Two and a half years ago, feeling existentially adrift about the future of the planet, I sent a letter to Wendell Berry, hoping he might have answers. Berry has published more than eighty books of poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism, but he’s perhaps best known for “The Unsettling of America,” a book-length polemic, from 1977, which argues that responsible, small-scale agriculture is essential to the preservation of the land and the culture. The book felt radical in its day; to a contemporary reader, it is almost absurdly prescient. Berry, who is now eighty-four, does not own a computer or a cell phone, and his landline is not connected to an answering machine. We corresponded by mail for a year, and in November, 2018, he invited me to visit him at his farmhouse in Port Royal, a small community in Henry County, Kentucky, with a population of less than a hundred.
Berry and his wife, Tanya, received me with exceptional kindness, and fed me well. Berry takes conversation seriously, and our talks in his book-lined parlor were extensive and occasionally vulnerable. One afternoon, he offered to drive me around Port Royal in his pick-up truck to show me a few sights: the encroachment of cash crops like soybeans and corn on nearby farms, the small cemetery where his parents are buried, his writing studio on the Kentucky River. Berry’s connection to his home is profound—several of his novels and short stories are set in “Port William,” a semi-fictionalized version of Port Royal—and his children now run the Berry Center, a nonprofit dedicated to educating local communities about sustainable agriculture. Our correspondence would continue, but, before I left, Berry gave me a broadside letterpress of his poem “A Vision.” I think often of some of its final lines, which clarify, for me, what it means to truly know a place:
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and
memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In the “The Art of Loading Brush,” the collection of essays and stories that you published in 2017, you write about the future being a meaningless idea, or at least not a terribly useful idea.
Every generation is a bridge between something that’s past, and something that’s coming. One of my favorite examples is Edwin Muir, who was born in Orkney, in Scotland. For thirty centuries, everything had been much the same. The literature of his boyhood was the ballads and the Bible and Robert Burns. And then his family picked up and moved to Glasgow, right into the middle of the Industrial Revolution. And several of them died! It’s heartbreaking! They died of uprooted-ness. Muir survived, and his autobiography is essential work for me. He and his wife, Willa, became Kafka’s translators. He was in Prague when the Communists took over. So, all the way from the old, old tradition into the modern nightmare, you might say.
A lot of people now come of age in places that feel like no place—a kind of vague American landscape, sculpted in part by corporations—which occasionally makes me wonder if homesickness, as a human experience, is itself on the verge of extinction.
Well, part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, “Where you from?” And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere. I’ll tell you a little bit of my history that may be pertinent. My mother was born and grew up in Port Royal, my father about four miles south. Both of their families had lived here since about the beginning of the nineteenth century. When I came to teach at the University of Kentucky, Tanya and I thought we would live in Lexington, and we would have “a country place.” And we hardly had laid our hands to this house, which needed some preservation work, when we realized, we’re not going to have a country place, we’re going to live here. And so we have. We bought this home and twelve acres in the fall of 1964, and moved in, in the midst of renovations, in the summer of 1965. That put our children here, and now we’ve got grandchildren who are at home here. That comes from a decision that we made to be here, and to be here permanently.
Before you moved back to Port Royal, you traveled through Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and you spent some time teaching in New York City. Was there any point at which the choice to return home made you feel anxious?
Of course, but there’s something to being led. My daddy said to me, about five years after I married Tanya, “Well, you’ve got a good girl.” And I said, proudly, “I know it,” and he said, “Well, you don’t deserve a damn bit of credit for it.” And he was right. You see, we don’t have enough sense to make these decisions. Somehow, you just get led to where you’re supposed to be, if you’re willing to submit. The last thing I learned in New York was that I was ruining myself by leaving. I was under thirty, still. People I respected were saying, “Here you are, in the literary capital of the universe, and you’ve got a good job and you’re meeting other writers.” And so I came back here with some fear and trembling, but also a sense of doing the right thing. People give us credit for knowing what we were doing. We didn’t. We came back here because we wanted to. The justification has come in the form of a kind of happiness, but we didn’t anticipate that.
I do remember getting on the Jersey Turnpike when we were coming home. We had everything we owned in a Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t want you to make me sound like some kind of mystic, but, you know, I felt a great, deep relief—as if I was following, at last, my true path. My father identified this great ignorance for me. He was the most determined man I ever knew; in a lot of ways, the most interesting man I ever knew. We were sitting on his front porch when he was about my age now. We were sitting there, totally in the dark, and he said, “Well, I’ve had a wonderful life. And I’ve had nothing to do with it.” After more darkness and silence, I said, “Well, do you believe in the informed decision?” More darkness and silence. “No!”
I envy his certainty!
He understood that a determined life had its limits. “I had a wonderful life and I had nothing to do with it”—well, now I can say that, too. There is this sense of being on your own path.
Why did your peers in New York believe you’d ruin yourself if you returned to Kentucky?
Well, here I was going to the provinces. I was going to put myself under the influence of what one of my friends called “the village virus.”
To be narrow-minded. To be what everybody’s saying now about rural America. Racist, sexist, backward. Stupid.
You mention in “The Art of Loading Brush” that the word “provincialism” has become problematic.
I was talking about this with Seamus Heaney, who I met a time or two. We had this issue in common. And he directed me to Patrick Kavanagh, who made a distinction between the parochial and the provincial. The provincial person is always looking over his shoulder to see if anybody thinks he’s provincial. This worry is really the identifying mark of provincialism. Whereas, the parochial person is always assured of the imaginative sufficiency of the parish. The local place. It’s a very beautiful way of putting it and Seamus characteristically gave an example of the man from Cork who was sending his sons forth into the world. “My boys remember: never ask a man where he’s from. If he’s from Cork, you’ll know him. If he’s not, you’ll embarrass him.” So there’s the question: Am I going to be parochial or provincial?
Have you always farmed here?
Right away, we had a large garden, and we kept two milk cows. We fattened two hogs to slaughter, for our own meat. We had a flock of chickens. And we had some fruit that we produced ourselves, and some that was wild. We were sitting down during that time to a lot of meals that came entirely from under our own feet by our own effort. And our children came up in that way of living. The integration of the various animals and crops into a relatively small acreage becomes a formal problem that is just as interesting and just as demanding as the arrangement of the parts of a novel. You’ve got to decide what comes first, and then you work your way to the revelation of what comes last. But the parts also have to be ordered. And if they’re ordered properly on a farm, something even more miraculous than most art happens: you have sustainability. Each thing supports the whole thing.
One of the most significant themes of your recent work is debunking the myth of freedom —correcting the idea that limitless choice and limitless options make us happy.
But my sense is that people are instinctively resistant to the idea that having fewer choices might ultimately lead to greater happiness. There’s a powerful insistence, in this country, that the best life is the freest life.
I want a limit to the amount of politics that gets into this conversation. But I did let politics into “The Art of Loading Brush” when I said that President Trump is sexually liberated and fiscally unregulated. Liberals are not acknowledging this, but he’s the embodiment of an ideal that has liberal and conservative versions: “If you want it you should have it.” My friend David Kline, an Amish man and environmentalist, said to me one time, “The idea of finding yourself falls very strangely on Amish ears. After all, we Amish are not trying to find ourselves, we’re trying to lose ourselves!” You see how that lines up with the traditional insistence upon certain limits.
I’ve found reading Thomas Merton to be really useful in this regard. He clearly struggled deeply with giving up romantic love and sex when he entered the monastery. So much of “The Seven Storey Mountain” is about, well, maybe not the thwarting of desire, but at least the acknowledging of it, and the figuring out of a way to make room for it in your life without necessarily submitting to it.
Merton was a relatively new Catholic when he wrote “The Seven Storey Mountain.”
You can feel him reasoning through the whole idea of faith, service to God.
The conversion experience, whenever it happens, invites you to despise yourself as you were. And I think Merton essentially was too humorous and too complete a man to have been down in the mouth about his sins all the time.
It seems to me that if one thing is going to knock a person off his or her path, romantic love is maybe the most understandable transgression—love can hobble you, knock you down, get you.
If you mean falling in love, yes, that will “get you” if you let it. It’s a fine, powerful experience and we all should have the knowledge of being got by it. But it’s blind, too, as you say. It’s “romantic,” simple and temporary, and it can be destructive. When love comes round, it doesn’t always come and stay with the purpose of making you happy. As I see it, when we marry we give up romance by submitting love to the limits of mortality. The traditional vows seize love by the scruff of the neck and set it down in real life, in the real world. Marriage in the traditional sense is also an economic connection, making a household. Around here people would say in one breath, “We got married and set up housekeeping.” I’m glad I stayed here. I’m glad that I stuck with Tanya. It’s a good thing. But you have to wait, and the necessity of patience invokes a tradition and discipline and way of thinking.
I want to talk to you more about the idea of limits.
What are the payoffs of observing limits and accepting them? I’ve begun to think a lot about the economic importance of intangibles. For instance, if you’re a cattle farmer and you keep the same cow families on your place, generation after generation, one of the results will be a locally adapted cow herd. Over time, the animals will have learned how to live on your place, in your conditions, better than if they were strangers. Veterinary and other costs would likely go down. Just as when you keep yourself to your place, you adapt to it. And there comes a finally inscrutable history of influences back and forth.
One time, when we were both up at the horse sale in Columbus, my friend Maury Tilleen said, “Come here, I want you to hear this.” He wanted me to hear the story of Lancie Clippinger’s corn crop of the year before. Lancie had forty acres of corn at a time when corn was selling at hardly more than it cost to raise it. And he had bought forty sows. He bred the sows so that their pigs would come on when the corn was ready to harvest, and then he put the pigs into the cornfield. At the same time, he picked the corn that he needed for his other stock. He made about a thousand dollars per acre off the corn that year partly by feeding it to the hogs. While we were standing there talking, Maury said, “Do you farrow the sows in a farrowing house?” “No,” Lancie said. “I have a field I turn them out in. It has plenty of water and shade and I see ‘em every day.” This is culture at work—“I see ‘em every day.” What the man knew increased the worth of his corn crop. So, if you have an economy that deliberately destroys this culture of husbandry, you’re destroying both the land and the people, the basis of the economy.
What’s your outlook on farming in America?
Between 1940 and 2012, the number of farms in the U.S. decreased by four million. The absence of so many farmers and their families is seen as progress by the liberals and conservatives who have been in charge of the economy since about 1952. Meanwhile, the farmland and the few surviving farmers are being ruined both by destructive ways of production and by overproduction. The millions who are gone have been replaced by bigger and bigger machines, and by toxic chemicals. If we should decide to replace the chemicals and some of the machinery with humans, as for health or survival we need to do, that would be very difficult and it would take a long time.
Why would it be so difficult?
Because there is no farmer pool from which farmers can be recruited ready-made. Once we could more or less expect good farmers to be the parents of good farmers. That kind of succession was hardly a public concern. When farmers are taught, starting in childhood, by parents and grandparents and neighbors, their education comes “naturally” and at little cost to the land. A good farmer is one who brings competent knowledge, work-wisdom, and a locally adapted agrarian culture to a particular farm that has been lovingly studied and learned over a number of years. We are not talking here about “job training,” but rather about the lifelong education of an artist, the wisdom that come from unceasing attention and practice. A young-adult non-farmer can learn to farm from reading, apprenticeship to a farmer, advice from neighbors, trial and error—but that is more awkward, is personally risky, and it may be costly to the land.
It seems counterintuitive for agriculture to keep moving in the present direction.
The solution is not simple in the approved, modern way. It’s not deterministic, which is what people really want. They want it to be decided by fate, or technology, or genetics, or something. To bring it back to politics, I was an Adlai Stevenson man when I was eighteen. I loved his eloquence. I couldn’t tell you now what he thought of farming. But when Eisenhower came in, his Secretary of Agriculture was Ezra Taft Benson, who said to the farmers, “Get big or get out,” a heartless and a foolish thing to say. My argument is that this ended official thought about agriculture. We were not to worry about it anymore. If farmers go to town that’s just more laborers for the labor pool, just more consumers of industrial food. The Democrats and the liberals are not thinking yet about these people that they blame for electing Mr. Trump. The people who elected Mr. Trump are people whose expectations have been raised by the connivance of the market. “You people deserve something better than this. You oughtn’t have to work so hard.” And so on. Their expectations have been going up. But the lid on their economy has been coming down. You can’t say they did a good thing by electing Mr. Trump, but you have at least to acknowledge their real trouble, even their desperation.
What do you think people—journalists, commentators, citizens—mean when they use the term “rural America”?
Since the election, liberal commentators have made “rural America” a term of denigration, the same as “boondocks” and “nowhere.” It is noticed now, by people who never noticed it before, only because of its support for Donald Trump. Rural America could have supported Trump, these people conclude, only because it is full of bigoted “non-college” white people who hate everybody but themselves. These liberals apparently don’t know that, with their consent, urban America has been freely plundering rural America of agricultural products since about the middle of the last century—and of coal for half a century longer. Conservation groups have accepted this abuse of non-wilderness land about as readily as the corporate shareholders. Benson gave permission to urban America to accept that industrial technology could solve all the problems of food production. And so urban America could just forget about rural America. What a relief! And then Mr. Trump arrived. A century ago Robert Frost spoke of “the need of being versed in country things,” and that need has now been reinforced, at least politically.
In the book you talk about Trump’s election being less of a surprise than a clarification.
People who are hopeless will do irrational things. And these people wanted to make a disturbance in the hopes that the disturbance would bring forth something better. They were hoping for the wrong things, but also they were being ignored. I believe in the importance of conversation. I think our conversation is worth more right now than either one of us thinking separately.
I worry that some resistance to limits is built-in to the very bloody and complicated history of this country. Pleasure, even the hope or rumor of pleasure—which, in America, we’re constantly linking to plentitude and to freedom—is so intoxicating. And I think, again, culturally, we’re being instructed to “follow your joy,” “do you,” all these platitudes that people hope might lead to a fuller or more empowered life.
The issue of what is right is valuable because it’s complex. The idea that you can be guided by your personal wishes, “following your joy” through a swarm of “alternatives,” is driving the young people crazy. But our problems, our human problems, actually are complex enough without adding fantasy. As I understand my effort, it is to deal with the problems of, for example, land use, in their real complexity. And of course, I’ve failed. I get invited to talk to a lady at Time, and we have a very nice talk, and I answer five questions. It’s obviously inadequate. And then there’s this thing I wrote, “Eating Is an Agricultural Act,” I’m so sorry about.
By itself it’s baloney. The context—the circumstances, the place, knowing your place—is all-important.
You’ve mentioned the lessons of your father. What kind of writer was he?
Well, my father was not a bookish man. My mother was a reader, but my father was a lawyer, and so he was under constraint to be clear. He really took pains to understand what it meant to talk to a jury. He used to love the story—I don’t know if it originated with him or not—of some young lawyer asking a witness, “Who instigated the altercation?” And an old lawyer punched him on the shoulder and said, “Ask him who started the fight!” My father insisted on the use of the right words, on calling things by their right names, and his syntax was powerful. I have a big debt to his language.
It’s funny, clarity is often undervalued in art. One of the things I admire about your writing, especially the essays, which feel like polemics, is that you’re very clear in your arguments. They’re beautifully supported. In the new book, you talk about how you often read seeking instruction. I’m curious how you balance that idea with reading for beauty, savoring the visceral pleasure of words.
You’re being fed in an essential way by the beauty of things you read and hear and look at. A well-made sentence, I think, is a thing of beauty. But then, a well-farmed farm also can feed a need for beauty. In my short story “The Art of Loading Brush,” when Andy Catlett and his brother go to a neighbor’s farm, there’s a wagonload of junk, and it’s beautifully loaded. Andy’s brother says, “He couldn’t make an ugly job of work to save his life.” In the epigraph I use from Aldo Leopold he questions if there’s any real distinction between esthetics and economics.
You also talk in “The Art of Loading Brush” about agrarianism being a feeling, or a kind of instinct, and I wonder—maybe this is a silly question—if we’re all born with that instinct. And if not, can it be nurtured? Can we learn it?
Is it inborn? I don’t know. There’s our great-granddaughter Charlzye, who at the age of three or four says, “I am a farmer.” And it satisfies something in her to say that. There’s something in her that responded to her grandparents’ farm and the farm animals, and that certainly hasn’t been taught.
As a kid, my experience of the natural world was intense and visceral. I think it did feel instinctive. It was fun. It was joyful.
Education ought to be speaking to that.
But we lose that sense of wonder as we age.
We lose it because “education” makes nothing of it. Or goes against it. If you’re lively and adventurous, you’re A.D.H.D. and you get a pill.
We certainly lose it by high school, when other concerns come in.
Pretty much as part of the curriculum. I think we get to your question by way of the idea of elation. Maybe we’re born with a kind of an instinct to want to be elated. What is meant by that is an onset of happiness. Happiness in the onset of the unexpected good. Maybe this is deeply planted in us, this sense that what we’re here for is to be elated and to be loved. So, you look at somebody you love. And if you live with them, maybe you do it every day. Your heart swells, and you know you’re happy. Why shouldn’t this apply to your livelihood, your vocation, your crop, your dairy cows?
We’re talking about pride a little bit too, I think.
Lancie Clippinger said to me, and he was very serious, that a man oughtn’t to milk but about twenty-five cows, because if he keeps to that number, he’ll see them every day. If he milks more than that, he’ll do the work but never see the cows! The number will vary from person to person, I think, but Lancie’s experience had told him something important.
It’s limits again. The eyes-to-acres ratio introduced by Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, is extremely important. If you’re thinking about this issue, you keep running into it. You can’t write a limitless play because an audience can sit only so long. The artists have put limits on themselves over and over again. There’ll be twenty-four books in a Homeric epic. By the time we get to Virgil, it’s twelve.
Have you read George Saunders?
He talks about something in his non-fiction that I think you’ve talked a lot about, too, which is how to be a good neighbor. And the so-called “soft virtues”—tenderness, kindness, empathy. How do you think about those things fitting into a life or a community?
I talk in my book about how the Amish have taken “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus’s second law, as an economic imperative. If you love your neighbors you mustn’t replace them with machinery. There’s another limit. And the Amish don’t limit neighborliness to themselves. In David Kline’s recent book he talks a lot about a person, a neighbor, who is not Amish. The neighbor is old, and he’s having health problems. He drives his car over to David’s, and David goes to town with him to help him shop, take care of the mail, and do all the things that have to be done in town. Then the neighbor has to go to the hospital, and then he’s in therapy. He’s gone quite a long time and while he’s gone they keep his place going. They fill the bird feeders, they take care of the lawn and the garden and the orchard. They clean his house. They throw away his old scatter rugs and get him some scraps at the rug factory, have them bound and put them down. When he comes home, the mail is sorted.
The point is not just that this is good for the neighbor, it’s also good for David and his family. They’ve enjoyed it. They’ve enjoyed imagining his pleasure in what they’ve done. And this isn’t selfishness. Maybe it’s more elation. Jesus implies this in a way—a limitlessness of neighborliness. And yet there’s a limit to effective neighborliness. You might be able to deal with one person hurt and lying beside the road, but you alone can’t deal with everybody who has fallen among thieves.
Your relationship with Amish culture and their way of living and farming seems as if it’s been incredibly instructive.
It really has. It’s a great deep pleasure, too. I have had the opportunity to go back to the same places and the same people, over and over again. And that’s an important part of it—you’ve got to go back to look and listen and think again.
That has to do with locality–
I told you, we would need to talk for two days.
I wanted to ask about where you write.
It’s a very crude little camp house. Sixteen by twelve, probably. And it’s a mess. I’ve been working there since 1963. There are a lot of expectations dwelling there. It’s a funny thing, but when I go there, I don’t delay much, I just sit right down and go to work. It doesn’t have an electric line going into it. I’m not much distracted, once I’m there.
You have a line about how there’s no distinction between a tree and its history. Do you think that same idea is true of poetry—that there’s no distinction between a poem and poetry, that all new work is in conversation with everything that preceded it, that language itself is simply a continuum?
It doesn’t come from nowhere. And it doesn’t come from individual genius, which I think overrated. It comes out of the language. But, how and how long the language has been in preparation is an interesting question because it’s only partly answerable. And then the local speech must influence it to give it specific reference.
The thing that worries me very much is how much language we’re using now that is so abstract as to require no thought at all. I mean very important words. Justice, for instance. I had a list, I think, of eleven kinds of justice. Restorative justice, climate justice, economic justice, social justice, and so on. The historian John Lukacs, whose work I greatly respect, said that “the indiscriminate pursuit of justice . . . may lay the world to waste.” And he invoked modern war, which kills indiscriminately for the sake of some “justice.” He thought the pursuit of truth, small “t,” much safer. I want to remember—and this comes to me from my dad, to some extent—that our system of justice requires a finding of truth, and it labors to see that justice is never done by one person. There’s a jury of twelve. There are two lawyers, at least, and a judge. It doesn’t always work perfectly. Sometimes the result is injustice. But, the effort to discover the truth that goes ahead of judgment is extremely important. It requires us to think about the process and what’s involved.
It’s a very humbling thing, finally. People speak of “the environment.” They don’t know what they’re talking about. “The environment” refers to no place in particular. We’re alive only in some place in particulars.
There’s certainly a poetic lineage of writers writing about the environment in a way that’s blindly reverent, almost irrational. Those books or poems often strike me as simplistic, or reductive . . .
Reductive. That’s the word we need. If I’m going to talk about the environment, I’ll need to start with this river, which is not an abstraction. This is the Kentucky River. It heads up almost at the Virginia line. It’s coming down through all those decapitated and suffering mountains, through the forests divided and fragmented, and on down past the cities of central Kentucky, gathering from them what we call “waste.” Here the river comes, with its load of pollutants and wasted soil. I know, because I’ve been here long enough, that the native black willows that used to grow along the shore banks are gone. So are the muskrats. What does this mean? In 2002, I had a boat with a motor for a while, and I could see that there were a few old willows on the bank tops, but no seedlings—no young willows along the edges at all. And so I began to try to find out what’s the matter, and apparently, you can’t find out. I got hold of some articles in reference journals that said, there’s too much glyphosate, or Roundup, in the Midwestern rivers. So I called those scientists. “I see that you’ve determined that there’s too much glyphosate in the Midwestern rivers.” “Oh yes, yes.” “Well, can you tell me what the effect of that is?” “Oh, ha ha,” they said. “A lot of people would like to know.” The problem is, it’s so hard to connect a cause to an effect in a large body of flowing water. It’s very hard to do. We’re talking about “the environment” when we speak of the Kentucky River. We live here, and our stock drinks from the river. “The environment,” as we call it, is intimately with us. We’re in it. It’s in us. But also we are it, and it is us.
Since the 2016 election, there’s been a lot of discussion about immigration and immigrants, legal or otherwise, but less discussion about how curtailing immigration, legal or otherwise, might affect farming.
It’s clear that without labor our local agricultural economy, such as it is, would collapse. But this is not a simple matter. These people come as strangers and are exploited. As always, when you have people come in to do menial work that you think you’re too good to do, you don’t like them. Trump is encouraging a dislike of the people that he and the rest of us are dependent on, without acknowledging the dependence. It’s not a very promising situation. Once you accept that something or somebody is exploitable, there’s another limitlessness. Exploitation leads, with perfect logic, to exhaustion. And our ways of land use exploit both land and people.
The news right now is also full of stories about how women are subjugated or abused.
The idea that a woman could be grabbed! I dealt with it in “The Unsettling of America,” in the chapter “The Body and the Earth,” about the evident parallel between the treatment of women and the treatment of the land. The applicability of the marriage metaphor to the keeping of the land will suggest that. But the abuse of either signifies such an absence of thought. It’s an absence of imagination, of sympathy. But before that, it’s an absence of thought. The word “relationship” is another to be worried about. How can you have a relationship with somebody that you grab? Why would you want a relationship that isn’t reciprocal?
You’ve talked about the shift from “ours” to “mine”—it’s the same way we treat the land. It’s not a relationship; it’s ownership.
And ownership is, again, something that we’ve got to think about. You know, if you’re going to have a marriage and you haven’t submitted to it, then it’s half a thing, which is really nothing. So if you’re submitting to ownership without submitting to being owned, it’s still half a thing. It amounts to nothing.
How long have you and Tanya been married now?
Sixty-two years last May 29th.
How old were you when you met?
I was twenty-one. I think we met in 1955. And I was close to twenty-three when we got married. She was, goodness, she was just a child. Twenty or something.
Was she your first love?
No. I had “gone with” other girls. But there’s a big difference between the “going with” kind of love and the love that you’ve committed to unconditionally, that you try to live up to, that reveals itself over a long time.
When you met Tanya, did you know right away that you’d met your wife?
I don’t think so. You must either decide this is worth working at, or just leave it undone. Marriage is not perfect agreement. But you’ve accepted this other person into your mind. I work alone, but always with her presence in my mind. And she is somebody I want to impress. I’m going to write this with the hope that it’ll help her to love me. I feel the stakes are pretty high. I’m in a conversation with her that hasn’t ended yet.
The idea of conversation seems important to you.
It’s either that or kill each other.
We do that, too.
We do. But it’s a shorthand, a short cut. We are always faced with a choice between solving our problems by communing with one another and with our places in the world—that is, paying respectful attention and responding respectfully—or solving them by applications of raw industrial power: more machines, more explosives, more poison. So far we have been choosing raw power, whether we’re dealing with international “competitors,” or with the land, water, and air of our country. We seem to regard forms of violence as “efficient” substitutes for the respectful, patient back-and-forth that real solutions require. By real solutions what I mean are solutions that are not destructive, that are kind to the world and our fellow creatures, including our fellow humans. Our dominant practice now is to solve problems with other problems. This is now obvious in industrial agriculture. What we need to do is submit, for example, to the influence of actually talking to your enemy. Loving your enemy.
That’s a hard thing to do.
We keep coming to that, don’t we? If we come to these places where we say, “This is hard,” that means that we have got to get back to the details of the work. That’s it. You don’t have to stop in despair. What you finally know is that when you start compartmentalizing, you’re wrong. The study of agriculture, for example, is not different from the study of ecology. How it all coheres finally is a mystery, and it’s easy to reduce that. People assume that I’m just thinking about my writing while I’m farming. Which of course reduces the farming to kind of a rote thing that doesn’t take any intelligence. Well, I quote David Jones.
That to be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work.
Finally it all comes back to the problem of the self. Blake spoke of Satan the Selfhood. What the Amish are trying to do is lose themselves.
I’m curious how religion or religious narratives play into this, because the idea of God, or of man and his relationship to God—it’s a deferential relationship. It’s about the dissolution of the self, in a way.
Well, you can’t carry on this conversation very long without talking about religion, because you’re talking about the life of the soul, which then enlivens such words as love. I mean, if we submit to the scientific definition of love, that leaves us with something glandular that has a completely arbitrary existence. So we’re trying so often, it seems to me, to use a language we have sort of topped, as we might top a tree, chopping off the top branches. Without soul and love, those words that are enabled by religion, then we’re reduced to a choiceless biological existence.
Or at least a joyless one.
Were your parents very religious?
Yes, but not dogmatically so. I attended church under protest. I disliked enclosure, and as I came to consciousness I objected to the belittlement of earthly life I heard too often—but not from my parents. I heard the King James Version quoted and read, and I’m still attached to it. To me, it’s not just an influence on English, some of that is English. What Ruth says to Naomi? And Luke’s passage about the birth of Jesus, and John’s account of Mary’s visit to the tomb—my goodness, that’s my language.
I tried to get along without it, because I thought I was going to be a modern person. But you can’t think about the issues we’re talking about without finally having to talk about mystery. You’ll finally have to talk about the commitment that doesn’t see any end. That’s a life that you are not going to be able to prescribe, that finally you’re not in charge of. I think my dad was speaking religiously when he said, “I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve had nothing to do with it.” That was a submission. It’s an important word and well, for instance, if you’re not going to submit to the labor of justice, there’s no use in going around talking about distributive justice.
What’s your relationship to the church these days?
I go in bad weather, and am glad to. You can’t not be interested in the church and live out here. It’s an influence. What people are hearing there affects this place, and that isn’t acknowledged enough. Tanya is a very good church person. I go up there and that place is full of ghosts for me. I can look at those pews and see my grandfather, and his friends, and others who are dear and close to me still. I’m sitting there very often with my children or my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren. But the gospels, for me, were not a church discovery. I had finally to carry them into the woods and read them there in order to see my need for them.
Again, that idea of submission, it’s cultural poison—
We really have to turn against the selfishness of the individualism that sees everybody as a competitor of everybody else. When we see how destructive that is, and we turn against it, then we have our life’s work.