By Ragan Sutterfield, World Ark contributor
Illustrations by Michael Paraskevas
I needed guidance. It was just after college, and I was living on the North Side of Chicago, working at a university library and trying to decide what to do with my life. With a philosophy degree in hand, my only prospects for employment were five more years of schooling away. Tired of classrooms, I longed to do something more active, something tangible. The idea that kept coming was a farm — a place I could grow good food and take care of the land.
The local food movement was just beginning to pick up. A small organic grocery store in my neighborhood was selling locally grown produce through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. A few blocks away I had a plot in a haphazard community garden on the empty lot of a friendly landlord. Having grown up in rural places, I had a taste for quiet, open spaces and long drives in the country. But calling me to the fields most loudly were books. I’d been reading Wendell Berry.
Talk to any group of young farmers, farm interns, kids with liberal arts degrees who are choosing to grow kale over 401(k)s, and the common denominator is likely to be Berry. He offers more than sharp cultural criticism, compelling novels and beautiful poetry; Berry makes readers want to change their lives. For many this is done by eating differently, following Berry’s insight that “eating… is inescapably an agricultural act.” His writing inspired the local food movement as people began to understand that the health of the environment depends on our decisions at mealtime.
For some, Berry is a religious figure. I once met a woman in a coffee shop who told me that Berry’s poem “The Wild Geese” was her religion, its closing lines offering a call to be present in our places:
…we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.
And then there are those who, like my 22-year-old self, are drawn to radical responses. Those who consider a return to the land to farm it and care for it with all the virtues Berry works out in his writing. But how to begin, was this the right choice, and most importantly for one who lives by books—what to read? I needed guidance, and so I wrote to the one man I felt could give it: Wendell Berry.
Within a few weeks of sending my letter a response came in the mail, adorned with an Andy Warhol stamp and a postmark from Port Royal, Kentucky. “Thank you for your good letter,” it began. “I’m entirely sympathetic with your feelings about leaving the city and returning to your native county.” He went on to offer some perspective on city life, a caution that “people manage to live good, decent, useful lives in our cities” and not to forget such good examples as “Walt Whitman in Manhattan, or Dr. Williams in Rutherford, NJ.”
The letter then set out a curriculum, if I should pursue it, to learn about farming. Warning that “books are no substitute for good teachers and experience,” Berry offered “a few books that have been extraordinarily valuable” to him. Central on the list were An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King, and Tree Crops by J. Russell Smith.
Howard is the foundational figure on the list. Hardly a household name now, Howard’s work was the first systematic move toward organic agriculture — a term he popularized. Howard was a Cambridge-educated botanist who worked as an agricultural advisor in India. As a representative of the British Empire, Howard came to India to teach Western agricultural techniques. He found, however, that he was the student and the Indian farmers he met were his teachers. Working with these farmers he observed the connections between healthy soil and healthy villages. He came to advocate for traditional Indian agricultural practices that maintained and enriched soil health as the basis for human health.
I needed guidance, and so I wrote to the one man I felt could give it: Wendell Berry. Within a few weeks of sending my letter a response came in the mail, adorned with an Andy Warhol stamp and a postmark from Port Royal, Kentucky.
The wisdom Howard gained through observations of traditional agriculture fuelled his groundbreaking book, An Agricultural Testament, where he wrote: “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.” By “permanent system” he meant something like what we now call “sustainable” — a system of agriculture that can continue to produce food in a place for millennia without exhausting the soil. This insight offered me a different way to look at the land and agriculture. I began to see farms from the ground up and good farmers, whatever they grew on top, as primarily soil builders.
For the best guidance on how to practice this soil building, Howard pointed to nature—“the supreme farmer.” This was well before the concepts of permaculture or bio-mimicry and yet here it is in 1943—a vision for ecological agriculture. Howard laid out the principles by which nature farms. In nature “there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule,” Howard wrote. Big fields of corn or soybeans like the ones I saw on my long drives between Arkansas and Illinois go against the grain of nature. Howard also recognized that in nature, “plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together.” Nature offers what we might now call a diversified farm.
It is this sort of farm that Berry advocates in essays and illustrates in his novels. It is this kind of diversified farming that Berry practices, and it is the wide-spread loss of this kind of farming that Berry mourns. Not only should crops and animals connect with and contribute to the soil, Berry said. Farmers should, too.
“Farmers must tend farms that they know and love,” Berry wrote, “farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods that they know and love, in the company of neighbors that they know and love.” And we might add that those of us who are not farmers should buy our food from farmers that we know and love, or at least farmers that we can get to know and come to love. My first move toward farming was buying food from farmers I could talk with and befriend, learning to love the land as they love it.
Love of the kind Berry is talking of is not love at first sight; it is stable and long-term. “Now we must think of marriage,” Berry wrote in the closing sentence of his essay “Nature as Measure.” And if we are to learn to love the land and treat it with this kind of love we must look to the knowledge and example of other people who have developed and maintained such long relationships. Howard did this in his exploration of Indian agriculture. F.H. King, another on the reading list, did this by looking to the example of East Asia in his study Farmers of Forty Centuries, Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.
King was a soil scientist who made a nine-month tour of Asia in 1909. What he found was an agricultural system that maintained soil fertility over millennia while supporting the longest-running civilizations in human history. Key, he discovered, was the way these civilizations cycled nutrients. Writing in 1911, in a prescient mode, he argued that mineral fertilizers (what we would now call chemical or synthetic fertilizers), at that time newly introduced to the United States, cannot be continued indefinitely. Synthetic fertilizers masked the tremendous loss of soil fertility that was and is running rampant through Western agriculture—a mask that comes at great expense to soil health.
“One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste,” King wrote, championing the age-old principle of return and cultivation. A farm maintains fertility only if the soil is rebuilt, and manure, compost and mulch are the best ways to do this. That we take things that could replenish soil fertility and treat them as problems to be served by sewage and dump trucks is a telling characteristic of our society. After reading King I’ve never been able to flush a toilet without a twinge of guilt.
King compared the way farmers in the United States utilize soil fertility to coal mining—we extract it and burn it up. “In the uncontrolled hands of a generation,” King wrote, farmers in Western societies “swept into the sea soil fertility which only centuries of life could accumulate.” This is a remarkable claim not only because of its truth, but because it was written in 1911—decades before the widespread industrialization of agriculture.
What would our landscapes look like if our world listened to King in 1911? Would composting facilities be more numerous than sewage plants and landfills? Our window of opportunity for going back to go forward hasn’t passed. We could change how we treat waste. We could farm in ways that return and build fertility rather than merely extracting it. But what would such a farming look like? I tried to imagine that when I began my own farm. One of the first things I built was a large compost pile where I could turn the death and waste of the farm into a resource for its flourishing. I tried to make my farm a place of cycles and return rather than extraction and export.
After reading so much Berry, I already understood that soil is best held in place by plant communities that continue over years rather than seasons. As Berry wrote, “Annual plants [like corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.] are Nature’s emergency medical service, covering wounds and scars to hold the land until the perennial cover is reestablished … our present agriculture, giving 80 percent of our farmland to annuals, is in a state of emergency.” A vision for an alternative to such agriculture can be found in the third classic on Berry’s list of recommended reading: J. Russell Smith’s Tree Crops.
Like Albert Howard and F.H. King, Smith worried about the demise of soil in Western agriculture. “Forest—field—plow—desert—that is the cycle of the hills under most plow agriculture,” Smith wrote. The solution he proposed was to work backward—move from field to forest again.
Smith recommended a “two-story” agriculture with trees providing one tier of crops and annuals on the ground providing the other. “This idea is attractive,” wrote Berry, “because it would diversify both the agricultural and the natural life of the arable farmlands; it would make them more productive, more healthy, and more beautiful.” Unfortunately, the industrialization of agriculture resulted in thousand-acre farms with no trees at all. The next time you drive through a swath of country filled with nothing but a desert of corn, imagine the difference it would make if pecan and walnut trees were interspersed in the rows. Our soils would be richer, closer to nature’s measure and pattern, and as is usually the case when we follow nature’s way, the view would be far lovelier. It is a beautiful vision of agriculture — one that yields wildlife habitats and greenhouse gas sequestration.
The books mentioned here can be found used or new in a number of editions. Here are a few places to find these texts for free on the web.
It is a vision I saw on countless farms I had the chance to visit in my pending farm apprenticeship; places where songbirds sang from fence posts and frogs laid their eggs in clear pasture streams. The education I gained from Wendell Berry’s reading list enlivened me again and again to the truth, found in hope and warning, throughout Berry’s writing — the soil is precious. In the end, I did leave Chicago and farm for a few years, apprenticing and then setting out on my own for a time. My knowledge, skills and bank accounts were not up to the task.
I eventually sold my livestock to an Amish farmer and went back to deskwork (though I still dabble in growing things). Even without farming as my occupation, Berry’s reading list stays with me, having changed from simply a curriculum for agriculture to a curriculum for a flourishing life on Earth. The books he recommended, like his own writing, have a great deal more to say than simply why we should eat locally grown food or farm sustainably — they address the question of how human beings should make use of the world. This is a question we should all be asking now, and our answers will mean the difference between our flourishing and our destruction.