At the The Conference on Christianity and Literature luncheon in Washington, D.C., on December 29, 2005, Roger Lundin delivered the following tribute to Wendell Berry.
A little more than a decade ago, when an interviewer decided, in his words, to “probe [Wendell] Berry about his attitudes on the widely accepted virtues of the view of fragile earth from space,” the poet, novelist, and essayist responded, “That view didn’t do very much for me; it looked like a poor old Christmas ornament.… Let’s say you were from somewhere else,” he explained, “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 Earth.”
As we gather today to honor him as the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, each of you who has read at least a portion of what this prolific man has written will no doubt recognize how accurately Wendell Berry the writer has summarized with this image the deeply admirable passions of Wendell Berry the man.
For more than four decades and in the pages of more than fifty books (and counting), Wendell Berry has combined a profound, sustained commitment to a particular place, to its people, to their past as well their future, with an equally intense concern for broader questions about the value of human life, the nature of our culture and our agriculture, and the possibilities of human community. His voice is singular, ringing in its moral forthrightness and moving in the poetic clarity of its constancy.
What others might call Wendell Berry’s career — that’s not a term he would use — began with his training in English as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. That was followed by an M.A. in the same subject at Kentucky and by his participation in the fabled Stanford University creative writing program, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and studied, along with Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, and Larry McMurtry, in a seminar directed by Stegner. A Guggenheim fellowship came soon thereafter, as did an appointment teaching at the University College of New York University.
From the long perspective, this early career seems like the prologue to Wendell Berry’s discovery of his vocation, which cannot be summarized in any fashion within the confines of our categories of prestigious appointments, professional accomplishments, and disciplinary boundaries. Instead, for four decades his vocation has included among its central elements the myriad commitments he and his wife Tanya made when they chose in 1964 to take up farming on a Kentucky homestead not far from where his mother’s and father’s families had lived and loved and labored for at least five generations.
Although he was already a published author by the time that he returned to farming in his family’s region, it was there, in the rhythms of the seasons, in the hardness of the farmer’s lot, and in the mysteries of communal life, that Wendell Berry found the voice that has made him and will keep him one of our most important and enduring writers. “What I have learned as a farmer I have learned also as a writer, and vice versa,” he wrote recently. “I have farmed as a writer and written as a farmer.” With a respect for his subjects that is both tough and tender, he has consistently reported what he has observed in the fields around him and in the lives that surround him in Port Royal, Kentucky. In the same essay from which I have just quoted, he speaks of his life as “an experiment that is resistant to any kind of simplification.… When I am called, as to my astonishment, I sometimes am, a devotee of ‘simplicity’ (since I live supposedly as a ‘simple farmer’), I am obliged to reply that I gave up the simple life when I left New York in 1964 and came here.” For in New York, he concludes, “I lived as a passive consumer, … whereas here I supply many of my needs from this place by my work and am responsible besides for the care of the place.”
Wendell Berry has written voluminously on what the Christian church calls the doctrine of creation yet only sparingly, albeit with considerable feeling, about another of the church’s doctrines, that of the incarnation. Nevertheless, a number of us think of the incarnation’s mysteries when we read in his work of what he has learned through working the land and writing the life of a particular place at a perilous point in time. After all, when he says he doesn’t care about the view of earth from space, but instead wants to “get closer, walk around on it, even get down on my knees,” is not Wendell Berry also sounding one of the central notes of the Christian faith, which is that “Christ Jesus, … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,… being born in human likeness?”
We are grateful, then, for all that we have learned and continue to learn from Wendell Berry’s walk about this earth, for which he has cared so diligently. For the faithfulness of his and Tanya’s life as parents, as stewards of the land, and as servants of their people, and for the stunning accomplishments of his writer’s life and his life’s writing, we are honored to pay tribute to Wendell Berry’s past, present, and future achievements. We are also fortunate to have this chance to tell him, simply and with heartfelt feeling, “Thank you.”
Christianity and Literature Vol. 56, No. 2 (Winter 2007), 215-52.
Hunting for Reasons to Hope:
A Conversation with Wendell Berry
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Interviewer's Note: Much of Kentucky around Louisville is fairly flat, but as we venture eastward toward Henry County, where Wendell Berry's farm is located, little by little the land takes on a more rugged and hilly aspect. By the time we turn off the freeway, heading due south onto a curvy two-lane country road, it almost seems mountainous. Berry's farmhouse is set upon hillside, overlooking the road and a wide river valley beyond it. Arrivals must pull up the steep driveway toward a dusty, heavily-used pickup truck. On the hillside next to the house is a flock of sheep; large bees hum lazily past. It is hot and steamy, the week after Independence Day 2006, and besides the bees almost nothing is stirring on this Sunday afternoon. Getting out of the car, looking upward toward the quiet house, the first sign of life we see is a small, friendly black dog, unleashed, that approaches us with winsome tail wagging, away. A large man, decked out in work shirt, soiled trousers, and heavy boots, appears on the white porch, raising an arm and shouting a welcome. We climb up the hill toward Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, expecting to enjoy full afternoon in the company of one of our nation's legendary writers an activists.
Some of the great discoveries of my graduate education, back in the early 1990s, were the various works of Wendell Berry. I remember specifically the peaceful feeling I got when I read the first poem from his collection, Sabbaths (1987): "I go among trees and sit still /All my stirring becomes quiet I around me like circles on water." I was immediately drawn into the calm beauty of the forest by the calm beauty of Berry's controlled yet seemingly effortless language. I also recall a distinct feeling of empowerment after reading a few of his essay early on. Among them was the wonderfully titled "The Joy of Sales Resistance," the preface to Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1992), which prophetically spelled out in very simple terms some of the persistent themes of his writing over many decades. I went on from there to become an avid reader of Wendell Berry, and it was quite an honor finally to meet him during the 2005 MLA Convention in Washington D.C., where he was presented with the Conference on Christianity and Literature's Lifetime Achievement Award. During that luncheon, I was struck mostly by his thoroughly endearing sense of humor. Here was a man, I learned very quickly, who still loves a good story and a knee-slapping laugh. We swapped tall tales and puns like hungry fur trappers in the Old Northwest. I was so drawn to him that I found the pluck to ask him if it might be possible to visit him come spring or summer, and interview him at his Kentucky farm, to which he graciously said yes. What follows is some of the talk we had on that humid summer afternoon, seated in his kitchen under a ceiling fan ("it's the coolest place on the farm," said Tanya), with both of our wives in attendance and taking part in the conversation as well—which seemed fitting for a bright and welcoming country kitchen.
HKB: When I look at the list of past winners of the Lifetime Award for CCL, I see names like Czeslaw Milosz, Denise Levertov, Wayne Booth, Richard Wilbur, Cleanth Brooks. I wonder how it feels to be named with authors of that caliber?
WB: Of course, those are people I respect very much. Denise Levertov I knew and loved. Well, it's very confirming to have people respect your work. On the other hand, I can't say that my chief motive in the work is to be honored. That's not something I can afford to think a great deal about. I have to think about what I'm doing and what I have ahead of me, what's required of me, or what seems to be required of me. Being honored is not something I'm willing to allow to take up a lot of room in my mind. But it's confirming; it's like a foothold maybe, and I'm grateful for it.
HKB: How do you see your contribution to the flow of American literary history, or how do you fit into American literary history as a whole?
WB: I think I'm an American writer in as complex a sense as you could wish. I've certainly come along after certain American writers and have learned from them. If you could subtract William Bartram, Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, James Still, and some of my American contemporaries who have been my friends—Edward Abbey, Denise Levertov, Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, Gary Snyder, John Haines, Ross Feld—I'd be a very different writer. I need to mention especially three friends from my student days at the University of Kentucky—James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman—who have given me help and pleasure from then until now. And from our days at Stanford I have continued to honor Ernest J. Gaines and Ken Kesey. I'm an inheritor of the American literary past, and I have big debts to a number of contemporaries.
HKB: In the field of American literature, sometimes people speculate about the future and ask, "A hundred years from now, who are the writers that will be studied?" Of course, opinions vary, but that's one aspect of the nature of college English: deciding who gets taught and remembered, and who gets left behind, to a rather large extent. One might argue that because of your connection with people like Thoreau or Frost or other authors you have mentioned, maybe your work is more central to the trajectory of American literary history in terms of what might get taught a hundred or two hundred years from now.
WB: That could be, but I've always thought of myself and my work as marginal.
HKB: It's pretty hard to predict, obviously.
WB: Well, I've been an advocate pretty consistently for the last thirty or thirty-five years. I've been mixed up in public issues and so on, and I think that a lot of contemporary writers have tended to shy away from those involvements. Edward Abbey mentions that in one of his letters in the July/August 2006 issue of Orion. And then I'm a country person, and I think country people are marginal in this society.
HKB: Can you talk about Emerson, just in terms of your own writing, and if you like, American culture in general?
WB: No, I don't think I can say much about Emerson, to tell you the truth. He meant a lot to me at one time, when I was younger, and I read a lot of the essays and probably learned something from them.
HKB: You don't read him much anymore?
WB: No, I don't think much about him.
HKB: As opposed to Thoreau, whom you mentioned earlier. Is he someone with whom you identify?
WB: Yes, the essay on "Civil Disobedience" is never far from my mind. Walden of course was a formative book for me, as it has been to a lot of people. I don't think Emerson ever wrote anything that influenced deeply os many people as Walden has. But Thoreau and Emerson both could write a sentence, and it's important to learn how to write a sentence; they're good people to learn it from. It's easy to write sentences that sound like Thoreau, and I've written some of those. There's a great sentence in Emerson's eulogy on Thoreau: "One day, walking with a stranger, who inquired where Indian arrowheads could be found, he replied, 'Everywhere,' and, stooping forward, picked one up on the instant from the ground." That's perfect
HKB: In that eulogy, Emerson talks about Thoreau's "broken task." Recently I read the book that Thoreau was writing at the end of his life, that was only published in the 1990s, called Dispersion of the Seeds. Are you familiar with bat book?
WB: I've got it around here someplace. I haven't read it.
HKB: It's pretty remarkable. It's mainly about seeds. Dispersion of the Seeds is really about Thoreau observing seeds. He asks, how does this tree get over here in the middle of nowhere? He talks about wind and water and animals moving the seeds. Squirrels or birds transport seeds, by eating them and excreting them, or by burying them. The book illustrates a kind of obsession with the local economy and the local geography of seeding and fertility. Of course, I have noticed that like Thoreau, you use seeds in your poetry as metaphors of hope.
WB: Well he walked around enough to know a lot about seeds. All you have to do is walk around in the fall in the fields and woods and you come back with seeds in your shoes and your pockets and stuck to your clothes. He knew about that. I think maybe Thoreau, and Emerson too, are better for a young person. I mean when I was a young man they meant a lot to me because of their individualism, and that individualism appeals to me.
It has a deep appeal for me, maybe too much appeal. You know, I worked at being a loner, and it's odd that somebody like me would have become a defender of the idea of community, would have thought as hard as I have about what a community is and does and might do. Maybe, on the other hand, it's logical that people who try to be individuals and find pretty soon how limited that is—and how little you can do by yourself, how little you amount to by yourself—would become advocates for community life.
HKB: I guess you're right about writers like that meaning a lot more when you're young, but if that's true then which writers have meant a lot to you as you've become an older man?
WB: As you become older you look to the ones who became older. Old Williams matters to me immensely. Old Yeats, too. I read to learn how to live. I always have. I've read to learn how to write too of course, necessarily, but I think I've learned a lot about how to live my life from the work of writers.
HKB: Can you give some examples of how that works?
WB: Well, I've just completed a long essay on King Lear and As You Like It. I've been a reader of King Lear since I was a freshman in college, which was a fairly long time ago. It seems to me there's immense teaching in that play. I mean not just the obvious instruction about the nature of evil and how it operates, how it takes people over who think they're going to try just a little of it, but also what it is to be a servant, what it means to be a servant. What loyalty means.
HKB: You started to talk a little bit about recent poetry in America, especially by younger writers. Are there poets that you admire?
WB: I don't want to get into that. My reading is too partial, too incomplete, too fast and superficial. I mean, I'm not trying to keep up with the development of poetry, I don't have time. I have paid close attention to the work of some of my contemporaries.
HKB: Do you read much fiction?
WB: I read some fiction, but I'm as apt to read Dickens as I am to read a contemporary writer. But I read for my own sustenance, and that means I'm not trying to be a master of the literary scene. When I was trying to learn to be a writer, what my contemporaries were doing was important to know.
HKB: What are some things about your writing that you wish more readers and critics would notice? Are there things about your own work that you think have been overlooked or misunderstood?
WB: Well, insofar as I've been reviewed and responded to by readers, I think I've been read pretty well and with a lot of sympathy and great kindness. I don't have any complaints. I need to qualify that: readers and reviewers and critics are not the people I have on my mind a great deal of the time. That's a distraction. I mean I don't think you can write and think at the same time about who's going to appreciate your work. My preoccupation as a writer is with doing justice to the subject I'm writing about. I'm trying to do justice; to write something that's worthy of its origins in my life and my knowledge. That's hard enough without trying to please somebody. But I occasionally get reviews that move me very much because of their insight, their sympathy, and I get extremely rewarding letters from people. I'm sure that helps, but then when I sit down in front of a blank page, I'm not thinking about "the reading public." It's a mercy. I'm not trying not to think about it, I just don't think about it. David James Duncan says that one of the great blessings of being a writer is that writing allows you to forget yourself in your work.
HKB: Regarding the letters you receive from readers, I would be curious to know more about them. I assume over the years you have gotten a lot of letters, and I wonder if there's any way you can characterize some of the things that you've heard on more than one occasion from people?
WB: There are two classes of things that seem legitimate to mention. One is people writing and saying that something I've written has been consoling to them in a hard time. Second, sometimes people write to say that they feel like I've spoken for them. Those seem to me to be legitimate uses for a writer's words, and I'm always pleased to hear those things.
HKB: Do you have either stories or poems, or essays, or collections, that you consider great achievements? Do you have works of your own that you are particularly very pleased with or proud of, or that people have mentioned a lot in letters?
WB: Well, there's something a little arbitrary in this. I always think the last thing I wrote is the best thing I've ever done. But if someone asked me what novel to start with, I would say Jayber Crow. I don't think I can write any better than I was writing in Jayber Crow. The essays, some are better than others, pretty clearly, some that stick out in my mind; but they're all occasional work, written to have something to say. If I were a good extemporaneous speaker I probably wouldn't have been much of an essayist, but I can't say what I want to say off the cuff, so I have to write it out. That's where all those essays came from. There's a kind of a weariness that attaches to them now, and I'm strenuously trying to avoid invitations to speak. There's nothing quite like the weariness you can feel in listening to yourself make a speech. I like the fictions best.
WB: Oh, I loved writing the fictions. I loved it. To be at work on those, I just have taken an immense happiness from it. Especially after I began to learn how. It was a torment to learn how. A lot of struggle, a lot of clumsiness. I certainly was not any kind of prodigy, but the times I've spent writing those things have been happy times.
HKB: Well, I'm surprised you don't mention any of the poems.
WB: The poems are kind of private.
HKB: This morning in the hotel, I was reading some of the sadder poems aloud to my wife, Hiroko, just savoring the sound of them, and I said to her, "Gee, I wish I could write something like that."
WB: Well, some of those are very satisfactory to me when I look back at them. I heard a couple of my poems, old poems, read aloud yesterday by a young cousin. [Aside to Tanya: He read them well, didn't he?] It was at a graveside service, and I was pleased with the way those poems sounded.
TB: It was strange how applicable it was to the newly departed young man, even though it was written about an old man, but it worked.
WB: They were the "Three Elegiac Poems" that come rather early in the Selected Poems. I wrote them about my grandfather at the time of his last illness and death. I feel a kind of intimacy with my work as a poet that makes me not very eager to talk about it. I think what you're trying to do always is to enlarge probability in a sort of Aristotelian sense, to give the larger world—the world of reality and the world of faith—a kind of standing, a kind of status of probability or believability. It doesn't have much to do with what now is called realism. When I've found the language to carry my sense of that larger world a little bit beyond what I expected, then I'm pleased.
TB: Gives you a way to get mad too.
WB: Yes, in a disciplined way. The anger always—when you try to work with it in poetry—sort of metamorphoses into the immense sorrow that it's possible to feel now in the presence of so much destruction and political incoherence and the ruin of the physical world, the ruin of community life. Those things have preoccupied me, and I suppose it's been a deliverance to say something about it occasionally. A lot of my work, I think, has been trying to push on beyond despair and depression, looking for the possibility that there's something somebody can do.
HKB: Do you feel hopeful that the environment has lately become such a hot topic, with Al Gore having his film An Inconvenient Truth out, or with plentiful coverage on 60 Minutes and elsewhere?
WB: I'm not pinning any hope on anybody in particular, I think I know better than that, but I'm hopeful because I know that, in the first place, it's a requirement, you're supposed to be hopeful. Hope is a virtue and that means you're supposed to have it. You've got to go hunt for the reasons, and I know that within limits, people can change. I've seen the proof. I know that people can do good work, and I've seen the proof of that. I know that people can cooperate and help each other, and I've seen the proof of that. So there are always grounds for hope if it's possible to tell the truth.
HKB: Do you envision in 50 or 100 years the kind of worldwide cataclysmic effects of climate change and global warming—viruses, famine, flooding— that many scientists talk about?
WB: Well, I think that's easy to envision, but totally useless, illegitimate. People are always having visions of the future, but I don't think that we're called upon to do that. It's so much more important to have a vision of what is right. You can't outfox all the variables that are weighing on the future. Nobody knew about 9/11, nobody foresaw that. Nobody foresaw that the election of 2000 would be decided by the Supreme Court. I think that's a very foolish game that people play, saying "the water will be 18 feet deep in Manhattan'' or something like that. To hell with it. I'm not interested in that. I mean, I'm unwilling to commit interest to that sort of thing; I have children and grandchildren and I have the appropriate fears for them, but the important thing is for me to fulfill my obligation to them. Which is to try to do the right thing now: to pass my memories on to them, and to give them good advice, knowing that they're going to ignore it for a while. But I don't like this futurology stuff. It doesn't move me.
HKB: But you mentioned the importance of hope, and doesn't hope involve a vision of the future?
WB: Sure, but you can't construct a legitimate hope on the possibility that good people will come along later and do what they should. The hope has to rest on the willingness of good people to do the right thing now. I mean you've got to rest your case on evidence, and we've got quite a lot of evidence. I don't think you'd need to feel speculative about whether good work, faithfulness, willingness to serve, honesty, peaceableness, and lovingkindness will support hope. They will, and that's all we have a right to ask. We don't have a right—we, living now—don't have a right to ask that our descendants will be better than we are, or that their world will be better. If we're not making a better world now, we don't have that right. I won't speculate. I don't feel like building "a better future.'' That leads you directly into all kinds of political nonsense. The world now seems full of people destroying things of permanent worth for the sake of "a better future."
HKB: We have had an obsession in America with Progress with a capital P, and you've written a lot of things opposed to that ideology, perhaps most famously Life is a Miracle. And yet it seems to me that there is a progressive view of history presented in the Bible.
WB: Well, the Bible for me has a progression from the nationalist violence of the histories to the Sermon on the Mount. But then you go from there back to nationalist violence in the Christian nations. What's happened to progress now is that the contexts have begun to assert themselves beyond denial. It's a time of the restoration of context as a subject. It's a time of chickens flying home to roost. The things that we've relied on are so clearly coming to an end. For example, everything in this society is based on cheap oil—think of it—and then after cheap oil cheap corn, which is a derivative of cheap oil. As Michael Pollan says, the corporations have learned ways to make us eat oil. But that's over, or it soon will be, and people I've talked to about such things say that there's simply no way that you can visualize the repercussions of the coming of expensive energy. Everything we've got is based on cheap energy. We've got two cars, Tanya and I do, for two people. We've got two vehicles burning up the world, because, as the result of the progress that the car has made, everything we need is far away. You can't buy pair of overalls in Port Royal anymore, let alone find a doctor or a barber or a mechanic
HKB: Do you think that the concept of Progress needs to be recovered or just abandoned?
WB: We've got to give up these abstractions, these holy cows that we've et up for ourselves, that permitted us to say, "We don't need to worry, everything is getting better. We don't need to worry, whatever happens is inevitable." Inevitability is as influential an abstraction as Progress, and just as bad. The whole professional system is based on some kind of doctrine of inevitability. The organization of intellectual life in the universities is based on the doctrine of inevitability. People are saying, "Well, if I just sit here and work at my specialty, everything will be all right." It's now ever so clear that it isn't so. There is now no such thing as a scientist who can take full responsibility for the results of his or her work. Who's going to appropriate it, and what are they going to use it for? The likelihood is very strong that it'll be used to kill people or poison them or rob them or do them some other form of drastic abuse. So I think that the issue of context is exploding these myths of Progress, of inevitability. We just can't believe them anymore. People are going to have to teach and work and study and live in some kind of community as committed members.
HKB: Talk a little bit more about what you mean by the context
WB: The context is the world. The context is most immediately the natural world. And we've assumed that it didn't exist, that it was all right for a number of people dealing in powerful disciplines to proceed as if it isn't out there, as if the ecosystem is not a context, as if the watershed is not a context. The coal industry is decapitating mountains in Eastern Kentucky, and throwing everything but the coal over in the valleys. They've destroyed, literally destroyed, whole mountains, whole forested watersheds. They're destroying the headwaters of the Kentucky River, and this is the water supply of Lexington, Frankfort, and all of central Kentucky, this river right here. So you see they have received some kind of dispensation to ignore the context. Their business is to mine coal, not to worry about trees and topsoil and water and wildlife and human life.
HKB: You have written about specialization in particular in Standing by Words.
WB: Oh, I've gone back to it a number of times, and I've tried to qualify my criticism appropriately. I'm not against all kinds and degrees of specialization; obviously if you want your bricks laid well, you've got to have a bricklayer. Just anybody from "the labor pool" can't do it If you want farming done well you've got to have a farmer to do it; you've got to have somebody who is appropriately trained and appropriately responsible. The overriding issue is whether or not the specialist will accept the responsibility for the context, for the consequences.
HKB: I think in the universities it's pretty common to notice that there's too much specialization. For instance, in a field like literature, the context includes our goals for students. Why are they actually studying in the first place? Ideally, we are supposed to be educating young people or trying to make them better people. But what I frequently see in the universities is how specialization diverts the professors attention away from the students, who are the context of education. Does that make sense?
WB: Yes, that's exactly what's happening. But then you've got these people who don't have a membership; they belong to their careers, not to a community. So these young people come in out of their communities, and the university acts as a kind of feedlot to fatten them up, so to speak, with learning. They're given a discipline and a credential, and then, instead of being sent back home to help, they're sent out into "the economy," which means most of them will go on being careerists forever and ever. And that means that a little village like ours exists in a lot of people's minds only as some statistic or idea; nobody knows it, nobody's loyal to it.
HKB: So you would agree that the universities are fairly screwed up, just like the coal industry?
WB: Well, they would serve the coal industry at the drop of a hat. And they do. They've got the right experts, they've got the right departments, they'll teach you to build a road right through your own house. The "industrial model" now has invaded everything. Universities are talking about "business plans" and "return on investment."
HKB: Outcomes and assessment are major buzzwords these days. . . .
WB: The trouble was there as soon as they started referring to their writings as "production." "Well, he's a good teacher, but he's not productive." You can measure production, you can quantify what they call production, but you can't quantify teaching. So teaching is entirely different from research and is subordinate to it. I'm not knocking research. Everybody who's interested in things benefits from somebody's research; there isn't any escape from that, but when you've started a reductive process and all research is reduced to page numbers, to get back from that is a problem, and I don't know how to solve it. Some things you just raise hell about and hope somebody smarter than you can fix it.
TB: I do know part of your hope comes from the fact that there's some younger people now who are hard at work on these issues.
WB: Oh, yes.
TB: There's Michael Pollan, and there's Eric Schlosser. I mean there are good people coming along.
HKB: Have you seen Supersize Me, the documentary about McDonald's?
WB: No, I haven't. Lately I'm reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is a groundbreaking book. He gets into the food system and lays the problems out to be seen. It is a marvelously researched and documented book, like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Maybe we're gaining ground. But we don't have the power; we don't have voices in the government.
HKB: One of the things that has meant a lot to me, especially the past year or so as I was writing about some of your poems, is an essay from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. It's called "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," and it describes the division between secular and sacred, the material and the spiritual. It recalls for me a great concept by Robert MacAfee Brown. He calls this division the Great Fallacy. Brown's book is called Spirituality and Liberation, and he argues that this division is really the root problem of much of modern society. Could you just talk a little bit about how the desire to separate those things in Western Culture has been disastrous?
WB: Well, I'm not scholar enough or philosopher enough either to deal with this issue as it should be dealt with. But the dualism of body and soul, matter and spirit, creator and creation, Heaven and Earth, time and eternity, is destructive. Once you separate those things, the next step always is to depreciate what's perceived as the less valuable half of the dichotomy. So spirit is more valuable than matter, the body is less valuable than the soul. The upshot of it is that people of religion have abandoned economics as an issue; I mean economics in the fundamental sense of the use of the world, the housekeeping of the world. And so people feel free to abuse and destroy the material creation. I think the only way that you can ever hope to stop that is to see that the dichotomy, the duality, is wrong to start with. But, as I say, I'm not the master of all of this. I'm not very good at dealing with abstract ideas. The daunting fact to me is that we are destroying the actual world. There's the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico that's a direct result of nitrogen fertilizer applied in the Mississippi River Valley. We've got those so-called greenhouse gases. The issue really is not whether we ought to be doing something about global warming; the real issue is whether we ought to be wasteful or not, whether we ought to be regardless or not. Where did we get permission to use up half the world's supply of petroleum in my lifetime? Where did we get permission to do that, to behave that way? Where did we get permission to waste and degrade the soil and consider that an acceptable cost of agriculture? The only way you can understand that is to assume that an implicit permission is given in the downgrading of the body's life in the material world.
HKB: A lot of the church is involved in that process.
WB: Sure, the churches are complicit. We've got all these people who ought to be allies in trying to defend the forests and the watersheds and the croplands and the mountains, and they're all preoccupied with going to heaven. Which is, you know, boring. Mark Twain said, "Heaven for climate, Hell for company."
HKB: How did you become conscious of these ideas? Was it because you were farming yourself, or because you are a writer, or because it just suddenly came to you at some point as an insight or revelation?
WB: No, no. Nothing has ever been very dramatic for me in that line. My father was concerned in his way about many of the same things that I'm concerned about. He loved a field of grass. One of the reasons he loved a field with a good grass cover is because it's safe, it's not going to erode, and it has an economic value that's pleasing. So I picked it up little by little, from people who hated to see erosion in a field and who knew that there were ways to prevent it. Then I got interested in the subject on my own and learned a good bit about it, not a whole lot but a good bit, and the best thinking that's been done on farming in my lifetime and before has come straight out of the Orient. There was a man named F. H. King who wrote Farmers in Forty Centuries, a very influential book published in 1911. King traveled in Japan, China, and Korea, when the rural cultures of those countries were still intact and the peasants were practicing their wonderful frugality. That book influenced other people, most notably Sir Albert Howard, who did his major work in India. Howard went into his practice of agricultural science as a mycologist, but he understood very quickly the limits of the specialist system in agriculture. He realized he needed a place to take his own advice before he gave it to anybody else. He arrived at the idea that the farm had to maintain in itself, in its economy, the processes of the natural ecosystem that proceeded it. It had to maintain the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay. Everything he said, everything he did, was ruled by his understanding that health in the land, plants, animals, and humans, is "one great subject." Howard's work has been a major influence on my work, my poetry, everything I've done. The cycle has to revolve in place year after year, and those old Oriental peasants understood that and had developed the practices necessary to keep it going.
HKB: I have several questions about the work of poetry and the imagination. We were talking about the sacred/secular divide, and in one interview you talked about imagination as the antidote for some of this illness, some of this sickness. Do you think that poetry can help us overcome this false dichotomy, this dualism? Do you see your poetry as contributing to that? Was W. H. Auden wrong to say, "poetry makes nothing happen"?
WB: Oh, yes, I do disagree with that.
HKB: So what do you see as the work of poetry?
WB: Well, the work of poetry of course is to be poetry, as fully as it can be. The danger, if people object to Auden's line, "poetry makes nothing happen," is that they will lunge too far in the other direction, toward some kind of utilitarianism or some kind of crude pedagogy. You don't want that either. Poetry is the use of imagination, one of the ways of using it, and I take that very seriously. I take imagination very seriously. Blake said that the arts were ways of conversing with Paradise. That's surely one thing that they do, they help us to converse with Paradise. Imagination is a force that permits us to perceive in the largest possible terms the reality of a thing. It's the force that permits sympathy to take place. It's the force that permits care to take place. It is the force opposite to reductionism; it perceives that the life of any creature is larger than its life history or its category or classification or its commercial value or its utilitarian value. It permits you to see that the life of anything that lives is a miracle. Our language for this has become impoverished. But if you see that the life of any creature has a reality that is perceivable only within limits, and is larger than any possible perception, then you change the way you treat that creature. In that sense, the use of imagination might have almost limitless economic consequences. Imagination permits us to see the immanence of the spirit and breath of God in the creation. That would require economic behavior that would be respectful.
HKB: Mark Twain once said, "It is at our mother's knee that we acquire our highest and noblest and purest ideals but there is seldom any money in them." But going back to Robert MacAfee Brown's idea of the Great Fallacy, be shows how dualism is always in the best interest of people in power.
WB: Yes. If you think of things according to their categories or their uses or their merchantable value, then you've converted them into abstractions and you've made it possible to hoard them together. If you think of them as embodiments of the birthright, the sanctity, of the great world, they're harder to monopolize and accumulate. In the long run, this has a practical value. The Amish understand that if you love your neighbor as yourself, then you become a neighbor to your neighbor—that is, you help your neighbor. And then neighborliness is not just a virtue, not just a biblical requirement; it becomes an economic condition in which you and your neighbor mutually thrive. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you want him over there on his farm, doing well, and that means he'll be able to come to you when you have a need. You get the spectrum of goods; you're not just going to Heaven. That's a side effect, that's incidental. What you have already is a neighborhood that's heavenly enough.
HKB: You have made comments in several places about the teachings of Paul that you find unsettling or even at times devious. You have seemed to reject or at least question those parts of the New Testament. But I'm not sure that I've ever seen where you have elaborated on some of those things.
WB: It seems to me that Christianity becomes exclusive with Paul, as it was not with Christ. When Jesus was walking around teaching people, anybody could come. We don't know who was in those crowds—criminals, whores, homosexuals, hard to tell who. Anybody. When he healed them he didn't say, "Now wait a minute. Are you a member? Have you been a good person? Do you deserve this?" None of that. That's what's so radical, so profoundly moving, about the Gospels. With Paul, Christianity gets to be an exclusive membership. I like a lot of things Paul said, but I don't like what he said about women. I can't imagine how he could have said what he said in Romans 13 about the powers that be. I don't see how you could be a Christian in Christ's sense and do everything that the powers that be might tell you to do.
HKB: I think that there are a lot of people in American churches today who are getting fed up with a lot of things undertaken by the powers that be. But I really cannot say whether the church overall is moving into a period of ferment and growth or is continuing further into serious decline. Still, around Evangelicals there has been some talk, especially in the last year or so, about embracing the environmental vision. Yet they've never been inclined in that direction at all, they've always considered environmentalism to be leftist, or a misguided plot of the Democratic Party.
WB: Yes, even some conservative Christians are beginning to agree with the 24th Psalm.
HKB: That is interesting that you would immediately ground your response in the Bible. Of course some of this movement has been inspired from the so-called "left." Jim Wallis and his Sojourners movement, for example, and many other people who are talking more and more about the needs of the poor and social justice. Today, there are a lot of people in Evangelical circles talking about what might be considered aspects of a leftist agenda, which has not happened in America for decades. But I just wonder if it's possible to imagine much change for the better in these directions, or if the historical movement that is Christianity in America has peaked, and is now starting to move on to other fields—Africa, Asia, Latin America—the way it moved out of Europe, basically.
WB: That's a good question. And there are other ways of faith besides the Christian one, besides the biblical one, but all of them face the question, "Do you want to be free or not? Do you want to live in a great world or a little one?" The gospels are exhilarating because that's essentially the invitation that Christ was giving. Do you want to live free, do you want to live in a great world that includes all the works of God, that includes all you can imagine and more, or do you want to live in some little capsule defined by politicians or scientists or philosophers or denominational bosses?
HKB: There are a lot of people who have never actually been around other people who are in loving relationships. They just don't believe that people can live without violence, or live with love and caring towards those around them, even their families.
WB: That's right. And there are people who've never been quiet in their lives, have never been where there wasn't some kind of noise going on.
HKB: Probably some people are terrified of the quiet. Nowadays most students walking around campus are listening to some device—a cell phone or an iPod.
HKB: Would you comment on a few lines of poetry? I'm very curious about one of my favorite poems of yours, called "Planting Trees," which includes these lines:
I have made myself a dream to dream
of its rising, that has gentled my nights.
What were you getting at with that line? "I've made myself a dream to dream of its rising."
WB: I'm not sure. That was a long time ago.
HKB: I'm probably catching you off guard but I guess . . .
WB: There's another great book in the lineage of farming books called Tree Crops by a man named J. Russel Smith. He was a kind of economic geographer. Maybe reading that made me realize what a thing it is for an old man to plant a tree. I was still a young man when I wrote that poem, but an old man who plants a tree is a young man in comparison to longevity of the tree. There are trees growing up in Port Royal that my granddaddy planted, and he's been dead for forty years, and they'll be there a long time still. But our present economy doesn't urge a young man to plant a tree—let alone an old man. What makes an old man plant a tree is a culture in which he works, not as himself, but as the representative of his forbears and his descendants.
HKB: Do you make it a point of sitting down everyday to write?
WB: I make a point of trying to sit down and write every day. But I have obligations, I belong to certain causes, and these involve interruptions, but I have a place where I go to write almost everyday. It's a very pleasing thing to have a project to work on every day.
HKB: How many hours a day do you spend doing just chores around the farm, working on the farm?
WB: It varies from season to season and day to day. There's no set rule or order. I do what needs doing. Or try to.
HKB: Do you still spend a lot of time just doing manual labor?
HKB: Do you have any issues with your back or your legs, your knees?
WB: All of them. Yes, those things are coming along.
HKB: But you don't sound like you have any intention or desire to quit doing manual work.
WB: Well, the rewards are very great. To work a team of horses to a mowing machine, for instance, is a very beautiful thing to do. We have a little flock of sheep, and I take pleasure (mostly) in caring for them. And our two youngest grandchildren, my son's son and daughter, come down here and work with me. There's a very considerable happiness in that.
HKB: How old are they?
WB: Eleven and thirteen.
TB: Then we've got older ones, the oldest is out of college and teaching English in the county high school. We're very proud of that
HKB: One of the funniest things I heard you say, when we first met in Washington, was about when you were still living in New York, and were about to move back to Kentucky. Somebody said to you, "Oh, so you're going back to the simple life," and you said, "Simple? This is the simple life in the city, living on the farm is not simple at all."
WB: In the city we bought everything we ate, everything we needed, we didn't do anything for ourselves. But a lot of city people think of themselves as living complex lives. Our life here has involved a lot more knowledge than we were using in the city, more complexity too, and of course more bodily work.
HKB: What got you started as a writer?
WB: I really don't know. I like to write. I like to read. My mother read to me and encouraged me to read. The sense of having something that I was going to have to say came to me pretty early. People around here meant a lot to me. Growing up, I knew people who were extraordinary. And that was a burden I carried: I was going to have to try to do justice to these things I knew.
TB: I think it's been a real gift to know people who didn't have formal education who were so intelligent, and to be able to see that, to be around them.
WB: So intelligent! You know, the stereotype of farmers and country people is that they're stupid and they have no inner life, but that simply isn't true. That is not true. I listened to the old people. I always loved to listen to the old people, and I heard a lot of talk. At least until the 1980s, I was working in the fields a lot with people whose language had not been the least bit touched by the media. They spoke a beautiful language, direct and strongly referential, as far as possible from "pure poetry." I grew up around people who would entertain themselves by talking. There'd be a crew at work and something remarkable would happen, and they would start telling about it as soon as it was over. Three or four would each tell a different version of it, and they'd be trying to get the language right.
HKB: Well, maybe it's time for one last question. You have done many interviews over the years. What is a question that you wish that an interviewer would ask but they never do? Is there anything that you're surprised never seems to come up?
WB: I think the ground's been pretty well covered. I'm not sitting around thinking up great answers to questions that nobody asks me. It's not as if I'm a writer who hasn't been fairly explicit.
TB: But you know the great thing that Wendell's had is all these friends who are intensely interested in all these questions he's interested in, and the friendships—they're long distance, but they've been a nice thing, haven't they, Wendell?
WB: Oh, yes! It's hard to tell how many hours I've spent talking to Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, and others on the telephone. The people Tanya is talking about are people who have all gone home, and they're trying to make the world last so they can stay home a while longer.