Arts and Activism
Arts and Education
Field Observations: An Interview with Wendell Berry
by Jordan Fisher-Smith
I. On a Winter afternoon, Wendell Berry and I go for a walk on his farm in the Kentucky River Valley. The low sun flashes through the breaks in the bare hardwoods as we hike up out of Berry's upper pasture into the forested uplands. Berry is trying to teach me to recognize nineteen kinds of bare trees by the color and texture of their bark, size and growth habit, where they occur, and the dead leaves on the ground beneath them. I make many mistakes, and he patiently points out the trees again and again as he strolls his long legs ahead of me up the hollow. Berry says the names with appreciation: tulip poplar, wild cherry, black walnut, red, white, chinquapin and shumard oaks, pignut and shagbark hickories, ironwood, hornbeam, beech, sugar maple, sassafras, honey locust, black locust and cedar, water maple and sycamore. He knows them not as a botanist, but the way a country boy who grew up to be a farmer knows trees. "These are the first to grow back in an abandoned tobacco patch, you see," and "These make fine lumber that will last outdoors for generations without rotting," and "These grow in the poor ground of old overgrazed pastures."
We climb to the top of the slope and catch the panorama of the river valley spread out below us, like a Hudson River School painting in grays and light browns, I think. I can see the Berry's rich bottomland, and that of the neighboring farms, in the river's floodplain. The rows of last summer's croplands look like corduroy at this distance.
"What I'm going to do here," says Berry, stopping to show me the view down into a fine stand of medium-age trees, "is grow an old-growth forest. It will take about two hundred years, and I won't live to see it, but there will be some nice trees here, if somebody doesn't cut them down."
Berry leads the way out along the edge of the uplands, beneath a line of huge old trees spared, says Berry, by the farmers who worked the adjoining slopes as late as World War II. In between the trees are mossy piles of rocks, some quite large and heavy, carried from the fields as the plow turned them up.
The country in front of us now falls off steeply toward Cane Run and the horse barn. Berry says he hunted squirrels here as a boy. As we begin to descend, I am thinking about boyhood and Berry's poetry, and I ask Berry if he agrees that school children should be reintroduced to the lost institution of memorizing and reciting poems.
"Yes," he replies, "you've got to furnish their minds."
The idea of poetry as furniture expands within my imagination and for weeks, I think about a poem committed to memory as an old chest of drawers in the corner of a child's room. At first the thing is simply a place to put clothes. With time, the grown man, or grown woman learns to see more of it: toolmarks left by the hand of a long-dead craftsman, a cornice molding around its top in a shape found on ancient Greek temples. And by gazing at its sturdiness for so many years, he or she knows something about how to make things that last.
II. Late evening, and Berry has carried wood from the box next to the wringer washing machine in the back porch, and stoked the two wood burners to capacity. He sits reading with his feet up in a large comfortable chair in the living room, in front of a full wall of bookshelves. I sit on the opposite side of the stove reading a copy of Virgil's Georgics I have brought with me in a cardboard box of books from home. (Like bringing coals to Newcastle, I think, after taking one look at the Berrys' place.)
Berry's wife Tanya, a graceful, purposeful woman from a family of artists, with a pretty face and calm green eyes, leans into the room from the kitchen with a newspaper in her hand. She says something to Berry about the funding for NASA being cut. Berry looks satisfied and replies that he thinks this is a good move.
I decide to probe Berry about his attitudes on the widely accepted virtues of the view of fragile Earth from space. Berry has a certain puckish grin when he is out to puncture some popular icon, which spreads across his face as he drawls, "That view didn't do much for me; it looked like a poor old Christmas ornament." I ask him if he doesn't find, as I do, the experience of flying over a piece of country particularly beautiful and enlightening about, say, the geology, hydrology, vegetation patterns and so on. Berry chuckles.
"Tanya will tell you about me and flying. As soon as that thing takes off, I'd just as soon lie down in the aisle between the seats like an old dog (pronounced "dawg") and go to sleep until it's over."
Then he looks at me and, a little more seriously now, polishes his argument.
"Let's say you were from somewhere else, seeing this Earth from space for the first time. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be satisfied with that view; I'd want to get closer, walk around on it, even get down on my hands and knees. That's how I prefer to see the Earth."
III. On a cold and windy day, Berry loads up some tools into his pickup truck. I squeeze into the cab next to two of his granddaughters, and Berry drives us to a graveyard. There, we join a group from town who are clearing brush in the back part of the burial ground, where the graves of Berry's people lie next to others, who lived before the Civil War.
We work for a while gathering up the brush into piles and set fire to the piles. We begin to stand around them to warm ourselves as the wind picks up. Berry is paying close attention to an older farmer in a pair of mechanic's coveralls and a ballcap, who has begun to tell stories about the people buried around us. The man is close to seventy, but he's muscular, and has a very smooth, unlined face. He's chewing a wad of tobacco, and he spits occasionally. The tales seem to have a formula, featuring the remembered person as a comic character at the center of some hilarious misadventure. A couple of the other men have gathered to listen and poke at the fire with sticks and hand tools. Everyone bends toward the old man in the wind as he delivers the punch line, and then they explode outward in laughter.
Berry takes me back to the graveyard a day or two later. I remark that the stories of the dead people seem to have been preserved as comedy.
"For some reason," Berry says, "that's the way the men remember things, but the women tell stories about the sad things that happened, and there are plenty of sad stories in this graveyard, people who died young, women who died in childbirth...."
His voice trails off and we fall silent for a long time. Berry turns the pickup around and drives us home to supper in the gray evening light.
IV. On a frosty, sunny Sunday, Berry and I sit at the kitchen table, after milking, chores, breakfast and a couple of hours of writing. Brilliant red cardinals are pecking around outside in the sun between the kitchen window and the cistern on the uphill side of the farmhouse. Berry's two sheepdogs are hanging around the back door waiting for something to happen.
Berry wears faded blue farmer's overalls, with several pens and a pair of glasses in the bib pockets, a khaki workshirt and a red cardigan with a bookstore's logo embroidered on it. He regards each question, even the poor ones, seriously and slowly. He waits patiently as I paw through my papers, looking for a note about something I wanted to ask him. Berry's rich voice--it would be called a baritone if he were a singer--and his Kentucky accent make the English language prettier, it seems to me. At one point he stops in mid-sentence and looks out the window, to watch his ewes crossing above the house on their way from the barnyard into the upper pasture.
Jordan Fisher-Smith: In your poem "In Rain," you wrote: "I walk this ground/of which dead men and women I have loved/are part, as they/are part of me ..."
From what I see of your life here, it would be hard to walk a few steps in any direction without finding something to remind you of someone who lived here and has gone now. What happens to us if we forget the dead?
Wendell Berry: Well, if you didn't know any of the past, you literally wouldn't know anything. You'd have no language, no history, and so the first result would be a kind of personal incompleteness.
But practicalities are involved also. If you had a settled, a really settled, thriving, locally adapted community, which we don't have anywhere, you wouldn't just be remembering the dead. You'd remember what they did and whether it worked or not. And so you'd have a kind of lexicon of possibilities that would tell you what you could do, what you could get away with, and what penalty to expect from what you couldn't get away with.
So the memory that a community has of its dead, and of the pasts of the living would be a precious sort of manual--a kind of handbook, a kind of operator's manual for the use of the immediate place. That's the only kind of operator's manual for the world that we're going to have.
Fisher-Smith: And it's largely oral, isn't it?
Berry: It would necessarily be largely oral, because there simply wouldn't be people to write all of it down and there would be little point in writing it down, because it would be too particular to be of much use to the people who lived in other places. It would be extremely local and extremely particular at its best, because it would consist of information about the history of various fields and patches of forest and that sort of thing. It would be too local to need to be preserved for any but the local posterity.
Fisher-Smith: There's a passage in your story "Fidelity," where the narrator says of his grandfather: "When I sat down beside him, his hand would clap lightly onto my leg above the knee," and goes on to say, "The shape of his hand is printed on the flesh of my thigh as vividly as a birthmark. This man who was my grandfather is present in me, as I felt always his father to be present in him." Along with the beauty of that passage, there seems to be a sense of obligation on the part of the older man, if he's to be remembered that carefully. You're a grandfather now. Can you tell me something about what you feel the obligations of the older man are towards the younger?
Berry: The obligation is very great and moves two ways. The old have an obligation to be exemplary, if they can--and since nobody can be completely exemplary, they also have an obligation to be intelligent about their failings. They're going to be remembered in one way or another, so they have an obligation to see that they're remembered not as a liability or a great burden, but as a help. And of course the young, the inheritors, have an obligation to remember these people and live up to them--be worthy of them. So it's an obligation that goes both ways, and it's inescapable. Once you become involved in this sequence of lives, there is no way to escape the responsibility. You inherit, and in turn you bequeath an inheritance of some kind.
Fisher-Smith: Isn't there a wholesale attempt to escape these obligations underway now? I'm reminded of the bumper sticker I see on retired people's motor homes on the highways, which say, "We're spending our children's inheritance."
Berry: We've noticed that bumper sticker too. The problem with that is that it's a lot truer than the people who fly that particular banner understand. They're not just spending the money that a particular set of young people would inherit, but they're participating, as we all are, in the squandering of our natural and cultural inheritance. So, that's passed off as a joke. But, of course, most people have no choice; they simply can't escape this escape from history and responsibility. They're not just moving around, they're being moved around. This phenomenon of mobility is now maybe our major social institution.
Fisher-Smith: Who is benefiting from all this mobility?
Berry: I don't see how anybody benefits from it, really. It can't do anything much for the people who are moving around, and it's bound to depress the quality of work. For work to get good, it has to be carried on for generations, not just for a few years until you get tired of it.
Fisher-Smith: Many people who would agree with you in principle don't have the benefit of what you were born into, this ancestral relationship with a place. They find themselves living far from where their ancestors are buried, in unfamiliar land that they didn't grow up with, and don't know much about. How would you advise them to begin deepening their relationship with place?
Berry: Well, I think that I would give the same advice as Gary Snyder. Stop somewhere! Because you can't recover what's lost. There's no going back to get it. You just have to start again, and I think what people have to experience--have to let themselves experience--is the knowledge and understanding and even happiness that come with long association with people and places and kinds of work.
Of course, along with those enrichments there are griefs and worries too. As you learn what's involved in a place, or in a personal relationship, or a kind of work, you come to understand the dangers, the shortcomings, the damages that already have been inflicted, and so on. And if you stay in a place and make connections, make relationships, you experience losses that are difficult to bear.
What we're really talking about is faith, the faith being that if you make a commitment, and hang on until death, there are rewards. The rewards come. Nobody has ever said that this was easy to do, but I think that everybody who has done it has done it out of this faith that there are rewards. My experience suggests very powerfully to me that there are rewards.
Fisher-Smith: The phrase you just used, "make a commitment and hang on until death," reminds me of marriage. Something like half of all American marriages will fail, and forty percent of all adults are single now. That's a larger proportion than any time in this century. Is there a relationship between the present failure rate in marriages and families, and the failure to form a sustainable human relationship with the land?
Berry: As I see it, there is. People pursue perfection, and I suppose that's a thing that humans have a duty to do, in a way. But there's a tendency now to misunderstand this obligation to pursue perfection as a right to be perfect, to have perfection given to you. And so people enter into their relationships with one another and with their places with the idea that they have a right to expect those places and those people and those connections to be perfect, and then when imperfection appears, as it inevitably does, they feel that they have a right to be offended, and they don't see the arrogance and the condescension in that.
It's not up to the other people and the places and the relationships to be perfect. It's up to every participant to make the relationship and the place and the other person as perfect as possible. We don't have a right to give up on our choices and our places and, indeed, our cultural inheritance because it's not perfect. We don't deserve that they should be perfect. We have an obligation to make them perfect, if we can.
Fisher-Smith: Is this expectation of perfection in one's marital partner and in one's land, a form of narcissism?
Berry: Well, you expect the thing you have to be a perfect replica of the thing you desire. I suppose there's some narcissism in that. It also is condescending and arrogant.
Fisher-Smith: ...and childlike, in a way?
Berry: Very childlike, and it results in childish disappointment and frustration. The other thing is much more difficult because to submit to the job of making perfect a relationship or place or another person means that you must submit to correction yourself. You must submit to the agony of being made perfect yourself, and that's terrifying and extremely difficult. It means you have to face failure over and over again--to realize that you never will really succeed, but this is the necessary work of the world.
Fisher-Smith: Which is?
Berry: To take what we've got and make it better.
Fisher-Smith: You have written that it's useless to try to develop far-reaching plans about how to survive for the next 100 years. Many people would say that it's precisely this lack of planning that has caused the environmental mayhem that we find ourselves participating in. Why shouldn't we be planning intelligently for the future?
Berry: In the first place, to try to imagine people who aren't born yet is inevitably sentimental. It's sentimentalizing about something you don't know, which you have no right to do.
I love my little granddaughters, but to try to sit here and imagine the people they'll grow up to be, even though they're already here and certain things can be known about them, would be sentimentalizing. It would also be a form of oppression.
The first characteristic of a plan is that it won't work. The bigger the plan and the more far-reaching and "futuristic" it is, the less likely it is to work.
There isn't a person who is alive and who has any appetite for living, who doesn't make plans. I make a plan for every day I live. I've got certain things I want to do that day, and if I didn't, I suppose I wouldn't do anything. But I can't help but notice, and I've been noticing for a good many years now, that my plans almost never work out. The day almost never exactly fits the plan. Some days depart wildly from the plan. So I conclude that even though you're going to make plans, if you're a live human being, one of the things you must learn to do is to take them lightly.
A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you're looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one's real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that's appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don't do those things, then you build up a debt against the future, which is what we're doing now.
If we were willing to live by the rule, for instance, that it's a sin and a crime to waste things, we would be enacting a far greater kindness toward the future than we would by making a lot of big plans for it. C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man that if your choices are on a grand enough scale, it's possible to make choices for people unborn that they perhaps wouldn't make for themselves. We've done that over and over again. For example, we've filled the world with poisons and have thereby chosen that our children, for generations, will live in a poisoned world. They can't choose not to live in a poisoned world.
Fisher-Smith: What, in your opinion, are the most dangerous superstitions, as you refer to them, of modern industrial culture?
Berry: That industry will inevitably come up with solutions for the problems that it has created; that knowledge is neutral or value-free; that education is good; that education makes people better; that you can make people better by means of technological progress. Those are some of them.
Fisher-Smith: The superstition that knowledge is neutral reminds me of a discussion you and I had last month, about the Luddites in early nineteenth-century England, who broke up machines and burned factories when faced with new weaving machines which, they felt, would disrupt their way of life. I notice that the term "Luddite" has a kind of sting in popular usage...
Berry: Luddism has been far too simply defined. It doesn't mean just the hatred of machinery. Luddism has to do with a choice between the human community and technological innovation, and a Luddite is somebody who would not permit his or her community to be damaged or destroyed by the use of new machinery. The Amish, for instance, have succeeded simply by asking one question of any proposed innovation, namely: "What will this do to our community?"
That, to me, is an extremely wise question, and most of us have never learned to ask it. If we wanted to be truly progressive, if we were truly committed to improving ourselves as creatures and as members of communities, we would always ask it. I think some of us are beginning to ask it. The question isn't often spoken outright, but it lies behind a lot of these grassroots movements to save forests and rivers and neighborhoods and communities, and so on.
Fisher-Smith: Much of this environmental action seems to focus on legal remedies: lawmaking if there's time, or lawsuits if there's not. In the long run, the aggregate of our attempts to control the effects of economic activity on culture and on nature seems to result in a body of regulations and an expensive bureaucracy to manage them. Is there an alternative way of controlling what is done for profit?
Berry: The alternative is revival of the idea of community.
I don't think you ought ever to give up on the law, and on the public effort to improve law and to improve the effectiveness of it--to try to see that the government acts truly and effectively in the interest of the people. But that kind of effort obviously isn't enough.
The real way for these bad innovations to be prevented is for the communities to refuse them, and that's happening to some extent. Communities do refuse bad innovations. There's a lot of scorn now toward people who say, "Not in my backyard," but the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment is one of the most valuable that we have. If enough people said, "Not in my backyard," these bad innovations wouldn't be in anybody's backyard. It's your own backyard you're required to protect. Of course, it's better if you defend your own backyard with the understanding that in doing so, you're defending everybody's backyard. Or with the understanding that you may need help in defending your backyard, or that you may need to help others defend theirs. But the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment is an altogether healthy and salutary and useful one, and I'm for it.
However, a community has to understand that if it refuses the public proposal, then it has to come up with something better. And if the government or a corporation comes in and says, "We want you to have this obnoxious installation because it will employ your people; it will bring jobs," then the community has to have an answer to the question: "Where are we going to find jobs?" Sometimes it won't be an easy question. Sometimes it will be a devastating question, but the community nevertheless has to begin to look to itself. It has to look to itself for the answers, not to the government--and not to these corporations that come in posing as saviors of the local community, because they don't come in to save the local community.
So the communities have to begin to ask what they need that can be produced locally, by local people and from the local landscape, and how it can be produced in a way that doesn't damage the local landscape or the local community. And by local community, obviously, you can't mean just the people. You mean the people and the natural communities that are supposed to exist there--the trees, the grasses, the animals, the birds, and so on. Everything has to be included and considered.
Fisher-Smith: But I notice that there is not much of a constituency for coyotes in this part of Kentucky, especially around your sheep. The restoration of populations of wolves is not a popular idea in the cattle country of the Northern Rockies, and I've seen sea lions and otters dead from gunshot wounds along the Pacific coast fishing grounds, all the way from California to Alaska. How do you address this apparent failing, in practice, of the stewardship ethic you are proposing? Such an ethic seems to favor those things for which you have, what you call, "affection."
Berry: Well, we obviously have to enlarge affection so that it includes more than those things that are most congenial or profitable. Stewardship means simply the care of something that doesn't belong to you. Originally, it meant the care of property belonging to God. The most suggestive and comprehensive understanding of the world is that it's God's property, but of course we could understand it also as belonging to our children and their children and their children. Beyond that, we have to understand that human interest can't be the definitive interest. If we're not going to be religious about the world, we have to see that it is a property belonging to itself--a stranger and riskier proposition, it seems to me, than the theological one.
If the coyotes are getting your sheep, as experience has shown, a very impractical approach is to say, "Well, we'll just kill all the coyotes," because you're not going to kill them all. They seem to be a species that thrives on human malevolence.
A better question is how can you raise sheep in spite of the coyotes, and there are ways of doing that. Here we use donkeys and a guard dog, some electric fence, and we're saving our sheep. All kinds of questions are involved in any of these issues, but the important thing to me is to define the issue with a due regard for its real complexities.
The inherited approach to this kind of problem in America is that if you're in the sheep business and coyotes eat sheep, then you must kill coyotes. But that isn't corrected by adopting the opposite one. The opposite approach espoused by some environmentalists is that if you like coyotes and there's a conflict between coyotes and sheep, you ought to kill the sheep. The necessary, and the most interesting, question is how these two things can exist together. It may be that in some places this effort ought to be given up. I thought when the coyotes came in here that this might be one of those places.
Fisher-Smith: Thus this question of "What is possible here?"
Berry: Right. What's the nature of the place? The proper approach to any kind of land use begins with that question. What is the nature of this place? And then: What will nature permit me to do here? There was a lively interest in such questions in the poetic tradition from Virgil to Pope, and it undoubtedly goes back well beyond Virgil. That way of thinking continues in the work of some modern agriculturalists--Albert Howard and Wes Jackson, among others--whose approach is to ask what the nature of the place is, what nature would be doing here if left alone. What will nature permit me to do here without damage to herself or to me? What will nature help me to do here? And those latter questions imply another one: How can I make my work harmonize with the nature of the place? Wes Jackson and Albert Howard would argue that the farming in a place ought to be an analogue of the forest, or the prairie, or whatever naturally occupied the place before farming began.
Fisher-Smith: I want to question you a little more about this idea of identifying with and defending the specific region where one lives, as opposed to a "global" sort of environmentalism. It seems there are at least two more problems with this.
First, what about areas that are not really any particular group's domain? And second, what are we to do if we see someone else failing in their responsibility? It seems to me that if we are to take regionalism or bioregionalism seriously, we must respect other people's sovereignty. Yet if the Koreans, for example, are mining sea life with huge drift nets against international accords, or people in Southeast Alaska are removing the rain forest there at an unsustainable rate, shouldn't people in Kentucky do something about it? Do others have a greater right to destroy what is in their charge than we have to defend it?
Berry: Nobody has a right to destroy anything, and everybody has an obligation to defend as much as he or she possibly can. But sooner or later you'll have to chose. You can't defend everything, even though everybody has an obligation to be as aware as possible, and as effective as possible, in preserving the things that need to be preserved everywhere. But I've argued over and over again that the fullest responsibility has to be exercised at home, where you have some chance to come to a competent and just understanding of what's involved, and where you have some chance of being really effective.
Let's understand that a little more carefully. Another superstition of the modern era is that if you don't have it here, you can safely get it from somewhere else. A corollary superstition is that it's permissible to ruin one place for the benefit of another. So you can wreck Eastern Kentucky in order to supply coal to the industrial cities of the Northeast, or you can contaminate a nuclear waste site in order to supply power to some other place.
Those two superstitions lie behind this willingness of any community to destroy the basis of its economic life. Any fishing community that fishes destructively is undermining its own existence, obviously. But it's doing that because of these superstitions I'm talking about: "Well, if we use this up, we'll do something else. If we ruin this place, we'll go to another place."
Fisher-Smith: But that superstition you are talking about goes so far back that all of our enterprises seem to be built upon it. Take, for example, the rich tradition of pastoral writing that your work follows. The construction of the Library at Alexandria in third century B.C. Egypt, and the pastoral poetry of Theocritus, were made possible by ruinous taxation of the production of the agricultural people that pastoral writing celebrates. How do you expect to root out something so ancient and fundamental to Western culture as this superstition you are talking about?
Berry: Yes, Rome destroyed itself by undervaluing the country people, too. I guess we should leave open the possibility that we'll be too stupid to change. Other civilizations have been. But at least it's more obvious now that this superstition is a superstition, because now there's no place else to go. The "other places" are gone. If we use up the possibility of life here, there's no other place to go, and so the old notion is bankrupt, though it still underlies most destructive practice.
"Space," I guess, is the new "other place"--a place for a few privileged people to get government subsidies, take souvenir photographs, and have expensive mystical experiences. But it's important to see that all these "other places" have been bad for us. They have been the poor excuses that have allowed us to ignore the limits of nature and our own intelligence, and so avoid our responsibilities. One of the oldest American assumptions is that if you don't like where you are you can move: if you don't like Virginia, go to Kentucky; if you don't like Kentucky, go to Missouri; if you don't like Missouri, go to Texas or Oregon or California. And that assumption has done damage everywhere it has gone.
But what if people gave up that idea or began to move away from it, and began to ask, "What can we do here?" and "What that we need can we produce here?" and "What that we need can we do for each other here?" In the first place, there would be less incentive for those people to over-fish their fisheries because we'd be promoting local consumption of local food right here. I mean it's not just enough to find out which tuna fisheries are killing the dolphins. If you really want to get radical, the question is what have we got here that we can eat instead of tuna fish?
Fisher-Smith: To, as you say, shorten the lines of supply?
Berry: That's right. Shorten the supply lines. Bring your economic geography back into your own view. That's not to say that we don't need tuna fish here, but even if we were catching ocean fish in the least destructive way, it would still be wrong for us to be too dependent on tuna in Kentucky. We ought to eat more catfish.
We ought to see to it that our rivers are unpolluted here, and eat the local fish from them. And we ought to fish in a way that preserves the supply and, therefore, preserves the livelihood of fishing. What I'm trying to talk against is the idea that a so-called environmental problem can ever be satisfactorily reduced to a simple moral choice. It's always complex in its causes, and so its solutions will also have to be complex.
Fisher-Smith: It seems to me that you've turned these words "complex" and "simple" upside down, in terms of their usual positive or negative values. You've said you wish to complicate, not to simplify, every aspect of daily life.
Berry: Absolutely! Simplicity means that you have brought things to a kind of unity in yourself; you have made certain connections. That is, you have to make a just response to the real complexity of life in this world. People have tried to simplify themselves by severing the connections. That doesn't work. Severing connections makes complication. These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity makes complication--in other words, a mess.
Fisher-Smith: But that complication is considered to be outside the accounting?
Berry: It's left out of the accounting. That's right. People think either that they'll die before the bill comes due or that somebody else will pay for it. But the world is complex, and if we are to make fit responses to the world, then our thinking--not our equipment, but our thoughts--will have to become complex also. Our thoughts can never become as complex as the world is--but, you see, an uncanny thing is possible. It's possible to use the world well without understanding it in all of its complexity. People have done it. They've done it not by complicated technology, but by competent local adaptation, complex thought, sympathy, affection, local loyalties and fidelities, and so on.
Fisher-Smith: I don't expect to see those words you use, "sympathy, affection, loyalty, and fidelity," appearing this week in a business or scientific journal. Our Western cultural inherence seems to have been bifurcated between the time of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the time of romanticism in the early nineteenth century, into one side which is the manipulative and the effective, science and industry; and another side which is the feeling and affective, art, spirituality, and the emotions. How does this play out in the current trouble that we're in with nature?
Berry: It plays out in the construction of tools that can't be used sensitively. People try to conduct their lives, say, as whole human beings, and yet do their work in ways that are unfeeling and violent. And that won't work.
How can technology be sensitively and intelligently applied? How can it be used with the utmost intelligence and sensitivity? You can make your equipment so powerful and so big that it, itself, institutionalizes the impossibility of using it sensitively and intelligently.
Fisher-Smith: So you're saying the separation of art and science isn't necessary?
Berry: The separation of art and science is impossible.
Fisher-Smith: But, in fact, that's the way the world is organized right now, isn't it?
Berry: Yes. It's organized on the superstition that these two things are separate. Another superstition is that they are separable. Science means "knowledge" and art means "doing" or "making." Obviously you can't know without doing or do without knowing.
Fisher-Smith: What about how young people come to know things? You've taught for many years, and you've been critical of the education system. What would be your approach to improving education?
Berry: My approach to education would be like my approach to everything else. I'd change the standard. I would make the standard that of community health rather than the career of the student. You see, if you make the standard the health of the community, that would change everything. Once you begin to ask what would be the best thing for our community, what's the best thing that we can do here for our community, you can't rule out any kind of knowledge. You need to know everything you possibly can know. So, once you raise that standard of the health of the community, all the departmental walls fall down, because you can no longer feel that it's safe not to know something. And then you begin to see that these supposedly discreet and separate disciplines, these "specializations," aren't separate at all, but are connected. And of course our mistakes, over and over again, show us what the connections are, or show us that connections exist.
Fisher-Smith: So this calls into question, doesn't it, the whole structure of postgraduate work where people find a tiny specialty to become the world's foremost expert on it?
Berry: It calls into question the whole organization of intelligence in the modern world. We're teaching as if the purpose of knowledge is to help people have careers, or to make them better employees, and that's a great and tragic mistake.
Fisher-Smith: I have trouble visualizing how the body of knowledge would continue to grow if everyone was a generalist. Isn't this incremental contribution to the body of knowledge in the form of obscure studies a necessary activity?
Berry: Adding to knowledge is not the first necessity. The first necessity is to teach the young. If we teach the young what we already know, we would do outlandishly better than we're doing. Knowledge is overrated, you know. There have been cultures that did far better than we do, knowing far less than we know. We need to see that knowledge is overrated, but also that knowledge is not at all the same thing as "information." There's a world of difference--Wes Jackson helped me to see this--between that information to which we now presumably have access by way of computers, libraries, and the rest of it, great stockpiles of data, and that knowledge that people have in their bones by which they do good work and live good lives. The knowledge that a good farmer has, for instance, is a far different thing from the knowledge that most university experts have. For one thing, a farmer's knowledge is usable knowledge; a lot of it comes from experience, and a lot is inherited. The knowledge of most university experts is self-centered--committed to their own advancement in their careers and therefore, indifferent to the effects of the work they're doing or going to do. And they're usually not committed to any community.
There's a difference between thinking about problems and having problems. Where experts are thinking about problems, the people who have the problems are usually absent, are not even well represented. The only way out of this is for the teacher, the person of learning, the researcher, the intellectual, the artist, the scientist, to make common cause with a community. They must commit themselves to a community in such a way that they share the fate of that community--participate in its losses and trials and griefs and hardships and pleasures and joys and satisfactions, so that they don't have this ridiculous immunity that they now have in their specializations and careers. Then they'd begin to learn something. New knowledge would come from that, and it would be better than "information."
Fisher-Smith: It seems to me that one of the problems with this strong identification to the local community, in practice, is that it seems to have resulted throughout history in a strong self-other distinction, and resulting internecine warfare. For example, take the struggles of ethnic groups in Eastern Europe after the decline of communism. What about this apparent nasty side of strong local identification?
Berry: It's an old problem, and it has an old solution.
For a long time, we've had this understanding that our humanity is damaged and stunted by being, in this bad sense, provincial or chauvinistic. Of course, you can make a chauvinistic, xenophobic stranger-hating little old small town. You can also make a large city or a whole nation that hates strangers and is xenophobic and chauvinistic and arrogant and condescending--genocidal, in fact. So, when you say that one of the dangers of community life is xenophobia, I say of course that's one of the dangers. That's the very job of work we're talking about, not just to become a community, but to become a good community, and a good community has to imagine the strangers that come to it; it has to imagine its misfits and its enemies; it has to imagine its natural membership.
Fisher-Smith: So your vision is not, as a shallow reading of your work might make somebody think, regressive, a kind of nostalgic longing for a rural nineteenth century ideal with horsedrawn equipment? But in fact, the kind of community you envision hasn't existed yet. Is that right?
Berry: That's right--at least it hasn't existed in America yet--but there's no way to defend yourself against a shallow reader. If your work includes a criticism of history, which mine certainly does, you can't be accused of wanting to go back to something, because you're saying that what we were wasn't good enough. There is no time in history, since white occupation began in America, that any sane and thoughtful person would want to go back to, because that history so far has been unsatisfactory. It has been unsatisfactory for the simple reason that we haven't produced stable communities well adapted to their places.
What I'm talking about in my work is the hope that it might be possible to produce stable, locally adapted communities in America, even though we haven't done it. The idea of a healthy community is an indispensable measure, just as the idea of a healthy child, if you're a parent, is an indispensable measure. You can't operate without it.
Jordan Fisher-Smith lives in Nevada City, California, and has worked as a ranger for twenty years and a writer for six. His essay "A Natural Death" was published in the Autumn 1997 issue of Orion, and is one of a series of essays which he is assembling into a book.
Wendell Berry lives and farms in Kentucky. His books include Fidelity: Five Stories, Another Turn of the Crank, and The Unsettling of America.
This interview was originally published in the Autumn 1993 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.