How can a
family Ďlive at the center of its own attention?í
Wendell Berryís thoughts on the good life
If you profess to embrace family values and you shop at Wal-Mart,
think again. The global economy, powered by big corporations such as
Wal-Mart, destroys families with low prices made possible by low
Such are the teachings of Wendell Berry, 71, a lifelong advocate of
family values, sustainable agriculture and environmental
stewardship. Berryís writings promote local economies as a
healthier, more eco-friendly way of life. He has authored more than
40 books and is among 35 Kentucky writers whose work is featured in
a new anthology on the devastation that mountaintop removal mining
has wrought in Southern Appalachia.
Berry lives, writes and farms at Laneís Landing near Port Royal, Ky.
Holly M. Brockman: I've heard you use the term "useful" in
some of your talks, and it certainly permeates all your essays and
other writing. What does usefulness mean? Who is somebody who is
useful and why?
Wendell Berry: Thereís a kind of
language that obscures its subject. Such language makes it harder to
see and to think. By the word usefulness I mean language or work
that enables seeing, makes clarity. Wes Jacksonís work and language
have been wonderfully useful to me in that way. Harry Caudill too,
by his books and his conversation, helped me to see and think and
make the radical criticism. Gary Snyder and I agree on a lot of
things, but his point of view is different from mine and it has been
immensely useful to me. Some differences make for binocular vision.
HB: And what does it mean in the context of human daily
living and beyond? Let's say into the corporate world?
WB: Usefulness stands in
opposition to the frivolous. John Synge wrote about the Aran Islands
where the people were poor and yet all the useful things in their
life were beautiful. The issue of usefulness has a kind of cleansing
force. If you ask, "Is it useful?" probably youíre going to have
fewer things you donít need. You are useful to your family if youíre
bringing home the things they need. Beyond that, maybe you are
useful to other people by your work. The corporate world is much
inclined to obscure this usefulness by making and selling a lot of
things that people donít need. For instance, a lively and important
question is how much light we use at night and what we use it for
and need it for. Iím old enough to remember when the whole
countryside was dark at night except for the lights inside the
houses, and now the countryside at night is just strewn with these
so-called security lights. How much of this do we need? How much of
it is useful? We have a marketplace that is full of useless or
unnecessary commodities. I donít want to be too much of a crank, but
there are many things that people own to no real benefit, such as
computer games and sometimes even computers.
HB: How does your notion of usefulness differ from the old
Protestant work ethic?
WB: The Protestant work ethic
has never been very discriminating about kinds or qualities of work
or even the usefulness of work. To raise the issue of usefulness is
to call for some means or standard of discrimination. The Protestant
work ethic doesnít worry about the possibility of doing harmful work
or useless work.
HB: In order to be better stewards of our own lives and
therefore those resources around usóland, soil, each otheró how do
we work toward a more sustainable, community-oriented life?
WB: I think you have to begin
with an honest assessment of the value or the possibility of
personal independence. What is the limit of individualism or
personal autonomy? Once you confess to yourself that you need other
people, then youíre in a position to look around your neighborhood
and see how neighborly it is, starting with how neighborly you are
yourself. The question of stewardship naturally follows. How careful
is your neighborhood of the natural gifts such as the topsoil on
which it depends.
HB: Large chunks of what used to be taken care of by family
membersócaring for children, the elderly and educationóhas been
outsourced to corporations in the form of daycare, preschool and
corporate sponsorship of education initiatives. You've written
extensively about this and that these are signs of familial
breakdown. Why is it a breakdown and what impact does it have on a
WB: The issue here is the extent
to which a family is like a community in its need to live at the
center of its own attention. A family necessarily begins to come
apart if it gives its children entirely to the care of the school or
the police, and its old people entirely to the care of the health
industry. Nobody can deny the value of good care even away from home
to people who have become helplessly ill or crippled, or, in our
present circumstances, the value of good daytime care for the
children of single parents who have to work. Nevertheless, it is the
purpose of the family to stay together. And like a community, a
family doesnít stay together just out of sentiment. It is certainly
more pat to stay together if the various members need one another or
are in some practical way dependent on one another. Itís probably
worth the risk to say that families need to have useful work for
their children and old people, little jobs that the other members
are glad to have done.
HB: What are some things we can doósmall things,
perhapsóuntil we actually make a commitment on a broader scale, to
initiate husbandry (whose trajectory will be felt globally) to
ourselves, our families and our communities?
WB: I think this starts with an
attempt at criticism of oneís own economy, which may be the same
thing as good accounting. What are the things that one buys? How
necessary or useful are they? What is their quality? Are they well
grown or well made? What is their real cost to their producers and
to the ecosystems in which they were produced? Almost inevitably
when one asks these questions, one discovers that they are extremely
difficult and sometimes impossible to answer. That frequently is
because the things we buy have been produced so far away as to make
impossible any stewardly interest on the part of the consumer. And
this recognition leads to an even better question: How can these
mysterious products brought here from so far away be replaced by
products that have been produced near home? And that question, of
course, leads to all manner of thoughts and questions about the
possibility of a better, more self-sufficient local economy. What
can we neighbors do for one another and for our place? What can our
place do for us without damage to us or to it?
HB: Is it possible to reshape our thinking in baby steps or
must we make sweeping changes?
WB: Oh, letís be against
sweeping changes and in favor of doing things in small steps. Letís
not discourage ourselves by trying for too much or subject ourselves
to the tyranny of somebody elseís big idea.
HB: If everything is left to the individual and the
community, how can each avoid being so overburdened that no one has
much time for activism and intellectual pursuit?
WB: In other words, how can you
have a livable life and do everything? Everything ought not to be
left to individuals and communities. Government exists to do for
people what they canít do for themselves. Farmers individually or in
their communities, for instance, canít enact effective programs for
price supports with production control so a government can do that,
and at one time our federal government did do that. Maybe Iíd better
say at this point that I am an unabashed admirer of the tobacco
programs of The New Deal.
HB: Many progressives live transitive lives (you included
having spent time in New York, California and abroad) having fled
small towns for the more intellectually stimulating environment or a
college town. How do we close that gap and encourage progressives
and intellectuals to find safety and comfort outside an academic
WB: The geographer Carl Sauer
said, "If I should move to the center of the mass I should feel that
the germinal potential was out there on the periphery.Ē I think
there should always be some kind of conversation between the center
and the periphery. So you need people in the periphery who can talk
back to the people in the center.
HB: What encouraged you to settle back in your hometown of
Port Royal, Ky., after finding rewarding intellectual and academic
WB: It was clear Iíd be thinking
about this place (Port Royal) the rest of my life, and so you could
argue that I might as well have come back so as to know it. But
thatís only a supposition. The reason I came back was because I
wanted to. Tanya and I wanted to. We hadnít been homesick but when
we started down the New Jersey turnpike with the New York skyline
behind us, it was exhilarating.
HB: How do we encourage progressives to settle down and
where should they stay? Would you see possibility in them forming
communities among themselves or would you see them successful in
joining already established rural communities where they might not
feel initially welcomed?
WB: Well, people do form
intentional communities. I have visited a few that seemed pleasant
enough. But Iíve never lived in one, and so I donít really know
about them. Iím not willing to say, as general advice, that urban
people should move to the country. Iíve never advised anybody to
give up a well-paying city job and try to farm for a living.
HB: Rural, community-based living has the thinking,
stereotyped perhaps, that there is an innate distrust of outsiders.
Do you see truth in this thinking? What can be done to re-shape this
WB: Thereís truth in it, but
itís also true that distrust is a major disease of our time,
wherever you live. I donít have any idea what can be done about
that. The only way to stop somebody from distrusting you is to be
trustworthy and to prove it over a longish period of time.
HB: Do you believe community-based living has historically
bred conservative rather than progressive ideas?
WB: That depends entirely on the
community youíre in. Communities of coal miners have supported the
union movement. Small farmers have in this part of the country
supported the tobacco program. On the other hand, I suppose that if
you live in a community that is thriving, providing good work for
its members and unthreatened by internal violence, you would
probably try to conserve it. I suppose that Amish communities have
tried to be conservative that way. If you live in an enclave of
wealth and privilege, probably you tend to be conservative in a more
familiar way. And, in my opinion, that is the wrong kind of
HB: Many people grow up in small towns and find great
comfort in their natural and familial surroundings, but their
thinking and ambitions aren't rewarded there either by lack of jobs
or lack of embracement of ideasócertainly, a misuse of the
community's resources. How can youngsters and young adults be
encouraged to stay home and still be fulfilled?
WB: This question depends on
what you mean by intellectual stimulation and whether or not you can
get it from the available resources. Itís perfectly possible to live
happily in a rural community with people who arenít intellectual at
all (as we use the term). It is possible to subscribe to newspapers
and magazines that are intellectually challenging, to read books, to
correspond with like-minded people in other places, to visit and be
visited by people you admire for their intellectual and artistic
attainments. Itís possible to be married to a spouse whose thoughts
interest you. Itís possible to have intellectually stimulating
conversations with your children. But Iíve had in my own life a lot
of friends who were not literary or intellectual at all who were
nevertheless intelligent, mentally alive and alert, full of
wonderful stories, and whose company and conversation have been
indispensable to me. Iíve spent many days in tobacco barns where I
did not yearn for the conversation of the college faculty.
HB: Farmers markets and coops where people buy a share of a
farmer's harvest and pick it up weekly or bi-weekly have gained in
popularity. So have weekly, predictable roadside stands. Why is this
so important to a community?
WB: Well, the obvious reason is
that a good local economy feeds the local community. But markets of
the right kind and scale also fulfill an important social function.
They are places where neighbors, producers and consumers meet and
talk. People come to the farmerís market to shop and might stand
around and talk half a day. Country stores have fulfilled the same
functions. People feel free to sit up at the Hawkins Farm Center in
Port Royal. Itís a great generosity on the part of the Hawkins
family, and a great blessing to the community.
HB: Why is providing food to a local community so important
in sustaining it?
WB: Because the most secure,
freshest and the best-tasting food supply is local food produced by
local farmers who like their work, like their products and like
having them appreciated by people they know. A local food system,
moreover, is subject to the influence of its consumers and the
dangers and vulnerabilities of a large, high-centralized, highly
chemicalized, industrialized food system held together by long
distance transportation. A locally adapted local food economy is the
most secure against forms of political violence, epidemics and other
Freelance writer Holly M.
Brockman teaches and lives in Louisville, Ky.
Send it to the editor.
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