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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?

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