Wendell Berry: Finding Patience in an Era of Emergency

The sensibility of Wendell Berry, who is sometimes described as a modern day Thoreau but who I'd call the soul of the real food movement, leads people like me on a path to the door of the hillside house he shares with his wife, Tanya, outside of Port Royal, Ky.

The sensibility of Wendell Berry, who is sometimes described as a modern day Thoreau but who I'd call the soul of the real food movement, leads people like me on a path to the door of the hillside house he shares with his wife, Tanya, outside of Port Royal, Ky. Everything is as the pilgrim would have it: Wendell (he's a one-name icon, like Madonna, but probably in that respect only) is kind and welcoming, all smiles.

He quotes Pope ("Consult the genius of the place in all"), Spenser, Milton and Stegner, and answers every question patiently and articulately. He doesn't patronize. We sit alone, uninterrupted through the morning, for two or three hours. Tanya is at church; when it's time, he turns on the oven, as she requested before leaving. He seems positively yogic, or maybe it's just this: How often do I sit in long, quiet conversation? Wendell has this effect.

Tanya returns around noon, and their daughter, Mary, arrives shortly thereafter. (Mary lives nearby, runs a winery, and is engaged in enough food and farm justice issues to impress Wendell Berry.) We eat. It's all local, food they or their neighbors or friends or family have grown or raised, food that Tanya has cooked. There's little fuss about any of that, only enjoyment and good eating. I note that I can't stop devouring the corn bread, and that the potatoes have the kind of taste of the earth that floors you.If you imitate nature, says Berry, you'll use the land wisely.

And we chat, and then Wendell takes me for a drive around the countryside he was born in and where he's lived for most of his life. As he waves to just about every driver on the road, he explains that the land was once home to scores of tobacco farmers, and now has patches of forest, acres of commodity crops and farms where people do what the land tells them to. That's one of Wendell's recurring themes: Listen to the land.

There really is not that much to see until I try to see it through Wendell's eyes, and then every bit of erosion becomes a tiny tragedy -- or at least a human's mistake -- and every bit of forest floor becomes a bit of the genius of nature. (If you imitate nature, he's said, you'll use the land wisely.)

He knows the land the way I know the stops on the Lexington Avenue subway line and, predictably, I begin feeling like the fairly techie city person I am and wonder if it could have been otherwise. I have friends who back-to-the-landed it in the late '60s and early '70s, and a couple of them stuck it out. Although one of them seems to have disappeared somewhere near Leadville, Colo., another -- urban as he was in the beginning -- has gained the same kind of wisdom Wendell has, a sense of patience and understanding, a kind of calm despite full awareness of the storm.

Genuine and as much of a product of place as Wendell is, he's not a full-time farmer and never was, but a farm-raised intellectual and even a man of the world. I'd never heard of him the first time I read his work -- probably in Harper's, probably in the '80s -- but his words have changed my life. As the years have gone by, I've watched his stature change. If he's not a leader then he's an inspiration to those who are.

"You can describe the predicament that we're in as an emergency, and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency." -Wendell Berry

In any case, he's in Port Royal now, and has been for decades (his family has been here for 200 years), and there is something about his attachment to nature -- it's not just the land but everything on the land -- that is so profound that his observations and his judgments (Wendell is a kind but very judgmental man) can be jaw-dropping. If you read or listen to Wendell and aren't filled with admiration and respect, it's hard to believe that you might admire and respect the land or nature, or even humanity.

In Washington this past Monday, Wendell delivered the 2012 Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor the federal government has for "distinguished intellectual achievement" in the humanities. He titled the talk "It All Turns on Affection." When I visited him last month he told me that preparing the talk "taxed him greatly," and I can see why. It's incredibly ambitious, tying together E.M. Forster's "Howard's End," the history of his family and the country around it, and -- to summarize it rather crudely -- the costs of capitalism's abuse of humans and land.

I doubt there is a more quotable man in the United States. (You can readily see this by reading the text of the talk, or by visiting this lovely page of Wendell Berry quotes.) Monday, he spoke of the "mechanical indifference" of a financial trust, that it had the "indifference of a grinder to what it grinds," saying, "It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the 'side effects.'" This from a poet and an essayist who, by following his love of the land and its people, describes the current state of affairs as accurately and succinctly as anyone on earth: "The two great aims of industrialism -- replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy -- seem close to fulfillment."

I knew that Wendell and I agreed on these things when I went to visit him. Oddly, I felt, as I imagine others have in making the same trip, as if I were seeking wisdom. Indeed, Wendell's thoughtfulness and perception, combined with his outside-ness and demeanor (if anyone could persuade me to start worshiping, it would be Wendell), makes this only natural.

We spoke, as I said, for hours, and my two big questions for him were, essentially, "How are we going to change this?" and "What can city people do?"

He makes it clear that he doesn't think anything is going to happen quickly, except perhaps the possible catastrophe that lurks in the minds of everyone who believes the earth to be overstressed. "You can describe the predicament that we're in as an emergency," he says, "and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency."

Change, he says, is going to come from "people at the bottom" doing things differently. "[N]o great feat is going to happen to change all this; you're going to have to humble yourself to be willing to do it one little bit at a time. You can't make people do this. What you have to do is notice that they're already doing it."

Then he takes me to the barn, where there are seven newborn lambs. And he says, "When you are new at sheep-raising and your ewe has a lamb, your impulse is to stay there and help it nurse and see to it and all. After a while you know that the best thing you can do is walk out of the barn."

We walk out of the barn, and say goodbye.

Three hours later, my phone rings. (Wendell, famously, does not own a computer.) "Mark," he says. "I've been thinking about that question about what city people can do. The main thing is to realize that country people can't invent a better agriculture by ourselves. Industrial agriculture wasn't invented by us, and we can't uninvent it. We'll need some help with that."

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