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."

As a result, when Berry writes that defending the family farm is like defending the Bill of Rights or the Sermon on the Mount or Shakespeare's plays, he really means it. For Berry, an ecological understanding of agriculture, based upon the rules of nature rather than the dictates of industry, is not only as important as universal freedoms or religion or literature. Like all these things, it imparts "the definition of one's own humanity," reminding us that we are surrounded by transcendent forces and part of a mysterious whole.

In Bringing it to the Table, you will thus find Berry the Essayist, that predecessor of Michael Pollan who writes informative primers with titles like "Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems" and "Sanitation and the Small Farm." To be sure, parts of the collection, including Berry's profiles of old-school farmers and the excerpts of his fiction, tend to drag on, and Berry's admiration of "tradition"--best exemplified by his frequent praise of the Amish--may seem antiquated to many readers.

But the collection also features Berry the Poet, whose musical language inspires. He quotes everyone from Thoreau to the 16th-century English poet Edmund Spenser, and his own turns of phrase are striking. Here are a few of them:

We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn.

Now we face overwhelming evidence that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault, and that nature does not tolerate or excuse our abuses.

Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: "Love. They must do it for love."

It is clear that whether farming, writing, or eating, Berry, too, does it for love. In "The Pleasures of Eating," the final essay in the collection, he writes, "Eating with the fullest pleasure--pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance--is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

He then leaves prose behind and ends his book with poetry, summing up "the meaning of food" by recalling the following lines by William Carlos Williams:

There is nothing to eat,
     seek it where you will,
         but of the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
     and the sea, yield it
        to the imagination