Tag Archives: culture

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

The Unsettling of America: Culture and AgricultureThe Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I told my friend that reading a book by Wendell Berry was like your father sitting you down to have a difficult talk. You remember the kind. The kind you dreaded because you knew he was going to be right, you knew he was going to tell you things you didn’t necessarily want to hear, and you knew you were going to have to change. I told my friend this because we’re creating a course for next semester on sustainable agriculture and we’ll be using this as one of our texts. But I told my friend we needed to start with something easier, something to ease the students into considerations of food production, industrial agriculture, and sustainability, because Berry’s going to be difficult.

He’s not difficult to read because he’s a poor writer. He’s a fantastic, lucid, compelling writer. But he’s difficult because what he’s saying is correct and devastating. He says things you don’t want to but need to hear. And you hate it a little bit because you’re embarrassed that you never realized these things for yourself and you’re going to have to do the difficult work of changing.

Berry is the Kentuckian farmer, essayist, and activist who is the patron saint of much of the back-to-the-farm, slow-food, locavore movement. Some might argue he’s the guy who started these movements, though his books are simply about the land and our connection to it and the way this has been lost and abused by industrial agriculture and destructive practices and structures– what Berry calls “agribusiness.” He writes fiction and poetry as well, but from what I’ve read and heard of these works the central theme is the same: fidelity to place.

The Unsettling of America is a collection of some of Berry’s classic and most influential essays. Most were originally published elsewhere, but they all fit together in a structural whole yet independent enough to be read on their own. This makes the work especially useful as a primary text to give readers some introduction to Berry.

Berry’s major claims are that our relationship with the land– primarily through agriculture and animal husbandry– is an essential part of our culture and has been lost through the machinations of agribusiness. In the past, small farmers owned their land and grew a variety of crops with care and attention to the local constraints and conditions of culture and soil. Far from being “quaint” or “rustic,” this represented an integrated, varied system that was robust, culturally-rich, and sustainable. It was, Berry argues, drawing on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, an essential part of the structural fiber of our nation: independent land-holders tied to the land and local communities. Berry takes this analogy even farther, offering a holistic view of health as concentric circles radiating from the marriage bed to the family to the land and local community.

Berry has written a jeremiad. He’s mourning the loss of something most of us don’t even realize is gone or– most frustratingly for him– that we’ve been convinced was a good or inevitable thing to lose. He’s arguing small scale, independent farming was more effective for community stability and more efficient at producing a sustainable, varied, intelligent harvest that respected locality, soil, and climate. Essentially, it preserved culture. We’ve lost all that, Berry says, and we’ve been told it was a good thing to lose, that it was backward and dated and couldn’t feed a hungry world.

Berry’s not buying it. He denies the technological determinism most of us accept without thought. Why should a certain way of doing farming– a way dominated by industrial agriculture– be presented as the only effective way when it so obviously has led to the erosion of soil, the dependence on foreign oil and chemicals, and the erosion of local communities. Why is farming such a mess? Why are small family farms being forced out to make way for ever larger, ever less stable, ever more environmentally degrading farms? We’ve broken connections, Berry argues, and he argues this methodically and relentlessly, giving dozens of examples self-evident in retrospect.

Consider something as simple as the relationship between animals and crops on a small farm. Leaving aside the question of horse-powered agriculture, which is also something Berry says has been dismissed completely for no good reason, raising animals on the farm in the context of raising crops simply made sense. They were linked together. Industrial agriculture separates these and immediately creates problems. The huge concentrations of animal waste, which on smaller farms served as important fertilizer, now become pollutants to be disposed of. And for fertilizers, of which good manure would be ideal, farmers now must purchase chemically-prepared substitutes. With Berry’s characteristic, weary sarcasm, he points out the fact that the “efficiency” of industrial farming had separated two solutions and elegantly created multiple problems.

People could protest. Probably many do. They think Berry is old-fashioned or idealistic or that his offered solutions don’t make economic sense. Some of these people simply haven’t read Berry carefully. He patiently gives argument after argument that I’ve never heard truly refuted, let alone directly responded to. But some of these people are right: Berry’s not offering economic solutions, because they don’t work. That sort of thinking is what got us in this mess to begin with, he maintains. You can’t discuss agriculture– our relationship with the land– solely in economic or business terms. It’s a much deeper question, a question of culture, and that’s what’s been lost.

Another way of looking at it is the a question of hidden costs. Agribusiness isn’t interested in the hidden costs to the environment, to the community, and to a culture that values farming as an art and heritage. And neither, unfortunately, are most of us. Berry’s work will remind you why you should be.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frustrations can lead to rash actions. Regardless of how one feels about the frustrations boiling up in cities like Boston and Ferguson and the resulting actions, my white, middle-class frustrations in response were largely regarding my own lack of comprehension. Here I am, surrounded in a comfortable middle-class environment by a bunch of comfortable, middle-class friends and family. I don’t have a good understanding the frustrations of others. I don’t have a grasp at any significant level of what it must be like to be a minority living and working in America.

Then I looked at the fiction I was reading and realized it was more of the same: it wasn’t helping me reach any sort of understanding of minority perspectives. My books are like my friends: a bunch of white guys I love to death. But not terribly diverse. So I made what may have been a rash decision. It’s certainly a decision that looks kind of pathetic in light of the backdrop of unrest in which it was made. But it’s a step, and one has to start somewhere. I decided for the rest of the year I would start reading works of fiction exclusively by minority voices. Call it an affirmative action program for my own reading list, a way to swing the balance a bit from a life of reading in which Harper Lee and Flannery O’Conner were about the extent of my diversity.

(Note I say “start”– this allows me to finish the couple novels I’ve already begun by old white guys, and it doesn’t hold me to finish a novel if I pick a few duds. I should be able to be colorblind when it comes to not finishing crappy writing. But it does mean I finally get off my metaphorical butt and read some of the things people have been telling me to read for quite a while.)

The first book on my list was Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which had been recommended by a friend and which I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. I’ve read several works of nonfiction on the Native American narrative in North America, and I was told Alexie was the person to read if I wanted a view into the life of contemporary Native American society. (Alexie uses the term “Indian.” I’ve been taught that this isn’t a politically correct term to use, but is it more awkward using a term they don’t use for themselves? This is an excellent example of the awkwardness Adam Kotsko discusses in his book Awkwardness where fear of causing offense presents an additional barrier to dialogue across social or ethnic divisions.)

Lone Ranger and Tonto is the collection of short stories that rocketed Alexie, a Spokane Indian who grew up on a reservation in Washington state, to the national spotlight. Alexie’s “reservation realism” is supposed to capture aspects of the essence of life for Native American youth today. The stories are spare, sad, and for the most part revolve around the day-to-day frustrations, disappointment, and lost wonder of Alexie’s generation. The characters drink, fight, play basketball. Portions, Alexie admits, are autobiographical in some sense. Fatherhood is a common theme throughout, both on the side of sons losing their fathers and– in what I thought were two of the most powerful pieces of the collection, “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”– becoming fathers with varying degrees of reluctance.

Yet I had to keep reminding myself these weren’t white people. I don’t know if that means I’m colorblind or that I have difficulty extricating my own racial prejudices in visualization when I read. On some level, Lone Ranger and Tonto seemed a collection of windows into the lives of people my peers used to call “white trash”– living with nowhere to go in trailer parks, watching days pass without aim or intent. It was only when Alexie reminded me with descriptions of ribbon shirts or the color of skin or braids or references to pow-wows that I switched the colors in my mind. I’m not sure what this means.

For the most part, Lone Ranger and Tonto is a collection of haunting stories, tinged with despair and yet also beauty. It’s the beauty of a bleak field, of peeling paint, of the winter sky and bare branches. It’s the stories of a community stripped of hope and purpose, a community unrooted and lost even as it has absorbed the Diet Pepsi, diabetes, television, and alcohol of the culture in which has been lost. Yet the parts where it seemed most “Indian,” most indicative of a different view of the world, are the parts where the narrative is least realistic, least straightforward. It’s where the narrative veers toward magical realism or even surrealism, as in the post-apocalyptic dreamscape that pervades the middle of the volume. In that particular story (and more subtly throughout) we get the reminder that in some sense the reservation is already post-apocalyptic: these are the survivors of a culture that was utterly overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and transformed beyond recognition. They’re all survivors here.

In these narratives, where the Western realism slips, we seem to get a glimpse into the mind of another culture. And here’s where I must tread carefully, because on the one hand a work like this shows us how similar we all really are; yet on the other hand the work– I think– can illustrate how unlike we are as well. Not that race need divide, but that culture informs our perception of the world, and straightforward narrative prose seems a dominantly Western approach. Alexie at times approaches something that I think Lafferty (himself not an Indian) accomplished in his work Okla Hannali: a story told in the way you half-believe a real Indian would tell it, an Indian who knew that stories didn’t have to make logical sense to be true or realistic to be life-like.

The important of stories is the backbone of this collection of stories. Many of the stories, especially those featuring the character of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are stories about telling stories. There’s something significant here, and something I think is central to the experience of any marginalized people: the stories become a way of survival, essential to culture and identity to an extent we– whose narratives are so dominant that our own stories are ubiquitous and we begin to believe they are the only stories– cannot grasp.