Wendell Berry occupies a unique place in American literary culture. Born in Kentucky in 1934, he has stayed close to his roots in caring for the land that his ancestors settled almost 200 years ago.
One of the preeminent philosophers of place, a leading advocate for environmental stewardship, and a fierce critic of agribusiness, he first came to literary notice as a poet in the 1960s. Since then, Mr. Berry has written numerous books of poetry, nonfiction works, novels, and short stories.
In part one of a three-part conversation, Berry begins by talking about the farm he maintains in Port Royal, Kentucky.
Farmer And Writer
Wendell Berry: We have a very marginal place of about 117 acres in two tracks, one on the slope of the Kentucky River Valley going down to the river and the other in the creek valley about a mile away. It is problematic land from a farmer’s point of view because it’s either steep or it overflows.
Mostly, we grow grass and trees and we have a small sheep flock and a fairly good vegetable garden, and we harvest a good bit of our fuel from the woods. When our children were young and at home, we had a fairly elaborate subsistence economy that included milk cows, a chicken flock, and meat hogs. As our family size and our own energy has declined, it’s shrunk a little bit.
Shana Ritter (WFIU): Can you tell me a little bit about how farming and writing compliment each other for you?
WB: They fit together awkwardly enough. The farm has never provided our major income. It has provided a considerable portion of our subsistence. Neither did writing, until a few years ago. So, for a long time I earned our living by teaching for ten years, traveling and doing lectures and readings.
Since my subject and my writing has been farming, I think it has been important that I have been involved daily in my fashion with my own farming, and mainly in years past, in exchanges of work with my neighbors. Farming has never been something that has been remote from my daily consciousness and preoccupation.
Sometimes writing has to be put second because anyone who farms is confronted occasionally by emergencies: livestock in the road or a difficult birth or something of that sort. I have tried to devote half of every day to each. That has sometimes been possible, not invariably.
From A Creaturely Life To A Mechanical Life
WB: Up until the end of the Second World War, the life I experienced in my part of the country and on the farms I’ve visited, played on and worked on was predominantly creaturely. After the war, it became dominantly and increasingly mechanical. The change from a creaturely life to a mechanical life is a profound change, and in many ways it has been devastating, not to me but to the country itself.
We’ve tried, in the sciences and in other ways, to understand the creatures as machines, but I think that’s a failure. There is no real resemblance between creatures and machines, and there is no resemblance between the relationship a person has with a machine and the relationship one has with an animal, particularly a working animal (draft animals, working dogs, or hunting dogs). It really is a radically different order of life between a life oriented to creatures and a life oriented to machines.
SR: I think it’s in your book “Hannah Coulter” that you – or Hannah rather – speaks about the difference between before the war, that people were dependent on each other in the community and once machines came into being, they had to look outside in order to be able to subsist. Can you talk about the changes to communities that that difference of focus has made?
WB: There is a vast difference from a life drawn from the ground under foot, so to speak, and a life that is drawn from distant sources that are difficult or impossible to know and take responsibility for. So, what we’ve done, because of cheap fossil fuel and as a result cheap long distance transportation, is to substitute a life that was economically intimate, coming from known sources, for a life that is commercial and remote from its sources. In a fundamental way, this life is ignorant and unfeeling.
To Be Made Of Your Place
WB: I grew up among people who did shop in stores for coffee, seasonings and bananas maybe, but who lived largely from their own land. When you’ve done this over a period of time, especially when you have the perspective of a changed time, you realize that living from your own place and eating food from your own place makes you one flesh, so to speak, with that place. You are made of your place. This, in so far as it’s conscious, is profoundly intimate.
SR: You use the phrase, “so far as it’s conscious.” How do we, at this point in time, make that more conscious for people who are no longer living on the land?
WB: In the days before cheap long distance transportation, when a subsistence economy really was the backbone of a family and community life, it was pretty much taken for granted. People had never done differently. So, it becomes conscious to some extent because it has become rare. It is now again becoming less rare
But the poet Yeats said somewhere, “Things reveal themselves going away.” For some of us as we begin to lose the old way of rural life, what it was that we were losing had been became vividly clear to us. For the ones of us who have tried to remain faithful to that old way, it has been conscious in a way that it wasn’t conscious before – poignantly conscious.