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Wendell Berry Wants Us to Get Small and Stay In

By: Christine Grillo

When Wendell Berry met with a small group of us for an informal conversation at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, we promised to try not to talk him to death. “Well,” he said, “if you did, that would be the end of my troubles.”

Mr. Berry, age 82, beloved writer, poet and farmer, was in town for a two-day visit during which he talked with Eric Schlosser about what he calls “the world-ending fire.” The next day he read from his new essay, “The Thought of Limits in the Prodigal Age,” in which he discussed his vision for an authentic land economy. Intrigued by some comments he made earlier during his talk about the burning up of the world that began with the Industrial Revolution and is continued in every internal combustion engine every day, I asked him to elaborate on climate change. He’d said that he didn’t think our fear tactics, and our fear of the future, were going to bring about positive change—only love could do that.

Fear is why we’re alive, he said. It’s what makes us run away from the bad things. But fear doesn’t last. “The shelf life of those emotions is limited,” he said. “I used to stay mad a long time, but I just can’t anymore. I decided not to do my work in the posture of guilt.”

So…we should use love to mitigate climate change? “Love is an abused word,” said Mr. Berry. “Maybe we should use ‘affection’ instead.” Love, he said, is a very nice feeling, but it also comes with obligation. He used the example of the dairy farmer who, presumably, got into the dairy business because he loves it. In addition to love, that farmer has an obligation twice, or maybe three times a day, to milk his cows.

He quoted a teacher of his: if a man loves his land, he’ll save it. Land ownership, of course, is a tricky concept, because what does it mean to own land? Mr. Berry is careful in his advice to “own land.” In a philosophical sense, swatting aside arbitrary constructs such as law, can anyone truly own land? And if so, does ownership give us the right to abuse or restrict? Mr. Berry asked the questions, but he left the answers for others to mull.

One of my favorite conversations with Mr. Berry was a discussion about his life as a writer. He writes in longhand, with a pencil,  on the right-hand page of his spiral notebook; he puts notes and revisions on the left-hand page with a caret. His wife, Tanya Berry, types his writings with a 1956 Royal Standard. When we asked him about prioritizing his writing, he waxed on about how it’s important for a writer to have things in life that are more important than writing. “It’s the right discipline,” he said about priorities that interfere with writing. More on his feelings about art: “You may think it’s important, but don’t allow that, it’s not that important,” he said.  “It’s good for your art to have the proper subordination, to have something asked of you as a human as a whole person.” It’s  good to have your moment of inspiration interrupted by something like your sheep getting out into the road or the ewe that’s been lambing for hours. “If you’re a married man, art doesn’t come before anything. It just doesn’t. If you have a child, art doesn’t come before anything. And if you have livestock, art doesn’t come before anything,” he said.

I wanted to know what to do in this newly recognized climate of populism, which includes an intense aversion to regulations (which perhaps we should call “protections,” but that’s another topic entirely), a reckless faith in corporations to do what’s right for the people, and a disdain for science and education.

“Well,” he said, “you can protest if you want, but protests will only do so much.” The real work to be done is that of people talking to each other. The real change happens at the hands not of the federal government, but rather among the county judges, the mayors, and the small courts. In the end, it’s a matter of scale, he said. “You gotta get it down to the little units, the towns, the neighborhoods. … People talking to each other.”

The problem of scale is seen in Kentucky, his home state, where people like Mr. Berry are tackling Big Coal and “getting nowhere, forever.” The problem of getting the coal industry out of the state is too big, he says. It needs to be broken down into smaller bites. He digressed to complain about how both political parties in Kentucky are in the thrall of the industry. (The next day during a Q&A session, he referred sarcastically to “Our pride and joy in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.”)

In another informal conversation, I asked him to speak more about science, and how it might or might not help to bring about his vision of an authentic land economy. Science can be a big help in terms of methods and skills, he acknowledged; his main beef with science is when it tries to measure and reduce intangibles like mercy, kindness and love to genetics and physics. Finding another tangent, he chuckled over how the same people (the aforementioned scientists) who believe in determinism threw up their arms during the recent election, surprised that voters did not have the free will to vote sensibly. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “Either it’s all determinism, or it’s all free will.”

But back again to the crux of Mr. Berry’s gist. The way he sees it, reform, recovery, conservation and all that good stuff boil down to things he’s been praising for decades: conversation, conviviality, company, laughter, connection to a place, attention to the land and respect for people, animals and plants. He credits one of his friends, the late Gene Logsdon, author of The Contrary Farmer, with advice that counters the Nixon-era edict from Ag Secretary Earl Butz to get big or get out. “Get small and stay in,” he said.

He was one of the warmest, most sincere and funny writers I’ve ever met. His visit buoyed the spirits of so many of us who are struggling to navigate our new political era—and he told us that if we wanted to find hope, we might want to start by thinking about what a beautiful world this still is.

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