Practical Poetry: An Interview with Wendell Berry

Discover the wisdom of this great thinker, which resonates as much today as it did almost 50 years ago in this interview.

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by Flickr/Festival of Faiths
Wendell Berry at the 2014 Festival of Faiths talking about Gary Snyder.

Readers, to mark our 50th anniversary as a magazine, we’re reprinting some of the more notable stories from our archive. This interview was originally published in the March/April 1973 issue. Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and cultural critic who was born and raised in Kentucky. He has lived and worked the land on his farm, Lane’s Landing, since 1965, and he was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal. –MOTHER

Mr. Berry, for some time now, you’ve been writing about the meaning of farming in your own life and its importance to the modern world. It seems more and more people are coming around to your point of view. Do you think small-scale farming is finally being reaccepted as a viable and necessary contribution to the stability of both urban and rural life?

I’m not sure. When I first started saying it was important to grow a garden, it seemed like really risky stuff to me. You can defend farming on an aesthetic basis, and say it’s a great thing to go off into the country and breathe good air and lead a healthy life and grow your own vegetables. That’s really nice and lovely. But to get on from there and say that you can learn things of great practical, moral, and spiritual importance from doing it — that’s still going to take awhile.

Yet many people are willing to make a serious commitment to the land, investing their money and their hopes in the ideal of an independent life.

Yes, but it seems to me that they shouldn’t try to be too pure. That is, to throw over a well-paying job — and training that prepares you for some kind of profession –and go back to the farm and attempt to survive there under conditions that are destroying a lot of experienced farmers. That might be a dangerous thing to do, unless you know very well what you’re doing and are young. I think it’s worthwhile to support your farm by some other work. It’s worth it to keep your hands on a piece of land and to keep that part of your life away from the corporations and the speculators and the fools.

If we were willing to isolate ourselves, we could have a lifestyle here that would make us a lot more independent of power companies and machines than we are now.

How would you define a stable community?

You’ve got to have people who talk to each other a lot and who have experiences in common. In a settled farming community, old friends get together to work, and one thing they do is tell each other again the stories they already know. This is a complex community function. They celebrate their old acquaintance in that way, and they celebrate themselves. They alert each other to the realities of their lives and their history. And the effect it has on storytelling is that it improves the stories.

Many intentional communities are trying to reinstate the ceremony and ritual in our lives.

But I’m much more interested in the results of accidental communities that have formed by fate and fortune and circumstance. The intentional community seems to me a rather escapist idea, sort of a new version of the White Citizens’ Council. I thought that’s what we were trying to get away from. I think the idea that you can have an intentional community is about as misleading as saying you can have an intentional life. If you’re going to have a decent and stable community, you’ve got to produce the cultural and social forms by which to deal with the unexpected and the undesirable. The intentional community idea assumes that when you say love your neighbor as yourself, you have some kind of right to go out and pick your neighbor. I think that the ideal of loving your neighbor has to take on the possibility that he may be somebody you’re going to have great difficulty loving or liking or even tolerating.

a granary next to a white wooden barn in front of a tree line

In your writing, you emphasize that the inhabitants of a region thrive on the daily interchange between old and young. Yet, many of these new communities are made up primarily of young people.

Yes, and that’s one of the worst possible kinds of segregation. This is probably the first generation not to have a history. They have their own immediate history, but not one that comes from having older people around them. They’re coming up to adult life without the awareness that anyone has ever gone through their experiences before, much less learned anything from them. But I know people who as children had their grandparents’ memories in their memories, so that, in a sense, as young people they had old minds. They had a kind of seasoning.

There’s a sort of gift to humanity that each generation of young people renews. They feel in their bones what’s desirable: “It would be great if we could be free.” And the function of older people in the society is not to oppose that, but to qualify it. To say “Yes, it would be great to be free, but there are certain ways to get free that are going to surprise you and make stern demands on you.”

With how our society and economy is currently structured, it’s frustrating to realize that we’re all parasites in one way or another.

The only way I can see out of the predicament we’re all in is to promote that old ideal of personal independence. I don’t mean the kind of independence that makes people act without regard for others, or that makes them assume they can get along without other people. I mean the independence by which a person provides some of his own needs and which permits him to do what he sees to be right without the approval of a crowd. That’s why Thomas Jefferson said you need to keep as many people as possible on the land. That’s necessary for a democracy. You need to keep people independent in the way that the ownership and care of a piece of land can make them.

If the ideals and aims of young people have lost energy, it’s because they don’t have the stability of a commitment to one place and one community. I think they’re disposed to drift around until they find a suitable community. But no community is suitable. There’s plenty wrong with them all. I could construct an airtight argument for not settling in my own community. The fact is that I’m spending my life constructing an argument for being here.

President Barack Obama putting a medal on Wendell Berry

In the sense that you don’t plan to ever move away from Port Royal, Kentucky?

Yes, and we had something happen here not too long ago that kind of served as a test of that decision. We’d been here since 1964, and in that period of time, we’d sort of solved a whole set of problems that we’d faced when we started. We’d become almost self-sufficient, as far as food was concerned, and had begun to understand the significance of this place in our lives and in the life of modern America. Suddenly, the farm next door to us was sold to a developer. He brought in bulldozers and dumped tons of gravel onto the land. Real estate speculators were coming around talking about a hundred lots for house trailers and vacation cabins. We could see the smoke from our neighbor’s fire, so to speak; we could see the dust from his bulldozer and we could see his signs.

One of our first thoughts was that we would leave; we wouldn’t put up with it; we’d get out of here and go someplace where it was quieter and where we could live the way we wanted to. We’d go west, as they used to say. And then we realized that impulse went against the current of our lives up to that point.

A farmer who’s a neighbor of mine and probably the oldest friend I’ve got in the world told me, “They’ll never do worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.” That’s the most important thing that’s been said to me in the last couple of years. It illuminates the meaning of marriage. When you believe in a thing enough so that you eliminate the second choice, forsake all others, then you’re married to it. So, we decided that this place would have to be our fate and that we’d stay here no matter what happened, as long as life was possible. That decision changed us and became a kind of metaphor of our own marriage. Since then, life on this place has had a much different and fuller meaning for us. (Soon after this interview, the Berrys were able to buy the threatened land next door to their farm. –MOTHER)

Some think of openness and friendliness as more characteristic of the country than the city. Having neighbors like that can make a big difference to a newcomer in an area.

Sure it can. People who’re moving out into the country ought to keep that in mind. They can learn a great deal from their neighbors about conditions of the ground, for instance, and how to work it at certain times. Most people are willing to give that advice. To go into a place and base everything on an assumption of your moral and intellectual superiority to your neighbors will cut you off from the very things you need to know.

If you’re really going to neighbor, you go to them when they need you, and when you need help, you call. There are two brothers who live up the creek, and we exchange work all the time. We don’t keep books. I do all I can for them; they do all they can for me. Who knows what the record is? I helped one of them put in his crop of tobacco last year. He said, “What do I owe you?” I said, “Nothing.” That’s ceremony. He wouldn’t want me to think that I hadn’t worked well enough to deserve to be paid, or that he wouldn’t be willing to pay me if I wanted him to. But when hog-killing time came, and I had two hogs to kill, he knew that, and he said, “I’ve fattened you a hog, you need three.” He knew I hadn’t had enough bacon the year before. I don’t know whether he overpaid me or I overpaid him, or where it stands. And that’s the way I prefer to live. That means our work has escaped from economics and has value in an altogether different sense, and a much larger sense. Our work for each other is valuable beyond its practical worth, because there’s a deep, strong bond of friendship and respect among us. It gives us pleasure to work together.

Do many of the farmers you know use organic methods on their land?

Not really. In order to change from chemical to organic farming, most farmers are going to need somebody to prove that it can be done economically. Because of the economic stresses they’re under, they’re not the ones who’re going to initiate the changes. Most of them have a large investment in land and equipment, and the farm economy is unstable. Labor is scarce because their children don’t stay on the farm anymore, and because they can’t compete with industrial pay. Chemical methods are attractive because they take less time. That doesn’t mean the farmers always like those shortcuts. But what choice do they have?

There are farms around the country that’re beginning to serve as models for large-scale organic practices, thereby showing that these methods can work even with the tight economics and the labor shortages. And these farms are getting easier to find.

field with a wooden fence with a jack-o-lantern on top with a forest in the background

The growing awareness of the emptiness of modern life and the dignity of farming is drawing thousands of people back to the land each year.

Well, I’d be the first to say that there are a lot of people who oughtn’t come to the country, and I devoutly hope they won’t come. We need people to stay in the cities and make them decent and livable again in order to have a healthy nation. But the city has all the advocates and critics it needs. The country is pretty well understaffed with advocates at present, and I feel like it’s an obligation as well as a privilege to speak from this point of view.

We do need more people who can try to undertake the daily labor of working out a different kind of life. But, making a place and holding on to it isn’t something you can put a guarantee on. Our life here has been lucky, and there’s no way we can get around that. We’ve tried to do the work our good fortune has brought us, and that, of course, is the crux of the matter.

If you’re willing to do the work every day, then you’re probably worthy of your luck. If you’re not doing the work, then you ought to worry that you’re betraying your good fortune — and anybody who has a piece of land right now is supremely fortunate.

a group of students sitting around a table looking at an old man speaking