The Common Good
July 2004

Heaven in Henry County

by Rose Marie Berger | July 2004

Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry talks about what makes people happy.

Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger and photographer Ryan Beiler spent a Sunday afternoon in February with Wendell Berry at

Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger and photographer Ryan Beiler spent a Sunday afternoon in February with Wendell Berry at his farm in Henry County, Kentucky. Berry is the author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry, and essays including The Unsettling of America, What are People For?, Life is a Miracle, Citizenship Papers, and The Art of the Commonplace. He has farmed in a traditional manner for nearly 40 years.

Sojourners: How does your identity as a writer connect to this region and land?

Wendell Berry: I was born here in Henry County. I grew up in these little towns, and in the countryside, on the farms. All my early memories are here. All the voices that surrounded me from the time I became able to hear were from here. This place where we're sitting today is the old property known as Lane's Landing. Twelve acres, more or less, the deed says. My wife, Tanya, and I came back here in 1964 and have lived here for 39 years, raised our children here. How could you draw a line separating this place and my identity? If you've known these places from your early youth, that means that you have a chance to know them in a way that other people never will.

We're on the west side of the Kentucky River, in the Kentucky River Valley. Some people call this the Outer Bluegrass. An old ocean laid down these layers of limestone in the soil. There are lots of trees here. There are white, chinquapin, red, black, and shumard oaks. Those are the principal ones.

Sojourners: What are the models used here in Kentucky to resist the economic pressure from the larger market?

Berry: Community-supported agriculture, farmers markets, direct marketing of meat—that sort of thing. There's an effort under way to develop a retail market for local produce. But this is hard to bring about.

The local landscape used to contribute food to Louisville. There was a significant amount of truck farming in those days. That's gone. The stockyard's gone, the packinghouses are gone. Louisville became economically and culturally isolated from its rich agricultural landscape. Now we are trying to build commercial linkages between the city and its local countryside. You've got the prospect, to begin with, of better, fresher food. You've got the possibility that consumers could influence production.

You have the possibility that urban consumers, by fulfilling their responsibility to local producers, can make secure their local food supply in the face of various threats. The paramount one, now on everybody's mind, is terrorism, but there are also the threats of epidemic and disease. In other words, the influence of local consumers could work not only to maintain farming in the local landscape, but also to diversify it. And American agriculture is badly in need of diversity.

Sojourners: Genetically modified organisms are being promoted by agribusiness as "a way to feed the poor people of the world." What ethical values should we bring to bear on genetic engineering?

Berry: The first ethical requirement is a decent suspicion of the claims of people who have something to sell. I'm not reading anything that suggests that genetic engineering is increasing production. Some recent things I've read suggest that productivity of Roundup Ready soybeans is less than that of other varieties.

I think that the real reason for genetic engineering is to put absolute control of the food system into corporate hands. They don't want anybody—farmer or urban consumer or anybody else—to have anything whatsoever that they don't buy from a corporation at the corporation's price. In other words, economic totalitarianism is the goal. I don't think the difference between political totalitarianism and economic totalitarianism is worth lingering over. If you're not economically free, if you don't have economic choices, you're not free. You can remove choice by making it impossible for small economic enterprises to survive.

Sojourners: Some people defend their locale by becoming "lifestyle activists." Your friends Harlan and Anna Hubbard are early examples of people who experimented with nomadism and rootedness, while maintaining fidelity to a place.

Berry: Harlan and Anna Hubbard were a married couple who began their life together by building a shanty boat and making a sort of epic drift down the rivers from Brent, Kentucky, above Cincinnati, to New Orleans and then on out into the bayous. In the early '50s, that journey having completed itself, they returned to Kentucky and bought a remote property, known as Payne Hollow, on the Ohio River in Trimble County. They built a house there and remained there, living mostly from their land and the river until they died.

A friend and I met them by accident while on a canoe trip. We stopped there to see if we could get some drinkable water. We had replenished our water supply with the city water of Madison, Indiana, and we were finding it hard to swallow.

They were musicians; they played duets every day of their life together. They played Mozart, Brahms, and Bach. Harlan made prints, drawings, oils, and watercolors. And he was a writer. He published in his lifetime two wonderful books, Shantyboat: A River Way of Life and Payne Hollow. Their life was exemplary. They did little harm. They lived abundantly, by their own efforts, and with a very small expenditure of money. In their frugal life they experienced much joy and made much beauty. They were teachers to a lot of people, and I'm one of them.

Sojourners: What was your relationship with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer who lived in Kentucky?

Berry: Merton was a man who understood how to be a companion. He had a lot of humor, and I think he knew something about how to be happy or how to enjoy happiness when he had it. He had a very lively countenance; a very bright, curious, amused eye.

When we went down to the Abbey of Gethsemani the first time, he just dropped it out casually, and I think with great secret amusement, that he was thinking about joining an Indian tribe. Merton was a profound Christian. Some people seem to think that when he went East he was abandoning his faith or his vocation. I don't think he was at all. His talks to religious groups in Alaska on his last trip before he died were wonderful.

Sojourners: Merton was skeptical of the post-Enlightenment era that shapes modern Christianity. He called into question the myth of progress. You take on these same issues in Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition.

Berry: The myth of progress substitutes this infinite advance toward better and better life in the material sense for the old pilgrimage, which you make by effort and grace, to become a better person. That's the reason you need to subvert it if you can. It takes people's minds off the important things. It becomes a kind of determinism: All we have to do is just passively go along and things will get better and better, and we'll be happier and happier. That's why we need honest accounting.

What is the measure of progress? It is possible to measure the progress of the last 200 or 300 years in soil erosion. We can measure it in the rate of species extinction. We can measure it in pollution, in the toxicity of the world. Those things, like power and speed, are perfectly measurable.

But we need also to raise the questions that are not quantitative. How happy are people? What do we make of all this complaining? How healthy are people? How are love and beauty faring? What do we make of all this doctoring and medication that's going on all the time at such a great expense? That's not to deny that this so-called progress has given us things that are worth having. A hot bath every night is a good thing. I affirm that it is good, and wish to record my gratitude. There are other good things, but real harms also have been done.

Sojourners: The epigraph to Citizenship Papers is 2 Peter 2:3, "And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you." In the current economic and political context this verse becomes revolutionary.

Berry: Yes. The gospels, and sometimes the epistles, are pretty revolutionary. They propose a revolution of about 180 degrees.

Christ was quite explicit, for instance, about his pacifism. You can't be more explicit than "Love your enemies." He did run those people out of the temple, but he didn't kill them.

People are always talking about the first church. The real first church was that gaggle of people who followed Jesus around. We don't know anything about them. But he apparently didn't ask them what creed they subscribed to, or what their sexual preference was, or any of that. He fed them. He healed them. He forgave them. He is clear about sin, but he was also for forgiveness.

Any religion has to have a practice. When you let it go so far from practice that it just becomes a matter of talk, something bad happens. If you don't have an economic practice, you don't have a practice. Christians conventionally think they've done enough when they've gone to the store and shopped. But that isn't an economic life. If you take seriously those passages in the scripture that say that we live by God's spirit and breath, that we live, move, and have our being in God, the implications for the present economy are just devastating. Those passages call for an entirely generous and careful economic life.

Sojourners: In the movement to develop local, sustainable economies, is there a danger of balkanism—of establishing enemy tensions and prejudice between different locales?

Berry: We're a pretty bad species in a lot of ways and in other ways a pretty good one. We can become a warrior civilization and live by piracy; on the other hand, we're capable of lovingkindness, of genuine affection, of generosity, of friendship, of peaceability, of forgiveness and gratitude. It's a question of where you want to put your influence, how you want to apply the little means that you have. It's too easy to say that country people are provincial and prejudiced, as if the worst things that humans are capable of hadn't also risen up in cosmopolitan, highly sophisticated, urban civilizations. That's just a passing of blame. If you can blame it all on people out in the provinces then you don't have to worry about what's going on in your urban neighborhood or in your urban soul.

One of the oldest human artifacts is the trade route. People were trading in obsidian and other rare things long before [recorded] history. So we know there's going to be trade, we know that you can't isolate a culture and keep it going without cultural interchange.

The serious question is whether you're going to become a warrior community and live by piracy, by taking what you need from other people. I think the only antidote to that is imagination. You have to develop your imagination to the point that permits sympathy to happen. You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours or the lives of your loved ones or the lives of your neighbors. You have to have at least enough imagination to understand that if you want the benefits of compassion, you must be compassionate. If you want forgiveness you must be forgiving. It's a difficult business, being human.

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