Meet the Man Fighting the System with Stubborn Hope: Wendell Berry

Read this reflective narrative about Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry is a farmer who doesn’t own a TV or computer, and he farms with horses rather than heavy machinery. He’s also a writer who is inspiring a revolution against an economic system that is built on waste and exploitation. Here’s why one writer sees him as a model for a new way to live in harmony with the land and each other. 

Years ago when I was deciding what to study in college, one of the dominant thoughts was this: I want to make enough money that I never have to do my own yard work. I settled on mechanical engineering. And soon, instead of making money mowing lawns and pulling weeds as I had for most of high school, I was spending my summers sitting at a computer designing things. If that younger me could see my life now — instead of life as an engineer, I’m spending my time teaching science, keeping chickens, and looking forward to getting my hands dirty in the garden — he would be horrified.

What changed? Among other things, I encountered the writings of Wendell Berry. Berry, a farmer-writer-activist from Kentucky, often gets dismissed as an old curmudgeon and a Luddite. In 1987 he wrote an article entitled “Why I am not going to buy a computer.” He still doesn’t have one — he has written all of his 52 books by hand, most in a well-lit cabin without electricity — nor does he have a TV, and he farms with horses rather than heavy machinery. But Wendell Berry is much more than these externals. He has inspired generations of organic farmers and eaters, and offered not just a critique of our current culture, but also living proof that there is a better way to live — not just better for the planet, or for our physical health, but “richer in meaning, and more abundant in real pleasure.” In a cultural moment increasingly characterized by  meaninglessness and lack of hope — for ourselves, our children, society, the climate — this man’s example is more vital than ever.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Wendell Berry was a rising intellectual and literary star. He published a novel and numerous essays; he received numerous awards, including Wallace Stegner and Guggenheim fellowships; he moved first to Stanford, then southern Europe, and then New York to write, study, and teach. And then in 1964, to the dismay and confusion of his colleagues in New York, he moved back to Henry County, Kentucky, where he was born and raised. And there he has remained, writing, teaching, and farming. Far from being the grave of his intellectual career as his New York friends had feared, the hills and bottoms of northern Kentucky have proven fertile soil for Berry, giving rise to hundreds of essays and poems, and eight novels.

Berry is an intense critic of modern farming practices. Industrial agriculture, Berry argues, is based on a logic of waste and extraction in pursuit of profit — there is little concern for the health of the animals and plants unless it interferes with their being sold, and there is no regard for the long-term health of the soil. Through most of the last century, small family farms have been replaced by large monocrop (usually corn and soy) “agribusinesses” controlled by absentee landowners (did you know Bill Gates is the largest private owner of farmland in the United States?) and corporations who care little for the land itself, which they do not have to live on, or the food it produces, which they do not have to eat. 

It is cheaper to farm with monocrops, and the federal government often subsidizes it. This business model increases the need for heavy machinery, replacing farmers and animals; and requires industrial pesticides and herbicides, which wipe out the complex ecosystems in every teaspoon of good soil. The industrial answer to this depletion is to create petroleum-based fertilizers in order to get more and more out of worse and worse land. These fertilizers run off with the topsoil into streams and rivers, mostly draining from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a notorious dead zone devoid of life-giving oxygen. 

As Wendell Berry puts it, we have turned a system based on abundant, free, easily captured solar power — the energy being transferred from the sun to plants to the animals and people who worked the land — into one based on costly, polluting, difficult to access, and rapidly depleting fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, animals are crammed  into cages on factory farms. Rather than being allowed to graze or forage, as they evolved to do, they are force-fed unnatural diets made up mostly of corn and soy (because it’s cheap and abundant), supplemented with antibiotics because the animals are ankle-deep in their own toxic waste and would die otherwise. This creates the ideal breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” so that now we face the real prospect of running out of antibiotics that still work to treat infections in humans.

To Berry, this is the logic of the strip mine applied to the farm: Extract what we have no power to restore — topsoil, soil fertility, energy — and when the land is “used up” and ruined and can no longer produce, declare bankruptcy and move on. This process destroys not just the farm but the farmer and farm communities. In the last century, the proportion of the U.S. population that worked on farms has declined from about one-third  to one or two percent. U.S. farmers have among the highest suicide rates of any profession.

During the time he lived in Italy, Berry became convinced of what true care and attention can do for farm land. “The land in Tuscany has had about 2,000 years of good care, and it looked like it when I was there,” he later wrote. “The sight of that changed my mind about what was possible in land use.” In contrast to the industrial approach modeled on strip mining, Berry’s method of farming is based on the forest, which “manures itself,” contains livestock and mixed plants, retains precious topsoil, and creates no waste. In the logic of the forest, even death has its place; without the decaying of dead plants and animal waste — compost and manure — the fertility of the soil could not be restored.

But for Wendell Berry,  the issue of agriculture does not stand on its own. It is intimately tied to how we live with one another, to economics, to racism, and to war. In his 1969 essay “Think Little,” Berry writes of the war in Vietnam, the problem of racism, and the environmental crisis: “they have the same cause, and that is the mentality of greed and exploitation. The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, that imposes on young men the tyranny of the military draft, that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology…. We would be fools to believe that we could solve any one of these problems without solving the others.”

If we wish to solve the problems that plague our society, we have to begin by seeing them for what they are: the products of our own greedy and exploitative way of living. “A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers,” he writes, “it is a convocation of the guilty.” To respond, we must go against popular wisdom and “think little” rather than big: Pick up trash; drive less; grow a garden. This is why Berry does not just write to politicians and contribute to political organizations (although he does those things, too) — he raises his own food, and works to restore and preserve the small piece of land on which he lives.

I read “Think Little” for the first time at a point when I had little hope about the future of our environment. And I scoffed when I got to the end. “Odd as I am sure it will appear to some,” Berry writes, “I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.” But it made me start to wonder. Before long, I got chickens and planted a garden. 

And now, from where I am sitting at my kitchen table, I can look out the windows and see my six chickens roaming around my backyard eating bits of weeds, or scratching at the ground and then jumping backwards to see if they’ve uncovered any grubs. Occasionally one will pause, cock her head to the side like she’s heard a loud noise, and then tilt backwards and poop. Once in a while when I glance outside and do a headcount, one of the chickens is missing. Usually I find her huddled in her dark laying box, cooing. In a few minutes she will emerge, clucking loudly to announce her grand achievement: she has just produced another egg! In a couple weeks I will have to start being more careful about where I let the chickens graze; otherwise they will trample or eat all the new shoots in my vegetable garden.

As I watch my chickens turn weeds into eggs and fertilizer, I’ve found in myself much more hope than I had when I first encountered Berry’s writings. In the past few weeks, I’ve tilled compost and manure — death and decay — into my garden, planted carrot and arugula seeds, and watched as the first shoots struggled through the soil up toward the sun. I’ve repeatedly caught myself staring at a chicken or a vegetable shoot, enraptured as this process that we cannot even begin to recreate in a lab unfolds in front of me. By keeping chickens and gardening, I get to facilitate that process. And at the same time, I discover myself a part of it — it feeds me as I guide it; we sustain each other.

If you want to hope, as Berry writes, “practice resurrection.”

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