Wendell Berry

“American Meat” In Review


Recently, my wife and I watched a little documentary entitled “American Meat.” I call it little because it doesn’t look like much at first, but this lower budget documentary offers more than first meets the eye. I just happened upon it and the cover (complete with Joel Salatin cover) made me interested to view it. I was surprisingly refreshed both by the content and the way they chose to approach it.

Documentaries often carry an air of theatricality. Perhaps that is really what makes this film stand apart, seemingly low budget in a good way. The goal in writing a documentary is usually to either reveal something in a shocking, journalistic manner or to bring a comforting, self-discovery. Any documentary about social woes and systematic problems is generally going to lean heavily on creating intense moods and starkly contrasting victims and monsters. Not so here. The film was an honest look at the farmers. Farmers across the spectrum. Farmers who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to industrial farming, farmers who are still relying on industrial farming but would love a better option they could rely on, farmers who have established alternative and highly functional farming methods (mainly Joel Salatin here), and younger people who are turning to farming and learning and innovating new methods.

dobsonfarm-9936

The thing that was so incredibly pleasant about this film was how positive it stayed. The question all along was simply “is this a good way and, if not, is there a feasible alternative method?” There is zero emphasis on the way the system has gotten so bad, or who is responsible for the flaws. There is only emphasis on understanding those who find themselves at the forefront of the problems, and gentle encouragement to believe that proactivity can create a real turn around. This film is utterly without pretense and completely bolsters your belief in humanity and the ability for relationships to breed community and the ability for community to produce national change. If you have watched Food Inc. and similar documentaries and find you have any interest in the food and farming situations current in the United States, I cannot recommend any documentary above this one.

eager-farmer-logo

On a separate and similar note, I would encourage anyone seriously interested in getting hands on experience on a farm or getting back into the farming business to check out the Salatin family’s newest project, EagerFarmer. EagerFarmer could easily be the catalyst for the change American Meat proposes. It is basically a classified ad service for those looking to learn to farm, find gainful farm employment, find farm help, or get farmers on their unused land. I’ve been eagerly browsing and dreaming, and I encourage both in you.

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Further Reading

 

Michael Pollan Didn’t Start This

Tolkien and Lewis On Living Off The Land

Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads

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Be Known


To know
And be known
A heart’s anxious desire
From you all beauty grows
From you all folly spreads

For family to know
Beyond the burden
For highlights and low
Are etched eternally
Beyond consciousness

For friends to know
What delights them is but shadow
Of the shocking unknown
Bringing relief for a lifetime
Without inspection

To be known does not come between men any longer
Why go on?
An insult
In jest
Is folly
An opinion
Interjected
Is a rift
Why seek to grasp the wind?

– by M. Landers, June 2014

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem

Gal. V & VII by M. Landers

Wendell Berry On War And Children

Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

– Wendell Berry
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Anyone who has clicked more than once on this blog knows that Wendell Berry is somewhat of an idol for me. He sentences are weighty and easy to cherish, whether prose, poetry, or essay. Indeed, I think it is his poetry even more than Keats’ or Elliot’s that has established the value of the art form in me.

This piece is so typically Berry, going infinitely deep with so few words. The aspect I reflect on here is how effortlessly he expresses highly subversive ideas in a completely legitimate human frame. He reflects on ideas of what makes us most human (planting, motherhood, caring for one another, heritage) and validates those as reasonable motivations to revolt against quick living, thoughtless consumption, and political imperialism.

I need to meditate on this daily.

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Keep Reading

What Mary Berry Expects From Her Father

Masanobu Fukuoka On The Philosophy Behind Our Science

For Courage Of Quiet Mothers by M. Landers

Where Wendell Berry Finds Peace


When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things
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It is a thing of awe to consider how much more dangerous are the lives of wild animals, yet how void of fear they remain. Of course we understand that, biologically-speaking, the ability to plan our futures and the resulting tendency toward worry is a product of the superior functionality of the human mind. Yes, of course, worry is a small price to pay for mental capacity toward so many other higher skills.

Yet, when we desire calm and peace, we venture out into the simple and violent natural world, where nothing is safe and peace pervades.

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Further Reading

What Mary Berry Expects Of Her Father

Dave Eggers On Author Fear

C.S. Lewis On Helping Children Cope With A Scary World

Michael Pollan Didn’t Start This


“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

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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.

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Related Reading

An Agricultural Insight From Tolkien And Lewis

A Japanese Scientist Questions The Reasonability Of Agricutural Science

Wendell Berry On The Difference Btween A Path And A Road

“II” by Wendell Berry


The poignancy of this poem is palpable. Alliteration.

Go check out jrbenjamin.com, ASAP.

The Bully Pulpit

Leaves

When my father was an old man, 
past eighty years, we sat together
on the porch in silence
in the dark. Finally he said, 
“Well, I have had a wonderful life,” 
adding after a long pause, 
“and I have had nothing
to do with it!” We were silent
for a while again. And then I asked, 
“Well, do you believe in the
‘informed decision’?” He thought
some more, and at last said
out of the darkness: “Naw!” 
He was right, for when we choose
the way by which our only life
is lived, we choose and do not know
what we have chosen, for this
is the heart’s choice, not the mind’s; 
to be true to the heart’s one choice
is the long labor of the mind. 
He chose, imperfectly as we must, 
the rule of love, and learned
through years of light what darkly
he had chosen: his life…

View original post 36 more words

Mary Berry and What She Expects From Her Father


“It is hard to imagine now that until coming back to live permanently in Henry County in 1964 we had lived in Europe, California and New York City, with stays in Kentucky between those moves. We moved to Lanes Landing, where my parents live now, when I was 7 and my brother, Den, was 3. . .

Daddy was encouraged to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere; in fact, he was told that coming home would ruin his career. I don’t have to imagine, however, the great happiness that was his when he knew that he could come home because I experienced that. When I was away at school, for instance, I don’t think anyone was thinking that I was blowing a shot at a brilliant career by returning home. Coming home was not encouraged by any influential person in my life except my family. And this is where my unending debt begins in my heart and in my memory. . .

I was asked once what it was like to be a Berry child. I answered that it was fine except for the constant humiliation. I believe that I went along with my father’s plans for us very agreeably until I was 12 or 13, the age when I think many children realize that their parents need guidance.

Daddy had come home to live and farm. He bought a rocky hillside farm overlooking the Kentucky River. He and my mother have added some acreage over the years and the place has been their home and their fascination ever since. . .

I went right along with all of this until I was old enough to have a reputation to protect. That coincided with the addition of a composting privy to the rest of an ever-more-embarrassing way of life.

Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t understand at all that he should. . .never mention the composting privy to a journalist. I was in a difficult predicament. I never really thought that my father was wrong about anything. In fact, the reasons for the things we did at home were talked about all of the time, and I understood and even honored those reasons. But, to have details about your composting privy reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal was just too much to be borne. . .

The very public privy opened the floodgates and suddenly I knew how abused I was: no television, no junk food, no trips to amusement parks, and I had to WORK outside in the dirt. And, my father was always protesting something: wars, dams, strip-mining, airports, etc.

Well, to make a long story short, I expect that by the time I left for college there must have been a general sigh of relief. Some of the freshman English classes at the college I attended were reading The Memory of Old Jack, a novel written by my father. I had not read it before I left home. In fact, I had read almost nothing of Daddy’s by then. He read things to us that he was working on and I guess I thought that was plenty. I suppose I experienced positive peer pressure at school because girls in my dorm were reading The Memory of Old Jack. So I read The Memory of Old Jack, myself. That book gave me back my home and it gave me the chance to make amends with my father and then to find out that no amends were necessary. . .

A heartbreaking part of Old Jack’s story is his estrangement from his daughter Clara, who, like me, had wanted something else, something better. I called my father when I finished the book and asked, “Am I Clara?” I remember being reassured by the phone call. I still have the letter he wrote me a few days after we talked. He said that he was moved by my question and told me that of course I was not Clara. The letter is long and beautiful and I treasure it because of its kindness, its good sense, its understanding of a flawed young girl. . .

Trouble has come to me in my life as it does to all and I have made mistakes. The gift that my father gave me so many years ago was the knowledge that I live in his love, and if forgiveness is needed it has already been given. What greater gift could a parent give a child? Daddy has kept alive in my head — even in the worst of times and in the face of awful news — that if we actively choose it over and over everyday, we can indeed live in the world of affection and membership that he honors in his life and his stories.”

 

– Mary Berry-Smith, from Wendell And Me, published in the May/June 2013 issue of Edible Louisville Magazine (emphasis mine).

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I find so many details about this story life-giving, but the real solidifying agent for my respect of Wendell Berry is that his child knows and can articulate why she respects him so greatly as to devote her adult life and the family she started to following in his footsteps. Many great leaders of men have inspired the masses while leaving wreckage at home, but those devoted eternally to their families carry a certain weight that should not be overlooked.

As a parent myself, the greatest impact of this story is the fact that above all else in their relationship, Berry’s daughter has been moved by a realization that she has always existed in her father’s love, affection, and forgiveness. She came to realize that, whether she knew it or not, he cherished her, delighted in her personality, and was always ready to pardoned her missteps.

Things like obedience are valuable. Social skills and a drive to learn are developmentally key. But after about 18 years, obedience becomes completely obsolete in the parenting relationship. Social skills and learning generally fall out of our influence range. So when my daughter it 25 or 30, what is my deepest desire for our relationship? The answer is intimacy.

More than I want my daughters to make great decisions and live to the fullest, I want them to know that any failures or tragedies that befall them can be safely confided in me, without any negative repercussions. The deepest, underpinning goal is that the relationship may always be authentic, open, and capable of enduring all things.

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From the text of The Memory Of Old Jack.

“In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work, they know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss, the like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.”

Author Quotes: Guy Davenport On Tolkien’s Bluegrass Shire


“The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

‘Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good names like that.’

And out of the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbit’s pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality. . .Kentucky, seems, contributed its share.”

– Guy Davenport, essay excerpt from The Geography Of The Imagination

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While enlightening, this revealing little excerpt may not be as interesting to non-Kentuckians. I am myself of Bluegrass stock and, having lived away for a few years now, I am continuing to see my appreciation of the simple green nooks of the Ohio River Valley snowball with every continuing season. This little tidbit makes me almost as excited about Kentucky as having Wendell Berry among our numbers.

It has been argued that Davenport stretches this Kentucky idea and perhaps Tolkien did not often reconsider his stories from Barnett in the writing of The Hobbit. It does seem unlikely that Barnett would know nothing of Tolkien’s success and yet trump up these recollections, so I would assume that either he knew more of Tolkien’s works than he let on or Davenport stretched the truth in his retelling their conversation. If neither of these is true, it does seem hard to see no connection whatsoever between Barnett’s recollections and Tolkien’s writing.

The truth of the matter is that I am a quarter Irish and a quarter I-Don’t-Know, both from Cincinnati, Ohio. The other half in me is Appalachian. With family names like Ball, Hensley, and Phillips; its safe to guess that most of those ancestors started out on rolling English hills before the uprooted to rolling Kentucky hills. The reason Tolkien would have been fascinated by Kentucky would be that it reminded him of the rural English countryside of his youth. It was the land rooted-ness, the folk-ishness underlying these similar peoples, that obviously and undeniably fascinated him.

The hill people with their limited outside knowledge and unique local customs were at the heart of Tolkien’s most popular myths. For years, he created a fantastic world of higher orders of beings warring for pure good and evil. Then, almost accidentally, he stuck in an entire race Hobbits; the Kentucky-rural, English bumpkins who didn’t know there were other lands with which to be concerned.

Realizing this, I can’t help but feel proud, then insulted, then honored. Proud to be associated with a culture that Tolkien found fascinating. Insulted to see how backwards and ignorant he (accurately?) paints such cultures. Ultimately, its an honor to realize that The Lord Of The Rings really points out that simple people can continually surprise you with their bravery and willingness to fight for good.

If you understand Tolkien, you begin to realize that he cherished the idea of localized, slow-growth cultures. He was fearful of the impending washout of all cultures to one, because he valued the traditions and heritage of all peoples, and the truth, beauty, and courage that can be built upon and passed down by every Father.

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I will leave you with this interesting bit from Davenport’s essay. He met Hugo Dyson, the loudest of the Inklings and class clown of the group who stuck his foot in his mouth with everyone he met. He would often refuse to participate in meetings if his dear friend Tolkien’s fantasy manuscripts were to be read aloud.

“‘Dear Ronald,’ Dyson said, ‘Writing all those silly books with three introductions and ten appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.’ I have tried for fifteen years to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.”

Author Quotes: Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads


“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky River–lost now by obsolescence or metamorphosis–is now being crossed and to some extent replaced by its modern decendant known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the country it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built, not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmland and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it. A part of a hill near here that would have caused it to turn aside was simply cut down and disposed of as thoughtlessly as the pioneer road builders would have disposed of a tree. It’s form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety. It represents the ultimate in engineering sophistication, but the crudest possible valuation of life in this world. It is as adequate a symbol of our relation to our country now as that first road was of our relation to it in 1797.”

– Wendell Berry, excerpt from A Native Hill
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Berry’s words are potent, but they carry an extra weight for those have grown up on I-71 and can visualize its toll on the land. It’s true that the principle remains the same anywhere, but part of his point lies in relating to the land itself, and I can picture the very landscapes he has in mind.

A Native Hill is a wonderful and expansive essay covering Berry’s own flight from and eventual enlightened return to the Kentucky hillside his forefathers had long farmed.

Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb.


Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wife awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!–whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?–
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
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– John Keats, Addressed To Haydon, 1816

I never got poetry. When I was in elementary school my younger brother and I collected a binder full of our own attempts at poetry, but the only goal was to write simple, silly verses that rhymed. Apart from thoroughly enjoying complex rhymes, I never understood the draw of poetry. Even in school I never understood the enjoyment of poetry and the basic concepts involved didn’t make me excited. I couldn’t force iambic pentameter to mean anything on paper and I was without a passionate poet, so it bored me thoroughly. I was never really sure what to make of free verse.

Now, a decade later, I’m starting to really think there might be something I missed in this poetry stuff. I mean, I always assumed it must truly interest many people, but I wasn’t one of them. After realizing that so many people I respect were either heavily fashioned by poetry or were poets themselves, I have become somewhat determined to invest myself in understanding its enjoyment.

The three things I’ve come to understand about poetry thus far are that it is best read slowly, aloud, and indulgently.

Perhaps what I mean is that, in my experience, poetry is only enjoyable when it is paired with a slow lifestyle. When I was a child I assumed it was simply about rhyming. In school I never understood how the more complicated terminology explained any enjoyment. Now I am starting to realize that the poetry itself lies in the audible flow of the words.

I’ve always greatly appreciated prose. A witty or profound sentence full of large or interesting words is sure to be a delight. Now I’m starting to realize that poetry carries a similar intoxicant which is meant for sipping. Poetry is for re-reading, for memorization even, both skills that seems to have mostly fallen out of vogue. Memorization for pleasure rather than duty.

I have started slowly with the mostly free verse of Wendell Berry. His wonderful prose requires slow reading, and the transition to his poetry is a smooth one. From there I have begun to dabble in Keats, and I hope to eventually build up an appetite for modern poetry like Elliot and the old epic poems like La Morte D’Arthur, Spenser, and Milton.

My goal in this busy world is to slow down, so I think poetry is all the more worthy a pursuit. Like Keats says, if we slow down enough to take it all in, perhaps we will be able to stay quiet for a bit.

If you love poetry, please tell me why, and by whom.