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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

The Hole in the Side of the Cow

Despite my crusade to place Wendell Berry’s work and thought in the largest possible context, the stubborn truth is that he’s an agrarian fighting for small farmers and local economies. Strangely, however, he’s still my guy.

There’s nothing from my life experience that would suggest this pairing. I’m not from a rural place, nor even a small place. I’m heading to southwest Washington this weekend to pitch in with real farm work for the first time in my life. I couldn’t be less prepared. Do I bring a shovel? My wife knows that my enthusiasm for backyard gardening, even, often falls somewhere between sweeping the patio and cleaning the shower. My credentials as a Berryist are laughable.

But here I am, on this Walk, coming up on three years now -- the oddity of my congress with these ideas and their human advocates never far from mind. Why Wendell Berry? Why me?

Mr. Berry’s legacy won’t really be known until after we’re gone. I suspect his influence and stature will unfurl over our posterity. But if asked, I imagine he would say that his daughter’s work, and granddaughter’s, at The Berry Center, comprise a sufficient legacy for anyone. The Center advances the ideas and models for sustainable local farming that Berrys have been propagating for the better part of a century.

Back here in urban Portland, wise and caring land use has a decidedly different tint. In my work and around my dinner table, we talk quite a bit about affordable housing. We inquire about whether solar panels would be efficient on our steeply sloped roof (they wouldn’t be, alas). We talk so much about transit and bike commuting that our kids certainly make fun of us behind our backs. We eat the vegetables we grow. (Well, that my wife grows. Cat’s out of the bag on that one).

Urban areas like mine and rural areas like the Berrys’ comprise one big system of human settlement. City and country are mutually dependent and complementary, though our mental categorizing usually causes us to miss the whole. What is a bowl, anyhow -- the solid container or the holding space it creates?

But just as there is a big difference between the city and the country, there’s a difference between what I’m up to and what the Berrys are doing. Sure, at the largest scale, we’re each trying to help foster resilient and healthy communities. But the Berrys don’t work at that scale. The very essence of their calling, in fact, has always been to help small-scale farmers and foresters successfully adapt their husbandry to local conditions. It’s about finding a better way -- about figuring out how to save their farms, their livelihoods, their pride, their towns. There’s nothing academic about it. “Community,” in the Berrys’ world, unlike in mine, is not an idea. It’s an outcome -- one that sometimes results from a dense and well tended network of economic, cultural and ecological relationships.

For urban thinkers like me, that makes for a pretty small ring to try to enter. Members of the Berry lineage (even his intellectual lineage) tend to be land-tied, communitarian and supremely conscientious about their economic inputs and outputs. Of these, I might pass muster on the second -- maybe.

My acknowledgement of this disjoint between Wendell’s world and mine comes up on these Walks quite regularly, but not because of wistfulness on my part; I don’t long for a life in the country. No. It comes up precisely because I don’t want to become a farmer and because I remain, nonetheless, deeply in love with Wendell Berry’s canon. Reading Berry doesn’t make me feel excluded from the membership he talks about. It makes me feel included in something very non-fictional. It makes me feel at home.

In great part, I think this is because Wendell writes magnificently about issues that transcend agrarianism. He writes on behalf of living things -- all of us. He invites readers into his worldview by fictionalizing a farming community, sure, and by lyricizing the sights and sounds of his home by the Kentucky River, yes. But he also offers his hands to us by arguing for principles that apply to the whole of our society. Though it’s absolutely true that his heart and soul are bound to the Faywood soils of Henry County, his ideas and writings fly far beyond that terrain. In the tradition of Aldo Leopold, he is both naturalist and professor -- observer and writer. His essays are ladders thrown across ravines. They are invitations home, no matter where home is.

Take, for example, the short essay I read this month in Citizenship Papers called Twelve Paragraphs on Biotechnology. Seven of these paragraphs have nothing to do with agriculture. Five do. The piece is, unsurprisingly, harshly critical of its subject. As always, Wendell starts with the incontestable idea that the living world is infinitely complex and mysterious. Biotechnological interventions in living things, therefore, should be accompanied by modesty, circumspection and a healthy respect for non-replicability. But the rush to genetic engineering for better crop yields and increased livestock production, seed resilience and plant growth, has exhibited none of this prudence.

Wendell calls biotechnology “bad science” (he was writing in 2003; I don’t think anything has changed) because it ignores the human and ecological costs of prior scientific-technological revolutions like the introduction of chemistry into agriculture, and because its progress is malformed by greed masked as product development.

This is where I’ve learned to remind myself that Wendell writes with one eye closed. As I said, he’s an agrarian fighting for small farmers and better local farming. Consequently, he’s at war with industrialized agricultural and everything that aids and abets its hegemony. So 12 Paragraphs on Biotechnology is a take-down of that industry. But we only have 12, carefully aimed paragraphs here. I don’t think even Wendell Berry would argue that all biotechnology is all bad, all the time. You and I and he could easily write a dozen paragraphs about the human benefits this branch of science has produced. (Antibiotics would be at the top of that list).

But here we come to two points, both critical to understanding “why Wendell.” First, we have to remember that the dispatchers who report on biotech’s dazzling contributions are also writing with one eye closed -- and there are a zillion of those essays out there. Wendell Berry cannot right the balance himself, but we need more like him to remind us that since life is a mystery, human and ecological costs are inevitable and paramount and must be accounted for no matter what. This is a necessary but infinitesimally underreported point of view. To this day, the Wikipedia page on Biotechnology still doesn’t have a section on “Skepticism and Criticism.”

Second point - more important than the first: Technology is shameless. It does not stop for anything on the way to accomplishing the specific and limited purpose for which it is created. And we, its human inventors, are very bad, and all alone, in determining which boundaries should not be crossed. Technology risks prostituting everything it touches; Wendell Berry helps us understand that.

An easy example is one I just learned about from an experimental farm in northwestern France.

France’s dairy industry is enormous -- second only to Germany in Europe. At Sourches Experimental Farm, researchers have been discovered to be accessing cows’ stomachs through portholes -- surgical openings in their sides into which the scientists insert cannulas. Quite literally there are holes in the sides of these cows. It is atrocious and upsetting to witness, and the only reason anyone saw it is because an animal rights organization managed to smuggle out video of the practice. Why would such a thing be happening?

Well many of the official responses prove Wendell’s points exactly. The French Minister of Agriculture called the practice “scientifically important research aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions and lowering antibiotics.” The Secretary of State to the Minister of Ecology said the process is useful for scientific purposes to be able to develop antibiotics and further, does not hurt the animals. The animal rights group (called L214) claims both these points are false. Regardless, neither of these public officials’ comments told the whole story. The farm is owned by a private agribusiness group whose mission is to formulate, test and market animal feeds that optimize the performance of farm animals. The portholes are a biotechnological device to help this corporation study which feeds make the cows produce the most milk.

In this climate emergency, as in any emergency, experts are going to tell us a lot of things. Some will be true; most not. It will be hard to know what to think. A researcher recently constructed experiments to see how Iowa’s soy and corn crops fare when exposed to summer temperatures anticipated in the year 2100. They failed catastrophically. The scientist’s conclusion is that we need to genetically modify the plants so they can tolerate higher temperatures. After all, these crops are grown on 75 percent of the arable land of the midwest.

Although I was horrified at the photo of a researcher with his arm extending into a cow's stomach, I must admit I wondered if this cruelty was a necessary price to pay for gaining more (and faster) research into methane’s contribution to the climate emergency. Just as I wonder about the inevitability of genetically modified crops that can fruit in 110 degree heat.

But what I’ve learned from Wendell Berry, from this short essay and from many others, is to trust myself, and to never allow the “experts” to foreshorten the context. They always do.

Even if the French officials were right about the researchers’ climatological objectives (and they weren’t), the answer to our climate catastrophe is not going to arise from knowing more about the relationship between livestock feed and methane emissions. That relationship is too small. Similarly, the relationship between monocrops and high heat is too small. The relationship between soil science and crop rotation -- even that is too small. This is the wrong scale of study -- and is too inductive.

Further, these examples assume that cows everywhere, and grain everywhere, must be maxed out for milk and soy, and that we can max them out and still reduce greenhouse gas emissions simply by accumulating knowledge. Wendell says just the opposite. If you max out milk and soy production, you’ve already sealed your fate. The science we’re desperate for is the one that will say how much milk and soy is enough, in a given place, given what the people and the place require to grow healthier over time. It's not a knowledge problem. It's more of a wisdom problem. What we need is a science that commits to the painstaking study of how local ecosystems and local communities interact, in all their complexity.

That would be an ethical science as well. One that knows better than to stick human arms into living animals.

It is rare to get a firsthand look at how biotechnology defiles the living world. What is not rare, for me at least, is reading about that very thing in a Wendell Berry essay.

He’s not my guy because he’s fighting for small farmers. He’s my guy because I’m alive and I am in love with life. He’s my guy because in this fight, we are all small farmers.


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