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Book Review: Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a national treasure.  For the growing number of people who care about sustainable agriculture, local food, and a sense of community that is both oldBringing it to the Table-fashioned and forward-looking, Wendell Berry is a mentor and an inspiration.  He richly deserves to be more widely known than Michael Pollan - and he may be already.  (In his graceful introduction to the book under review, Pollan pays tribute to Berry's great influence on his understanding of agriculture, our economy, and the best and worst in the systems that supply our food.)

If you aren't already familiar with Wendell Berry's essays and his fiction, Bringing It to the Table is an excellent introduction, and if you're already an admirer, wanting to spread the word to people on your holiday gift list, this book is a fine addition to Berry's recent publications.  (Eagle Harbor Books had a few copies on the Green Living shelves when I asked recently, and they're always ready to order more.)

Born in 1934, Berry has been publishing poetry, fiction in long and short forms, and essays since the 1960s; he has been working a farm in Kentucky for about as many years.  In an essay from 2006 he recalls, "In 1964 my wife Tanya and I bought a rough and neglected little farm on which we intended to grow as much of our own food as we could."  

Although he came from a farming background, he asked for advice from an organic gardener who was his editor at the time, and seeking out the source of that man's principles, he discovered The Soil and Health, by the British agricultural scientist Sir Alfred Howard.  Berry says of Howard, "I have been aware of his influence in virtually everything I have done, and I don't expect to graduate from it. That is because his way of dealing with the subject of agriculture is also a way of dealing with the subject of life in this world."  

Berry's influence on his readers has been similarly broad and long-lasting: Betsey Wittick, for example, was introduced to his essays on agriculture as an undergraduate at Rutgers, and they made her the kind of farmer that she has been for the last twenty years at Laughing Crow Farm on Day Road.  And Rebecca Slattery, at Persephone Farm, has a similar history: she says Berry is one of her “heroes.”

Wendell Berry writes just as he plows and plants, working over the same ground year after year.  As his farm has been improved by his husbandry, his voice as a writer has gained more grace and authority.  With his lively, conversational style, he is perhaps the least idiosyncratic of all the writers I know, and yet his voice is among the most distinctive.  One feels that everything he writes has been lived with and carefully considered. 

Berry is a close observer of nature, and of offenses against nature.  He is a good listener, and one who enjoys storytelling and leisurely conversation; a stern judge of pride and stupidity, and an enjoyer of ordinary human foibles and foolishness.  Especially in his fiction, but in essays as well, what is central to Berry’s writing is his high regard for well-grounded and self-reliant individuals, who are interesting and admirable not because they stand out as misfits or rare creatures, but because they have committed themselves to stewardship within a natural order, to daily labor, and to all the joys and sorrows entailed in kinship and friendship.
Bringing It to the Table is in three sections, “Farming,” “Farmers,” and “Food.”  The first two sections consist of essays, and the third contains excerpts from his fiction, concluding with an essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.”  Almost all of the contents date from the last twenty-five years – a selective harvest from the full maturity and autumnal years of Berry’s long career.

“The Pleasures of Eating,” from 1989, provides a capsule account of Berry’s interests and principles where food is concerned.  His pleasures are not those of a gourmand like Jim Harrison or Mario Battali.  For him, eating is a social act, with political overtones; the esthetics of food come after the ethics and economics of it.  “There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom.  We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else.  But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else.” 

The pleasures of eating come from understanding “the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again,” and this understanding is best developed through direct involvement in the production and preparation of your food.  Long before the “locavore” movement emerged, Wendell Berry understood how much was lost, at least temporarily, with the industrialization of food production and the ascendancy of corporations that deliver mass-produced and packaged foods through serpentine supply lines.

Berry understands that few of us nowadays have the time and resources for a subsistence lifestyle, but he argues calmly and convincingly throughout this book that voluntary simplicity and community-supported agriculture provide pathways to healthier and more satisfying lives.  He invites us to embrace sustainable agriculture, defined as “a way of farming that can be continued indefinitely because it conforms to the terms imposed upon it by the nature of places and the nature of people.”

Countering the common prejudice that such choices are only available to people with money to burn, Berry understood ahead of others that the industrialized production and globalized distribution of cheap foodstuffs have taken the world for a ride at a very steep price, imposed on multitudes and trickling down to benefit relatively few.  The effects of this transformation have been ruinous for our environment and natural resources, and under the cover of “modernization” and “development,” they have radically changed not only most of the world’s diet but the fundamentals of its economy.  In our privileged part of the world we have reaped benefits and are only partially aware of our own losses.

Momentous changes have taken place since WW II in American agriculture, and in the whole of our culture.  Berry’s analysis of these changes is sharply focused and carried out modestly, with reference to telling examples and first-hand experience: of Amish farms, for example; of the differences, in terms of impacts on the soil and satisfaction with the work, between working with mules or horses and with tractors; of Henry Besuden in Clark County, Kentucky, and Elmer Lapp in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; of connections between an Elizabethan poet’s Cantos of Mutabilitie and the work of Wes Jackson and other scientists at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Including excerpts from Berry’s fiction along with his essays on farming and farmers was a great idea; I hope that readers of these short passages will seek out the books from which they were taken.  His short stories and novels are unique and outstanding within the tradition of regional realism associated with Wallace Stegner (Berry studied with him at Stanford).  Although his fiction avoids the tragic conflicts that figure in so much of Southern literature, it confronts human mortality and the losses imposed by implacable historical forces directly and wisely. 

With their focus on food and family gatherings, these excerpts mostly show Berry’s interest in generosity and social cohesion.  He regards the rural and small-town world he was born into with affection and some nostalgia, but his good country people – Jack Beechum, Burley Coulter, Andy Catlett, Hannah Coulter, and many other memorable characters – don’t inhabit a place bathed in sweetness and light. 

Their healthy local culture, like our own (not so healthy) today, has to contend with many unwelcome changes imposed by the larger world.  For example, an excerpt from Hannah Coulter describes a Christmas dinner: “There were sixteen of us around the long table in the dining room. The table was so beautiful when we came in that it seemed almost a shame not to just stand and look at it.”  But this is the Christmas of 1941, and soon after it Hannah’s husband – they are newlyweds at this table – will be drafted; after the war nothing will be the same.

Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food
Wendell Berry
Berkeley: Counterpoint Press 2009
Paperback $14.95

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