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Reading: Stating the Environmentally Obvious

Wendell Berry is angry that we routinely accept the destructiveness of industrial agriculture. The saddest thing about his new book of essays is that it had to be written at all.



In Henry County, Kentucky, where the foothills of Appalachia slope to the plains of the midwest, on a small farm of fields and woods, Wendell Berry is quietly fomenting revolution. One of his tools is a plow, which he pulls behind a team of draft horses much as his father and grandfather did, measuring against the lay of the land which plots to cultivate and which to leave wild, husbanding the precious topsoil. The other is a pen, for his more public occupation (which he might claim is less important than his farming) consists of writing well-reasoned, immaculately crafted essays about the importance of what he does with his plow.

A former English professor who left the groves of academe for fields in the mid-1960s, Berry does not fit our usual image of the farmer--which is a point of some importance. Though he does write about the trials and satisfactions of farming, he writes more about what America has done to its farmers, how it has destroyed their livelihoods, their communities, and their homes. And what has happened to the farmers can only be an ill omen for the rest of us.

What Berry has to say about agriculture in What Are People For?, his most recent collection of essays, will be familiar to readers of his previous collections, notably The Unsettling of America and Home Economics. Berry's ideal is the sort of farm that was still common in Henry County during his boyhood: small, diversified, and almost self-sustaining, a physical and spiritual anchor for the family maintaining it. The people who lived there likely "were poor, as country people have often been," writes Berry in What Are People For? "But they had each other, they had their local economy in which they helped each other, they had each other's comfort when they needed it, and they had their stories, their history together in that place. To have everything but money is to have much."

That changed after World War II, when commercial fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanized equipment became widely available. Farmers took advantage of them to plant greater quantities of cash crops generally destined for more distant urban markets. They began buying more goods than before, and using less of the cheap or free resources available to them. They bought fuel for tractors instead of using horses, which could be fed grass. They raised only one or several cash crops, instead of most of their own food, so they needed more products from the supermarket. Human laborers were replaced by machines. And so on.

The result, as we've read in recent years, was that millions of family farms went broke, unable to pay back the loans taken out to buy equipment or fertilizer. Their land was bought up by agribusiness corporations--with their efficiencies of scale, they can produce large quantities of cash crops more cheaply than small operators. And the farm families, along with much of the population of the small towns that supported them, moved to urban areas and became data-entry clerks and fast-food counter help. The people who have stayed on the farms and in the small towns have had to travel greater and greater distances to buy needed goods and services.

The corporations, meanwhile, have treated the old family farms like machines to be run at highest efficiency. Instead of replenishing the soil with manure and letting fields lie fallow, they have pumped in massive quantities of pesticides and concentrated commercial fertilizers. Great quantities of fuel are required to run the tractors and combines. So agribusiness produces lots of grain, which feeds lots of cattle, so that we may eat our steaks.

But the cost is enormous. In arid regions, irrigation is rapidly depleting groundwater reserves that took thousands or millions of years to accumulate. Topsoil erosion is proceeding at a rate greater than during the Dust Bowl years. As the soil washes or blows away, the land's fertility can be maintained only by using massive quantities of commercial fertilizer. Enormous monoculture stands, like those we see in Illinois, are much more susceptible to pests and diseases than smaller, more diversified plots, so pesticides are applied. The result, in many farming regions, is that pesticide and fertilizer residues are polluting both rivers and groundwater--to say nothing of our produce. The trucks required to ship that produce hundreds or thousands of miles to our table use up tankers of oil, with all the attendant environmental costs.

Moreover, pesticides are being used to less effect than ever before. In 1945, before pesticide use became widespread, pests claimed 3.5 percent of the U.S. corn crop. In 1988 the figure was 12 percent--and that was after heavy pesticide use. Resistant strains develop a tolerance to pesticides, and thrive. And many agricultural extension agents or university agriculture departments presented with that problem suggest: more pesticides! And why shouldn't they? They get research grants from the companies that manufacture the chemicals. The agribusiness corporations and oil companies are the real beneficiaries of this profligate pesticide use.

Fortunately there are some good signs out on the land. There's a growing interest in organic produce. And many farmers are beginning to realize that uninhibited chemical use is bad for their own health and the health of the land.

Why should an urban dweller care, though, as long as the supermarket shelves are full? To begin with, says Berry, those shelves may not remain full. The sort of large-scale industrial agriculture we're practicing is simply not sustainable in the long run. Irrigated land accumulates salt and can become unusable; its groundwater may be depleted. And our current rate of topsoil erosion will inevitably make serious inroads into productivity.

Berry's essays are so well thought out and skillfully constructed that it's hard to disagree with them. They are subversive precisely because they are so reasonable, so commonsensical. And though it is a joy to read them, it can be depressing to ponder them afterward. You think: Is it really necessary to argue for diversity, or against waste? Aren't these things obvious? The saddest thing about these essays is that they need to be written at all.

Berry states his case very well, of course. He writes of these matters from his own long experience of farming. He has also traveled a good deal, and written about the farmers he's met who are still farming the old way--and doing well at it. His essays (and his novels and poems too, for he is also accomplished in those genres) are firmly rooted in the soil of northern Kentucky, and in what we might call the ethics of place. There is a right way and a wrong way to treat a place, says Berry. Knowing the right way comes of knowing the place. Any land use to be sustained over time must come of that local knowledge.

Berry is angry that our nation routinely accepts the destructiveness of industrial agriculture. "The national economy has prescribed ways of use but not ways of care," writes Berry. "The destruction of the human community, the local economy, and the natural health of such a place is now looked upon not as a 'trade-off,' a possibly regrettable 'price of progress,' but as a good, virtually a national goal." Those young people still raised in rural communities move away; the goods raised on farms are shipped elsewhere (and the profits go to distant executives); and now the very soil is washing away. It's bitterly ironic that a country that espoused Jeffersonian ideals of agrarianism at its founding should now endorse such a brutal colonialism.

What has happened to farming is, of course, symptomatic of our society as a whole. We have allowed local control to be dissipated. And decisions made centrally will not be responsive to local needs and conditions, whether those are rural or urban. (Witness what happens when a big steel mill closes in a neighborhood that has come to rely on it for jobs.) As Berry puts it, "The ecological damage of centralization and waste is thus inextricably involved with human damage. For we have, as a result, not only a desecrated, ugly, and dangerous country in which to live until we are in some manner poisoned by it, and a constant and now generally accepted problem of unemployed or unemployable workers, but also classrooms full of children who lack the experience and discipline of fundamental human tasks, and various institutions full of still capable old people who are useless and lonely."

We have somehow forgotten that our economy is dependent both on our environment and on human work--or perhaps we've made a virtue of not acknowledging that dependence. Our economic decisions are based on abstractions--the GNP, the Dow-Jones average--rather than on the world of soil and crops and weather. And so corporations log the irreplaceable old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, for example, not because it is sound forestry (we know it's not) but to pay off junk-bond debts. If such resources were controlled locally, Berry argues, they would not be subject to such plunder, because local people have a stake in sustaining the source of their livelihoods. "If agriculture is to remain productive, it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well . . . if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well." A healthy nation, and a healthy world, can only be made up of healthy homes and communities.

We seem to have forgotten that economy and ecology are, at the root of it, the same thing. Too often we have thought a pleasant environment an amenity; we have supposed that clean air and water should come after jobs and "progress." But our environment is not an "issue," as many in the media and in government have recently made it out to be; it is the context in which issues are played out. We have gained the power to drastically affect our environment, and we have only just begun to realize that in holding the power of life or death over our environment we hold it also over ourselves.

What is Wendell Berry for? He wants to see communities that are sustainable and in large part self-sustaining. "We should be producing the fullest variety of foods to be consumed locally, in the countryside itself and in nearby towns and cities: meats, grains, table vegetables, fruits and nuts, dairy products, poultry and eggs. We should be harvesting a sustainable yield of fish from our ponds and streams. Our woodlands, managed for continuous yields, selectively and carefully logged, should be yielding a variety of timber for a variety of purposes: firewood, fence posts, lumber for building, fine woods for furniture makers." And so on--enterprises should be small, and should not value quantity but the careful work of farmers, craftsmen, and others.

Which doesn't seem to leave much room for city dwellers--but Berry does offer some (admittedly small-scale) tips for us. He suggests buying organic produce, from sources as local as possible. We should avoid unnecessary packaging. And the food we do buy we should cook up with love, putting the same care into it that a good farmer puts into his fields.

Berry has a real-life model for his ideal life-style. He sees in the Amish the small scale and devotion to the land that are now alien to most of us. The Amish economy is based on neighbors helping neighbors and on freedom from such "labor-saving devices" as tractors. The Amish community, writes Berry in Home Economics in 1987, "accomplishes the productive work that is necessary to any economy; the economy supports and preserves the land and the people. The economy cannot prey on the community because it is not alienated from the community; it is the community."

The Amish are able to sustain their economy because their community members exercise more restraint than we are used to seeing. An Amish man will not buy up all his neighbors' farms, for example, plow up all the fallow fields, and begin farming them with tractors, because such a move would destroy the community--and his part in it.

The Amish also, at least so far, have not begun to think of hard physical work as drudgery. There's a book called Children in Amish Society, in which some educators describe a survey they did asking Amish and non-Amish schoolchildren to draw pictures of their favorite activities. The majority of non-Amish children depicted themselves playing games, watching TV, or engaged in some other leisure activity. The Amish children depicted themselves milking cows, herding pigs, or doing other chores. I don't think this indicates a failure of imagination on the part of the Amish children; I think it shows a disinclination to be bored by work. And a feeling of involvement in one's work is a cornerstone of Berry's ideal community.

Of course we may regard the Amish as rather quaint. But then, instead of farm chores or other useful work, we have the undeniable drudgery of traffic jams and data entry and all the other varieties of McWork. And we fill our leisure time with the even greater drudgery of TV.

Even if healthy, sustainable communities exist, it may mean little if Americans don't want to live in them. Can a nation raised on Sinclair Lewis ever love small-town life? It's hard to see how we can overcome our deep prejudice that city life is somehow more exciting and fulfilling than rural life. How many of us imagine that our vision of the future of America will come from a farmer?

To live as Berry suggests would also entail a notion new to our country: namely, the acknowledgment of limits. Perhaps we should acknowledge that large-scale agriculture in the arid west is a mistake, if large-scale agriculture there can succeed only at the cost of salination of fields and depletion of groundwater. Perhaps we shouldn't demand perfect-looking produce, if we can only buy glossy, pest-free (though not pesticide-free) produce at the cost of polluted rivers and groundwater.

We are used to glorifying things done on the largest scale possible. We like to use every available new technology, wherever and whenever we want to. Yet we have proven that we can't accept responsibility for the inevitable results of our accomplishments. In a discussion of Huckleberry Finn, Berry concludes that Huck's decision at the end of the book to "light out for the Territory" to escape "sivilization" is emblematic of the great flaw of our young country. "We want to be free; we want to have rights; we want to have power; we do not yet want much to do with responsibility . . . boyhood and bachelorhood have remained our norms of 'liberation,' for women as well as men. We have hardly begun to imagine the coming to responsibility that is the meaning, and the liberation, of growing up. We have hardly begun to imagine community life, and the tragedy that is at the heart of community life."

If we are to live economically, we will have to learn to say no. The paradox inherent in Berry's work is that we can lead richer lives only by respecting the natural limits we have hitherto ignored. Only by acknowledging that we have no existence apart from our environment can we truly enjoy what Berry calls "those things that are worthy: light, air, water, earth; plants and animals; human families and communities; the traditions of decent life, good work, and responsible thought; the religious traditions; the essential stories and songs."

What Are People For? by Wendell Berry, North Point Press, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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