama” in which the lifespan of an atom is re-imagined as a Homeric odyssey; in a sense that Leopold performs an ecological consciousness in his descriptions and in his desire to have us think like mountains (a poetic figure, after all, for something radically non-human, and as strange as anything in Thoreau). I understand this poetry of Leopold’s ecology, finally, in his call for an ecological consciousness that is ethically and esthetically right: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Leopold calls for a more holistic, ecological, systems-oriented image or icon or representation of the relation between nature and human culture, in which humans are part of what he calls the “biotic drama,” but only part. I wonder how we might translate the image of the energy circuit (pictured above) into ethical relations. And furthermore, how we might locate those ethical relations more specifically within the Chesapeake Bay watershed?

We could turn, perhaps, to Richard Long, the environmental artist/sculptor that you will read for Professor Harvey: art understood as a layer of “human and geographic history.” You can view Long’s works here.

And to take this one step further, as Leopold suggests: what does the image look like when viewed from both an ecological and an aesthetic perspective? One possibility: a fractal, which is an image of nature’s type of geometry. A good example of fractal geometry can be found in tree branches (and leaves) and in the shape of coastlines.

For more on fractals, you can visit this discussion from my course on Environmental Writing, or check out this documentary on fractals. You won’t see the relationship between nature and culture in the same way again. You can read more about fractals here, at The Poetry of Recursion.

Or, for another blending (perhaps conflation?) of the ecological and the aesthetic, consider the work of Chris Jordan, “Intolerable Beauty,” which focuses on the aesthetics of consumption. Or something a bit more traditional, Andy Goldsworthy.  Is this what Leopold means by including beauty as a criterion for an ecological conscience?

Virtual Voyage: New World

September 11, 2017

Sultana projects has a virtual voyage available on the web, commemorating the 2007 voyage that recreated the 1608 voyage that John Smith took around the Chesapeake 400 years ago. The site John Smith 400 provides maps, excerpts from journals kept in 1608, and photos from the 2007 recreation of the voyage.

I wonder about this idea of virtual voyage: to what extent it can apply to any encounter we might have with the natural world. Say–the kind of encounter you will have when you go to Jamestown. Or the kind you have already had in your initial travels and experiences in the field. Those are real voyages, but also virtual to the extent that you are not seeing everything at once. Does “virtuality” limit the importance or significance of the experience? Does virtual suggest something less than natural?

The film The New World  is another virtual experience of Smith and the first encounter of the Chesapeake by English speaking voyagers. But isn’t the journal Smith and others kept during the experience another virtual experience: words they use to record encounters; sketches of what they see and what they hear coming from the people they encounter; the maps that are drawn. Or even further–though it might be perverse to think of virtuality this way: the virtual experience of the new world of the Chesapeake and its environment that Smith has in the food he eats from the water. Isn’t that first oyster eaten a virtual encounter, of sorts, with the whole history that leads up to it–and stranger still (like a film might do, flashing back and forward), the virtuality of the many more times such things will be done in years to come.

Might virtuality be, in fact, not just a limitation–what we are left with–that is inevitable but a necessary way to understand our experience? Might a film of the Chesapeake, such as The New World, be a way not just to represent the Chesapeake in its history and human culture but in fact a good way to understand it?  Good, because virtual. I may be getting into some ethical issues here as much as aesthetic. But I wonder what you think of the virtuality of your experience as you head around the Chesapeake, exploring it like a new world, like John Smith 400 years ago. I am thinking of what Berry reminds us at the end of “Solving for Pattern,” that the organic is still an artifact, something natural mixed with human culture and perception and use. Like a map. Or an ear of corn.

The DVD of the film includes a documentary of the making of The New World. It describes quite an extensive process that the filmmakers undertook to recreate the world of Smith and Pocahantas. Not just the attention to detail–which we might expect from a film, getting things historically accurate. I was more struck by what I am thinking (now) of as virtuality. The various actors portraying the groups of colonists and natives all trained in advance, as a group, in a sort of camp, in order to become closer to what they were portraying. Something like doing an intensive study for a semester. This got me thinking. Would a good research model for studying the Chesapeake–even this Chesapeake semester–be making a movie of it? In other words, a movie in which the product is significant, but just as important would be the process of making it. So, maybe one or more of you will consider that as you continue: turning your learning into seeing the Chesapeake on film.

The photojournalism/photo-essays that you will be doing on each journey is a place to put some of these thoughts to the test.

Rhetorical Perspective, part 2: Op-Ed, Blog, Stalking

September 7, 2017

The key element of any argument, as I have defined it, has three parts: given (conventional view); problem (question, concern, confusion); response (answer to question, clarification, solution to problem). These three parts form the argument, also called a thesis or a claim. You then develop and support that argument or claim with reasons and evidence.

Your blog is a place that you begin to practice this argumentation. The Stalking is where you expand it with more grounding (for the reasons and evidence) in the materials you are studying in the Chesapeake courses.

You can think of your blog much like an Op-Ed, a compressed argument. For example, this one on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. An op-ed writer, Bret Stephens, recently identified various rhetorical and stylistic elements that make for a good op-ed.[“Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” Bret Stephens, The New York Times] Though focused on the mechanics of a good, 700-word op-ed essay, Stephens provides brief but persuasive (in good, op-ed fashion) tips that identify rhetorical and stylistic elements for any argument. Stephens mentions one element that particularly stands out: the fact that an effective argument in an op-ed provides “standing with surprise.” That is, the ethos or authority of the writer matters, but the argument must provide new or unexpected ways of thinking about what the writer knows. This builds into the argument a counterargument and its response (another point he makes); this also gets the reader’s attention–Stephens’s first rule.

A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?

The “surprise” Stephens emphasizes can be compared to the irony and complication that we have begun to explore in readings by Tom Horton and Wendell Berry. Such surprise does more than get attention; it supports the rhetorical project, which is to rethink or revise or reclaim or renew one’s understanding or perspective on the topic. In this way, Horton argues, we can approach “fuller context.” An argument’s response to a problem might even be simpler (surprise doesn’t mean entirely original)–providing new ways for thinking about old questions and problems. Consider these questions as the basis for a good argument (provided by Harvard University Press):

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

To consider some examples of emerging argument from the first week of blogging. Emily’s post does a good job setting up and exploring variations on a problem–the tensions between what she knows and a new place that she doesn’t know. The post is the beginnings of an effort (with some help from Wendell Berry), to rethink the Chesapeake as a place, in large part by living in it this semester. Kai’s focus on homesickness presents a good example, I think, of standing with surprise. The surprise is the turn at the end that emphasizes the response of the argument, the claim: becoming homesick for a place that was previously resisted.