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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Mental Powers

​In reaching for the phone every morning now, I'm just hoping "not the worst." Weirdly, idiocy from the White House feels like good news. War hasn't broken out yet. Sliding my way down the Twitter feed, I'm simultaneously aware of two registers playing in my mind -- disgust, and the attenuation of disgust. What was outrageous and unthinkable on Monday, is, by Friday, slightly less so. Such is our descent into the madness of Trumpism -- bit by bit, day by day, check by check, balance by balance.

At a time like now, who gives a damn about farming? The whole world is writing, talking, protesting and thinking hard about America and how we ended up here. But you won't find a single tweet relating this fine mess to the way we grow food. Food? Not a problem. Or so we'd be led to believe. We've got issues aplenty, but a loaf of bread's a couple bucks and the produce aisles overfloweth.

What if that was perfectly wrong? What if we have no problems except the way we grow food?

One of my theories about Wendell Berry's relative insignificance, culturally, is that peoples' minds shut instantaneously upon hearing or reading the word "farm." Think about it. What do you associate with the word? For me it's chunky coloring books, wooden puzzles and the big red barn imagery of my 1970s childhood, which adorned everything from Bob Evans' restaurants to metallic lunch boxes. Like most people born after 1960, the farm was as close to my life as the range - a far-off place that mattered only, it seemed, to old people. A place so archaic it was confined to folksong and send-up. Remember "Old McDonald?" How about Green Acres and Hee-Haw? Looking back, the indoctrination is unmistakable. The farm, the countryside and all its resident bumpkins were stage-set anachronisms -- relevant only insofar as they provided ridiculous (as in, ridiculing) amusement. This hasn't changed much. It takes a dram of courage, even today, for me to admit to friends that I sometimes enjoy listening to country music.

And it's not just us never-farmers. My fiance is from a farming family, although it's been a couple generations. Like so many others, her strongest feeling about the "farm," gained via family trips and stories, is gratitude for having left it behind. For most who lived it, apparently, farming was stifling, difficult and heartless. Never-farmers like me might be prone to romanticize; the once-farmers would never.

This is how Mr. Berry begins the second section of Our Deserted Country before going on to compare the worst kind of farming to the best. Who really knows, he wonders, that endless landscape of corn and soybean acreages of the midwest? No one is in sight. Wes Jackson's "eyes-to-acres" ratio is pitifully scant here. Some of the farming is even done by airplane. Most of it happens from inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, where "the connection between the human organism and the soil organism has been perfectly interrupted by the machine." Wendell contrasts this with farming he knew from his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s which was, above all else, careful. The farming was diverse in both plants and animals, preserving of the soil and rightly scaled, contributing positively to the fertility of the land, the sociability of the local community, and the commerce of the local economy. It was a farm culture akin to the Amish, who have managed to carve a unique place in America that's defined by the limitations of their enterprises -- everything from the size of their farms to the extent of schooling for their children. What Mr. Berry sees in these Amish communities is likely missed by others. It is a pattern of interdepending limits and economic advantages that are starkly revealed in contrast to the corn and soy wastelands of the midwest. "If you drive through one of the good Amish communities, you will see a lot of people outdoors and busy. You will see that they have honored their places with the visible signs of good work, lovingly done."

To me, an outsider, the old-order Amish are to be admired. Growing up in Ohio, I had the pleasure of seeing those farms and their hard working folk. Yes, I've heard horrible stories of abuse in their communities, but that serves only to remind that there are no perfect models and we're foolish if we imagine otherwise. The breadbasket of America is also a thing to behold -- colossal and miraculous in its efficiency, and also destructive and poisonous. Which is the more magnificent? The Amish farms are, and dammit if we don't learn to see that and say that shamelessly. Because between the two, life abounds only in those small, locally adapted, people-supporting places. In the heartland, life is being wrung out - first by eliminating the farmers, then by exhausting the soil and water, and finally, diabolically, by replacing living plants themselves with genetically modified substitutes. Yes, the corn and soy feed millions. Does that excuse all?

Wendell Berry is the conscience of this country (providing yet another theory for his unpopularity). He reminds us again and again that though our economy is productive, so to speak, it is also destructive. Just as we've been trained to mock the rural, the agrarian and the rustic, we've also been brainwashed to accept, whole cloth, the productive, the modern, and the technological. Wendell Berry teaches what's actually happening out there. First, he names the destruction. Then he describes the economic advantages of a land-loving, interdepending, properly scaled way of life and thought.

To finally put things right, he says, we should start by studying the economic value of intangible goods like memory, familiarity, imagination, affection, sympathy and neighborliness. "Goods" is as deliberate a word choice as I've yet run across in reading Wendell. He insists that these things are not "qualities," "ideas," or "feelings." What they are, he says in the most radical passage of the section, are mental powers. They are mental powers capable of enforcing care in our treatment of persons, places and things.

This is the idea that could change everything, and why the answer we're all looking for can be found in food, farming, and land. It is not soft-headed, subjective, or stupid to put affection and sympathy ahead of, or at least on par with, production and efficiency. When we do so, we are not exercising our hearts, but rather our mental powers, in furtherance of an ethos of care. It's not heart that we need now. People have that in abundance. What we don't have, and what we desperately need, is the knowledge that all that heart stuff makes better minds, and better arguments. Where heart and mind come together -- that's where we want to live. It's probably a beautiful shade of purple there.


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