Wednesday, May 21, 2008


On Farmer Pete's recommendation, I've begun reading "The Gift of Good Land," a collection of essays by writer Wendell Berry. I had never heard of Berry before I got to Howell, but many of the other farmers and interns here are familiar with his work, which includes essays, poetry, and novels. He has built a reputation for himself as a proponent of small farms and healthy communities, and as a critic of unfettered industrial progress.

In what I've read so far, many of Berry's musings on what constitutes "progress," and what it's good for, match some of the same thoughts and questions that have risen in my mind recently. Berry writes:

"The coming of a tool, then, is not just a cultural event; it is also an historical crossroad – a point at which people must choose between two possibilities: to become more intensive or more extensive; to use the tool for quality or for quantity, for care or for speed."

In a separate essay, Berry describes a small farm on which the farmer makes decisions based not on what plantings and practices will be most profitable, but based instead on what makes him happy:

"His aim, it seems, is not that the place should be put to the fullest use, but that it should have the most abundant life. … One finally realizes that on the Lapp farm one is surrounded by an abounding variety of lives that are there, and are thriving there, because Elmer Lapp likes them. And from that it is only a step to the realization that the commercial enterprises of the farm are likewise there, and thriving, because he likes them too."

In Berry's foreword to the collection, which reads like his summation, he writes this about the small farm:

"Its justification is not only agricultural, but is a part of an ancient pattern of values, ideas, aspirations, attitudes, faiths, knowledges, and skills that propose and support the sound establishment of a people on the land. To defend the small farm is to defend a large part, and the best part, of our cultural inheritance."

I haven't read enough yet, or thought on what I have read long enough yet, to decide which of Berry's philosophies coincide with my own. Today, however, I drove two horses around the farm, pulling a manure spreader, and as I looked around at the green fields and blue sky, and at the animals, and at the people here working and visiting, I couldn't help thinking that there is something very satisfying about being here, and in doing the work I have been doing. It is that birthright, I think, that Berry is urging us to hold on to.