For more than forty years, Wendell Berry has worked his family farm in Kentucky the old-fashioned way, using horses as much as possible and producing much of his own food. And he has published more than forty books, writing by hand in the daylight to reduce his reliance on electricity derived from strip-mined coal. Berry has been called a “prophet” by the New York Times, and his Jeffersonian values are so old they can appear startlingly new. His strong pro-environment position has made him something of a cult hero on the Left, as have his antiwar sentiments, which have grown sharper over the years. His 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” published in Harper’s, led some to accuse him of being antitechnology, a Luddite. For his part, Berry has criticized environmentalists for not working to protect farms as well as wilderness. His stout self-reliance and unabashed use of moral and religious language in his writing have endeared him to a number of conservatives, even as his stance against corporate globalization has drawn criticism from others. But these apparent contradictions don’t seem to bother Berry one whit...
Fearnside: Stopping by a local eatery on the way here, I asked people what they might want to ask you. Henry County is small, they noted, and farming isn’t very profitable anymore. So, why did you stay when you could have left for, as one waitress put it, “glitz and glamour” elsewhere?
Berry: I just happen to have no appetite for glitz and glamour. I like it here. This place has furnished its quota of people who’ve helped each other, cared for each other, and tried to be fair. I have known some of them, living and dead, whom I’ve loved deeply, and being here reminds me of them. This has given my days a quality that they wouldn’t have had if I’d moved away.
There have been some good farmers here. The way of farming that I grew up with was conservative in the best sense. I learned a lot from people in Henry County. Probably all my most influential teachers lived here, when you get right down to it. I owe big debts to teachers in universities, to literary influences, and so on. But it’s the people you listened to as a child whose influence is immeasurable — especially your grandparents, your parents, your older friends. I’ve paid a lot of attention to older people. Of course, not a lot of people here are older than I am anymore, but some are, and I still love to listen to them, to my immense improvement and pleasure.
Fearnside: What are some of the things that they say?
Berry: They tell stories. They talk about relationships. They talk about events that have stuck in their minds. The most important thing is not what they say, but the way they talk. We had a local pattern of speech at one time. Now we’re running out of people who speak it. But there were once people here whose speech was uninfluenced by the media, and it had an immediacy, a loveliness when it was intelligently used, and a great capacity for humor.
Fearnside: A good friend of mine told me that she knows people from Kentucky who have trained themselves not to speak like Kentuckians.
Berry: That was the main goal of the school system: to stop you from talking like a “hick” and get you to speak standard American.
Fearnside: When you speak of what the elders here in Henry County discuss, it reminds me of a line from Barry Lopez’s short-story collection Winter Count: “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
Berry: I don’t think we’re just stories — we’re living souls, too — but we’d be nothing without stories. Of course, stories that belong to a landscape are different from stories that don’t. In Arctic Dreams Lopez talks about how the Eskimos, the native Alaskan people, have a cultural landscape — the landscape as they know it — that is always a little different from the actual landscape, which nobody ever will fully know.
In a functioning culture the landscape is full of stories. Stories adhere to it. And they’re most interesting when they’re told within the landscape. If, say, an oral-history project records somebody’s story and puts it in the university archives, then it’s a different story. It’s become isolated, misplaced, displaced.
Fearnside: You’re a well-known advocate for local economies, yet you write for a much-wider-than-local audience, which means you must rely on the machinery of the corporate world to get your message out. Is there a contradiction in this, or is it simply an inescapable paradox that you must be pragmatic about?
Berry: There are contradictions in it, no doubt about that. There’s an absolutely lethal contradiction in my driving and flying around to talk about conservation and local economies. But you have to live in the world the way it is. You can’t declare yourself too good for it and move away. You have to carry the effort wherever you can take it. You’ve got to have allies. The thought of the Committees of Correspondence in the American Revolution is never very far from my mind. People have to stay in touch somehow. They have to meet and talk. They have to support each other. But that’s a network, not a community.
Fearnside: I was fortunate once to participate in a barn raising in Idaho. It was an incredible experience of community. With the help of friends and neighbors, using mostly hand-held tools, a couple raised a barn in a day and a half.
Berry: The Amish do it in a day. They belong to a traditional culture that, for a long time, has steadfastly put the community first.
Fearnside: I’ve noticed that the Amish seem less self-conscious than most Americans. Why do you think this is so?
Berry: I’d say that in their community, honesty is the norm. One of the most striking things about the Amish is that their countenances are open. We pity Muslim women for wearing veils, yet almost every face in this country is veiled by suspicion and fear. You can’t walk down a city street and get anybody to look at you. People’s countenances are undercover operations here.
Fearnside: While traveling in the Xinjiang Province of China — which is predominantly Uyghur, a traditional Muslim culture — I was struck by the people’s openness. In particular, the children radiated gaiety and health, just as Amish children do.
Berry: The Amish children are raised at home by two parents. They’re given little jobs to do from the time they’re able to walk, and they’re important to the family economy. They have rules. They’re secure. There are things that they’re not allowed to do. There’s something pitiful about American children who are left to invent a childhood on their own with one parent or none, no community, no relatives, and nothing useful to do. They don’t even go into the woods and hunt.
Fearnside: I fear that my generation may be the last to grow up outdoors. I used to roam for hours, hiking through the fields and woods or bicycling down country roads, completely unsupervised, which is unheard of today. Nowadays a kid is going to grow up sitting in front of a computer screen or listening to an iPod, not climbing trees or even playing ball in the street.
Berry: Young people around here don’t come to the river to swim or fish anymore. Of course, an alarming percentage of Kentucky streams aren’t fit for swimming or fishing.
Fearnside: It seems that we’ve been separated from our local communities by radio, television, and now the Internet. Because these forces come from outside the communities, they often don’t reflect the communities’ values. How can we stay plugged in to information and yet preserve our local connections?
Berry: I don’t know. There’s not much you can do, unless you want to disconnect yourself from those electronic gadgets. I pretty much do. Tanya and I haven’t had a television for a long time; people used to give tv sets to our children, because they felt sorry for us. I think we were given three over the years. I listen to the radio some. I don’t have a computer, and I almost never see a movie. To me this isolation is necessary. It keeps my language available to me in a way that I don’t think it would be if I were full of that public information all the time.
Fearnside: My wife and I enjoy watching movies on dvd, but we find that most mass-media offerings aren’t worth our time.
Berry: To make yourself a passive receptacle for information, or whatever anybody wants to pour into you, is a bad idea. To be informed used to be a meaningful experience; it meant “to be formed from within.” But information now is just a bunch of disconnected data or entertainment and, as such, may be worthless, perhaps harmful. As T.S. Eliot wrote a long time ago, information is different from knowledge, and it has nothing at all to do with wisdom.
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