The Farmer-Poets Take Austin By Storm

My account of an afternoon with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson


The fact that two white-haired country gentlemen who farm and write poetry can command two sold-out shows at Stateside at the Paramount in Austin says something, I think, about the hunger in our culture for earthy wisdom. On Sunday I heard Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson speak for over two gentle hours at the majestic Paramount, an event hosted and moderated by Edible Austin‘s Marla Camp. It had the feeling of a church event for secular folks.

Though the topic, as billed, was the sustainable food movement, Berry and Jackson took turns unspooling an almost-biblical narrative about the relationship of humans to the earth and the folly of a growth-for-growth’s-sake economy, along the way quoting each other as well as name-checking Aristotle, Milton, EM Forster, and Joseph Russell Smith. Thankfully, it never felt like taking one’s medicine.

Like Berry and Jackson themselves, it’s actually a bit difficult to summarize a conversation that sprawled from the “original sin” of agriculture (the use of annuals requires disturbing a delicately-balanced ecosystem) to the folly of recent American ethanol policy.

How to describe Berry and Jackson?

I like Observer contributor and UT professor Bob Jensen’s description. (He introduced the event.)

Wes Jackson is a scientist. Wendell Berry is a poet. It’s tempting to want to place them in separate spheres, to assume that Wes will give us the hard facts of science and that Wendell will speak to our passions. But that would be a profound misreading of these two gentlemen. In fact, truth be told, I think Wes is an incurable romantic and Wendell is an unsentimental realist. But that’s not quite right either, of course, because there can be no separation of our minds and our hearts as we try to understand the world. In fact, part of the power of the work of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry is precisely that integration — their ability to see clearly the problems of a fallen world without sentiment, and to respond with reverence for our places and with love for each other.

In Europe, Berry would be a “public intellectual” but since we don’t have those in America, he usually gets the list treatment for his bio: poet, novelist, philosopher, farmer, Baptist, activist and icon of a certain rural agrarianism. Much to the discredit of our national “conversation, a voice like Berry’s is rarely heard above the din.

The American Conservative aptly wrote in 2006 that Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

Happily, Berry and Jackson’s philosophy and politics can’t be situated on the two-dimensional blue-vs-red political spectrum. Their traditionalism — with its emphasis on the local, on context, and on natural limits — is wonderfully at odds with the recklessness of modern conservatism, not to mention the PR-driven limp-wrist banality of elements of the Democratic Party.

Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and the president of the Kansas-based The Land Institute, a crusading non-profit that’s trying to reinvent agriculture by, as Jackson puts its, “bringing the processses of the wild to the farm.” This is a man who takes the long view, a very long view. As he said at the talk: “If you’re working on something can finish in your lifetime then you’re not thinking big enough.”

Jackson and Berry have been friends and co-conspirators since the 70s and evidently are students-slash-admirers of each other’s work.

Here are some of the salient remarks from the talk. (Note: These are my notes and are not 100% verbatim. I also had a harder time keeping up with Jackson, so I have less from him below.)


On Human Intelligence and Ignorance

Wendell: “Wes’ work is based on an understanding of limits and context. What we have now when you get away from the comparatively few organic or sustainable-type farms — and that’s very loose language — when you get away from those it’s market determinant agriculture. If corn goes up 6 or 7 dollars a bushel then you plant enveything in corn and it doesn’t make much difference where you’re planting it. Well, this is market-centered and the only limit is the capacity of the technology. In contrast to that is farm-centered agriculture.”

“Market agriculture assumes that humans are smart enough or it doesn’t make any difference [if they’re smart enough]. Maybe both of those things. Wes and The Land Institute says that local context matters, that it gives you the framework of thought. This makes, to my mind, a different kind of science.”


“I think there’s a limit to human intelligence and I think it’s a lot more limited than we are taught to think.  But this issue of ignorance and intelligence and the capacity of the human mind brings up immediately the issue of scale. What is the scale at which a humanity … can operate without catastrophic results?”

“How big? How much land can a given human being manage without ruining it. Or, how can a nation manage its land in such a way that it can be conscious enough of it to use it without ruining it? One of the characteristsics of our society now is our ignorance of our own country. Almost nobody, even the people farming, are living in the country. Their pleasures are all urban except during deer season…. The ratio of eyes to acres has gone completely to the devil.”


On Absolute Value

“$13,000 an acre [for farmland in Illinois] is a market price and a market price is an illusion. If it wasn’t an illusion it wouldn’t change. The fact is that if we’re ever going to have a sane economy we’ve got to have an udnerstnding that the value of some things is absolute, that it’s worth everything. If you don’t have any land then you know that it’s worth everythign. If you don’t have any food then you know that food is worth everythig. There are only two things that can recognize that. One is need. If you need it bad enough then you’ll understand that the land is worth everything. …. The other thing that can recognize aboslute value is affection. The market will never tell you that. Nothing that you’ll ever do or learn under the reign of the market value will tell you that.”


On a Fossil Fuel Economy

Wes: “Let’s imagine that the highly dense carbon of oil is cut in half in one year in its availablity to the U.S. The mind is going to be concentrated in a very different way. As it becomes concentrated in a very different way among other things there’s going to be more carpooling, more gardens. What we will see is the beginning of a pattern of what we’ll call moral behavior as a consequence of a changing reality. The language of virtue arises in its absence. We start talking about stewardship when there isn’t an exercise of stewardship. We recognize a gene when we get a mutant that’s in contrast. We talk about good when the bad presents itself.”

“I’m just wondering if highly dense energy is what’s behind fast money which then drives the imperative for feedlots and ethanol. I wonder if our analysis has been lacking in being inclusive or deep enough and if maybe we shouldn’t say we’ve got to practice restraint in the use of energy rich carbon, which means the ‘R’ word, ‘rationing.”


On Effecting Change

Wendell: “We, the ordinary people of the country or of the world really, are effecting change. The leadership now is happening at the bottom. The world now is full of people — I pretty much know this, although I haven’t been everywhere — there are people everywhere who have simply seen something that needed to be done, some problem that needed to be solved, and just started doing what needed to be done. Change is happening because of that. It is far more likely that you’ll make change in a city government than you will bring about change at state or national gov. We’ve got a very active effort to develop a local food economy for Louisville. You can go to people in the city government and they know what you’re talking about. That’s not the case in Frankfort, Kentucky. You might as well be speaking Urdu.”

Wes: “I do think that what we have to acknowledge is the doughnuts across this country of places like Berkeley, Boulder and Lawrence and Austin and so on where a lot of community-supported agriculture is local, this that and the other. That is showing the possilbiity, it’s showing the willingness and it’s growing but I worry that the kind of values and material expression of those values is not making a difference in terms of public policy across the broader landscape. How do we take that constituency that is working on the language and has the examples and then move to the next step of the public policy that will make a difference on all of those miles between Chicago and Urbana or between Austin and Dallas and east and west and so on? That landscape is still eroding even as this movement has grown. To me that’s an important question for our side because that core is strong. You can feel it pulsing right here.”


Updated at 11:20AM Tuesday with corrections.