Letters from an American farmer, 1983

For twenty years, writer Wendell Berry has lived and farmed just outside the tiny town of Port Royal, KY. Berry's relationship to the vicinity of Port Royal, with its meandering streams and rolling farmlands - and his writing about it - recalls the ''sense of place'' also found in Thoreau's journal-essays on Concord , Mass., in William Carlos Williams's poetic depiction of Paterson, N.J., and in Faulkner's novels about ''mythical'' Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.

Berry, in fact, works in all three genres. In addition to seven collections of poetry, he has published several books of essays (including the highly regarded ''Recollected Essays'') and three novels.

Berry has found a sizable audience among those seeking alternatives to cultural commercialism. He sees the ideal possibilities as well as the realistic conditions in all aspects of life - farming, marriage, community relations, husbandry of the earth's resources.

Recommended: Thanksgiving Day by the numbers: 10 mind-stuffing facts

This past summer Wendell Berry discussed some of these concerns in an exchange of letters with Robert Marquand Jr. of The Home Forum.m.

Q You have commented much about the worth of down home virtues: morality, discipline, practicality, responsibility. Yet these virtues wouldn't seem to mesh so easily with a popular conception of the artist as one who needs to be deliberately disorganized and freewheeling in order to be spontaneous and creative. Have you found that the basic virtues play a significant role in your own artistic expression, or do they primarily find expression in some other part of your life?m

I think that for artists deliberately to disorder their lives in order to be ''spontaneous and creative'' is merely stupid. To begin with, it is carrying coals to Newcastle. I don't know any life now, mine certainly included, that does not suffer from some amount of disorder. If that is necessary to art, there is more than enough of it. But the business of art is order - not the false order or order-at-any-price of some organizations, but the order that produces health. Order is health, I think. Disorder is toxic air, polluted water, soil erosion, war.

Of course, all makers of good work rely on gifts - helps that they cannot provide for themselves, and may not expect. Such gifts, I suppose, may be said to arrive ''spontaneously,'' but that is only to say that we don't know very much about them. We certainly don't know enough about them to conclude that they are disorderly, or that they can somehow be invoked by disorder. I doubt that these ''spontaneous'' gifts would have a value, or even be recognizable in disorder. If we set the world on fire, it will not matter, and will not be noticed, that the sun is shining.

I would like to add that I don't think of virtues as being ''down home,'' for that phrase implies that home is a backward place that the better people have improved themselves by leaving.

Q What does ''home'' mean to you?

In a country in which multitudes of people have been leaving home more and more frequently since pioneer times, the idea of home is easily falsified by wishful thinking. It is undoubtedly because we are so homeless that we do so much sentimental singing about home, back home, going home, etc.

Robert Frost gives us the following exchange about home:

''Home is the place where, when

you have to go there They have to take you in.''

''I should have called it Something you somehow haven't to deserve.''

And that is tough-minded, generous, and true, as far as it goes. But I think we have to go farther. If a home is to exist for very long as a refuge for those who don't deserve it, then somebody or, more likely, several somebodies are going to have to deserve it; if you are to be taken in when you get there, somebody is going to have to be there - is going to have to have been there for some time before you arrive.

A home is available, that is, only as the answer to a lot of practical questions about home-making and home-keeping. A home is a place with a long, orderly, useful, and conserving human knowledge of itself. It is a gathering place of long memories - and not all good memories - of what has worked and what has failed, what has been gained and what has been lost, what has been suffered and survived. It is a place where the drought of 1983 is met by memories, living or handed down, of the droughts of 1881, 1908, 1930, 1936, and 1954. A home, in short, is a source, center, and preserver of culture.

Q You have been a strong proponent of marriage, and have on many occasions compared marriage to the forms of poetry. Could you elaborate on this?

We cannot fulfill a form on our terms (that is, easily), but only on its terms. Marriage, it may seem to us at the beginning, should be easy - after all, there are only two parties to the contract, and they are in love. But what the form has to teach us is that it is both more difficult and more desirable than we thought. And it is desirable not only in spite of its difficulty, but also because of it. If marriage was easy we would not need it.

Q In ''Recollected Essays'' you gave some attention to what you called the problem of ''abstraction'' in the complex, fast-moving modern society. That is, a tendency to dissociate ourselves from the concrete value of rivers, trees, the soil, animals, people, and to view them merely as objects, in a kind of amoral atmosphere.

Could you explain this a bit, and perhaps suggest what might be done about it?m

Within limits, abstraction is necessary, of course. The problems begin when abstract ideas or patterns or processes become exterior or alien to, and are imposed on, the lives of particular places and creatures. Then they become reductive, false, tyrannical, and dangerous. Differences and diversities are beaten down to a common level, and people become at once less knowledgeable and less free.

We may believe strongly in such abstract principles as ''good work'' or ''charity,'' and yet, if definitions of these principles are imposed on us by a government or even an economy, they become forms of bondage. As William Blake said, we cannot work well or help one another except in ''minute particulars.'' And to pay attention to minute particulars we must be knowledgeable and free.

In some of my writings I have pointed out, for example, that it is not possible to farm well by imposing on one's farm a set of ideas, patterns, and processes that originate elsewhere - in universities or corporations or government bureaus. These things come to the land as abstractions necessarily, for they must be generally applicable. Good farmers may need to know them, or know some of them, but they will also need to reject some of them and to change others in response to their own particular farms.

That it is theoretically or mechanically or economically possible to plow a certain field does not mean that the field should be plowed. To have good farming, the field must be allowed to speak back to these other kinds of possibility; the farmer, that is, must think and speak as the field's representative.

Good farming, then, is not an industrial process - not the imposition of abstract mechanical processes upon abstract quantities of ''resources'' or ''raw materials.'' It is an intimate, mutually responsive meeting between a particular human life and a particular place. In farming, the imposition of abstraction results in soil loss, economic failure, and, ultimately, in starvation.

As power and quantities increase within a given situation, abstraction seems to become more necessary; and, it seems to me, as abstraction increases, freedom decreases.

Technical possibilities are never merely technical. In espousing a technical possibility we alter our own definition. To me, this means that if we want to define ourselves as human in the fullest sense, we must limit technical possibility. There must be some things we can do that we won't do. If we want to be human in the fullest sense, we won't, for instance, adopt technologies that force us to lump particular lives together into abstract categories.

Q So while you might not limit the exploration of science and technology, you would limit or reexamine their application?m

It would be going too far to say that I, as a single individual, would undertake to limit the applications of science and technology, but it is certainly true that I would like to see such applications limited. I think that the right of eminent domain has been far overextended in the service of such applications. It would seem to me entirely reasonable and right that any technological installation requiring a substantial taking of land or posing a threat to health should require acceptance by a three-fourths majority of the affected community or communities.

It seems to be that massive technological changes have been imposed on local communities far too quickly, far too easily, and with far too little acceptance of responsibility by the perpetrators.

I belong, for example, to one of several communities in the midst of which a nuclear power plant is being built. The decision to build this plant here was not made locally, and it was not made with the consent of the local people. The people who are building it do not live here, they consequently have no personal reasons to worry about its safety, and their indifference to its safety has been a matter of public record from the beginning.

My conviction is that people should not develop more power than they can use safely, and that safe use should be personally guaranteed by the members of boards of trustees and directors - that is, they should be personally liable to prosecution if their guarantees fail.

That dangerous power - nuclear and otherwise - can now be used without such guarantees not only constitutes an intolerable threat to public health and welfare, but is a kind of technological politics, totalitarian in implication.

Some, I know, will say that I am opposed to ''free enquiry'' and ''free enterprise.'' I would answer that I am opposed only to the unprincipled use of those freedoms. Such freedoms are defensible - and, indeed, are free - only when used by people wholeheartedly committed to the welfare of neighbors - neighbors, here, meaning all who live within reach of the consequences of one's acts. The interest of neighbors should take precedence over the interests of stockholders, business partners and allies, preferred customers, etc. One of the duties of our government, as constituted, is to assure that precedence.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.