Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wendell Berry's Pipe Dreams

A repost from 2009.

Earlier this Spring, Wendell Berry, the poet, writer, cultural critic and farmer, spoke at George Washington University, about four blocks from my office. You can see a portion of his presentation in the video, above.

Berry has made a small name for himself as a professional mourner for rural America, and as a confirmed Luddite who embraces a kind of romantic pastoralism.

To his credit, Berry notes that there is a certain dissonance to his presence, and indeed his very existence.

"I flew up here, to tell you, among other things .... that if I was going to get here guilt free, I would have had to walk.

This is paradox we are all caught in, and it ought to give us an appropriate sense of complexity.

[pause] ... Seems to me that for 35 or 40 years, I have been flying about all over the country to tell people, in effect, that they ought be be staying home.

[pause] ... That's a hard nut to crack."

Of course, he does not even try to crack it. And why should he?

After all, his stock in trade is not solving the world's social and economic problems, but bemoaning the way things are even as he paints a gauzy and pastel-tinted picture of the way things used to be.

I am not trying to break Wendell Berry's rice bowl here. He is a very good writer. I just wonder whether Berry gets his groceries delivered from town as Thoreau did? I do not know, but I would not be too surprised. After all, it's much easier to talk about living a simple life than it is to actually get off the grid and live a fully self-sustaining existence without benefit of trans-continental (and even international) commerce.

I do know that Berry bemoans the fact that his little town of Port Royal has gone from 18 stores to just 3.

I sympathize. If making a rural living was so great, more people would be doing it.

Now, to be clear, I am not begrudging Berry his airline flights.

Nor am I begrudging him his suit (which he did not make) or his shoes (which he did not make).

What I am going to call Wendell Berry out on is something else: his use of a manual typewriter.

Now, I do not care how Berry writes. He can scrawl on the wall with a crayon if he wants. He is a very good writer, and however he wants to work is more than fine with me.

What I object to is Berry's idea that he is virtuous because he uses an old manual typewriter rather than a computer.

His reasoning? He says he does not want to use electricity for fear of giving support to coal mining, and:

"when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of a computer with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one."

Right. Got it. Don't bother Berry with the facts. He is a poet bent on rhetorical flourishes. He will do what he wants to -- which of course is his right.

That said, I would point out that Dante did not write with a typewriter.

Dante did not use a machine made of metal and plastic, assembled in a factory sweat shop.

Dante wrote with a quill pen on vellum that was skinned from sheep that were probably slaughtered less than 50 miles from where he lived.

Berry, on the other hand, has spent 40 years flying about the country telling us to not do what he does.

His books are printed on bleached pulp wood paper that is the very definition of modern industrialism.

In the video, seen above, the lights, the video recorder, and the microphone are all powered by electricity. So too was the loom that wove his suit, and the machine that sewed his shirt.

So too, might I add, is the computer on which you are reading this little missive, and upon which I type at this very minute.

Berry thinks he is more virtuous than you and I because he pounds away on a typewriter.

Could he be simply more ignorant?

You see, I have read Mr. Berry's work, and while it is very beautifully written, I think it would be greatly improved if it was leavened a little bit by something other than romantic philosophy. A few facts. A little data. Some history. Maybe a smattering of real-world economics.

For example, in the poem that Mr. Berry reads in the video above, he moans that "the forests are ruined and the fields are eroded and the streams polluted."

Now, I do not want to quibble, but if Mr. Berry did some research, he would know we have more forests in America today than we did 50 years ago, and we have less soil erosion, and we have cleaner rivers, streams and lakes.

It was not modern farmers that made the Dust Bowl, or modern loggers that clear-cut Appalachia.

In modern America, we have fewer sewer outfalls than we did 50 years ago, and a lot more secondary and tertiary water filtration systems.

Does Mr. Berry not know this?

There is nothing wrong with beautiful words, but at some point it all becomes a little too close to aromatherapy: a nice smell to have wafting through the room, but pretty far from the kind of medicine we really need if we are well and truly sick.

And Mr. Berry thinks we are a very sick nation.

I am not so sure. I will profess agnosticism on the point, and let his thesis stand.

Nor am I quibbling with all that Berry has to say -- far from it.

Mr. Berry decries the fact that the world is moving too fast.

I salute that notion. I believe it was Mahatma Gandhi who observed there is more to life than increasing its speed.

Mr. Berry says we need to cultivate community and personal relationships more.

I do not disagree. One does not need to send money around the globe to engage in charity or good works.

Mr. Berry decries the decline of rural agriculture, and celebrates a return to the kind of rustic agricultural life that existed 50, 70 or even 100 years ago.

It is here where Mr. Berry and I part company.

You see, we no longer live in an age of schooners and candles. When Mr. Berry was born, in 1934, the population of the world was 2 billion. Today, the population of the world is 6.8 billion.

When Mr. Berry was born, the population of the U.S was 122 million. Today it is 310 million and growing rapidly.

Just as Mr. Berry cannot afford to come to Washington, D.C. by walking, so too can the nation no longer afford to plow its fields with horses.

The complete history of the world in 15 seconds.

As for electricity, I am not sure what Mr. Berry is afraid of. Surely he knows he does not need to make his electricity from coal? We have solar cells, windmills, generators that run on home-brewed bio-diesel, min-hydro sets powered by small streams, methane converters, and bicycle-powered generators, all commercially available off-the-rack, and easier to find than a typewriter repair shop.

You mean to tell me that in reading all of those copies of Mother Earth News, Wendell Berry never figured out how to make electricity without an electrical cord plugged into a coal-fired utility grid? Then he sure wasn't trying too hard!

But let's come back to that computer.

You seem, I am not pro-computer, I am anti-ignorance. I am pro-substance.

I do not mind poetic words, but they should be wrapped around something more than a vague yearning for a simpler time, and a beautiful whine that the world is not as it once was.

Yes, the world has real problems. It always has. Sadly, Mr. Berry (like Henry David Thoreau before him) does not seem to have real answers.

Take the issue of population growth.

Bill McKibben, who introduces Berry in the short video clip, above, wrote a book called Maybe Just One.

McKibben gets it: the natural world is not committing suicide, we are killing it.

And we are not killing the natural world because we are malevolent: we are killing it because there are too damn many of us.

So what does Wendell Berry have to say about human population growth?

Not a thing so far as I can see.

Well, that's not quite true is it? No, instead, he gives us more poetry and failed philosophy.

He tells us that there used to be a "natural" method of family planning called abstinence and self-restraint.

Really? Fascinating. You see, I am a demographer by training, and what I know for a fact is that the "natural" method of population growth has never been abstinence and self-restraint -- it has been fantastic and depressing rates of childhood mortality. That is how we really controlled population from the dawn of time until very recently. Surely Mr. Berry knows this?

And, at the risk of being being seen as mean-spirited, let me note that Mr. Berry's own family does not seem to have practiced too much "self-restraint" at the time of his birth. You see, Mr. Berry is the first of four children.

Four children!

Four children is a higher fertility rate than that of Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Burundi, Cambodia, South Africa, Honduras, India, Nicaragua, Mexico, Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, China, or Indonesia today.

What would the world be like if everyone had four children, and human population doubled every 25 years ad infinitum?

If we only keep score from the year of Mr Berry's birth, we would have nearly 16 billion people on earth today, rather than 6.8 billion.

The simple truth is that there is no amount of simple living that Mr. Berry can do to save the amount of resources that might have been saved if his parents had stopped at just one or two.

Which is not to say I am blaming Mr. Berry for his parent's inability to practice self-restraint.

I am simply pointing out that population and family planning choices matter a lot more than whether you grow a few organic tomatoes in your back yard.

Of course, when it comes to farming, things get really interesting with Mr. Berry and his own rural economy.

You see, Mr. Berry has become a kind of touchstone for the "eat local and eat organic" crowd.

Having read Michael Pollan, they see exported corn and soybeans as evil, and the local farmer's markets (if one can be found that is actually selling locally-grown produce rather than repackaged stuff from Florida and California) as nirvana.

The little joker buried in the deck here, however is that Mr. Berry's own farm is not a vegetable farm.

Mr. Berry's farm grows corn (that evil weed) and other grains, as well as tobacco (cough, cough).

In fact, tobacco has been the touchstone of the Berry household -- the cash crop that made everything else work, not only on his farm, but in his larger farming community which he now so eloquently bemoans the decline of.

Why did Berry and his neighbors grow tobacco? Simple: You could make a lot of money by plowing just a few acres of poor soil.

Never mind that tobacco bled the land white.

Never mind that tobacco killed 400,000 to 500,000 Americans a year -- more Americans than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.

And how come the Berry farm no longer grows tobacco today?

It is not because Berry "got religion." Wendell Berry himself explains his home-farm economics:

This is tobacco country. We've lost two-thirds of the allotment in the last few years, courtesy of the global economy. Not the anti-smoking people. This is traditionally a mixed farming country. Tobacco was the staple crop, but we also grew corn and small grains. The small grains were grown as cover crops on the tobacco and corn ground.... Tobacco acreages have declined here because the companies can fill their needs more cheaply elsewhere. The other products we grow are thrown into the world market to compete as best they can. With the help of subsidies, of course. In Kentucky we have always raised for export. One of this state's problems is that it hasn't added value to its agricultural products. I would say we are adding less now than ever. Louisville used to have two or three packing plants, for instance, and a stockyard. But no more. Most of the things that are produced in this state are shipped out, to have the value added elsewhere.


Berry's complaint is that foreign tobacco is killing Americans, not American tobacco.

He does not voice an objection to tobacco deaths, or the $96 billion a year we spend on smoking-related health care costs. He objects to the fact now we import death rather than grown it in local fields.

Wendell Berry's daughter, Mary Smith-Berry, is also a farmer, living just up the road from her father. In an interview she explains the economics of her region, and her creative solution for the modern era. As the article notes:

The land in Kentucky is rolling - beautiful, but much of it marginal for agriculture. For many generations, farmers relied on tobacco as their cash crop.

"Tobacco, for all its other problems, was a decent crop for a family to raise and make a fair price," Smith said. But the federal tobacco buyout program of 2005, which ended years of subsidies, made growing tobacco unprofitable for many.

Smith said the buyout had unintended consequences. Although tobacco had rarely been the only crop on a Kentucky farm, without the tobacco base, it is hard to keep farms as farms. The farm across from the Smiths' has been subdivided, and more neighboring land might be.....

.... Then, on a trip to California, Chuck Smith happened to ask a vineyard and winery owner how many acres of grapes he had. He was expecting to hear 300 to 400 acres; the answer was eight.

"Chuck said to me, 'That's tobacco,'" Smith said. "It's a way to make a living on a small area of crop."

So the couple is now proprietor of Smith-Berry Vineyard and Winery, which is open to the public five days a week.

I am glad Mary Smith-Berry and her husband have found a way to make a living on their farm courtesy of Internet-driven tourism.

Boutique wineries with musical groups to draw in the crowds are a thriving small-farm business in the hill country of my own native Virginia as well.

But let's not kid ourselves that this is "essential" agriculture any more than tobacco was, or marijuana is.

This is entertainment agriculture for well-heeled yuppies who burn thousands of gallons of gasoline driving out to sit on the grass listening to music at weekend wine tastings.

This is a nicety for rich people, not a necessity for our tables.

Tobacco, booze and marijuana have never made us stronger as a nation -- they have made us stupider, sicker, and less productive.

They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

You want to know the solution?

Less ignorance and more knowledge.

And you know the cheapest way to get that?

Buy a computer, plug it in, and Google away. You can even read, listen to, or watch a little Wendell Berry if you want!


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I never expected to see a pile-on about Wendell Berry and though I love him, too, I'll put one more little pig on the pile. Sexism. It's not just that he doesn't use a computer for his composing, but that his WIFE does the editing and so on -- on a computer. I can understand that a person who writes pulls their machine right into their muscles and brain, so switching away from pen-and-sheepskin might derail the whole thought sequence. This is an old scandal about Berry -- I think it last flared up in the Nineties.

I had no children on purpose.

It's thirteen below zero here today. Not much digging going on, even with machines.

Prairie Mary

jeffrey thurston said...

Clowns like this guy are a classic American phenomenon- the bleeding heart liberal living his cushy little fantasy life- all that money and success propping up self-delusion. I live near a city populated by these creatures- Berkeley CA- and they've managed to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day. IMO all these hypocrites should be forced to give their land back to the Indians they feel so bad about- or in Berry's case to actually live like a 19th century farmer - I bet he'd last a couple of hours...

Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,

Tobacco cultivation, like illegal pot cultivation and moonshining had the advantage of providing a decent rural living w/o tremendous capital expenditures. (In my rural appalachian county, there is no economic way for a young person to set up farming.)

Agriculture is, as Wendell says, "culture" and tobacco allotments were as much a political coup for
the growers as "the war on drugs" benefited small pot growers.

Like Wendell (and the Amish he admires) I'm a bit of a rural luddite in part because unalloyed "free" market techno-worship is very, very expensive and has destroyed rural communities. Efficiency and ease are values not self evident virtues.

One could kill fox/woodchucks easily and efficiently by plugging one end of the burrow and pumping gas in the other but there are other values involved.

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

Fully agreed that unbridled "free market capitalism" with massive tax incentives and price supports is a rapacious beast that destroys as much (and sometimes more!) than it creates.

What I am opposed to is blind hypocrisy and romanticism. This stuff sells to city folks, but the truth of the matter is that life on the old farms that Wendell Berry romanticizes was physically hard, culturally repressive, and it is now economically impossible.The suburban romantic with four backyard hens may grow weepy-eyed at the idea of owning a hand-drawn well, but only if they have never hauled a 5-gallon bucket up a 40-foot well shaft -- and done in at 5 in the morning after dropping the bucked three or four times to break the skim ice on top. A hot shower at the turn of the knob? A frozen steak from the freezer? Not too much of that in the "good old days" that Wendell Berry romanticizes.

Does hard work build character? Yes.

But let us also note that the kind of work that went on in the pre-industrial farm also destroyed spines, chewed up lives for low-production purposes, gave us food that was less clean, and made vacations impossible.

The old line that "you can't keep them down on the farm after they have seen the bright lights of the city," is about how the rural life of well water, outhouses, and 20-mile trips to a grocery store completely sucks when compared to taps, toilets, and transit systems. Automation on farms has been driven by people abandoning farms wholesale -- not the other way around.

It's one thing to sell agrarian romance (a lot of that), and another to bemoan the rise of fossil fuels (lots of that too), but when you claim to be living a more virtuous life because you use a typewriter made in a sweat shop and are too stupid, ignorant or lazy to figure out how to install a solar cell electrical grid, then you set yourself up for mockery.

And when the economics of your farm depends on policy and economy that winks at addiction, disease and the death of millions, you become more than a mockery -- you become a cynical little monster spinning a very big lie.


Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,
Family farming (as city folks think of/dream of it) in the US has always been brutally hard from the revolution to today. Those few who prosper(ed) have done so with slavery, peonage (migrants,modern poultry production) or the government teat (BLM land in the west, farm subsidies and government water which overwhelmingly went and still go to the powerful.

Meantime family farmers enjoyed "rain will follow the plow", the dust bowl and post civil war when 4 of 5 farm families hadn't been on their land 5 years. Withal those air conditioned tractors, farming's still very dangerous and a hard, hard dollar and I know few to no farm parents hoping their children will become farmers.
I've a handful of Virginia friends who make their entire living from farming. The son of the cleverest, hardest working (hogs, cattle, sheep) proudly returned from school to announce "Guess what Dad, I'm eligible for the free lunch!"

I asked another whether they'd signed up for Obamacare. "We don't make enough money."

The only exceptions to family farm failure have been (techosuspicious) old order Amish, some less known anabaptist sects, and from about 1930 to 1975, tobacco farmers in Wendell Berry's Kentucky.

I've known too many people who produced it, sold it, advertised it or used it to get on my moral high horse. Smoked for years myself. Got bad lungs, thanks.

What Berry gets absolutely right is the life of a stable, farming community and farm families right before and for a time after WW2. He is also better than anyone on how our agri-culture and economic ideas/policies effect those who produce our food and those who depend upon it.

He's one of the very few writers who've written first rate novels, short stories, poetry and essays. Unlike most of us writers, he's worth reading and since you are involved in the rural countryside I'd recommend his "The unsettling of America".

The beneficial changes I've seen in my 40 years farming (and yes, for a time, farming was our major income): organics, local food, humane livestock production and rural land conservation owe a debt to Wendell Berry.

Whether his dream or parts of it can (without Anabaptist strictures) be replicated seems
more possible than it did the first day I went out to the barn.

Donald McCaig