The Common Good
July 2004

Web Exclusive: Wendell Berry interview complete text

by Rose Marie Berger | July 2004

Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger and photographer Ryan Beiler spent a Sunday afternoon in February with Wendell Berry at his farm in Henry County, Kentucky.

Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger and photographer Ryan Beiler spent a Sunday afternoon in February with Wendell Berry at his farm in Henry County, Kentucky. Berry is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and essays, including The Unsettling of America, What are People For?, Life is Beautiful, Citizenship Papers, and The Art of the Commonplace. He has farmed in a traditional manner for nearly forty years. Berry spoke with Sojourners about religious practice, Bluegrass country, defending against Wal-Mart, usury, and Jesus. - The Editors

ROSE MARIE BERGER: Tell me about this land, about this bioregion, about the history of your farm.

WENDELL BERRY: We're on the west side of the Kentucky River, in the Kentucky River Valley. Some people call this the Outer Bluegrass; there are other names for it. We have limestone soils. An old ocean or sea laid down these layers of limestone. There are lots of trees here. There are white, chinquapin, red, black, and shumard oaks. Those are the principle ones. And we have two or three kinds of ash, maples, several varieties of hickory, black walnut, sycamore, black locust, honey locust, cedar, basswood, red elm, slippery elm. We used to have chestnuts once. Tanya and I have 125 acres altogether, 75 here and about 50 on Cane Run.

This place where we're sitting today, is the old property known as Lane's Landing. Twelve acres, more or less, the deed says. Tanya and I bought it in 1964 and moved in the next year. So we've been here thirty-nine years.

My mother was raised in Port Royal. And her father's land borders this. My father was born and grew up on a farm just the other side of Lacie. My brother lives there now.

This is tobacco country. We've lost two-thirds of the allotment in the last few years, courtesy of the global economy. Not the anti-smoking people. This is traditionally a mixed farming country. Tobacco was the staple crop, but we also grew corn and small grains. The small grains were grown as cover crops on the tobacco and corn ground.

The farms were around a hundred acres when I was a boy, on the average; they're about 150 on the average now. But the farming that was done here when I first knew it, in the 1940s and '50s, at its best, was very good farming. In addition to the crops I named, we raised cattle, sheep and hogs, sometimes all three on the same farm. And every farm had a kitchen garden, a flock of chickens, meat hogs, and at least enough cows to supply the household with milk.

BERGER: You really had a working, home economy. How does the local tobacco economics fit with the global economics? How has that shift from local to global been experienced here?

BERRY: Tobacco acreages have declined here because the companies can fill their needs more cheaply elsewhere. The other products we grow are thrown into the world market to compete as best they can. With the help of subsidies, of course. In Kentucky we have always raised for export. One of this state's problems is that it hasn't added value to its agricultural products. I would say we are adding less now than ever. Louisville used to have two or three packing plants, for instance, and a stockyard. But no more. Most of the things that are produced in this state are shipped out, to have the value added elsewhere.

When you take away the subsistence economy, then your farm population is seriously exposed to the vagaries of the larger economy. As it used to be, the subsistence economy carried people through the hard times, and what you might call the housewife's economy of cream and eggs often held these farms and their families together. The wives would go to town with eggs and cream once a week, buy groceries with the proceeds, and sometimes come home with money. Or they'd sell a few old hens, that sort of thing. So that's the first lesson to learn about agriculture, as far as I'm concerned: It needs a sound subsistence basis. People need to feed themselves, next they need to feed their own communities. That's what we're working for now. We want to develop a local food economy that local producers will supply and that the local consumers will support. It's ridiculous that we should be importing food into this state while our farmers are suffering.

BERGER: What are the models that are being used here in Kentucky to resist the economic pressure from the larger market?

BERRY: Community-supported agriculture, farmer's markets, direct marketing of meat, that sort of thing. There's an effort under way to develop a retail market for local produce. But this is hard to bring about.

The local landscape used to contribute food to Louisville. There was a significant amount of truck farming going in those days. That's gone. The stockyard's gone, the packinghouses are gone. So there's Louisville economically and culturally isolated from its rich agricultural landscape. Which is ridiculous.

BERGER: It's almost a process of reweaving the city life with its agricultural counterpart - its breadbasket.

BERRY: That's right - building commercial linkages between the city and its local countryside. And there are good reasons to do that. You've got the prospect, to begin with, of better, fresher food. You've got the possibility that consumers could influence production.

You have the possibility that urban consumers, by fulfilling their responsibility to local producers, can make secure their local food supply in the face of various threats. The paramount one, now on everybody's mind, is terrorism, but there are also the threats of epidemic and disease. In other words, the influence of local consumers could work, not only to maintain farming in the local landscape, but also to diversify it. And American agriculture is badly in need of diversity. Another threat to the present food system of course is the likelihood that petroleum is not going to get any cheaper.

BERGER: That happened in Venezuela a few years ago. They had an oil producer's strike and people lost their gasoline supply. As a result they couldn't truck food anywhere. Whole communities were starving because they couldn't get access to food in stores, and they didn't have any capacity to feed themselves.

BERRY: What could be more terrible? There are lots of bad things that can happen to a food economy that's both extensive and centralized. There's no substitute for petroleum. And from what I read, the curve of discovery and production of petroleum is about to decline. To have a growth economy based on a declining fuel supply is bound to be stressful.

BERGER: In Life is a Miracle, you talk about cloning and genetic engineering. Genetically modified organisms are being promoted by agribusiness as "a way to feed the poor people of the world." What kind of ethical values should we be operating under when we think about cloning, GMO, and genetic engineering?

BERRY: The first ethical requirement is a decent suspicion of the claims of people who have something to sell. I'm not reading anything that suggests that genetic engineering is increasing production. Some recent things I've read suggest that productivity of Round-up ready soybeans is less than that of other varieties.

I think that the real reason for genetic engineering is to put absolute control of the food system into corporate hands. They don't want anybody - farmer or urban consumer or anybody else - to have anything whatsoever that they don't buy from a corporation at the corporation's price. In other words, economic totalitarianism is the goal. And I don't think the difference between political totalitarianism and economic totalitarianism is worth lingering over. If you're not economically free, if you don't have economic choices, you're not free.

BERGER: Your collection of essays, Citizenship Papers, has been published recently and you wrote an amazing set of articles for Orion about the national security agenda. As I read through sections of the Patriot Act, I was reminded of an old poem of yours titled "Do Not Be Ashamed." It says, "Though you have done nothing shameful,/ they will want you to be ashamed./ They will want you to kneel and weep/ and say you should have been like them."

BERRY: Well it's sort of normal to wish that things like that would not be applicable any longer and it's discouraging to see that they stay current. You wish that a book like The Unsettling of America would become obsolete, but it's more relevant now than it ever was. I don't think that national security can be achieved the way we're trying to achieve it. I don't think that being the strongest country in the world can necessarily make us the most secure country. And the fact remains that we're destroying our country ourselves.

It's easy to get the idea that we're stationing troops all over the world to protect our right to destroy our own country. I think that if you were seriously interested in security, you would make the country secure in its regions. You'd make it possible for the people to eat with far less public transportation. To do that you'd have to think in a different way. And we've got to face the likelihood that the people in charge are simply not capable of thinking that way. They've never thought in that way. Their doctrine is maximum force relentlessly applied. That's the doctrine of war. But it's also the doctrine of industrial agriculture. It's the way the industrial system works.

Look at the way we mine coal, for instance. Look at the way we're logging the forests. These are not sustainable procedures. They're not even conservative procedures. Wes Jackson has started calling this the "Prodigal Era." By that he means the era in which we're going to use up most of the topsoil and most of the fossil fuels.

BERGER: It seems like it always comes back eventually to the individual's choice. Does one choose to live in an economy of grace, based on generosity, or in an economy of scarcity based on acquisition?

BERRY: You have to realize that people are working very hard to remove that choice, to make it impossible to make such a choice. And they can do that simply by putting the land entirely under corporate control. It can happen. We're pretty well advanced into a corporate or capitalist totalitarianism. And it's a very strange thing to see happen, because we were lately so much afraid of communist totalitarianism. You can remove that choice we were talking about simply by making it impossible for small economic enterprises to survive.

You can use Wal-Mart as a weapon, for instance, to destroy the economic centers of small towns and small cities.

BERGER: The method of disarming such a weapon is carving out a local economy, a local space, and defending it?

BERRY: You've got to defend it; you've got to defend it economically. You've got to have some kind of fidelity between consumers and producers. The great corporations can use volume discounts to make it impossible for anybody else to be in business. And they are doing that.

BERGER: And you have that partnership of slightly increased unemployment - no benefits, poor wages - so it's a push and a pull. People are pushed into the arms of Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart is pulling them with cheap products produced in labor conditions that are exploitative.

BERRY: Healthcare and health insurance are so expensive that almost nobody can afford them. Most people can't.

BERGER: How do you see that playing out in terms of the rural poverty here?

BERRY: Rural poverty happens because people aren't being paid to take adequate care of their places. There's lots of work to do here. And you can't afford to pay anybody to do it! If you depress the price of the products of the place below a certain level, people can't afford to maintain it. And that's the rural dilemma we're in now. But you've got to see the connection between the poverty of the people and the impoverishment of the place. If you buy the products, and you don't give an adequate payment in money, then that means that the producer doesn't give adequate care.

The worst example of rural poverty we have right here is that of migrant farm workers. Well, they're "temporary workers," is the way to put that. They have no permanent jobs, so they have no equity in the places where they work. They're not shareholders, let alone entrepreneurs. They're not small farmers, they're not market gardeners, they're just temporary - uprooted, isolated, easily exploitable people.

BERGER: One ends up lacking affection. The migrant workers perhaps don't have a particular affection for the place other than just the work and the money, and the place and the people and economy never develops an investment in them because they're on their way out.

BERRY: That's right. Because they're temporary and replaceable. They're more readily replaceable than the slaves were. Also in Kentucky some corporations, Fruit of the Loom, for instance, have just left for places that are more exploitable than Kentucky. And then we have, west of here, the hog and chicken factories. That's another story of corporate abuse of places and people.

BERGER: This organic mechanism of resistance is trying to establish a community/regional area and beginning to develop alternative models of connection between the producer and the consumer, and begin to create some trading zones that are micro-trading zones.

BERRY: Yes. You can hope only to take it back a little at a time. There is no master plan. And I would be very suspicious of a master plan if I knew of one. It's got to happen a little at a time. You've got to confront the very difficult economic problem of making a local supply and a local demand come into existence simultaneously. I don't know that that's ever been done before in the way we will have to do it. And nobody knows how well it's going to succeed. But there are hopeful signs. It would be no trouble to take you and show you things that are working, but there are not enough of them yet.

BERGER: I want to ask you also about Harlan and Anna Hubbard, about the influence they've had on your life. And also the tension between the nomadic, pilgrim experiment that they launched off into versus rootedness, staying in one place, making a deep commitment to a particular area.

BERRY: Well, Harlan and Anna Hubbard were a married couple who began their life together by building a shanty boat and making a sort of epic drift down the rivers from Brent, Kentucky, above Cincinnati, to New Orleans and then on out into the bayous. In the early fifties, that journey having completed itself, they returned to Kentucky and bought a remote property, known as Payne Hollow, on the Ohio River in Trimble County. They built a house there and remained there, living mostly from their land and the river until they died.

They were musicians; they played duets every day of their life together. They played Mozart, Brahms, and Bach, those people. Harlan made prints, drawings, oils, and watercolors. And he was a writer. He published in his lifetime two wonderful books, one called Shantyboat that was an account of their trip down the rivers, and another called Payne Hollow, which is a distillation of their life at Payne Hollow. Their life was exemplary in a lot of ways. They did little harm. They lived abundantly, by their own efforts, and with a very small expenditure of money. In their frugal life they experienced much joy and made much beauty. They were teachers to a lot of people, and I'm one of them.

BERGER: How did you come to meet them, originally?

BERRY: By accident. A friend and I were on a canoe trip. We stopped there to see if we could get some drinkable water. We had replenished our water supply with the city water of Madison, Indiana, and we were finding it hard to swallow.

BERGER: I've gone back and looked again at some of the ways that Harlan engaged his spirituality or religion, his reading of the Bible, and how at one point I think he said something about how he experiences the Bible not as revelation but as confirmation, and that he comes to these lessons in his life, and is sometimes surprised that the Bible also has come to those lessons. And I find that sort of engagement with Christianity very appealing in the sense that it feels very authentic, and lets the faith be a humanizing faith.

BERRY: I think Harlan was a man with a very strong religious impulse, or religious nature. But I don't think the formal religions, the churches of this area, had much to offer him. It's hard to nail Harlan's religion down very firmly. I did the best I could in a chapter of my little book about Harlan and his work.

Thinking about Harlan as a religious man is quite different from thinking about, say, Thomas Merton as a religious man, because there's not a body of doctrine that Harlan subscribed to. He didn't endorse any creed. He was a man at large with his faculties and his gifts and his inspiration, his great relish of life and of his world, which he said was "heaven." You look to see what Harlan painted when he was "painting heaven" and you see landscapes of northern Kentucky and Payne Hollow.

BERGER: What was your connection with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who lived here in Kentucky?

BERRY: My connection with him was the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who has grown steadily in reputation since he died. Thomas Merton was interested in photography, and I guess that led him to Gene, who was no more conventionally religious than Harlan Hubbard. Gene was a wizard. He had an incredible gift of seeing and of picture-making. But let's don't say "incredible." It was perfectly credible when you saw what he could do. He had a very great gift. Merton could see that, and he made a friend of Gene. Gene and his wife Madelyn took Tanya and me down there twice.

Merton was a man who understood how to be a companion. He had a lot of humor, and I think he knew something about how to be happy or how to enjoy happiness when he had it. I liked him tremendously. He had a very lively countenance; a very bright, curious, amused eye.

When we went down there the first time, he just dropped it out casually, and I think with great secret amusement, that he was thinking about joining an Indian tribe. I think Merton was a profound Christian. Some people seem to think that when he went East he was abandoning his faith or his vocation. I don't think he was at all. His talks to religious groups in Alaska (Thomas Merton in Alaska) on that last trip were wonderful.

BERGER: He just seemed to be moving deeper and deeper, which in some ways made it easier to connect across a variety of spiritual expressions.

BERRY: He had, I think, a very fortunate impulse to reach out to other religions. And we need to pay attention to that, because there are people now who would carry us right into a religious war. That's a big problem, I think.

BERGER: The end of Christendom.

BERRY: Well, Christendom is all right, but it doesn't have to exclude everybody else. It doesn't have to go to war against them. And it doesn't have to be so stupid as to condemn other faiths that it doesn't know anything about.

BERGER: One of the lines in Life is a Miracle says, "It's impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced." It's a brilliant line!

BERRY: You've got to reach towards a better language, and you're not going to make it up from scratch; you've got to reach back into the tradition. Western tradition is not as impoverished as a lot of people would like to think, but you'd have to go back before the industrial revolution; you may have to go back farther than that. Of course, the Bible has a perfectly adequate language, but it's suffered a lot of thoughtless wear.

BERGER: Some of the work being done, more by poets rather than theologians, in reclaiming the roots of biblical language - digging in for what almost intuitively or artistically makes sense rather than the science of translation - seems to bring life back.

BERRY: If you're a writer and you are at all inclined to speak as a Christian in some way, you realize very quickly that the conventional language is pretty much useless. It takes a long time to get past that, or it has taken me a long time. People in conventional Christianity have spoken lightly and sometimes frivolously of God for a long time. It's a word that needs to be used sparingly, in my opinion.

Any religion has to have a practice. When you let it go so far from practice that it just becomes a matter of talk something bad happens. If you don't have an economic practice, you don't have a practice. Christians conventionally think they've done enough when they've gone to the store and shopped. But that isn't an economic life. It isn't an economic practice. If you take seriously those passages in the scripture that say that we live by God's spirit and his breath, that we live, move, and have our being in God, the implications for the present economy are just devastating. Those passages call for an entirely generous and careful economic life.

BERGER: There are a number of explorations and economic models in the scriptures, in terms of the Sabbath economics, jubilee economics, but there's not enough experimenting among Christians or people of faith with alternative models of economics.

BERRY: There's a fairly explicit attempt back there in the early books of the Old Testament to see that property doesn't accumulate into too few hands. There's a real attempt at economic democracy. The idea of the Jubilee year is a deliberate affront to what we now call capitalism. There's a lot that's been said, not just in the Bible, but in the biblical tradition in literature, on the subject of usury. Dante was pretty explicit about it. It would put you in hell because it implied, among other things, a contempt for nature. It's an attempt to go around the natural world and human work and make money grow out of itself. It's an attempt to make value grow in the abstract, without work, without a real product. As lots of people have said, this goes against the real economy of the world. Ezra Pound has a great canto on usury, two of them as a matter of fact. "With usura hath no man a house of good stone." Nobody can have good things when you let money become its own value.

BERGER: As the epigraph to Citizenship Papers you quote 2 Peter 2:3, "And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you." I don't know that I have ever heard that phrase in this context. Suddenly it becomes revolutionary.

BERRY: Yes. The gospels, and sometimes the epistles, are pretty revolutionary. They propose a revolution of about 180 degrees.

One of the popular versions of the Bible has in the back an index of great stories and great chapters, and not one of them from the gospels.

But Christ was quite explicit, for instance, about his pacifism. You can't be more explicit than "Love your enemies." He did run those people out of the temple, but he didn't kill them.

People are always talking about the first church. The real first church was that gaggle of people who followed Jesus around. We don't know anything about them. But he apparently didn't ask them what creed they subscribed to, or what their sexual preference was, or any of that. He fed them. He healed them. He forgave them. He is clear about sin, but he was also for forgiveness.

BERGER: Well there's so much in that way of engaging people - and the sin and forgiveness model's a good one - that is all about promoting life and opening up possibilities for life. It's never about shutting life down, closing people off, stopping them in their tracks. It's about opening up possibilities for people.

BERRY: That's right. That's right. A completely decent and authentic way of putting it, I think.

BERGER: Of all your writing, Life is a Miracle is the one that I think is the most brilliant because it calls into question the entire myth of progress.

BERRY: You know, it helps an old man to hear that!

BERGER: There are not enough people who are asking questions about the post-Enlightenment era, and the myth of progress and where it's taking us. Even our contemporary Christian mindset is just built on this myth that the world just keeps getting better and that the past was worse than the present.

BERRY: It gets taken for granted, that's why it's so easy to attack. People are handing out this stuff without thinking about it.

BERGER: How is that myth of progress operating on us as people, and what are the reasons for calling it into question, or subverting it?

BERRY: Well, that's two questions, isn't it? How does it operate on us? It substitutes this infinite advance toward better and better life in the material sense for the old pilgrimage, which you make by effort and grace, to become a better person. And I guess that's the reason you need to subvert it if you can. It takes people's minds off the important things. It becomes, at it's worst, a kind of determinism: All we have to do is just passively go along and things will get better and better, and we'll be happier and happier. That's why we need honest accounting.

I think all the time about the medical industry's emphasis on longevity. It's a substitution of quantity for any idea of completeness or wholeness or any sense of real fulfillment or real worth, so that you prolong life past the time where it's worth living, and then you brag about it. Without any acknowledgment of the possibility that somebody's life might become a burden, or that some things are worse than death.

BERGER: Death becomes simply an inconvenience to be shuddered away.

BERRY: As if it might not at some point be a great relief. As if it might not be a blessed deliverance.

All the questions about progress reduce to the question of what your measures are. And what is the measure of progress? It is possible to measure the progress of the last two or three hundred years in soil erosion. We can measure it in the rate of species extinction. We can measure it in pollution, in the toxicity of the world. Those things, like power and speed, are perfectly measurable.

But we need also to raise the questions that are not quantitative. How happy are people? What do we make of all this complaining? How healthy are people? How are love and beauty faring? What do we make of all this doctoring and medication that's going on all the time at such a great expense? That's not to deny that this so-called progress has given us things that are worth having. A hot bath every night is a good thing. I affirm that it is good, and wish to record my gratitude. There are other good things, but real harms also have been done.

BETH NEWBERRY: How does your identity as a writer connect to a region, a place, and a land?

BERRY: Well, I was born here, not in this house, but in this county. I grew up in these little towns, and in the countryside, on the farms. All my early memories are here. All the voices that surrounded me from the time I became able to hear were from here. Tanya and I came back here in 1964 and have lived here for 39 years, raised our children here. How could you draw a line separating this place and my identity? If you've known these places from your early youth, that means that you have a chance to know them in a way that other people never will.

I think often of the importance of a language spoken by people who are really local, who really know where they are and have lived there a long time; that language has a particularity about it that no language of bureaucracy or government or the university can ever have. It has a designating power that's utterly precise. Knowing the landscape in common and knowing it intimately, minutely, that has to be the basis of a language. That's where it starts, and you can raise it up from there, in successive levels of abstraction. But if you lose that power to particularize and designate precisely, in some sense you don't have a language anymore. So having a common tongue can mean that at one level you have the dictionary in common, you have the English vocabulary. But to have a common tongue in the sense that you can speak in detail, knowledgably and responsibly, about a well-known place, a well-known ecosystem and a well-known human community, is quite another thing.

BERGER: Is there a tension between self-sufficient communities and balkanism? Is there a danger of isolation in developing sustainable communities? If a community withdraws into itself so much, or becomes removed from a larger system of relationship, is there a danger of setting up enemy tensions between communities? Prejudice?

BERRY: I'll honor the question if you will acknowledge that this can happen in cities as well as in the country. People are always saying that these terrible things happen in little towns and rural communities, but of course they happen in cities just as readily, and for the same reasons. I suppose the direct way to deal with this is to point out that no community is or ever can be entirely self-sufficient. It's dependent on other communities, not only for supplies, but also for conversation and goodwill.

We're a pretty bad species in a lot of ways and in other ways a pretty good one. We can become a warrior civilization and live by piracy; on the other hand, we're capable of lovingkindness, of genuine affection, of generosity, of friendship, of peaceability, of forgiveness and gratitude. It's a question of where you want to put your influence, how you want to apply the little means that you have. It's too easy to say that country people are provincial and prejudiced, as if the worst things that humans are capable of hadn't also risen up in cosmopolitan, highly sophisticated, urban civilizations. That's just a passing of blame. If you can blame it all on people out in the provinces then you don't have to worry about what's going on in your urban neighborhood or in your urban soul.

One of the oldest human artifacts is the trade route. People were trading in obsidian and other rare things long before history. So we know there's going to be trade, we know that you can't isolate a culture and keep it going without cultural interchange. You can't live without influence, you can't live without change, you can't live without trade.

The serious question is whether you're going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people. I think the only antidote to that is imagination. You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors. You have to have at least enough imagination to understand that if you want the benefits of compassion, you must be compassionate. If you want forgiveness you must be forgiving. It's a difficult business, being human.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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