If you write about food long enough the name Wendell Berry will eventually come up. Berry, a Kentuckian, is a farmer, poet, novelist, and food activist. Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. brings together some of his thoughts on those subject spanning the last four decades.
Bringing it to the Table is a collection of Berry’s essays, focused on farming and farmers, along with a selection of his fiction dealing with the subject of food and eating together. The first two sections, on farming and farmers make up the bulk of the book.
It is clear throughout that Berry has a great love for farming. Farming is most definitely a vocation, rather than a career. This is also apparent in the people that he has spoken to in the process of writing these essays.
While Berry is clearly not a supporter of industrial farming, he does allow for the need and possibility of non naturally occurring chemicals in the farming process. These however should be used as sparingly as possible, letting the earth’s natural powers of regeneration and growth provide the nutrients for crops.
While Berry is an idealist, he is not an idyllist. He knows from his own experience that the farmer’s life is hard. No matter how much one plans there will always be disappointment and failures. However, learning to listen to and observe what nature is doing on the farm enables the farmer to minimize these. Also, Berry envisions a world where farmers live closer together, as they once did, and thereby are able to help support each other through difficult times.
One thing that comes through tine and again in these essays is the need for farmers to not buy into the capitalist need to maximize their produce every year. The good farmer, according to Berry, is one who knows when to take, and when to leave. This way the long term health of the farm and the land is kept in good shape.
The Good Farmer in the Writing of Wendell Berry
This concept of the good farmer crops up over and over again in Berry’s writing. The good farmer is one who learns to listen to and work with the land. Such a farmer is posited in contrast to the industrial farmer who is only trying to get the maximum out of the land, for as long as possible, as cheaply as possible, using as much chemical as necessary.
However, Berry says nothing of the bad farmer. The one who uses traditional methods, but doesn’t use them well. If we need lots of good farmers that care deeply for the land, can we end up with enough of them. Can farmers be bred in the same way as livestock to produce generations of good farmers. If not, can we develop enough good farmers to feed our large urban populations?
The final section of the book is called food, and largely consists of excerpts from Berry’s fiction. As a fiction writer Berry is a great painter of scenes. One can easily imagine the hum of the kitchen and the aromas of the food.
More than that, these scenes show us the power of food to provide connection, and comfort. These stories also describe the connection between the work of the farm and the enjoyment of the food. Time and again the character’s lives and development is shaped by the table and the farm. Much like their real life counterparts the farmers in Berry’s stories don’t live an easy life, but one where caring for the land and caring for each other, helps them to get by.
The book is introduced by Michael Pollan, and I have to say I found the introduction to be a little fanboyish in quality. I think an introduction from Berry himself would make the book that much better. Bringing it to the Table is an interesting entry point into Berry’s writing, and leaves me wanting to read more of them.