Issue 3:1 | Interview | Jim Minick

A Citizen and a Native:

An Interview with Wendell Berry*

Jim Minick

 

 

 

         The Ohio River was up when I visited Wendell Berry and his wife, Tanya, on Sunday afternoon, November 16, 2003. So was the Kentucky River along which the Berrys live. Heavy rains in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky had brought on the flooding. At Carrollton, Kentucky, ten miles downstream from the Berrys’ farm, the two rivers join at Point Park, and here the Ohio crested at 36 feet, 24 feet above normal. A mile upstream on the Kentucky River, the high water mark was at 22 feet.

         “This isn’t Appalachia,” I thought, “yet how do you describe these hills?” They fall dramatically to the rich bottom lands and waterways, but they have only one side. Drive up the steep roads through narrow hollows, and you arrive on a rich, slightly rolling plateau of bluegrass.

         The Berry farmstead rests on the side of one of these steep hills, where the bottom border is the muddy Kentucky River, and between the house and the river, a hillside pastures sheep and a single llama. The house, a two-story white clapboard built in the late 1800s, perches on a bench in the hillside, “guarded” by two palm-licking border collies.

         Wendell Berry came out to greet me, and we moved inside, settling at the round kitchen table. Throughout the interview, Mrs. Berry, in a corner rocker, occasionally joined our conversation as she trimmed and collated sheet music for that night’s choir practice. Later she cut vegetables and made soup, filling the small kitchen with warmth and the smell of good food.

 

Minick: I would like to start with some basic questions about your farm. How much land do you own, and how long have you owned this farm?

 

Berry: We have 125 acres, more or less. We don’t know exactly. As you can see, it’s pretty rough. The two crops we have here, besides the garden, are grass and trees. I would say well over half of it is wooded. On the pastures, we have a small flock of Border Cheviots.

         We bought the first 12 acres of it, the old landing property here, in the fall of 1964, about this time of year. We moved in the next summer.

 

Minick: I guess that’s when you started writing Long-Legged House?

 

Berry: That was a little later. When we moved here, I was writing A Place on Earth. I built that camp house, where I do my work, in 1963.

 

 

Mrs. Berry: It was already there, just in a different place.

 

Berry: Then the right word would be I rebuilt it.

 

Minick: What was the history of the farm before you? What was it like before you bought it?

 

Berry: Well, we bought it in a good many tracts. We have six deeds. A good bit of it was pretty badly run down. The 40 acres downriver had been savagely bulldozed by developers. We spent a lot of money bulldozing it back together.

         We’ve cleared some land and let the woods come back on some, but for the most part, we have kept clear what was clear. Some of it was overgrown with bushes. Around here you don’t have to plant trees, they come.

 

Minick: I’m asking this to lead to this question: When you read from Hannah Coulter, your novel in progress, this summer at Hindman [Settlement School Appalachian Writers Workshop], you talked about the way land shapes the characters. How has this place shaped you and how have you shaped it?

 

Berry: That’s a difficult question because you can’t give a hard and fast, provable answer. We’ve been here almost 40 years. We’ve raised our children and gotten older here. We’ve done our best to take good care of the place. We’ve made some mistakes, but for the most part we have taken good care of it. What we’ve done here is the intimate history of our life, and so it’s hard to say more than that if we had not lived here we’d be different people and it would be a different place. But we don’t have what experimenters call “control plots.” We know that if nobody lived here it would go back to the woods. And that would be fine. I’m ready for that to happen, and it probably will, eventually.

 

Minick: In several places, you’ve written that one of your goals has been to make farming fit the farm, and I agree, but I’ve always wondered how exactly you do that?

 

Berry: That phrase is J. Russell Smith’s, from his great book Tree Crops. To generalize his point, you could say he understood that when the ground is steep you have to go with perennials. Wes Jackson [Director of the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas] is saying you’ve got to go with perennials anyhow. But as the slope steepens, the need for perennial cover increases. That means you have got to have grass where you don’t have trees, and it means that you mustn’t overgraze the grass. So we are grass farmers primarily. There was a time, when I had more energy and fewer distractions, when we were growing all our grain and hay in the river and creek bottoms. That’s difficult here because the river and creek bottoms overflow, and there was a stretch of four years when I lost everything I planted. Our son farms near here, and now we get the little grain and hay that we need from him.

 

Mrs. Berry: One of the reasons we have sheep instead of cattle on this land is because it reacts better with the sheep. We had cattle, and they’re a little hard on it.

 

Berry: The grass cover is as good as a tree cover on a slope, but you’ve got to take care of it. We don’t have cattle on these slopes because in the wintertime they plow it up just by walking on it. And they’ll start a slip; they’ll push the soil off the hillside.

         I keep horses, but I keep them over in the creek bottom where the damage is minimized. I don’t put the horses on the hills—if I can avoid it, let’s say it that way. And usually I can avoid it. It is an absolute wrong to put them on hills in the winter, and I don’t.

 

Minick: Do you grow tobacco?

 

Berry: I never have grown tobacco here. Until recently, when my neighbors were growing tobacco, I was always involved. Nearly every year of my life, except when I was away, I was involved in setting and cutting tobacco with my neighbors.

 

Mrs. Berry: We just don’t raise tobacco on our farm. We still have our allotment. Our children are growing it now.

 

Minick: In your interview with Elizabeth Beattie, you said you always knew you wanted to be a farmer, even from a young age. Can you say why?

 

Berry: Nope. I can’t say why. I was involved in farming from childhood, and my father lived and breathed it. Although he was a lawyer, he was a passionate farmer. It’s hard to say why you love to do something. I love to write too, but I don’t know why. I grew up farming. My grandfather, my father’s father, was insistent on the importance of it. I grew up among people who simply could not conceive of farming as an inferior way of work, or an inferior art, or something for stupid people to do.

 

Minick: When I grew up, my uncle ran the family farm, but all of the other three brothers, including my father, were never really interested. I wonder why?

 

Berry: Well, our society teaches that you have failed if you can’t think of anything better to do than farm.

 

Minick: So, why did your family counter that?

 

Berry: I don’t know. They were just people who liked farming. My brother and I like it. Both of us are on farms. Both of my children are farmers. We’re raising some fairly fierce agrarian grandkids.

 

Minick: Do your children also have off-farm jobs?

 

Berry: My daughter-in-law works for the post office. My son works as a furniture maker part-time in the old store down there [by the state road, within sight of Berry’s house]. My daughter and son-in-law are full-time farmers. They have a winery on their farm near New Castle. And they are making very good wine, too.

 

Minick: How did you instill in your children and grandchildren this agrarian way which runs counter to our society?

 

Berry: You know, they just grew up in a farming family and among farming neighbors. Children know from what they see in you what you love and respect, and they grow up to love and respect it too. I suppose that’s the way it works. They see that it can be done, and they see and hear judgements made, choices made, about quality. They see very readily, I assume, where you take your pleasure. We haven’t run an indoctrination program exactly, have we, Tanya? We haven’t set them down and told them what to do ...

 

Mrs. Berry: No, we don’t know what they’re going to do. We usually find out later.

 

Berry: You have to leave your children free to choose. If they want to do it, then you want them to do it. Our son never wanted to do anything else but farm. Our daughter decided a little later.

 

Mrs. Berry: She didn’t like it at all when she was a girl.

 

Berry: She married a farmer and then became a farmer. That’s the way it’s been. Our son has cattle, tobacco and corn. He sometimes raises potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

 

Mrs. Berry: They both have been involved in the movement to try to make a local economy that will save the small farm.

 

Berry: Both of our kids are pretty actively involved in this effort we have going on in the state [of Kentucky] to keep the legs under the small farmers. They are working on marketing locally and in Louisville. They are involved in the cause of the small farm. My father was, my brother and I have been, and now my children are.

 

Minick: What do you see happening to your farm in the future?

 

Berry: It’s hard to believe that anyone is going to want to farm this place after I am gone. It’s too steep. It has no arable land on it that doesn’t flood. I assume that the slopes will go back to the woods, maybe the bottomlands too. I don’t know what the children will do.

 

Minick: How much development pressure is here?

 

Berry: We’re not under great pressure here.

 

Mrs. Berry: The county is. All the counties around here are.

This county is changing really, really fast. All the roads are filling with new houses.

 

Berry: Nobody has approached us lately.

 

Mrs. Berry: And this floods so much down here, that there is some protection in that.

 

Berry: We don’t own land that is developable for summer homes or city lot development. But urbanization is growing all around us. People are moving in and moving out. Population here is many times more transient than it used to be. When I was growing up here, people mostly were living on the places where they had always lived, and they and their children continued to live there for a long time. Now it is shifting. People buy houses and move in. Then the first thing you know, there is a “For Sale” sign up, and they’re gone.

 

Mrs. Berry: The land prices have gone way up, too, so the farmers can’t keep up.

 

Berry: The land prices have gone out of the reach of the farmers.

People buy farms to “get away.”

 

Minick: So what’s your opinion on the conservation easement movement?

 

Berry: I’m for that. We intend to give a conservation easement on this place.

 

Mrs. Berry: That has saved a farm or two in the county, where the farmers have done easements and that’s enabled them to go on farming.

 

Berry: Of course, the cost of petroleum may control sprawl in a few years more efficiently than the land trust movement.

 

We pause to watch their two dogs outside wander off. Berry conjectures that they’re visiting a deer carcass up the hill.

 

Minick: Did you kill the deer?

 

Berry: I didn’t. Somebody must have thrown it off the road. We are really over-populated with deer.

 

Minick: We are too. Do you hunt?

 

Berry: No, I used to when I was a kid, but not anymore. I couldn’t hit anything now!

 

The dogs disappear and we continue.

 

Minick: I went to the Land Institute and heard you speak in 1996, several years ago. I have always been fascinated with Wes Jackson’s work, but I have always wondered: What he’s doing on the prairie, what’s the equivalent here on hilly land or in Appalachia? What’s the parallel system of agriculture?

 

Berry: Wes Jackson’s work pretty well parallels the work of Sir Albert Howard. Wes says the native prairie should be the model for agriculture in the prairie states. But Howard said if you want to know how to farm, you need to look at the forest. So here we need to look at the forest. The message is everywhere the same. When you uncover the land, you expose it to erosion, and the steeper the ground, the more vulnerable to erosion it is. But virtually all land is vulnerable to erosion. One of the most eroded states is Iowa.

 

Minick: I’m curious about the plow and its future. How much will it be used, and how do you think it will be used?

 

Berry: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that people can plow pretty well. I know a hillside that an Amish farmer has plowed in strips for many years without noticeable erosion. He has used a two-way horse-drawn plow that’s been reengineered a little so that it lays the furrow very forcibly up the hill. So instead of a shingled roof, you have the opposite—every furrow is a water catcher. I’ve been on that hillside in the fall when the dead furrows on the lower sides of those strips were still open. You can do that in some places, depending on the kind of soil you have, and the degree of the slope, but it has to be very lovingly and very thoughtfully done.

         This means that in agriculture as in other work, you’ve got to address the problem of scale. And again the steeper the ground, the smaller must be the scale, if you are going to conserve the soil. If you’re plowing steep ground, the scale has to be small. The scale can be a little larger on steep ground if you’re grazing. But the same laws still apply—you don’t want too many head of livestock passing the same gate or bottleneck, wearing a path on a steep slope. So you’ve got to control the scale. In the long run, I think J. Russell Smith and Wes Jackson are right. The steeper land needs to be under grass or trees or both.

         We’ve also got to address the issue of local adaptation. Some things can be done without damage here in our river bottom, for example, that can’t be done without damage on the hillsides or in Arizona. We’ve got to address the issues of fertility conservation and water conservation. And we’ve got to address the issue of genetic diversity. Plants and animals need to be adapted to the farm. There is a reason these sheep of ours do better on hills than other breeds.

 

Minick: How long have you used the Cheviot breed of sheep?

 

Berry: We bought the first ones in 1978.

 

Minick: Have you tried other ones?

 

Berry: A little, but we pretty much knew the kind of sheep we needed. The Cheviots come from the Cheviot Hills in Scotland. Hillsides are where these sheep belong. What we’re looking for is a ewe that will have two lambs a year, mother and feed them well, on the hillsides and on grass. We don’t feed any corn to our ewes. We feed a little corn to the lambs. The meat that leaves a farm like this ought to be mostly made of grass.

 

Minick: And the lamb market, how is it now?

 

Berry: I don’t know. We disposed of our lambs privately. This year we have fewer lambs than customers.

 

Minick: So you direct market?

 

Berry: Yes.

 

Minick: Great. In a different vein, I would like to explore the concept of nativeness a little more. How do you define the word “native”?

 

Berry: Native means born here. But it’s possible now to be born here but not made here. You can live here and yet be made by imported nutrients and imported influences. If “native” is going to mean anything, you have to say you’re born, nourished, and educated to a significant extent in and by your place, your local community.

 

Minick: I was re-reading “A Native Hill,” and this one sentence struck me. You’re talking about coming back, and you write, “Here, now that I’m both native and citizen, there’s no immunity to what is wrong.” The “citizen” part jumped out at me on this reading. What is the connection between “native” and “citizen”? 

 

Berry: That essay “A Native Hill” is an early one, written a long time ago, partly in the exhilaration of rediscovering my own part of the world, of seeing it with the change of vision that came with the feeling that I was going to live here, that I was here for life. It was an exhilaration sobered by the understanding that we had made historical blunders here that would have to be corrected. To live here responsibly meant that you had to accept responsibility for those blunders and errors and find, if you could, suitable remedies and corrections. So the word “citizen” occurs in that sentence because of its implication of responsibility. You can be a native without consciously assuming responsibility. A citizen consciously assumes responsibilities that belong to the place, responding to the problems of the place.

 

Minick: I’ve always been troubled by neighbors who have claimed nativeness, rightly so in one way, with their families living in this one place for five generations. And yet I look at how they care for the land, and it is worse, or not any better, than most of the non-natives. That has always troubled me. The word “citizen” has to come in there to make any sense.

 

Berry: It has to come in there. Wes Jackson has a book titled Becoming Native to This Place. As he understands it, it’s a very complex process, becoming consciously native. You ask where you are and how you should behave within the local circumstances and limits.

 

Minick: I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about, and hacking at, non-native, invasive plants on our farm. Are there any parallels here between plants and people in regards to this word “native”?

 

Berry: Yes. Exotic weeds and pests are a side effect of long-distance travel and commerce. They are out of context and out of control, like European exploiters on the frontiers of North America. We came here as a sort of weed species, and we’re not over it yet; in some respects we’re weedier now than ever. Our advantage over the nodding thistles and Japanese beetles is that we can learn where we are and consciously adapt, if we are willing to do it.

 

Minick: So, do you think you can become native to a new place even though you were not born there?

 

Berry: Well, we had better. It can’t be easy, but the stakes are pretty high.

 

Minick: Let me ask you a little bit about your relationship with Appalachia. In the Hindman [Settlement School] speech you said, “This part of the world [implying Appalachia] has been a peculiar kind of inspiration for me,” and I’d like to hear you explain that.

 

Berry: Did I clarify that? (Laughter).

 

Minick: No, that’s why I’m here. What’s your connection to Appalachia?

 

Berry: Well, I live on a river that begins as an Appalachian river. Of course, every time I look at that river, I know where it comes from.

         So that’s a fairly intimate connection. Living downstream from somebody is a predicament, and you would ask certain things of the upstream people if you had the power to do it. You would be interested in what they do with their sewage, and the way they manage their mountain sides, and so on.

         I live downstream from a very large number of Kentuckians, a lot of people in central Kentucky, and a lot in the mountains.

         This is a river I have loved all my life. And I know that it’s a badly mistreated river, and so to live here is to be always in the presence of a certain sense of grief and loss.

 

Minick: Any other connections to Appalachia?

 

Berry: Gurney Norman and I have been friends for most of our lives, and he has been my teacher and guide in the headwaters. His writings and conversation have been invaluable to me. We have traveled through the mountains together a good many times, looking and talking. Our conversation has lasted for many years and many miles.

         I met James Still in (I think) 1954, and his work and his example have had a continuous influence on me. He was a nearly perfect writer, a master, who set a very high standard for us younger ones.

         And in 1965 Gurney introduced me to Anne and Harry Caudill. I had read Harry’s book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands in 1963, after I had decided to return to Kentucky from New York, and it had affected me profoundly. That book gave me the sense of citizenship that I needed. Tanya and I have a big debt to the Caudills and we have remained friends.

         I could say more about my connections to Appalachia, but maybe that’s enough.

         In justice, I ought to add that my father’s example influenced me in much the same way as Harry Caudill’s. Like Harry, my father went away, got a law degree and came back to his home community. My father spent his life working for the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, among other things. He was a country lawyer and a farmer. He helped start that Co-op.

Minick: Does it still exist?

 

Berry: Yes, it has served the tobacco farmers in this part of the country well for 60 years.

 

Minick: How big was it, in terms of number of farmers?

 

Berry: At present the count is 88,000 tobacco farmers in Kentucky with an average farm size of 150 acres. The Co-op represents the burley tobacco farmers in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia.

         That Co-op has been a remarkable thing, considering the independence of farmers. It has been put to referendum over and over again, and it has been voted in overwhelmingly every time. It has been a model program, and a good example of a proper governmental service to agriculture. It’s a no-net cost program. It hasn’t cost the public anything because it combines price supports with production controls. The program hasn’t encouraged surplus production.

 

Minick: The reason I’m asking about the Co-op is because I’m part of a group trying to form one. We’re going to have a sustainable forestry, vertical business. We’re all going to be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

 

Berry: That’s the right thing to do.

 

Minick: Our leader, Harry Groot, has been doing this for several years, so he has a mill, a drying kiln, and a moulder. We have roughly 10,000 acres, but if it’s to succeed, we need five to ten times that as a business. That just daunts me.

 

Berry: The local food markets are facing the same question. If you’re conceiving your co-op as a marketer of raw products into the global economy, then the question of large quantities is applicable, and probably means that you’re going to fail. If you are talking about marketing your timber locally to local mills, builders, furniture makers, woodworking shops and other local enterprises, then you’re not limited by small acreages and you can go ahead.

          If you’re trying to market Kentucky-grown food to Kroger, you’ve got to have big, uniform quantities, and you are going to be competing with people in, say, California who are working with bigger volumes than you are, inevitably, and probably you’re going to get beat. If you’re talking about marketing to local shops, stores, restaurants, governmental institutions and so on, then it’s a different proposition.

 

Minick: I hesitate to ask you this, but how would you define “local,” if you were to put a mileage on it? That’s a hard question, I know.

 

Berry: This is a conversation we ought to have, but I don’t know if we can have it here or not. Anybody’s authority to talk on this subject is questionable. But mileage, the radius of the operation, is going to depend on the cost of hauling. If you can keep the product price depressed enough, you can haul farther. If the cost of fuel goes up, that’s going to reduce the radius, and the cost of fuel is probably going to go up. So you have to think about that.

         Maybe 30 years ago, we went up to a farming conference in Keene, New Hampshire, and I talked at length to a fellow up there who was running his own forestry and logging operation. He had, as I remember, 2500 acres of forest in the hills, and his technology consisted of a portable sawmill and an 8N Ford tractor. He could be, at his scale, a very thorough marketer. He could sell short logs to build a table. To build furniture, you don’t need a 16-foot log. He could sell firewood. He told me he once filled an order for 30 hornbeam logs. Somebody wanted them for some reason, and he went and got them. This is the kind of thing, he said, that he could do on his scale, that a big timber company couldn’t possibly do. I think that’s the way you’ve got to think about your co-op. And you’ve got to carry it out locally to finished products. Saw timber, firewood, birdhouses, grapevine wreaths, mushrooms, herbs, Adirondack chairs, cherry desks, corner cupboards—the whole range.

         Have you ever visited the Menominee forest?

 

Minick: No, but I’ve read a little about it.

 

Berry: That’s really something to see, and people in Appalachia ought to know about it. Your co-op people should send a delegate up there. That’s an astonishing example. What they have been doing essentially is what Jason Rutledge [the Virginia forester and horse logger] calls “worst-first, single-tree selection” forestry. So you’ve got a given boundary of trees and you’re logging it at frequent intervals. And it’s doing nothing except growing more timber and getting better.

         Then you go and look at one of those “laminated strand” factories, and the timber they’re using looks like somebody’s post pile or a pile of firewood.

         In the laminated strand process, they shred the logs, which means they can use anything, trees of all sizes. Such a mill can be supplied by clear-cutting. So it can be a forest-eating monster. It can use all trees without any discrimination at all.

         What you’re doing [with the forestry co-op] is the right thing. It’s an exciting thing to hear about, but the answer to competing in the global economy (which means you’ve got to undersell everybody else to survive, which means you probably won’t) is to develop the local economy to its fullest. Fill the local demand out of the local woods and sell finished products.

 

Minick: I guess this has been a struggle I’ve had. One of the leaders sees making flooring out of the low-grade wood as the way to make money but also improve the forest. Making flooring requires substantial investment in machinery, and so I guess it’s all about scale.

 

Berry: It’s all about scale. You don’t want to get onto that ladder that the farmers get on where they get a bigger tractor and then they’ve got to have more land, then they need a bigger tractor and then more land, and they can’t find a place to stop. They fail to reach a balance point. First thing you know, they’re bankrupt. You don’t want to do that. That means you’ve got to solve the scale problem, which means you’ve to practice thrift and frugality and accept limits. You’ve got 10,000 acres. If you get the scale wrong, the next thing you know, you will be buying outside your boundaries, taking anything, or you’ll be over-cutting your woods.

         You’ve got to watch the emphasis on volume because the demand for volume drives you out of scale, destroys the effort of local adaptation, and costs you too much money. If you were a big corporation, it would be to your advantage to talk about big volume, big scale, and big equipment. But you’re competing against the big corporations from at the bottom end of the ladder. You have to limit scale, control costs, and emphasize quality.

 

Minick: You praise the Amish in much of your work, and I grew up in Pennsylvania among Amish where I’ve witnessed their virtues and their problems. In one interview with Jack Jezreel, you said, “The Amish point the way, but there are certain questions that I don’t think they’ve answered, which is inevitable.” I was wondering what those questions are?

 

Berry: Well, they’re dependent on us, on the “English” economy, for supplies of all kinds and for such things as long-distance transportation. They’re marketing their stuff into our economy. Their communities would be different if our communities were different.

 

Minick: I know you’re busy with traveling and all, roughly how much of your own food are you able to grow?

 

Berry: We grow virtually all our vegetables, though we buy out-of-season vegetables sometimes. We buy a lot of fruit, coffee and tea, such things as that. We’re not fanatics.

         We occasionally buy breakfast bacon if we can find it locally produced. We used to raise our own hogs and cure the meat, and we used to keep a milk cow or two, but we don’t anymore. This operation has to be kept fairly simple for a lot of reasons, but we’re still eating mostly our own meat. We grow a pretty good-sized garden, for a couple of old folks.

 

Minick: So, what’s your view of the current organic movement, and which is more important in buying food, local or organic?

 

Berry: “Organic” has now become an official term, a label, and it doesn’t necessarily imply good farming. If I have to choose, I prefer locally-grown to organic. But a growing number of people want food they can trust to be free of poisonous chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, engineered genes, and so on. That demand is encouraging the production of such foods locally.

 

Minick: I want to ask you about Harlan Hubbard because one time I remember your writing about how you wanted Harlan to help protest the construction of a nuclear power plant.

 

Berry: Well, I didn’t ask him to, but I wondered why he didn’t.

 

Mrs. Berry: The power plant was going to be built right across the river from Harlan and Anna’s.

 

Minick: And you got frustrated by that until you finally realized his life is a protest. 

 

Berry: Yes.

 

Minick: So I was wondering how that has translated into your life now?

 

Berry: We’re doing our best to lead a life of protest. But we have a lot more modern conveniences than the Hubbards did, and our lives are different from theirs. I’m leading a much more public life than Harlan did. We have children and grandchildren, and so ours is a different situation. Still, we try not to have things that we don’t need. We don’t have a tractor, we don’t have a TV, we don’t have a fax machine or a computer or an answering machine.

 

Mrs. Berry: We’re awfully behind on things like movies.

 

Berry: I mostly avoid screens. You can’t keep children from seeing TV, but you can keep them from seeing it at home. And it’s possible for children to discover they can be happy without it.

 

Minick: So, what’s your opinion of the American Dream? Barry Lopez calls it a nightmare; do you agree? What might a new American Dream look like?

 

Berry: Obviously there always have been several American Dreams. Some people’s American Dreams have become nightmares for other people. I think one’s “dream” ought to be limited to what one’s place can sustain indefinitely and by the requirements of stewardship and neighborliness.

 

Minick: Back to the Prairie Festival in 1996, I think it was Don Worster who gave a provocative speech about land ownership, if I remember right, basically saying that our current system is not working. A private land ownership is defunct and outdated and not working. I’d like to hear your opinion on that.

 

Berry: Because some people have been unwilling to give up the frontier spirit of really stubborn individualism, they’ve clung to the idea of absolute ownership. I don’t remember exactly what Don was saying about it that day, but the idea of absolute ownership is fraudulent. It’s fraudulent if you measure it by the religious traditions. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s, and the deed has never been transferred to any of us. It’s fraudulent by the laws of ecology too.

         On the other hand, all creatures are territorial. Even the most far-flying sea birds have their own nesting places that belong to them in a sense, that they come back to, and think of as home. You need some means in the law to safeguard the sense of belonging, of being at home, and to grant people certain privileges, certain rights of self-determination, within their homelands. But the culture also needs to instruct people that they are not the absolute owners of anything, not even of themselves. The Indians, or some of them at least, had the idea that you have to hold yourself responsible to the seventh generation of your descendants. Well, it was once easier to imagine the seventh generation of your descendants than it is now, but it’s never been possible to know the seventh generation. What that requirement does is put you under the pressure and even the guidance of a mystery. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to hold yourself responsible to the possibility that the human race will survive and will need the things you have.

 

Minick: So, to take that a step further, when that cultural means breaks down, which it has, how much should the government play a role in protecting the land?

 

Berry: The government ought to prevent people from destroying things outright. It’s so obviously a question that the government needs to ask: What right does a mere person have to destroy forever a mountain or a watershed? And the government isn’t asking that question. What right do we have to burn up all the oil and all the coal in, really, a very short time? Wes Jackson is saying that this is the “prodigal” era of our history. He means it’s the era when we squander our birthright, the era in which we use up most of the fossil fuel and most of the soil.

         There’s such a thing as a principle of return. That you’re a living creature implies that you have a right to take from the world what you need to maintain yourself, to live and go on. The compensating principle is the principle of return. You must take but you also must give back, so that the cycle completes itself over and over again. The Wheel of Life—of birth, growth, maturity, death and decay—must turn, and it must turn in place.

 

Minick: I ask about the government’s role because, are you familiar with the CREP program, the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to fence out streams? We just signed up for it, and yet my neighbors say cows have always pissed in the streams.

 

Berry: Well, they have. The buffaloes pissed in the streams before the cows. But the proper question is how often they do it and how many do it at the same time.

 

Minick: It goes back to being a citizen, the native and the citizen, doesn’t it?

 

Berry: It does. There are lots of questions governing decisions like this. I’m quite sure that the government is not asking them all. A lot of it has to do with climate. How long, in this place, does it take for a trampled patch of ground to restore itself? How often does the disturbance occur? What are the numbers involved and so on? There are ranchers out West who are thinking well about these problems.

         I can’t fence my stream banks because of flooding, but I have dropped back from the edges. For the last two years when I’ve mowed my creek bottoms, I’ve dropped back 50 or 100 feet; it varies from place to place. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I’m not sure that by mowing them I wouldn’t improve the quality of the sod. I am not seeing, because those bottoms are pastured, any significant growth of tree seedlings. I’ll know what I’m doing in ten years, maybe, if I last that long. It interested me to do it. I knew the principle, so I thought I would try it.

         The principle is the same wherever you’re working—in pasture or field or forest. You need to use the place, but you need also to keep it healthy, keep it ecologically intact, while you use it. My friend Troy Firth says that a bad logger is thinking only of what he can get out of the forest, whereas a good logger is thinking of what will be left. So the principle is that you take out what the forest can produce and still remain a forest. The Menominee Reservation is obviously an intact forest ecosystem. There are ancient trees in it. North of there, where the forest was extractively logged, taking everything, you find a forest ecosystem that was destroyed 100 years ago, and it’s still destroyed.

         It just drives me nuts that in all the talk about eastern Kentucky, or the Appalachian mountains, nobody is willing to come out and say, “Look, it’s the forest or nothing!” If you neglect the forest, then all you have left is these bastards who will move industry into the region to exploit the people as cheap labor.

 

         Berry excused himself from the kitchen table to change into his farm boots and feed his lambs. I walked with him outside, and twice he told me, “I really want this to be good. I want to do right by this for my friends in eastern Kentucky.”

         The older dog already waited in the back of the truck, eyes focused on Berry, knowing that it could ride along to tend the other animals. But the younger dog, Maggie, wasn’t here. “Wonder where she is?” Berry asked. He cupped his hands to his mouth and hollered, “MAGGIE,” the second syllable ascending. The shout hit the hillside and came back to us. Soon the black and white pup scurried under the fence and hopped in the back of the pickup.

         Berry headed out to feed his lambs.

 

 

 

*First published in Appalachian Journal Vol 31, No. 3-4.  Reprinted by permission.