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

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:

FOR THE FUTURE

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.

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1970-1977

Although I tend to agree with the philosophy presented in Berry's Collected Poems written between 1970 and 1977, I don't particularly identify with them. The poems written in 1970 are entitled Farming: A Handbook, and the truth is that although I've always had a vegetable garden, I've never seen myself as a "farmer," nor do I identify with the world in that way. Although I've increasingly felt that American agriculture is going the wrong way and that large companies threaten the very nature of agriculture, I am not a farmer, never have been, and have no desire to be one. I identify with nature as wilderness, not as farmland. In other words, I find it much easier to identify with Thoreau's attitude toward nature than I do Berry's. I'm a city boy who returns to nature to seek a deeper understanding of who I am, not a farmer who earns his existence by staying in touch with the soil.

Despite finding much that was amusing and insightful in Berry's "Mad Farmer" poems, I didn't identify with them on a deeper level. There were, though, some poems I did identify with. For instance, "A Standing Ground" reminded me that my new home doesn't have any berries growing yet, and I have a hard time calling a house a home, unless it has berries growing in the yard:

A STANDING GROUND

Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng, though hit be smal...


However just and anxious I have been,
I will stop and step back
from the crowd of those who may agree
with what I say, and be apart.
There is no earthly promise of life or peace
but where the roots branch and weave
their patient silent passages in the dark;
uprooted, I have been furious without an aim.
I am not bound for any public place,
but for ground of my own
where I have planted vines and orchard trees,
and in the heat of the day climbed up
into the healing shadow of the woods.
Better than any argument is to rise at dawn
and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

It's hard to imagine a better way to start your day than to walk out into the backyard, pick a cup of fresh raspberries for your morning cereal, and sit down to a hardy, healthy breakfast.

I also strongly identify with the sense of place found in "The Current:"

THE CURRENT

Having once put his hand into the ground,
seeding there what he hopes will outlast him,
a man has made a marriage with his place,
and if he leaves it his flesh will ache to go back.
His hand has given up its birdlife in the air.
It has reached into the dark like a root
and begun to wake, quick and mortal, in timelessness.
a flickering sap coursing upward into his head
so that he sees the old tribespeople bend
in the sun, digging with sticks, the forest opening
to receive their hills of corn, squash, and beans,
their lodges and graves, and closing again.
He is made their descendant, what they left
in the earth rising into him like a seasonal juice.
And he sees the hearers of his own blood arriving,
the forest burrowing into the earth as they come,
their hands gathering the stones up into walls,
and relaxing, the stones crawling back into the ground
to lie still under the black wheels of machines.
The current flowing to him through the earth
flows past him, and he sees one descended from him,
a young man who has reached into the ground,
his hand held in the dark as by a hand.

Though I'm no farmer, I can certainly identify with this sense of place. I've always identified with the Puget Sound, even though I lived hundreds of miles away in Vancouver, WA. More than that, I found it quite difficult to move away from the two homes I've owned as an adult. After planting trees and digging gardens, I identify with those homes and hated to go back and find that the new owners had built a storage shed over the garden that I worked so hard to enrich with organic soil through composting or that they'd cut down a tree I planted thirty years ago. Though I've never know the continuity of a "family farm," it seems to me a noble tradition, one that our nation abandons at our own peril.

Wendell Berry’s Poems, from 1964-1968

The further I read in Wendell Berry's Collected Poems, the more poems I found that I liked. Today, I'm covering poems published from 1964 to 1968, approximately the first hundred pages of the book. As I read the poems, uncharacteristically I found myself agreeing with a blurb found on the back cover of the book, one that said, ""Mr. Berry is a sophisticated, philosophical poet in the line descending from Emerson and Thoreau." To me, of course, that's somewhat of a mixed blessing, because I find both Emerson and Thoreau far better philosophers than poets. Like these two, I often find aphorisms in Berry's poetry that seem better than the poems themselves, lines like "The truth preserved by lying/ becomes a lie" or " The world is greater than its words/ To speak of it the mind must bend."

Though I'm still unwilling, and unable, to explain exactly what I mean by "poetry," I know it when I read it, and at times I find Berry's poems lacking in the kind of imagery and language characteristic of my favorite poetry. My favorite Berrry poems are the ones that, while remaining philosophical, rely more heavily on imagery to convey the poem's ideas:

THE WILD

In the empty lot " a place
not natural, but wild " among
the trash of human absence,

the slough and shamble
of the city's seasons, a few
old locusts bloom.

A few wood birds
fly and sing
in the new foliage

--warblers and tanagers, birds
wild as leaves; in a million
each one would be rare,

new to the eyes. A man
couldn't make a habit
of such color,

such flight and singing.
But they're the habit of this
wasted place. In them

the ground is wise. They are
its remembrance of what is.

Perhaps a few months ago this poem wouldn't have struck me quite as much as it does now that I live across from an undeveloped lot (which, of course, is also part of Pt. Defiance park) that wild birds and animals seem to desperately claim as their own. But I can remember my own pleasant surprise forty five years ago when I found that wild rabbits still claimed unused parts of the industrial area where I worked in Seattle. What clinches my love of the poem, though, is the use of multiple meanings of "habit." While the word "habit" ties all the multiple meanings together, it also seems to quietly raise the observation to a religious level.

Although "Against the War in Vietnam" is really a little too didactic for my taste, it does reminds us how little we seem to learn from history and why any concept of "progress" is questionable:

AGAINST THE WAR IN VIETNAM -

Believe the automatic righteousness
of whoever holds an office. Believe
the officials who see without doubt
that peace is assured by war, freedom
by oppression. The truth preserved by lying
becomes a lie. Believe or die.

In the name of ourselves we ride
at the wheels of our engines,
in the name of Plenty devouring all,
the exhaust of our progress falling
deadly on villages and fields
we do not see. We are prepared
for millions of little deaths.

Where are the quiet plenteous dwellings
we were coming to, the neighborly holdings?
We see the American freedom defended
with lies, and the lies defended
with blood, the vision of Jefferson
served by the agony of children,
women cowering in holes.

If there's any doubt why I like this poem, just see how accurately the first paragraph seems to apply to the current Bush Administration. Ask yourself what has happened to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy.

There was a long sequence of poems entitled Window Poems that I was rather apprehensive about before I actually started reading the sequence, because generally I dislike long, rambling poems. Turned out, though, that some of my favorite poems are found in this section. Poem number 9 may not be my personal favorite, but in some ways it is more typical and offers a better idea of what the section involves than some of the poems that I prefer a little more:

9.

There is a sort of vertical
geography that portions his life.
Outside, the chickadees
and titmice scrounge
his sunflower seed. The cardinals
feed like fires on mats of drift
lying on the currents
0f the swollen river.
The air is a bridge
and they are free. He imagines
a necessary joy
in things that must fly
to eat. He is set apart
by the black grid of the window
and, below it, the table
of the contents of his mind:
notes and remnants,
uncompleted work,
unanswered mail,
unread books
-the subjects of conscience,
his yoke-fellow,
whose whispered accounting
has stopped one ear, leaving him
half deaf to the world.
Some pads of paper,
eleven pencils,
a leaky pen,
a jar of ink
are his powers. He'll
never fly.

Again, it's easy for me to relate this poem to myself, because one of the main selling points, for me, of our new home is that the computer room is on the second story and has two large windows that allow me to constantly observe the sky and much of the old-growth forest that makes up Point Defiance. Even if I can't be outside, I want to be part of that world.

Clearly, though, the window is a metaphor for man's relationship to the natural world, a complex metaphor that is alluded to here, but is really only fully developed in all twenty-seven poems. Still, we would all do well to remember that no matter how much we identify with nature, we are "set apart/ by the black grid of the window/ and, below it, the table/ of the contents of his mind." It is this very separation that, in the end, makes it impossible for us to really "fly."

Wendell Berry More than Nature Poet

During a slight lull in tax preparation, I managed to finish Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir. Strangely, about the time I started feeling that Wendell Berry was an overly optimistic poet, I suddenly encountered this poem from 1991:

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We'd oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, or
A healthy whore. Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty become
What we have feared to be.

The poem evoked some eerie feelings for me. The lines “Hour after hour, by death/ Abroad appeasing wrath,/ Folly, and greed at home” could aptly summarize our current attacks on Iraq, couldn’t they? The war is little more than an attempt to appease America’s wrath over the 9/11 attack despite little evidence that there is really any direct link. If Berry thought “Desert Storm” was “folly,” what must he be thinking about “Operation Iraqi Freedom?” Surely, America’s attempts to secure the oil fields before anything else would support his contention that greed is a major factor in these wars.

I wonder how accurate Berry is in ascribing the causes of this war to the same greed that threatens to destroy our environment. Does our love of “highways” and “shopping malls” drive not only the destruction of our environment but also our attempts to dominate the world?

In our attempts to “make the world safe for democracy” will we merely become a “capitalistic empire,” little different from the British Empire that we seceded from in order to ensure our ability to control our own fate?

Thankfully, “The year begins with war” is but a temporary interruption in Berry’s celebration of man’s relationship to nature and to each other. The following poem, one of my favorites in the second half of A Timbered Choir, is typical of what follows:

A bird the size
of a leaf fills
the whole lucid
evening with
his note and flies.

I strive to believe that the human soul, as small as it seems, can, like the small bird, illuminate our world and fill it with music.