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 1960’s. Since then, Mr. Berry has written numerous books of poetry, nonfiction works, novels, and short stories.
In the final part of a three-part conversation, Berry describes what it takes to be a successful critic of agriculture, and he gives communities advice on how to be more sustainable.
Taking Care Of The Tributary Landscape
Shana Ritter (WFIU): In Bloomington, Indiana currently there’s growing attention to sustainability. What do you think the role of a large university like Indiana University and a university town like Bloomington is in helping to create a sustainable world?
Wendell Berry: To have a sustainable Bloomington, Bloomington has to begin to think conservingly and with concern for what I would call its tributary landscape, or the surrounding communities and counties that sustain Bloomington by sending in its products. It returns us to an old idea – it was an old Greek idea – of the city consisting of the urban build-up (what we would call the downtown or the city itself) plus its tributary landscape. In fact, in the old Greek cities, grain from the landscape would be stored in the towns and cities.
So, there has to begin – and it is beginning all over the country – a conversation between urban consumers and rural producers. This means that we’re developing something new for us, and that is kind of a consumer or urban agrarianism.
What a school does to contribute to that, and mostly the education system is not doing that from first to last, is giving people the means of knowing where they are, not just in the network of public roads, but within the local watershed and within the local sustaining ecosystem. If we’re going to have sustainable cities, then we’re going to have to have people who are a lot more knowledgeable than they now are about the network of living creatures and non-living creatures that are life sustaining: living creatures, plus rainfall, plus the flow of water and the storing of water and the watershed, plus the rocks.
How To Be A Proper Critic
SR: I’ve heard you say that you’re not an optimist but that you are hopeful. What are you hopeful about?
WB: When I finally did settle in my own home country to live, I suppose you could say without oversimplifying too much, that I understood the necessity of becoming a critic. I could see that from the point of view of my little community, industrial agriculture was running a debit column that wasn’t being acknowledged. So, I became a critic of industrial agriculture.
But you can’t be a critic by simply being a griper and collecting instances of things that seem to demand griping about. One has also to be a proper critic to search out the examples of good work, good land use, and of simple goodness that can give you some kind of standard of judgment along with the ecological health that is also an inescapable standard of judgment. So you see have two standards: one is the health of the human community and the other is the health of the natural community.
My work as an essayist, as a writer about agriculture, an agricultural critic (which is in some ways to be a cultural critic), has involved looking about for examples of good work, of good farming and good forestry. I have found enough examples to know that good work is possible. I think that there is an increasing number of people who know this too, who are also familiar with examples of good work. This is the inevitable source of hope.
Also, I think I can say without boasting that I have in my own life given myself some reasons to hope. My own determination to do without most electronic equipment gives me hope, because I know that it can be done without. I think it’s likely that we’re going to have to go without a number of things we’ve been taught to think of as necessities. The ability to change yourself and the finding of worthy examples are the two sources of hope insofar as I understand hope and its reasons.