Thanks to my friends and colleagues Marla Camp, Robert Jensen and Ronda Rutledge, we welcomed Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson to Austin this past weekend for two sold-out appearances at The State Theatre at The Paramount.
Since I’m in the full throes of Edible Austin Eat Drink Local Week, I’ve not made time
to write about these long-awaited visitors and what they had to say; and instead I am recommending Forrest Wilder’s article from the Texas Observer (here).
“In Europe, Berry would be a ‘public intellectual’ but since we don’t have those in America, he usually gets the list treatment for his bio: poet, novelist, philosopher, farmer, Baptist, activist and icon of a certain rural agrarianism. Much to the discredit of our national “conversation, a voice like Berry’s is rarely heard above the din.
The American Conservative aptly wrote in 2006 that Berry’s ‘unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.’ “
HERE HERE! It was one of the great joys of my life to get to meet Berry and Jackson. The Q&A following their evening show allowed for only 5 questions, fully two of which were wasted on baffoonery, making me regret not asking mine. I wanted to ask something along the lines of, “given that you ARE intellectuals, and that the majority of Americans have only disdain for those operating at this level of consciousness, how are those of us on the ground in this movement to affect systems change?” The truth is, most people outside of my organization’s circles I engage in conversation about the Problem of Agriculture, as Jackson put it, look at me blankly. There’s food in the supermarkets, isn’t there? The grain silos are stuffed to overflowing, no?
In order to continue the conversation, I often state that I would not have been able to grasp the painfully complex issues surrounding food production in our country without having read two books: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berry), and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan). Concerningly, however, the MOST intelligent right-wing-leaning people I know to whom I have recommended these books have either declined to read them or have made it a few pages in and dismissed these statesmen as liberals. To offer this critique demonstrates a shocking lack of familiarity with political systems and with history: because this writing isn’t liberal; it is radical.
What I have realized this fall is that the truth revealed in Berry’s essays on American culture and on agriculture is simply too painful for most to confront. What it requires of us is nothing less than a reversal of worldview; a shedding of long and often dearly-held tenets. On the other side, there are fewer with whom to relate. But the quality of discourse and honesty of communicating makes the agony of crossing over worth it.
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
― Wendell Berry