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January/February 2006

 

INTERVIEW

How can a family Ďlive at the center of its own attention?í
Wendell Berryís thoughts on the good life

BY HOLLY M. BROCKMAN

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 wages.

 

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 family?

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 setting?

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 success?

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 thinking?

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 conservatism.

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 threats.


Freelance writer Holly M. Brockman teaches and lives in Louisville, Ky.

 

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Excerpt from Wendell Berry's Afterword in Missing Mountains

 

 

 

 

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2006 International Poetry Contest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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