The Cranky Kentuckian

A reader and very good friend wrote in yesterday to ask:

Hi [Joe],

With the Kentucky connection and the food/farming focus, I’m just curious what you think about this interview:

The man featured in the interview is of course the irreplaceable Wendell Berry; farmer, poet, essayist and Kentuckian who lives roughly an hour east from where I’m sitting here in Louisville. If you’ve never heard of Wendell Berry, it’s high time you paid him some attention, since he represents a brand of independent Americanism that’s largely gone from this earth.

As the introduction to the interview states, he’s a cult hero to politcal thinkers on the left because of his environmentalism (which I actually think of as Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationism, but more on that distinction later) and opposition to the Iraq war. But then he’s also a darling of the right because of his love of freedom, his frequent condemnations of our sexualized culture and his unrepentant religiosity.

He is, in other words, an American conservative in the classic sense of the word, embodying a rural ideal that goes back to Jefferson: work hard, cherish the land and don’t let anyone — especially the government — tell you what to do. Oh, and mind your own business locally, nationally and internationally…the problems of others don’t concern us. In that sense he’s always reminded me of Jimmy Stewart in the classic Civil War drama, Shenandoah, one of my very favorite films.

But to the question: what do I think of the interview? I suppose I don’t care all that much for it since in principle I hate to see interviewers tossing nothing but softball questions to their subjects. On a broader level, while I admire Berry’s dedication to the small farm lifestyle and localized economy, it’s something I just don’t see as either practical or possible in an increasingly interconnected world…where growing populations mean we need every bit of yield we can possibly get from the land. To me Wendell Berry is not terribly different from the Amish he references in the interview: a man fighting hard to stop time. However I love him for embodying an important current of America’s intellectual and cultural past, even if I don’t find much common ground with him (as it were) in terms of the politics of food or agriculture.

Still, I strongly recommend for all those interested to run out and buy a copy of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. It’s the first book of Berry’s I ever read, and one I find myself returning to over and over again.

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