Berry’s Elitist Charges

I’m probably guilty of at least one of the charges Berry makes against conservationists in Another Turn of the Crank:

As necessary as it obviously is, the effort of "wilderness preservation" has too oft implied that it is enough to save a series of islands of pristine and uninhabited wilderness in an otherwise exploited, damaged, and polluted land. And, further, that the pristine wilderness is the only alternative to exploitation and abuse. So far, the moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes, which you can see pictured in any number of expensive books of what I suppose must be called "conservation photography." On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation-strip mines, clear cuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one and less the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationists' program is embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape is too simple; it misrepresents both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.

Most of my efforts and contributions have gone to preserving isolated “wilderness,? to preserving the last few unspoiled places in America. Not entirely coincidently, they are my favorite hiking and backpacking destinations. So little can even loosely be called wilderness, and probably none that is truly wild because of the human overuse that I feel it imperative to protect these places now. Protecting these places is a also vital step in preserving wildlife. Without wilderness areas the most magnificent forms of wildlife, grizzlies, mountain lions, wolves, simply wouldn’t be tolerated. They would be hunted into extinction. No matter how well farmers protect “the land? they are intolerant of animals that prey on their livestock, not unnaturally so. I don’t want any cougars or grizzly bears in my backyard either, but I don’t want to see them exterminated. I only have so much money and so much time that I can devote to causes, and I choose to donate it to these causes.

Though I think Berry sets up a false dichotomy between farmers and conservationists,

Conservationists have now begun to acknowledge that the health and productivity of the land constitute a common-wealth I say they have begun to acknowledge this because at present they tend to acknowledge it only so far as it pertains to forested or otherwise "wild" land, the land that most conservationists understand as "natural." They wish to protect common wealth of the forested land by some such doctrine as "the forest commons." But the danger is that this will accomplish only one more anomalous inversion; from a doctrine of private landownership that acknowledges no commonwealth, we might go to a doctrine of commonwealth in which there are no private shares. "The forest commons," I am afraid, may become an idea that will separate forestry and forest conservation from the rural economy, just as industrial agriculture is an idea that has separated farming and soil conservation from the rural economy.

I do prefer to trust what little is left of the Northwest woods to organizations like the Nature Conservancy or, better yet, local conservancy groups, rather than to individual landowners or their heirs, who have shown a decided tendency to clear cut their land whenever a profit is to be made.

This is not to say, though, that I don’t recognize the importance of healthy farmland to the country as a whole. It’s foolish to think that by themselves wilderness areas can support a viable ecosystem. Healthy farmlands are as essential to the well-being of animals and humans as is a healthy sea.

Unfortunately, one doesn’t have to look very hard to see that both the land and the ocean are suffering from human misuse. It’s hard to imagine how such misuse can continue without the human race itself suffering irreparable harm.

Berry’s “Conserving Forest Communities?

Considering that we come from very different backgrounds and see the world from very different viewpoints, I’m reassured that Wendell Berry and I agree on so many major points as it gives me hope that some day soon society as whole will draw the same conclusions and will address these problems before it is too late.

One of the most important agreements is found in Berry’s essay entitled “Conserving Forest Communities? where he argues that

… by this time, the era of cut-and-run economics ought to be finished. Such an economy cannot be rationally defended or even apologized for. The proofs of its immense folly, heartlessness, and destructiveness are everywhere. Its failure as a way of dealing with the natural world and human society can no longer be sanely denied. That this economic system persists and grows larger and stronger in spite of its evident failure has nothing to do with rationality or, for that matter, with evidence. It persists because, embodied now in multinational corporations, it has discovered a terrifying truth: If you can control a people's economy, you don't need to worry about its politics; its politics have become irrelevant. If you control people's choices as to whether or not they will work, and where they will work, and what they will do, and how well they will do it, and what they will eat and wear, and lie genetic makeup of their crops and animals, and what they do for amusement, then why should you worry about freedom of speech? In a totalitarian economy, any "political liberties" that the people might retain would simply cease to matter. If, as is often the case already, nobody can be elected who is not wealthy, and if nobody can be wealthy without dependence on the corporate economy, then what is your vote worth? The citizen thus becomes an economic subject.

Of course, here in the Northwest there is a tendency to identify the term “cut-and-run? economics with logging companies like Weyerhaeuser, but living here in Tacoma it’s easy to extend that definition to companies like ASARCO which spewed arsenic and lead throughout most of the southern Puget Sound region, shuffled its assets and, not too surprisingly, was forced to declare bankruptcy. In fact, much of the West has to deal with run-off from mines that have been deserted, with taxpayers left to pickup the costs of cleanup.

Unfortunately, I think Berry was also right when he noted in an earlier essay that

The Dialogue of Democrats and Republicans or of liberals and conservatives is likewise useless to us. Neither party is interested in farmers or in farming or in the good care of the land or in the quality of the food. Nor are they interested in taking the best care of our forests. The leaders of these parties are equally subservient to the supranational corporations.

The danger in offering such truths is that readers may quit trying to make a difference, reasoning that they should spend their time enjoying the nature they love rather than spending time fighting an all-powerful opponent.

I do know that the first step to economic reform and to saving the environment is seeing clearly the threats to it and the sources of those threats.

Berry’s Another Turn of the Crank

Shelley recently sent me a book of short Wendell Berry essays called Another Turn of the Crank, which suggests I may be doing a good job of sharing my values in this blog because it’s a book that appeals to some of my core values. The short opening essay “Farming and the Global Community? sets forth several of Berry’s main premises:

We need to make our farming practices and our food economy subject to standards set not by the industrial system but by the health of ecosystems and of human communities.

I have long believed that the mass production of crops, necessitating large amounts of insecticides and petro-chemicals is a recipe for disaster, benefiting neither small farmers nor consumers. As a result, I started raising “organic? vegetables in my garden nearly thirty years ago and bought organic food whenever available.

As a city boy, I’ve only recently become aware of how important farmlands are to local wildlife and how, with a few exceptions, wildlife and farmers coexist quite well. As I’ve begun to explore wildlife refuges, though, I’ve discovered that farmland provides a vital buffer between urban areas and wilderness areas. Many kinds of wildlife benefit from farmland and coexist peacefully with farmers. You’re as likely to spot wildlife in neighboring fields as you are in refuges since animals don’t recognize such arbitrary boundaries.

I suspect, though, that Berry’s view of a healthy human community and my own might differ considerably, since I’ve always thrived in a rich, diverse, metropolitan community. Though I’m sometimes appalled by how little I know about my neighbors, I doubt I’d fit well into a small, rural farming community with my liberal ways.

An even more important Berry premise is that

If communities of farmers and consumers wish to promote a sustainable, safe, reasonably inexpensive supply of good food, then they must see that the best, the safest, and most dependable source of food for a city is not the global economy, with its extreme vulnerabilities and extravagant transportation costs, but its own surrounding countryside. It is in every way in the best interest of urban consumers to be surrounded by productive land, well farmed and well maintained by thriving farm families in thriving farm communities.

I’m convinced the best food is the food I grow in my own backyard, but if I had to survive on the food I’ve grown there I’d have starved to death long ago. Next best, is food grown locally, picked fresh and delivered to local markets. Depending on food grown thousands of miles away is courting disaster, particularly when doing so drives local farmers out of business and leads to farmlands being sold for more suburban sprawl.

I’ve always thought it was a sin that the rich, productive land once farmed by Japanese truck farmers south of Seattle was gradually turned into malls and industrial complexes while food was shipped in from California, and, increasingly, from outside the country.

I finally quit buying vegetables or fruit from Safeway because they seemed to make no effort to buy from local farmers. The small market I finally settled on doesn’t always buy locally, but at least they label the fruit and vegetables by location so I can make an informed decision.

My daughter has purchased shares from a local farm and had them delivered weekly, but I didn’t like the idea of having to take what was available that week rather than choosing what I wanted to eat. I might eat vegetables I couldn’t stand to avoid wasting food, but it wouldn’t be long before I’d abandon that concept. Still, I believe such links to farmers and ranchers are a good idea, benefitting both farmers and consumers.

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1980-1982

Berry's Collected Poems ends with poems published in 1980 and 1982, and I must admit a certain ambivalence towards Berry's poems. Although at times I feel he is too didactic, and, even, a little condescending, towards we, his readers, I must admit I am sometimes struck not by what he says, but, rather, by the way he says it:


We who prayed and wept
for liberty from kings
and the yoke of liberty
accept the tyranny of things
we do not need.
In plenitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Those who will not learn
in plenty to keep their place
must learn it by their need
when they have had their way
and the fields spurn their seed.
We have failed Thy grace.
Lord, I flinch and pray,
send Thy necessity.

Although this poem makes me feel a little bit like a schoolboy being lectured by his teacher, a feeling I'm not particularly fond of, by the way, it's hard not be struck by the truth of it. As a nation we do seem to be willing to sacrifice hard-won freedoms for greater wealth, ironical when we consider we are probably already too wealthy for our own good. Must we lose our freedoms once again before we can truly appreciate them? Perhaps so. In a very real sense, the poem's message lies at the heart of Berry's poetry. Perhaps his message would seem stronger if I didn't already belong to the choir.

While I find it difficult to ignore such poems, my real fondness is for simpler poems like:


Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.

Here Berry manages to convey his message directly through images, and even the last two lines, though they carry the message, seem like an integral part of the moment. Only those who choose to "harvest" trees rather than plant them would find fault with such a poem.