An Old Letter from Wendell Berry

Feast of St Xenophon and His Companions

Doom_with_Berry_Square_rev.jpgWHILE FILING Wendell Berry's letter from the symposium, I leafed through older letters and rediscovered another one I'd like to share.

In January of 2008, while teaching at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts, I initiated a tradition that continues to this day at Northfield: January School. These days, students attend January School at Northfield. But when I organized it in 2008, we made it into a grand trip. (My daughter attends Northfield, and she is extremely jealous of that original January School.)

We traveled to a secluded cabin up in the mountains of Tennessee in a place curiously named Dogwood Mudhole. Our friend Franklin Sanders opened the three days of readings with a lecture that I'll never forget: "The Pillars of Americanity" (I'll post it on the premium content page this week for Eighth Day Members). Then twenty high-school students joined me in an aggressive reading and discussion schedule (18 readings! You can see the syllabus here).

At the conclusion of basking in Berry - sheer delight for me; probably sheer torture for some of the students - we left for Sewanee to see Wendell Berry receive an honorary doctorate from The University of the South. Somehow, we had the immense privilege of having a short, private audience with "Dr. Berry" to ask questions. Later that evening, at a reading, Mr. Berry dedicated one of his new poems to us, his "new friends from Kansas."

Berry_Letter_Feb_4_2008.jpgAfter returning home (following a "craftsmanship" tour of the Jack Daniels whiskey distillery), the students organized fifteen key questions that seemed the most important to them from all of our readings. I mailed them to Mr. Berry and he kindly responded with the letter posted to the right, along with typewritten responses to each question. I'm providing them for you here:

1. How much, if any, of Andy Catlett did you base upon your own life?
Andy Catlett 
is derived fairly directly from things I learned and that I remember from this part of the country at the time of my childhood. At the same time, it is very much a work of fiction. It had to be an imagined work simply because my memories are not complete enough to give me a whole story. And so Andy's bus ride, for example, is entirely imaginary. So are several of the characters and a good many of the events.

2. Where did industry go wrong, and why?
One of the large errors of industrialism is that it treats the ecological support system as "free." That is, it does not deduct ecological costs. To that I would add the tendency of industrialists to work on a scale so large that damages to ecosystems and human communities are inevitable.

3. Could there be a completely agrarian culture without industrialism?
It is certainly impossible now to conceive of an agrarian culture apart from industrial processes and products.

4. Can an industrial company have "agrarian ideals"? If so, how does an industrial company not fall into "industrialistic ideals", but hold "agrarian ideals"?
I'm not quite sure what you mean here by "ideals." But let's say that the industrial "ideals" are profit and mechanical efficiency, whereas the agrarian "ideal" is the good health of the land and the people. And so industrialism can only become sustainable by adopting the agrarian "ideal."

5. Can you really see that America might return to an agrarian society?
This is a big question, and I am always suspicious of big answers. The future is always going to be a surprise. All we can say for sure, now, is that if our economy wants to become sustainable, that is if it wants to last, then it will have to adopt what we're calling the agrarian ideal or the agrarian standard. An economy cannot sustain itself by taking without giving back.

6. Do you think that capitalists promote socialism as a means of increasing their business or feeding their greed?
I'm not sure about this, because for me these terms have become a little vague. It is clear that capitalists, while advocating a "free market" economy, nevertheless use the government to manage the economy in their own interests.

7. What should be the size of a manufacturing facility in a local agrarian community?
A proper size would undoubtedly vary with the kind of work to be done and from place to place. All one can say is that such a facility should not become so large as to be a nuisance or cause irreparable damage to the landscape or the community.

8. Do you believe that a favorable balance between industrialism and agrarianism exists? If so, what would it take to achieve and maintain such a balance?
A favorable balance certainly does not exist at this time. I believe I have answered the second part of this question already.

9. If you have a completely local market, what happens when that market fails?
I don't think there ever has been a completely local market, not even in prehistoric times. And I think that no one would want a completely local economy. Local food deficits, for example, need to be compensated by trade.

10. Does Christianity have  more socialistic tendencies than it has capitalistic tendencies?
I don't think Christianity is either an economic scheme or a political system. The earthly aim of Christianity is to love our neighbors as ourselves. There are plenty of economic and political implications in that, if you want to trace them out.

11. If all of the United States returns to being an agrarian society, with everyone living on and working at a distance from everyone else on their own land, do you think it will make the nation disconnected and less united?
I don't see why it should. The most neighborly communities we have, so far as I know, are those of the Old Order Amish, which are still largely agrarian.

12. Do you believe that agrarianism is the only way to change life for Americans away from a heavily industrial society?
It seems to me that agrarianism provides a valid correction, and to some extent a valid alternative, to industrialism. Industrialism is ecologically a failure. The agrarian principle, on the contrary, is to fit the human economy conservingly and sustainably into what some people call the ecosphere.

13. How long do you think it would take to change and how will Americans react to change if change in our economy had to urgently change?
I don't know.

14. If one were to want to become a farmer, where would you advise one to start?
The best way would be to go work for a good farmer.

15. In the final paragraph of the introduction to the book I'll Take My Stand, it reads, "If a community or a section, or a race, or an age is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation, it must find the way to throw it off." Our question is, how would you, Mr. Berry, "throw" the industrialistic world off?
I don't think that the industrial system should be, or can be, thrown off by violence. And it cannot be thrown off all at once. It will be thrown off when enough people have changed the standard of their economic life from exploitation to sustainability, or from profitable forms of disease and damage to health. If you look around a bit, you will see that this change is already happening. It probably can happen only slowly, and it will take a long time.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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