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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher


My dad, just a few years behind Wendell, has always been fascinated with the dark side of humanity. Which is especially interesting since my dad is as good-humored a fellow as you could ever hope to meet.

But his fixation on mankind’s baser instincts has popped up in a couple of his responses to my blog posts, causing me to wonder about my dad, myself, and what would happen if Wendell Berry and Sigmund Freud ever got stuck in an elevator together.

It’s not that I disagree with my father about the fact of evil, though I suppose I’m less of a moral absolutist than he is. It’s just that I’m not sure what’s gained by digging around in those catacombs. Especially if it’s true that we humans are destined to corrupt ourselves and our rip off our inheritors, then I’m only motivated the more to search out those contradictory examples of human beneficence. Show me the saints I say. Bring me the bodhisattvas.

I prefer to keep company with people and ideas that offer hope.

So now you know who I thought of a couple of months ago when I learned, in writing about Harry Caudill – one of Wendell Berry’s teachers and exemplars -- the sordid account of Mr. Caudill’s advocacy for eugenic intervention in Appalachia. “A man of courage, constant to the end,” was how Berry described Harry Caudill for Caudill’s staunch and sustained attack on the coal companies who profiteered for decades from the plunder of Appalachian land and labor. Except that by the end, Caudill had disgraced himself by increasingly bemoaning the “weak genes” in the Appalachian population that he felt explained the region’s stagnation and intractable poverty.

Caudill went so far as to organize a conference (poorly attended, in the end), with one William Shockley – famous in the 1950’s in Silicon Valley for helping discover the semiconductor effects of the transistor, and later infamous for his political opinion that the over-breeding of less intelligent people was dragging down civilization. Ugly stuff. Though nothing came of it, the two men discussed covert IQ testing and sterilization programs for the Appalachian poor as way to reverse what Caudill referred to as the region’s “mass dullardism.”

Harry Caudill steered more than $15 billion in federal aid to one of the neediest parts of America, and indirectly helped lift thousands of men, women and children out of destitution. Harry Caudill was also a vile racist who thought so little of these same men, women and children that he sought to locate an army base in their midst in hopes of introducing outside sperm into the population. Caudill killed himself in 1990, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and a reputation that was in mighty decline. Like the region he so obstinately defended and offended, Harry Caudill represents both the beautiful and the damned in all of us.

All this was very much on my mind when I read the final piece in It All Turns on Affection which is yet another homage to another lifelong Berry mentor – this time a remembrance of Maury Telleen, he of Waverly, Iowa and founder/publisher of the idiosyncratic quarterly Draft Horse Journal. Rare is the friend who is lovely and wise, but in Maury, Wendell found both silver and gold. And he found him when he needed him most – at the beginning. Telleen served as Wendell’s essential companion (intellectual and otherwise) in those long early years of Berry’s return to small town Kentucky. So indebted was Wendell to Maury Telleen that he dedicated The Unsettling of America to him, claiming that Maury was, in all but the actual writing of the book, its coauthor. Higher praise is unimaginable.

“Our talk was not only thoroughly enjoyable and immediately useful; it was an immense relief. If it was possible for a person of my loyalties and convictions to find one friend and ally, it might be possible to find others.” History has proven that true, given the legion of Berry fans now dotting the country, and I suppose we all owe a debt of gratitude to Telleen for being there for Wendell when no one else really was. “First Follower” is an underappreciated and yet indispensable role, after all. Although who was following whom through their 30 year friendship isn’t so easy to make out. In what must be a Kentucky-ism or farm slang or both, Berry claims that from the start, Maury “took my book and me to raise.” The “long conversation” that ensued between the two men, beginning with Wendell’s first visit to Mr. Telleen’s Iowa farm in 1974 and lasting until Maury’s death in 1990, is described by Wendell as “one of the great pleasures of my life, and absolutely indispensable to my understanding and my work.”

It was Maury Telleen who introduced Wendell Berry to the Amish farmers and Amish farms that still provide both the essential counter-proof to 20th century industrialized agriculture and Berry’s enduring example of intelligent land use and community caretaking. In his tribute to Maury, Berry not only offers gratitude for these generous introductions, he also shares what Mr. Telleen taught him about the form of Amish farming, which arises solely because of the use of the draft horse. Not from the market; from the draft horse.

Berry included the lesson, originally captured in the pages of The Unsettling, to properly credit and honor “the quality of Maury’s mind.” (By now I’ve come to understand that Wendell Berry, in sizing up a person, is taking stock of a person’s mind, which isn’t a common approach but is illuminating insofar as it comports with the same meticulous observation he pays to his woods and fields. That is, his professorial habit of incisive scrutiny extends to people just as surely as it does to places – something I don’t think Berry has ever been duly credited for). At any rate, it was a startling reveal for me to find this passage in the tribute because I was already so familiar with it; I had repeatedly heard Berry explain it in a recorded lecture he gave in 1981 at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and it’s an insight that strikes me as deeply profound and absolutely essential.

It has to do with Amish farming techniques, or, more to the point, the logic of using draft horses to farm rather than tractors. Whereas a tractor and horse are both capable of pulling a plow through a field, of doing work, only the tractor is purely a power input. The horse, in Amish farming, belongs to the farm – is of the farm’s very fabric. Meaning that the presence of the horse is invariably followed by other healthy farming practices that belong together – that are of a kin. With horses come pastures and hay fields, since horses must eat. And if you’re growing forage for horses, it is natural and economical to grow it for other farm animals too. A diversity of animal species requires a diversification and rotation of field crops. Manure eliminates the need for commercial chemical fertilizers and, along with the preservation of humus, works against diseases, insects and weeds. Hence the erasure of pesticide requirements. All of these practices of course rely on year-round farming, meaning that farmers and their families must engage with their land in every calendar month. This then leads to one final and critical implication: the logic of limited scale. The draft horse farmer isn’t an expander. His way of farming is necessarily confined and close to home. His attention is therefore – must be, therefore, concentrated. There isn’t going to be somewhere else to correct mistakes or gild the lily. He must take good care of what he has.

And that he can. The chain of decisions that began with the horse makes good care not only possible, but logical. The logic chain that follows from a tractor plow leads precisely in the opposite direction.

Which brings us back to the beautiful and the damned. It does seem, if you’re totally bought in to the Berry/Telleen worldview, that tractors must be evil, destroying as they do every healthy link that vitalizes soil to plants, to insects, to animals and to people. But I’ve heard Mr. Berry say (in that same Schumacher lecture, actually), that tractors aren’t necessarily evil – provided they are put into service by farmers with a certain kind of mind. The kind, it goes without saying, that Berry has, and that Maury Telleen had. That’s the kind that understands violence, and the violence that is all-too-easily missed, or even celebrated, in the miracle of mechanization.

The tractor, like so many machines that run on the ignition and combustion of nature’s ancient organic material, seems to carry within its very DNA the potential for evildoing in a way that a horse simply does not. Not to get too carried away with the idea, but I wonder if there isn’t some kind of original sin built right into the heart of these internal combustion engines, whose energy production is only achieved as a byproduct of hell: fire and fume.

The Amish are famous for limiting technology for just this kind of suspicion. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t assume that labor-saving technology, or production-enhancing technology, or market-expanding technology, is desirable for any of those reasons. The question they ask instead, is: “what will the technology mean for our community?” It’s a question that carries within it a decisive knowledge about their customs, their lands, and their God.

It’s also a better question than those that (my dad and) I began this post with about good and evil. Harry Caudill had both within him. The tractor has both within it. Maury Telleen and Wendell Berry and my dad and me – we are not, none of us, all anything. What we are, or should be, is awake to the all the potentials within us, and as importantly, aware of how our choices will ultimately be visited upon our loved ones and our land. And sure. I’ll say our God too. In an examination of good and evil, after all, who else could possibly have the last word?

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