Thoughts on Wendell Berry, by Michael Pollan
Last Wednesday, UC Berkeley faculty panelists Michael Pollan (Graduate School of Journalism), Robert Hass (English), Miguel Altieri (Environmental Science, Policy and Management), and Anne-Lise Francois (English and Comparative Literature) welcomed Wendell Berry to their campus for a conversation about food and agriculture. Wendell Berry, a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, and poet, has written on food, farming, and community throughout his long career. He is the author of over forty books including The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, and the well-known “Port William" series.
Each panelist gave an introduction to Mr. Berry's work and praised his discerning view on our food system and our role as citizens of this land. We thank Michael Pollan for allowing us to share his introductory thoughts on Wendell Berry, which we have included below. The recorded version of "An Agro-Ethical Aesthetic:" A Conversation with Wendell Berry can be viewed here.
I hope you will forgive me for opening on a personal note, and one, in the spirit of Wendell Berry, I’ve written down, but that is the best way I know to express the profound debt I owe to Wendell – a debt I hope you’ll come to see is yours too.
I first became acquainted with Wendell Berry’s work in the 1980s, when I was a young editor at Harper’s Magazine, and just starting out as a writer. The magazine published several of his essays and I edited some of them. I got to pore over his sentences during the week, and then on the weekend test out some of his ideas in my garden. To put it mildly, Wendell’s work was not exactly fashionable just then – these were the Reagan years, and he was writing essays with titles like “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” But I was avid for those essays. He taught me some crucial things, both about writing and about making my way in the garden, where I was struggling.
I was struggling because I had come to gardening with a head full of Thoreau and Emerson, acquired in college, and their romantic ideas about the beneficence of Nature and the corruptions of Culture. These are deep old American ideas, and beautiful in their way – they gave us the wilderness park, perhaps America’s greatest contribution to world culture, and they gave us the conservation movement. But they don’t give us a workable garden or farm or food system, because they don’t offer a place for humankind in nature, except as despoiler or spectator.
When you’ve bought into Emerson’s conceit that a “weed” is merely a defect of our perception, an emblem of unfettered wildness we should cherish, it becomes hard to hoe – and therefore to harvest much of anything. So, stupidly, I let the weeds have their way, the woodchucks too (because a fence, Thoreau has taught me, bespoke alienation from nature) and predictably my first garden failed.
It was Wendell Berry who showed a way out of my predicament – which I would argue is our culture’s predicament too. He patiently explained that I had a legitimate quarrel with the weeds and rodents, and that this quarrel was actually healthy, as long as it remained the argument of lovers and I did not press for outright victory. Using the example of his own farming, he demonstrated that the parties of nature and culture need not be in a state of perpetual war, bur rather could be married, much to the benefit of both.
This is a radical notion in a nation that conceives of the relationship of nature and culture as a zero-sum game, so that that the gain of one invariably means the loss of the other. (This is a tragic and depressing idea that has, I think, crippled the environmental movement.) But to Thoreau’s declaration that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Wendell added this crucial domestic corollary: “In culture is the preservation of wildness.” In doing so, he gave us a job to do – and he shifted the ground where Americans go to think about their relationship to nature – that peculiar phrase! – from the woods and the wilderness to the farm field and garden. He pointed a way back into nature, which is, I think, what most excites people about the food movement today.
Wendell and I didn’t meet until years later, but back in the eighties we had conversations over the phone about his pieces. I was always struck by his courtliness, a certain old-school formality, and the fact that he would actually stop to think before he spoke, something to which, as a New Yorker, I was completely unaccustomed. But listen for the air with which he surrounds his sentences, sentences he takes almost as much care with speaking as he does on the page.
Wendell Berry’s project, his ultimate questions, have held remarkably steady over the past 40 years: How might we best fit ourselves to the contours of the land? How can we begin to think ecologically and then align the conduct of our lives with that thinking? Where might we go to find a true measure of value and health? The wisdom and the eloquence of his answers have inspired many of us in this room. They have also, I would argue, supplied the philosophical foundation beneath today’s movement to reform the American food chain and rebuild vibrant local economies.
I don’t think many of the young people coming to this movement fully realize the extent to which the national conversation we are now having about food and farming in America is a conversation Wendell Berry helped to start some four decades ago. He was talking, and writing, way back then about the folly of growing food with petroleum instead of sunlight; about the perils of monoculture, and about how all who would eat are implicated in agriculture. Forty years ago, he was already connecting the dots between the health of the soil, the health of the people who ate from that soil, and the health of their communities.
Indeed, it is humbling to return to some of these early essays. Rereading them for today’s event sparked two realizations, each painful in its own way. The first is that those of us trying to address these issues today are much less original than we might like to think – on so many questions, Wendell Berry was there first. And the second realization is this: What would we give now to have back the environmental and public health “crises” that Wendell Berry was decrying back in the seventies, a time before anyone had heard the phrases “climate change” or “obesity epidemic” or “type 2 diabetes”? Back then, it was called “adult onset diabetes” because it didn’t happen to children. History will show we failed to take up Wendell Berry’s invitation to begin thinking about eating in a way that might have mitigated those crises: I mean, treating eating as the ecological, political, and agricultural act it is. Instead, in the 1980s, we dropped the thread of the conversation he helped to start.
Thankfully, Wendell Berry himself never stopped talking, and slowly, slowly the world has come around, or at least part way so. In the past few years we have picked up that thread again, and this afternoon we have an opportunity to continue and perhaps extend that conversation.
One of the things we need to talk about today, given how much more urgent “the crisis” has become in the last few years, is how exactly we should act now – where best to invest our energies? One of the sternest challenges Wendell lays before us is his contention that the environmental crisis is at bottom a crisis of character – a crisis of the way we all live, day to day, as individuals. The “big problem” is really just the sum of all the little problems. There is Chevron and carbon taxes and Citizens United – and then there is us, driving, heating, eating, going about our daily lives, deeply complicit, thinking (or failing to think) with our “cheap energy minds.” We can’t expect the “system” to change, Wendell suggests, until we shed or change those minds, break our everyday personal dependence on the system. So there is on the one hand the soft politics of changing how we conduct ourselves day-to-day – rebuilding local economies, tending to our communities, voting with our forks. And then there is the hard politics, not just of voting with our votes, but of direct action and civil disobedience – something of which Wendell has some recent experience. Which makes me wonder if his thinking on this issue has shifted.
So I guess that’s the question I’d like to hear Wendell address. Given the ecological emergencies we face, and our growing sense of urgency at the magnitude of the problems – a sense underscored by the immensity of Hurricane Sandy just this week – where can we most profitably invest our energies: in continuing to build alternative economic and social structures, tending our gardens, you might say? Or in directly confronting the economic and political powers-that-be – at a time of deafening political silence on the most important questions we face? Do we still have time to work on ourselves, in other words, or has the time come to take our complicit, still-imperfect selves and use them to throw some wrenches into the machine?
-- Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His complete bio can be read here.