Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Urban agrarians? Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan on food, farming and community

Michael Pollan to Wendell Berry: Do you have an iPhone? Found anything (technological) to shear sheep with? There's an app for that.

City Arts & Lectures hosted a night of Q&A between Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry that aired tonight on KQED. As a fan of Wendell Berry's writing and poetry, having only recently discovered Michael Pollan's writing and my world and diet rocked by "Food, Inc.," I tuned in and typed as fast I could. Here are excerpts (but not exact quotes) to try to capture some of the Wendell wisdom.

WB: (Describing a recent visit to D.C. and the White House organic garden) It's a tiny but immensely significant garden. ... Acknowledgment by the top official that food exists before it gets to grocery store gives us permission to think about these things, food, the quality of food, the possibility that you might grow your own food. I hope the garden grows.

But Berry doesn't put all his eggs in the political basket.

WB: Another thing is happening with this country ... I've been calling it leadership from the bottom. People are seeing what needs to be done and just doing it. An example, Alice Waters, just started. Kids need to be learning about gardening and food, and without asking anyone's permission, she just started. ... The growth of farmers' markets is not a political program, that has happened because people wanted it to happen. The growth of community farms is not a political program, there are people in the department of agriculture who have no idea it is happening.

MP: You call yourself an agrarian.

WB: Well, not when I'm at home by myself.

MP: Well, out in public, you articulate that agrarian ideal, and often this word falls oddly on the ears of many, or might sound archaic, or a term of opposition to urban life. Can there be urban agrarians?

WB: I think what we're beginning in this country, we're beginning to develop a population of urban agrarians. It begins with examination of one's own food economy, and realizing how passive and ignorant they are of their own food economy. From that recognition of ignorance and passivity, they move, sometimes, to their own garden in their backyard or food plants in flower pots, which I recommend. ... They go to farmers' markets and get acquainted with farmers. Many farmers have hospitality days, people go out and often even work on the farm. This mixing back and forth works like any encounter between people in categories. .. So people who've known farmers as country people or even hicks come face to face with them, and farmers who have viewed city folk as ignorant ... find they speak the same language, belong to same species, and that it's possible for interest and affection to bind them together. In this way, we are developing in our culture a necessary agrarian theme.

MP: You've written how the economy has floated free of the land economy — you've given it a name the paper economy.

WB: The commodity of paper, you go to Dallas, and it looks like a Texan saw Manhattan and decided to put one up down there. I've asked "What's the economy, what's it based on and there isn't one. What people are doing is paperwork, or computer work now, which is even less substantial.

... I'm no authority, I have no business talking about it, but then most of what I've written I have no business

I'm inclined to resist what they're calling economic recovery. ... even though I support Obama, I think we need something far more basic. My authority is Dante, in the Inferno, when he visits the usurers. His argument for the condemnation of the usurer is they make money grow from money, where our lives are suppsed to grow from nature. I know that's where our lives come from, and that work has to be good. And if the economy doesn't tend to honor that, and pay for the right use of our hands and our minds and our work, and the right use of nature, then we've strayed very far. ... Here I take instruction from the Amish, who have never forgotten, that the real social safety net is the community. Established community that takes proper care of and looks after all its members.

(In reply to a question from audience member regarding wilderness conservation vs. farming conservation)

WB: Wildness can extend from the wilderness all the way into the city park. ... Thoreau said (wildness) is the salvation of the world .. it's also the health of the world. There is a wilderness that we don't know much about. ... It's underfoot, every square foot of healthy soil And we have to maintain that wilderness underfoot, in order to keep eating. ... What we need to see is that the world is a living place, complexly domestic. All those creatures that we are pleased to call wild with a certain condescension, are domestic. They're making homes, they have little home economies. They're leading, what they think, is a domestic life. And the really wild creatures in the landscape are the humans, who are really out of control.

(From the City Arts & Lectures recording Nov 4, 2009 in San Francisco.)


aurelia said...

I like it. I'd like to think I'm an aspiring urban agrarian...in the planning stages of an awesome vegetable garden. (and getting rid of the grass lawn!) I just wish I could get a dairy cow.

Rebecca Snavely said...

Somehow, I see a dairy cow in your future - which would be hysterical to see in the city. Can't wait to see the veggie garden. Grass(lawns) -- soooo 2009.

Accorsi Studios said...

This was such a wonderful interview, session with Berry. I was driving, remember distinctly a paragraph or two on the beauty of horses, did you happen to get that or a recording?

Thank you for posting this. Wish they had them posted online - City Arts and Lectures could be as renowned at TED if they made public their interviews. Thank you.

Rebecca Snavely said...

I don't know if I still have my notes, but I'll hunt for the part about the horses. I, too, wish they had their transcripts available! It's such a great series.