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 part two of a three-part conversation, Berry talks about translating a local focus into a global awareness, the idea of “membership,” and writing according to what the times dictated.
Writing About What You Know
Wendell Berry: Part of my obligation as a writer has been to write about the deterioration of our country, not as a nation but as the country itself, as distinct from its economy and its government: the loss of soil from erosion; the increasing toxicity of soil and water; and the accompanying destruction of the rural population and the cultures of husbandry as the people have increasingly been replaced by machines and chemicals.
And now we’re confronting failures in land use and land conservation. They are simply undeniable as a result chemical agriculture in the Mississippi watershed. We have a huge dead zone, one of hundreds internationally, in the Gulf of Mexico. These things can no longer be denied.
What we now desperately need is a conversation about land use in which we consider all the things of concern, not just food production and not just the production of timber, but how you maintain the sources in good health. Among those sources of course is sort of the human culture that I’ve called the Culture of Husbandry, or the Many Cultures of Husbandry. How is the best way to use this place? How do the users maintain it in use?
The Land Economy
WB: As opposed to the industrial economy, the agrarian economy would be an economy that developed form the land up. An agrarian economy would acknowledge the inescapable dependence of the human population and the human economy upon the land and the resources of the land. The economy we have now doesn’t consider that foundation at all.
I’ve made a sort of hobby I guess of reading the Economist and their newspaper columns and articles. I’ve been waiting for an economist to acknowledge the land economy, and I’ve never seen that happen. Maybe it has happened and I missed it. But, the preoccupation of economics as conventionally understood now is with finance, with the money economy, and of course the money economy is now badly in disarray.
I think one of the reasons is the money system is a system of symbols. It’s a symbolic system. If you have symbols that don’t reliably and stably represent things of real value, then you’re in trouble. We can devalue the dollar, for instance, without respect for the things of value the dollar stands for. We can have great fluctuation in the price of land or the price of food, but the real measure of the value of land and food is determined by imagining ourselves without them.
To propose that we might be without land or without food is to see very quickly that they have an ultimate value that doesn’t fluctuate, that those things serve a need that is constant and therefore in reality have a constant value. So, if you have a money economy that’s fluctuating in value around those things, the tendency is the destruction of the economy of its own real basis.
We Are Members Of Us All
Shana Ritter (WFIU): In many of your books, you talk about “membership.” I think Burley Coulter is the character that coins the phrase, “Being part of the membership,” which seems to extend to all folks in the area, whether they’re tenants, owners, white, black. How did that membership work?
WB: Burley Coultur’s statement about membership is I think a kind of improvement on St. Paul’s idea referring to the early church that we are members of one another. Burley takes a bit larger view of the matter. What he says is we’re members of each other, all of us, everything. The difference is not whether you are or are not, but whether you know you are or are not.
This of course is something that can be learned from the ecologists who are trying to teach us that, or it can be learned from life in a local community. The people who refuse to acknowledge or enact their membership are nevertheless members. We are all under each other’s influence. We are all affected by each other’s lives and decisions. There is no escape from this membership.
One of the issues that I have addressed in my fiction, which carries it a little apart from conventional realism, the question of how do people act toward each other who are conscious of being members of one another? It’s a subject to my own way of thinking worth pursuing.
Focused On The Local, Aware Of The Global
SR: How do you take that notion of local belonging and being conscious about belonging to a place and community and also apply it to a global comprehension and understanding that we’re all a part of a world, to be both simultaneously focused on the local and aware of the global?
WB: Of course, you necessarily being a limited creature with limited intelligence can be more fully, particularly, and responsibly aware of your own place than you can be aware of the globe.
The way it works as I understand it is if you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people. If you wish well to your own place and you recognize that your own place is part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing to your place.
This is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism, the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation. Nationalism always implies competition, always the wish that your nation might thrive even at the expense of other nations. Patriotism is the love of a home place or a home country that recognizes the obligation of charity toward other places and other people, and it recognizes that the prosperity of your place need not come at the expense of the prosperity of other places. There is a generosity, a charity, in what I recognize is the true patriotism, which is not necessarily implied by nationalism.
SR: It was William Carlos Williams who said, “The only true universal is the local.”
WB: To elaborate a little bit on that idea, the local confidently fulfilled in poetry, for instance, may have a universal value or application. Now, that’s different from the scientific/industrial/commercial idea of the universal solution. It means that the integrity, coherence, and specific value and identity of this community will not be exactly like that of another community or would not be exactly a model for another community. It simply means that this kind of coherence and integrity is exemplary in that it might inspire, justify, or authenticate in the mind or in the imagination the integrity, coherence, and particular value of another place or community.