Wendell Berry, plowman-poet

FROM the lips of politicians and journalists alike comes the word: There's a new pride in America, a brimming optimism abroad in the land. But Wendell Berry, America's foremost ``literary farmer,'' doesn't share the optimism. The son of this small town in northern Kentucky speaks instead for ``another America.''

It is a rural America ``that exists completely off the books of the accounting being done in Washington,'' Mr. Berry says. The plowman-poet, who for 30 years has written as the nation's conscience on behalf of the small farmer and the environment, has just returned from a tour of farming communities in the Midwestern and Northwestern states.

Berry says the soil erosion on farmland he saw this trip was ``far worse'' than it was five years ago. And he reports that, like the land, farming communities are in serious decay. ``The whole landscape is snaggletoothed with abandoned farms,'' says Berry, ``while in cities, the skyline is lacy with cranes.''

``Big-city stockbrokers and advertisers are the most optimistic types,'' Berry says. ``But come here to Port Royal and you won't find a lot of optimism.''

Despite the era-of-good-feelings sentiment that has marked such recent United States events as last weekend's Statue of Liberty festivities, Berry is skeptical of an ethic of ``good times'' tied too closely to economic well-being. He has written most of his life about what he sees as the overwhelming trend in modern America to reduce decisions to an economic level, at the expense of the moral life of individuals and communities, and the future of the ecosystem. ``Money is a dangerous determinant of national health,'' he says.

Friends call him an iconoclast, unrelentingly moralistic, a good man, and ``a wise farmer.''

A small farmer in Port Royal is what he has been since 1964, when he left the English Department at New York University and moved with his wife and children back to the place where he grew up.

Since '64 he has also, as a poet, essayist, and novelist, developed a reputation as one of America's most versatile men of letters -- a reputation that can only grow stronger with the publication of ``The Wild Birds,'' his first collection of short stories. The stories deal in Faulkneresque fashion with the complex loyalties that exist below the surface of small-town America.

He is deeply attached to what the nation stands for, and also to his Kentucky land, which draws up from the Kentucky River and looks out 10 miles over richly forested knolls.

On this day Berry is just back from a draft-horse association picnic, and he soon will go down to the barn to feed the calves and do the milking (bringing to mind lines from Berry's ``The Mad Farmer March'': ``Instead of reading Chairman Mao/ I think I'll go and milk my cow''). But in the meantime, Berry stretches his lean, six-foot frame over an easy chair.

``It's one thing to refurbish the Statue of Liberty,'' he says, ``but I'd like to see Iowa and the grain states refurbished, my own part of Kentucky refurbished, and communities thriving.''

Berry's father imparted to him a powerful Jeffersonian sense of America as a collection of communities -- a sense that for democracy to work, people must be bound to each other by far more than economic ties. In Berry's view, they must be joined also by the values of hard work, devotion, memory, and association that come with membership in a community.

This is a necessary part of one's character education, Berry says -- an education that is being disrupted in modern America by corporate farming, large franchises, commercial TV, and other interests that ``crush out'' community life. The loser ``is America.''

The connected problems of community and national health are complex, he admits. And small towns are hardly perfect. Still, ``the basic issue is love -- loving things, loving people, and not this abstract `love of humanity' we hear so much about, but loving particular people.''

Some critics charge that Berry wants to turn back the clock, that he would be happier in the 19th century. His retort is succinct: ``Nonsense! All the people I love are in the 20th century!''

It's not that he's against progress, he says. It's just that he thinks more care must be given to answering the question, What kind of progress is needed today?

The environment is an example. In 1977, Berry wrote an essay detailing how the crisis in the environment was a ``crisis in character.'' Deforestation, strip mining, and farming practices that lead to soil erosion are in part examples of a fundamental schism between what Americans think and what they do. They reflect a willingness to put off responsibility for our actions, Berry says.

``In the Palouse [the rich farmland in eastern Washington] we're losing 20 bushels of topsoil per bushel of wheat,'' he says. ``People there are starting to get worried.'' Clear-cutting, such as that in the Tahoe National Forest in California, is also taking valuable topsoil.

In Kentucky, Berry says, strip mining is razing entire mountains, and ``people are being moved in trailers onto the bare mud.'' Mineral seepage ruins the local water, he adds.

In Berry's sense, then, character is forged in the clash between economic interests and the demand to consider the long-term effects of our actions on the land and the community.

By hewing too ardently to a ``business first'' approach, Berry insists, we become blinded to the invisible and intangible moral order that underlies community. We also fail to see the ``gift'' that good land represents. In a sense, America itself -- the land, its history -- is a gift, a good gift, Berry says.

But he admonishes us that such gifts make demands. If you enter a good land, you are obliged to treat it well, every day. This is an implicit moral fact, Berry says, and it speaks to all aspects of modern life.

Part and parcel of this outlook is Berry's contention that men and women live in a larger human story; that the world was not created for just ourselves; and that the past is an important source of instruction and example. ``I don't think people are smart enough to make up in one generation what goodness is.''

In ``The Wild Birds'' (Northpoint Press), Berry gives literary expression to these principles. ``It Wasn't Me,'' the second short story, is a drama set around the auction of a small ``Port Williams'' farm.

In the story, Berry shows how the worth of the farm goes beyond simply its market price. The transaction represents a gathering of many values, involving the need to care for, and even deserve, the land, to respect the good work the owner has put into the land, and to be aware of the hopes, intentions, and code of honor of the founding members of the Port Williams community. One also has obligations to those living in Port Williams now. There is a whole structure of trust and responsibility that can't be figured in a ledger.

As the main character, lawyer Wheeler Catlett, says, ``It's not accountable, because we're dealing in goods and services that we didn't make, that can't exist at all except as gifts. Everything about a place that's different from its price is a gift.... [As] friends as neighbors, you work together, and so there's lots of giving and taking without a price -- some that you don't remember, some that you never knew about. You don't send a bill. You don't, if you can help it, keep an account.''

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