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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

All the World's a Farm

What I want is for Wendell Berry to go all Taylor Swift. I want him to cross over. Johnny Cash did it. Why not Wendell?

He's already plenty famous -- but it's not about fame. It's about breaking out of a niche; gaining acceptance from new audiences. It's transcending what people think they know about you. It's Ben Franklin emerging from Pennsylvania newspaperman to founding father to most trusted voice of America.

In one sense, this has happened already for Wendell Berry, but not in the way we need.

His early career was teaching literature and writing fiction. That literary career stands on its own. His National Humanties Medal, Jefferson Humanities Lectureship and Dayton Literary Peace Prize are tributes beyond what even great writers would dare to dream. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages.

But as he began publishing essays through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when the country was beginning to wake up to its consumptive profligacy, Berry's influence on a widening readership became profound. The back-to-the-landers, followed by the sustainability set, followed by the locavores, all found a home in his essays and intellectual armature. So did city people with peace-loving and wholeness-seeking sensibilities. That's the cohort I'm in.

But while Wendell has always seemed avuncularly content to be of use to far-flung activists, his raison d'etre has always been the small farmer -- his life and his writing simply mirroring each other. The ideas that drive his imagination typically revolve around how to plant something somewhere, how to use land better. Through my study of him and by his own declarations, I know him to be a small farmer to the end -- a writer who writes only after the chores are done; a thinker thinking mostly about fertility; a worldly intellect informed mostly by the art and science of homesteading.

There is something both beautiful and maddening about this way of his. I've been watching David Simon's HBO series Treme lately and Wendell reminds me of the "Big Chief" Albert Lambreaux character -- a force of nature rooted so firmly in his place and conviction that even a category five hurricane can't unmoor him. That kind of strength is rare, attractive and of course, uncompromising. And it stays put. It doesn't matter what we want from Wendell. He's busy. He's working, always, even at 88. He's still looking after Lane's Landing Farm and would just as soon we do the same in our home place, instead of, or at least in addition to, excavating ideas from his books.

Which is exactly what I do in this blog.

Partly this is because, like 99 percent of Americans, I don't own a small farm. But also it's because of my long-held belief that Berry's offerings aren't only necessary to the one percent who do.

Wendell has no designs on crossing over anything, except maybe a creek running through his property. But I want to see it happen. I'm an acolyte. And in a way, acolytes are quite like small farmers: we want to spread the seeds.


The accelerating climate crisis should help this to happen. That's the thought that occurred to me in my latest Wendell Berry reading, in which he mentions nothing of greenhouse gas emissions or wild weather.

What he does talk about (because - Farming!) is how nature must be our instructor and judge. He quotes the work of Liberty Hyde Bailey (long ago Dean of the New York State College of Agriculture) along with Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, John Milton and Alexander Pope. All wrote about how nature is the best farmer. Thus the title of the essay: "A Practical Harmony."

Wendell writes that this perspective changed in the Romantic era. The human mind was crowned, leaving nature behind as nothing more than "a resevoir of symbols." No longer was she the necessary teacher and shaper of human activity. Practicality wasn't the Romantic's jam in the 19th century. The 20th was hell on Harmony.

But against the grain, the old wisdom was picked up here and there. Aldo Leopold, J. Russell Smith, Albert Howard and Wes Jackson taught how our economy must fit into Gaia's ecology and not the other way around. So did Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder and EF Schumacher.


The lightbulb that went off for me is how apposite this idea is to our energy transition, from fossil fuels to renewables. Though we don't think of it as "farming," energy production is exactly that: the harvesting of natural resources for human use.

Everything Wendell and his ilk have observed about the wrongheadedness and shortsightedness of modernized farming applies with equal force (and greater consequence) to the burning of hydrocarbons (coal, oil, natural gas). These are the remains of ancient plants, don't forget. They are organic compounds, derived from living material. The only difference is the time scale: "farming" is raising living matter for human use. We don't have a name for the harvesting of no-longer-living matter for human use. But that's what gas, oil and coal companies do to produce heat energy. They are farming really, really old land, in the worst possible way.

There is zero difference between the violence, stupidity and avarice of the fossil fuel industry and that of the agribusiness behemoths. Each take raw materials and convert them to useful human ends, be it food, fiber or power. The processes by which this is done is filthy, polluting, hazardous and inhumane.

It's becoming easier to see how traditional energy production is just another highly leveraged cash crop, now that there's an alternative analagous to sustainable agriculture. Renewable energy is finally a viable alternative to the "extract-combust-deplete" model, just as organic farming is a viable alternative to factory farming.

Wind, solar and bio-generative energy production are in the "practical harmony" tradition. They are forms of farming that work with Nature and not against her. Fossil fuel energy couldn't be more divergent; it is made available only through the destruction of its very source material. There's nothing practical about that, nor harmonious. It's violent as hell, actually, and consonant with the hyper-masculinization that was let loose with the advent of the Scientific Revolution. That's when Nature was likened to a woman whose secrets would be laid bare through experimentation.

The principle that has gotten buried under all our scientific progress is Return, which is demonstrated by so many of Nature's feedback loops. Nutrient cycles, the water cycle, the climate and the food chain are all closed systems where outputs in one part of the system become inputs in another.

We moderns aren't taught to live by this principle, although I think the climate is going to correct that error in time. But we also don't see its applicability very well, and partly our language is to blame. In the energy sector we call this principle "renewable." In agriculture it's "sustainable." Designers prefer "regenerative." In economic matters we use the term "circular." With solid waste, it's "recyclable."

Words kind of matter and kind of don't. I don't believe we'd be closer to a sustainable society if we had settled on some other name for what that is. But I do think that Wendell Berry is foolishly marginalized because new audiences know him as a voice for the small farmer -- audiences passionately involved with sustainability, circularity and renewability. The people who know him as the farmer-guy are the same people who should be cutting and pasting his agrarian arguments into Green New Deal policy briefs.

It's up to us to cross him over. He's not going to do that for us.

One reason Wendell decided to settle on his farm, I believe, was because that's where he knew he could continue learning about and enjoying the principle of Return. That's where the principle was easiest to observe, but more importantly, where it offered participation in many of its lovliest loops. That's where it inspired poetry, braided friendships, and stirred reverence. Had he stayed in his professorship, or decided to run for office, or taken up the mantle of Environmentalism on behalf of us acolytes, he would have been the lesser for it.

And so would we. The small farmer, he keeps reminding us, sleeps with this principle every night -- awakens to it every morning. What the small farmer understands about farming, gleaned from a lifetime of farming, doesn't just apply to the farm. It applies to everything. If Nature is the best farmer, then all the world's a farm.

The other 99 percent of us, no matter our place in this fight, no matter the size of our heart or commitment -- understand the principle of Return a little less completely. That doesn't make us less worthy warriors. But it should make us recognize who the sages are, and where we're most likely to find them.

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