“Americans today are having a national conversation about food and agriculture that it would have been impossible to imagine even a few short years ago. To many Americans it must sound like a brand-new conversation, with its racing talk about high price for cheap food, or the links between soil and health, or the impossibility of a society eating well and being in good health unless it also farms well. But to read the essays in this sparkling anthology, many of them dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, is to realize just how little of what we are saying and hearing today Wendell Berry hasn’t already said, bracingly, before.
And in that “we” I most definitely, and somewhat abashedly, include myself. I challenge you to find an idea or insight in my own recent writings on food and farming that isn’t prefigured (to put it charitably) in Berry’s essays on agriculture. There might be one or two in there somewhere, but I must say that reading and rereading these essays has been a deeply humbling experience.
It has also been a powerful reminder that the national conversation now unfolding around the subject of food and farming really began back in the 1970s, with the work of Berry and a small handful of his contemporaries, including Francis Moore Lappé, Barry Commoner, and Joan Gussow. All four of these writers are supreme dot connectors, deeply skeptical of reductive science, and far ahead not only in their grasp of the science of ecology but in their ability to actually think ecologically: to draw lines of connection between hamburgers and the price of oil, or between the vibrancy of life in the soil and the health of the plants and animals and people eating from that soil.”
– Michael Pollan, excerpt from his Introduction to Wendell Berry’s farm essay collection Bring It To The Table
I truly respect men like Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, but, as Pollan himself lets us know here, they are late to the game when it comes to the crisic farming, economic, and ecological situations today. They were simply born too late, and their interest in the issue is necessarily similar to mine in that it is basically reactionary.
If I were born in the 1940s, would I so easily see the growing problems of the changing system that Berry and Lappé saw the 1960s? I would love to say yes, of course I could spot the obvious flaws, but since almost no one else did, I can’t be confident that I would have been so cautious. We have to look to the men who saw the problems not because of their results but by their roots in poor thinking and short-sighted planning. The Berrys and Fukuokas were thinking differently when the problems were still originating; their thoughts and opinions carry the weight of an utterly alternative outlook from the start.
Do we need younger men to take on this alternative mindset? I certainly hope so; I am eager to be one. Ideally everyone would catch on to a different big picture from the current pipe dreams being dealt out. The problem itself has lasted so long at this point that it would be difficult for those who saw it coming to outlive it. Generations must pick up the torch to make change, but we have to always go back to what went wrong and who witnessed it happening.