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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
 
  COLD SWEAT:
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Freeze-Frame
 
  MORE FEATURES:
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
 
  DEPARTMENTS:
Spout
Create
Enjoy
Hey Mr. Green
Smile
Act
Explore
Grapple
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Bulletin
Last Words
 
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For Love of the Land

A farmer and conservationist is tired of being on two losing sides.

By Wendell Berry

For Love of the LandI am a conservationist and a farmer, a wilderness advocate and an agrarian. I am in favor of the world's wildness, not only because I like it, but also because I think it is necessary to the world's life and to our own. For the same reason, I want to preserve the natural health and integrity of the world's economic landscapes, which is to say that I want the world's farmers, ranchers, and foresters to live in stable, locally adapted, resource-preserving communities, and I want them to thrive.

One thing that means is that I have spent my life on two losing sides. As long as I have been conscious, the great causes of agrarianism and conservation, despite local victories, have suffered an accumulation of losses, some of them probably irreparable-while the third side, that of the land-exploiting corporations, has appeared to grow ever richer. I say "appeared" because I think their wealth is illusory. Their capitalism is based, finally, not on the resources of nature, which it is recklessly destroying, but on fantasy. Not long ago I heard an economist say, "If the consumer ever stops living beyond his means, we'll have a recession." And so the two sides of nature and the rural communities are being defeated by a third side that will eventually be found to have defeated itself.

Perhaps to survive its inherent absurdity, the third side is asserting its power as never before: by its control of politics and the news media; by its dominance of science; and by biotechnology, which it is commercializing with unprecedented haste and aggression in order to control totally the world's land-using economies and its food supply. This massive ascendancy of corporate power over democratic process is probably the most ominous development since the start of the Civil War, and for the most part the "free world" seems to be regarding it as merely normal.

My sorrow in having been for so long on two losing sides has been compounded by knowing that those two sides have been in conflict, not only with their common enemy, but also, and by now almost conventionally, with each other. And I am further aggrieved in understanding that everybody on my two sides is deeply implicated in the sins and in the fate of the self-destructive third side.

As a part of my own effort to think better, I decided not long ago that I would not endorse any more wilderness-preservation projects that do not seek also to improve the health of the surrounding economic landscapes and human communities. Whatever its difficulties, my decision to cooperate no longer in the separation of the wild and the domestic has helped me see more clearly the compatibility and even the coherence of my two allegiances. The dualism of domestic and wild is, after all, misleading. It has obscured for us the domesticity of the wild creatures. More important, it has obscured the absolute dependence of human domesticity upon the wildness that supports it and in fact permeates it. In suffering the now-common accusation that humankind is "anthropocentric" (ugly word), we forget that the wild sheep and the wild wolves are respectively ovicentric and lupocentric. The world, we may say, is wild, and all the creatures are home-makers within it, practicing domesticity: mating, raising young, seeking food and comfort. Likewise, though the wild sheep and the farm-bred sheep are in some ways unlike in their domesticities, we forget too easily that if the "domestic" sheep becomes too unwild, as some occasionally do, they become uneconomic and useless: They have reproductive problems, conformation problems, and so on. Domesticity and wildness are in fact intimately connected. What is utterly alien to both is corporate industrialism-a dislocated economic life that is without affection for the places where it is lived and without respect for the materials it uses.

The question we must deal with is not whether the domestic and the wild are separate or can be separated; it is how, in the human economy, their indissoluble and necessary connection can be properly maintained. But to say that wildness and domesticity are not separate, and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for the proper maintenance of their relationship, is to come under a heavy responsibility to be practical. I have two thoroughly practical questions on my mind. The first is: Why should conservationists have a positive interest in, for example, farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can't be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to assume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their other concerns for the welfare of nature.

Do conservationists, then, wish to eat well or poorly? Would they like their food supply to be secure from one year to the next? Would they like their food to be free of poisons, antibiotics, alien genes, and other contaminants? Would they like a significant portion of it to be fresh? Would they like it to come to them at the lowest possible ecological cost? Such questions, if responsibly asked and answered, will influence production, will influence land use, will determine the configuration and the health of landscapes. If conservationists are willing to eat whatever the supermarket provides and the government allows, they are giving economic support to all-out industrial food production: to the animal factories; to the depletion of rivers and aquifers; to crop monocultures and the consequent losses of biological and genetic diversity; to the pollution, toxicity, and overmedication that are the inevitable accompaniments; to a food system based on long-distance transport and the resulting waste of petroleum and the spread of pests and diseases; and to the transformation of the countryside into ever-larger farms and ever-larger fields receiving always less human affection and human care. But if conservationists are willing to insist on having the best food, produced in the best way, as close to their homes as possible, and if they are willing to learn to judge the quality of food and food production, then they are going to give economic support to an entirely different kind of land use in an entirely different landscape. This landscape will have a higher ratio of caretakers to acres, of care to use. It will be at once more domestic and more wild than the industrial landscape. Can increasing the number of farms and farmers in an agricultural landscape enhance the quality of that landscape as wildlife habitat? Can it increase what we might call the wilderness value of that landscape? It can, and the determining factor would be diversity. Don't forget we are talking about a landscape that is changing in response to an increase in consumer demand for local food. Imagine a modern agricultural landscape devoted mainly to corn and soybeans and to animal factories. And then imagine its neighboring city developing a demand for good, locally grown food. To meet that demand, local farming would have to diversify.

If that demand is serious, and if it is taken seriously, if it comes from informed and permanently committed consumers, if it promises the necessary economic support to farmers, then that radically oversimplified landscape will change. The crop monocultures and animal factories will give way to the mixed farming of plants and animals. Pastured flocks and herds of meat animals, dairy herds, and poultry flocks will return, requiring, of course, pastures and hay fields. If the urban consumers would extend their competent concern for the farming economy to include the forest economy and its diversity of products, that would improve the quality and care, and increase the acreage, of farm woodlands. And we should not forget the possibility that farmers might, for their own instruction and pleasure, preserve patches of woodland unused. As the meadows and woodlands flourished in the landscape, so would the wild birds and animals. The acres devoted to corn and soybeans, grown principally as livestock feed or as raw materials for industry, would diminish in favor of the fruits and vegetables required by human dinner tables.

As the acreage under perennial cover increased, soil erosion would decrease and the water-holding capacity of the soil would increase. Creeks and rivers would grow cleaner and their flow more constant. As farms diversified, they would tend to become smaller; the landscape would acquire more owners. As the number of farmers and the diversity of their farms increased, the toxicity of agriculture would decrease-because less and less chemical poison would be used to replace labor and to defray the biological costs of monoculture. As food production became decentralized, animal wastes would be dispersed, and would be absorbed and retained in the soil as nutrients rather than flowing away as wasted nutrients and as pollution. The details of such a transformation could be elaborated almost endlessly. To make short work of it here, we could just say that a dangerously oversimplified landscape would become healthfully complex, both economically and ecologically.

Since we are talking about a city that would be living in large measure from its local fields and forests, we are talking also about a local economy of small, decentralized, nonpolluting, value-adding factories and shops that would be scaled to fit into the landscape with the least ecological or social disruption. And thus we can also credit to this economy an increase in independent small businesses and in self-employment, and a decrease in the combustible fuel needed for transportation and (I believe) for production.

Such an economy is technically possible, there can be no doubt of that; we have the necessary methods and equipment. The capacity of nature to accommodate, and even to cooperate in, such an economy is also undoubtable; we have the necessary historical examples from many parts of the world. The surviving or remembered Indian agricultures of North America are instructive; so are surviving white American traditional practices such as those of the Amish. And proven new ways are coming into use. This is not, from nature's point of view, a pipe dream.

What is doubtable, or at least unproven, is the capacity of modern humans to choose, make, and maintain such an economy. For at least half a century we have taken for granted that the methods of farming could safely be determined by the mechanisms of industry, and that the economies of farming could safely be determined by the economic interests of industrial corporations. We are now running rapidly to the end of that assumption. The social, ecological, and even economic costs have already become too great, and they are still increasing, all over the world.

Now we must try to envision an agriculture founded not on mechanical principles, but on the principles of biology. Sixty years ago Sir Albert Howard, the pioneer of modern organic farming, and, more recently, the Kansas agricultural reformer Wes Jackson, argued for such a change in standards. If you want to farm sustainably, they have told us, then you have got to make your farming conform to the natural laws that govern the local ecosystem. You have got to farm with both plants and animals in as great a diversity as possible, you have got to conserve fertility, recycle wastes, keep the ground covered, and so on. Or, as the economic geographer J. Russell Smith put it 70 years ago, you have got to "fit the farming to the farm"-not to the available technology or the market, as important as those considerations are, but to the farm. It is necessary, in short, to maintain a proper connection between the domestic and the wild. The paramount standard by which the work is to be judged is the health of the place where the work is done.

The urgent point is that this is not a transformation that we can just drift into, as we drift in and out of fashions, and it is not one that we should wait to be forced into by large-scale ecological breakdown. It won't happen if a lot of people-consumers and producers, city people and country people, conservationists and land users-don't get together deliberately to make it happen.

Those are some of the reasons conservationists should take an interest in farming and make common cause with good farmers. Now I must get on to the second of my practical questions.

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