A Poet Who Speaks for the Farmers

"Defending the family farm," writes Wendell Berry in Bringing it to the Table, "is like defending the Bill of Rights or the Sermon on the Mount or Shakespeare's plays. One is amazed at the necessity for defense, and yet one gladly agrees, knowing that the family farm is both eminently defensible and a part of the definition of one's own humanity."

Bringing it to the Table, a collection of Berry's essays and fiction published this August, is full of ideas like this one: ideas that possess the heft and understated beauty of fieldstone walls. Their mason, appropriately, is an earthy poet who has written 50 books and spent nearly as many years cultivating a small Kentucky hillside. Berry may not be as well known these days as the ubiquitous Michael Pollan, but he is certainly as insightful. If you plan on purchasing a single book on food and agriculture this holiday season, Bringing it to the Table should be near or at the top of your list.

If Pollan is the Rachel Carson of the so-called "food movement"--the chronicler who has stirred citizens to action--then Berry is probably its Henry David Thoreau. Pollan himself, writing in Bringing it to the Table's introduction, claims Berry as his ideological forebear: he notes, "I challenge you to find an idea or insight in my own recent writings on food and farming that isn't prefigured (to put it charitably) in Berry's essays on agriculture." The dangers of large-scale monoculture, of a food supply based on cheap oil and cheaper corn, and of an economy that sacrifices land on the altar of industry--Bringing it to the Table addresses all of these topics and more. Its lucid prose, most of it dating from the '70s and '80s, serves as evidence that Berry was among the first to shout a cautionary cry.

It is clear that whether farming, writing, or eating, Berry, too, does it for love.

But Berry resembles Thoreau not merely because he inspired a movement. Like the great Transcendentalist, or like a great poet--William Wordsworth comes to mind--Berry concerns himself with the relationship between humanity and the natural world and finds in it the deeper themes of mystery and divinity. If his writings appear to be more about farming than this relationship, it is because Berry regards the growing and eating of food as the foundational ways in which humankind and nature interact.

Above all else, he emphasizes that our relationship with nature is one of interdependence. Berry is quick to admit, for example, that his work is derived from that of Sir Albert Howard, the British botanist and "father of organic agriculture" who wrote, as Berry is fond of quoting, that we should view "the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject." When we encounter the byproducts of industrial agriculture, be they exhausted resources or poisoned drinking water, nature, writes Berry, "is forcing us to believe what the great teachers and prophets have always told us and what the ecologists are telling us again: All things are connected."

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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