Journal of Writing & Environment


Our Common Ground: A Conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson


Hello readers and Flyway friends!

Hopefully everyone out there has been enjoying the summer and getting outside in the sun a bit. We are back from a short summer hiatus, bringing you an excellent new interview with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, by Kristin Van Tassel and Aubrey Streit Krug.

Keep checking back for upcoming Summer Reading Reviews by members of the new Flyway staff.

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OUR COMMON GROUND

Thirty-five years ago, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America challenged agribusiness as the optimal model for farming in America, and since then Berry has been America’s most compelling advocate for ecological agrarianism. Around the same time, Wes Jackson was founding The Land Institute, a nonprofit organization where scientists are working to develop an agricultural system that mimics the ecosystem of the prairie, namely through the development of perennial grain cropping systems.

Over the course of three decades, these two world-renowned farmers–one a fiction writer and poet in Kentucky, the other a scientist in Kansas–have influenced, challenged, and entertained each other. Despite their very different training and approaches to exploring the world, their friendship has been a vital source of mutual creative inspiration. Through the frequent exchange of letters and phone calls, they have developed new ideas and revised old ones, collaborating on a number of projects, most recently the essay “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” which appeared in the New York Times op-ed page. In an era of increasing abstraction and specialization, where personal connections are understood in terms of digital “networks,” Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have instead forged a lasting friendship based upon their mutual respect for the earth.

Kristin Van Tassel and Aubrey Streit Krug interviewed the pair at Jackson’s home near The Land Institute, located a few miles south of Salina in Central Kansas.

 

Van Tassel: You’ve written a lot about male friendship in your fiction, Wendell. But you’ve also mentioned in interviews that there are restraints on how men can show love and affection for one another, especially in public. So I wondered if you could talk about why this is the case for male friendship but also why male friendship is important. Do you see your friendship with Wes as extending beyond the boundaries of what’s typical for male friendship in intellectual circles or rural places?

Berry: I never thought to classify and label it as “male friendship.” My friendships have had their significance in being distinct, not in being alike. I don’t have much of anything to compare with this friendship. Wes is the only scientist with whom I have really talked over a long time. In some ways, I don’t think of him as a scientist but as a partner or co-worker, and also as a friend.

Jackson: Wendell’s ideas greatly influenced my thinking and therefore The Land Institute for three decades. Wendell’s education in the humanities having influenced the scientific discussion here shows what is possible for the universities; knowledge can be forced out of its categories.

Berry: I’m enabled, too, in the opposite way because as a critic of agriculture, which I guess I am in a way, I’m necessarily a critic of science. I know most agricultural scientists are not going to respond to me because I can be safely ignored. Nevertheless, if I can get an idea past Wes, then I have a certain boldness to speak that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Jackson: Wendell has said to me many times, “All adaptation is local.” This informs my idea of the ecological, and my ideas of the ecological have informed his idea of the local. This is the way it ought to be.

Berry: When I say all adaptation is local, I’m talking about what I think is science. But if I didn’t have a scientist to say it to—who would either stop me or let me say it—I would not know. Maybe you could say we’ve given each other a kind of completeness neither of us would have had alone. There’s a kind of confidence that comes with this sort of alliance. You can think of it as a friendship from an internal point of view, but as it faces the world, it’s an alliance because we’ve got opponents out there. So we need each other for help.

Jackson: Exactly. Wendell has said that in a conversation you have to respect the otherness of the other, and you don’t always get back the answer you want. But what you get back informs the next. If you have a friendship, you automatically have respect for the other. Now you can have a conversation. Think about how many conversations are unnecessarily combative. It becomes a competition rather than a mutual search. And that’s what it should be—a search.

Van Tassel: How do you maintain your relationship? How often do you call one another or write? Is it something you just find yourself doing? Is it something you’ve committed to do?

Berry: Well, I call Wes to see if he’ll let me say something. I think of something with a scientific aspect to it, and I know I’ve got to call him up. I’ll say, “I’m going to say this—is that all right?” And he’ll say, “Yeah, go ahead and say that.” Or he’ll say, “Wait a minute.”

Jackson: We used to write more. Now we talk more on the phone. I find—just as Wendell said—that we don’t have to explain things. We’ve got common interests.  But what’s interesting about those common interests is that while mine are informed by science, Wendell’s are informed by literature—which I’ve found absolutely indispensable and use all the time. For example, I recently talked about Milton and Blake in one of my public lectures. Shoot, I’d never have come to Milton and Blake on my own, ever. Or the title of my last book, Consulting the Genius of the Place, came from Wendell. Wendell’s literary engagement has enriched my whole way of thinking about the world. Early on in my friendship with Wendell, I found that if you have an abstraction without a particularity, you better pack your bags. But I came out of family that was like that. You know, rural people. They spoke plainly. That’s one thing I really liked about our relationship from the beginning—it’s quite all right to speak plainly.

Berry: When we talk, we don’t sound like the Biology Department talking to the English Department.

Jackson: Or biologists talking to biologists. In some respects, because we come from different disciplines, there’s a forced plainness in our talk that is just as communicative. Our common ground is ground.

Berry: That’s right. The common experience of growing up on the ground, doing the work of landed people: that’s a connection. It doesn’t require much explaining. I think you’d be mistaken, though, if you thought we always talk as if we are at a conference. There’s a lot of what more serious people would consider waste in our conversations but that for us is utterly enjoyable. Sometimes I call Wes because I haven’t heard from him for a long time, and I want to know how he is. I’ve begun to worry about him. I know he’s been traveling a lot. So I try to get him on the phone, and I don’t have any agenda at all. I just want to hear his voice and see what he’s found out and catch up a little bit. Some of these conversations are favored in a more serious way, and something will come up—a rabbit will jump, and we’ll chase it, and we’ll both learn something, or I’ll learn something from him. It’s just being available to each other that makes these possibilities.

Jackson: When I put out New Roots for Agriculture, I didn’t see this coming. I’d read The Unsettling of America. I was very taken with it. As I say in my book, Consulting the Genius of the Place, when Wendell called, I turned to the family and said, “It’s Wendell Berry.” I had no idea we’d have the kind of symmetry we have. If you start with the idea we’re all students trying to understand, then you forget about any game playing like you see in universities. In the university, you’re forever seeing people who bring up a book or article or something else they’ve done, and you feel terrible about yourself, thinking, “Oh, I’ll never do that.” But if you start with the idea there’s a deficiency that needs to be dealt with, as Wendell and I do, you get at it together. And that comes from friendship. Wendell has pulled that line out of E.M. Forester’s Howard’s End: “It all turns on affection, don’t you know.” Once you have that reality—it all turns on affection—then you don’t have a university. You’ve simply got a way of being with one another that’s enriching.

Berry: Actually, this friendship didn’t start with my phone call to you. Gary Snyder had heard Wes speak at a conference, and he told me, “You have to talk to this guy Wes Jackson.” So somehow or another I got the book New Roots for Agriculture. I heard about it, got it, read it, and wrote Wes, raising some issue about the horse/tractor issue. I didn’t have any evidence; I just had memories, anecdotal stuff, so I wrote him that I thought he was off on the number of horses necessary for a certain number of acres. Something like that.

Jackson: You pleaded with me to keep horses on the agenda.

Berry: I flew out to Salina, and Wes met me at the airport in this old car. Wes was buying his cars by the pound back then. We did not meet in an adversarial spirit. The spirit was immediately conversational. Talking for pleasure, in a way. However serious or productive this conversation might be, it has always been a pleasure. I was working at that time for Rodale Press—before they fired me for being more interested in the local than in organic. I called Wes and asked if I could write an article about The Land Institute. He invited me to visit, and of course I accepted. It wasn’t long after that until Wes was at my house with a bunch of —

Jackson: — Eastern gamma grass roots.

Berry: So it’s just gone that way. We’ve stayed in touch. This is the way intellectual life is supposed to go.

Jackson: There was a time in which I know I was trying to impress Wendell.  He had dropped out and left the university, and I had, too. Of course, I admired him, so the desire to impress him was sort of like courtship.

Berry: Jesus, I didn’t know that. (laughter)

Jackson: Well, it’s like courtship with a woman. There reaches a point in the courtship in which you can relax. (laughter) That faded pretty fast. I know it was there for a couple months, or weeks, or whatever—but it didn’t last long.

~

Streit Krug: I wonder if you might want to talk some about your decision to share your private friendship—your “courtship”—with a more public audience. In many ways you’ve written about your friendship and talked about it. What led you to take this private relationship and share some aspects of it with the public? In what way might it be important for friendships to be known? What work might they be able to do in the world?

Jackson: With our friendship I don’t worry about being on guard. No one reveals every thought, of course; indeed, much of anyone’s thought would be uninteresting to others. Our friendship moves along in a fluid sort of way. If there is a rock that divides our stream of thought it never lasts.

Berry: I wrote about my friendship with Wes in Life is a Miracle. The purpose there was to talk about the difference between a conversation—as a form of intellectual life—as opposed to the specialist departmentalism of the modern university. I had to show our friendship as an example because it was the only example I had. It is possible to talk across these disciplinary lines–

Jackson: Right.

Berry: –on certain conditions and to certain advantages.

Streit Krug: The gift you’re able to give together, then, is this mutual search, showing other people how it might work. Do you reflect upon the legacy of your friendship? Has your friendship influenced what you understand to be a “good ancestor,” or what you want to give to others?

Berry: We don’t live our lives for posterity, though posterity has a certain claim on us, and I think we acknowledge and honor that. But when friends talk, they’re speaking as themselves, for themselves, and the generosity is taken care of, not by some explicit sense of obligation to posterity, but to the basic principles of honesty, good faith, the effort to be clear. That’s all.

Jackson: One of Wendell’s most memorable sentences for me was his statement: “I just want to make sense.” This is very different from, “I want to go down in history.”

Berry: People ask me all the time how I think about my audience when I write. But readers can be a distraction. My obligation is to the subject. Posterity is not ever an audience—it’s an inheritor. To try to please posterity is presumptuous.  If I’m telling a story, my obligation is to the story. Or if I’m making an argument, my obligation is to the argument.

~

Van Tassel: What have you learned about your own homes, your own places, from one another? Like how has your understanding, Wendell, of Kentucky been shaped or changed because of Wes? Or, Wes, how has your understanding of your home been changed by Wendell?

Berry: My metaphor for that would be binocular vision. I know Wes pretty well, and I know his mind pretty well, so when he comes to my place I can’t help imagining it the way it must appear to him.

Jackson: You can’t see back there; there are too many hills. (laughter)

Berry: You can see too far out here; it gives you a rather creepy feeling. (laughter)

Jackson: I don’t think you can live anywhere you can’t see the curvature of the earth. (laughter)

Berry: You don’t know who may be looking. (laughter) I got Wes to come one time to travel with me and some friends in eastern Kentucky because I wanted him to see what’s going on up there with the coal mines. And it would be hard to classify or catalog the benefits of that. That’s something I don’t have to explain anymore. He sees.

Jackson: Right.

Berry: So your conversation gains a step there. It’s a step required by the laws of friendliness, of affection—of love, actually. To imagine what something that matters to you looks like to somebody else is a kind of discipline.

6 responses to “Our Common Ground: A Conversation with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson”

  1. Beth Surdut says:

    I  want  to go  sit  on the  couch  with these  guys. Their conversation  resonated  deeply for me as a an artist and  writer who believes that  my friends  are  the  jewels in my  life, and  each  one  is unique.  “My friendships have had their significance in being distinct, not in
    being alike. I don’t have much of anything to compare with this
    friendship.” Beautifully  explained.

  2. Beth Surdut says:

    I  want  to go  sit  on the  couch  with these  guys. Their conversation  resonated  deeply for me as a an artist and  writer who believes that  my friends  are  the  jewels in my  life, and  each  one  is unique.  “My friendships have had their significance in being distinct, not in
    being alike. I don’t have much of anything to compare with this
    friendship.” Beautifully  explained.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post on Wendell Berry.  I am a huge Berry fan and have written an article, inspired by Berry, that you might like: http://www.novasights.com/2011/09/11/unplugging-chimera/.

    Also, I had a chance to meet Joel Salatin and asked him for his thoughts on Berry, check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAxav-kuHps&feature=plcp

    Cheers,

    Benjamin

  4. Thanks for sharing this post on Wendell Berry.  I am a huge Berry fan and have written an article, inspired by Berry, that you might like: http://www.novasights.com/2011/09/11/unplugging-chimera/.

    Also, I had a chance to meet Joel Salatin and asked him for his thoughts on Berry, check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAxav-kuHps&feature=plcp

    Cheers,

    Benjamin

  5. Kevin O'Keefe says:

    Well done interview!

  6. Kevin O'Keefe says:

    Well done interview!

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