Friday, September 2, 2011

Unemployment, Figment of a False Economy

Am I the only one who sees the irony in today's jobs announcement (U.S. Economy Fails to Add Jobs)--with joblessness at 9.1%--and the erroneous assumption that what is required to fix the problem is renewed consumer confidence and spending? All the hand-wringing and anxiety about how to jump start growth is laughably myopic, when the prior question of whether growth (in GDP) is even desirable is ruled out of bounds at the start of the discussion. It is perhaps a symptom of our all-too-human hubris that we believe our growth potential to be limitless. (Only God is limitless.) To put it another way, "infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility" (E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, 25th Anniversary Edition: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later . . . With Commentaries, p. 51) Maybe I have been reading too many of the wrong kinds of economics books this summer, but I have to wonder whether an economy built on making work obsolete can produce jobs that are of any value. Must we really make it our goal to do everything by machine that can be done by machine?

In other words, can our current economy--which has disregarded the land, has emptied the rural areas of their population of caretakers ("Rural U.S. population now 16%, record low," Hope Yen, AP), and has turned everything from air and water to animals and people into mere factors of production--really produce meaningful work for people to do? Can our economy, with our current economic values ($$$ as the measure of all things), really produce jobs that help us grow as people? I will listen carefully to President Obama's job speech on Thursday, but I doubt I'll hear much about the foundational reasons for unemployment, especially about the direct correlation between our denigration of work (especially agricultural work of the sort that requires people's minds, backs, and hands to be fully engaged) and the lack of good work to do. I'll probably hear more of the same about the need for consumer demand to stimulate economic growth, increased infrastructure spending, increased governmental spending and hiring, and the like. Everything will be measured quantitatively and the assumption underneath the whole will be that infinite growth is possible in a finite world. Will he say anything about our empty rural areas and the need for people to return to these areas and take care of them? Of the value we must begin to place on a different kind of "hands on" food production? Will his program include the need to value work done by people, work that could be done by machines, but will not be because we value people more than we value GDP growth? I doubt it.

Here are a few questions from my summer reading that might move us back onto the right track. Does our work enable us to become fully human, to develop all of our God-given gifts and talents? Does it encourage us to work together, in and for community, to accomplish common goals? Does our work produce goods and services that people need for a full and abundant life, or are we merely trying to generate desire for what we have to sell (regardless of its intrinsic worth)?

Those are the sorts of questions I have been wrestling with this summer as I worked through three books that my readers will undoubtedly hear more about. I recommend each of them as food for thought and a radically different perspective on our current economic condition.

1) As already mentioned, E. F. Schumacher's heretical economics book, Small Is Beautiful, 25th Anniversary Edition: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later . . . With Commentaries.

2) Wendell Berry's What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, especially the essay entitled "What Are People For?" (pp. 105ff.)

3) And, finally, L. H. Bailey's, The Holy Earth, which I intend to share on a regular basis with excerpts on Tumbledown Farm (

Friday, February 5, 2010

Imagination in Place

Imagination in Place, by Wendell Berry, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.

This is a coherent collection of essays, mostly of literary criticism (and, because of the author's person, also of cultural criticism). Those who have read my previous reviews of collected works, especially those that are collections of previously published essays, will know that this is high praise indeed. The coherency apparent in this book is not one of shared subject matter (the subjects covered are quite diverse, from the Civil War to Fundamentalism to Shakespeare, to name but a few); and it is not an artificially imposed coherency papered over the surface of what is (if truth be known) actually disparate material. Rather, the coherency arises subtly but unmistakeably from the durable passions and consistent attentions of the author, passions and attentions that have been sustained over a lifetime of work and throughout a variety of relationships--personal, literary and agricultural. Moreover, you are not likely to have encountered many of these essays before--however devoted you are to reading Berry--unless you are a subscriber to The Sewanee Review or are a "professional" literature teacher, because of the places where the essays previously appeared (e.g., multi-author works, literary journals like American Poet, or news outlets like The San Jose Mercury News).

Let us start with a definition of "Imagination in Place" (title essay, 2004). According to Berry, imagination is the attempt to make whole what is experienced in part. "[W]orks of imagination come of an impulse to transcend the limits of experience or provable knowledge in order to make a thing that is whole." "Imagination 'completes the picture' by transcending the actual memories and provable facts" (pp. 3-4). Imagination is a gift, a transcendent gift. Berry says "[m]y experience with imagination has taught me to believe in inspiration, about which I think nobody can speak with much authority" (p. 6). This last statement is humbling for a preacher. According to Berry, it should be humbling not just for the preacher, but also for the atheist, scientist, engineer, economist and businessman, and the politician ("God, Science, and Imagination"). In his reprise of the litany of 20th century destruction in which everyone alive now participates, Berry convicts us first and foremost of a lack of imagination:

  • "not one person now living in the United States who, by a strict accounting, could be said to be living an exemplary moral life"
  • "implicated, by direct participation and by proxies given suppliers"
  • loss of half our topsoil and most of our forest and prairies
  • loss of mineral wealth and underground water
  • pollution of surface water and air
  • destruction of rural cultures
  • extinction of plants and animals
  • wastelands
  • landfills
  • industrial dumps
  • the turning of chemicals of warfare onto the soil in pursuit of efficient production

Berry's constant point seems to be that a moral imagination--one that works against the widespread destruction of our times--is an imagination grounded. The place from which imagination sees that which no eye can see is "irreducible" (p. 12) For Berry this place is the farm; that is where he exercises his imagination. The farm is the "irreducible" mundane or temporal just as God is the "irreducible" eternal (p. 183). Humans share with one another and with their place the same sort of relationship they share with their God. Neither the farm nor God can be simplified and thoroughly comprehended by human effort and human mind without remainder. The moral imagination is therefore an imagination vested in a particular place. But moral imagination requires of human vision not only realism (and its standard, "how things really are"), but also "how things will be, how you want things to be, how things ought to be." Moral imagination tries to envision the world "whole," a whole that is both temporal and eternal--to see how things really are and how they really should be. Imagine!

In "American Imagination and the Civil War" (2007) Berry suggests that ultimate cause of the Civil War (the reason it was not averted) was a failure of moral imagination, specifically a failure of "the prevailing virtue and efficacious operation of lenity" (quoting Burke about that other civil war, the American Revolution). With imagination--with "lenience or gentleness or mercy"--other possibilities than war, possibilities like "reconciliation on terms of justice or amicable separation" could have been opened up (p. 23). Berry says that we should consider not just North and South as parties to that war, but a "third side," that of the dead. Walt Whitman's imagination, as he comes at dawn upon three soldiers lying dead near a hospital tent, allows (requires?) him to see in the face of the third soldier "the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies" (p. 25). Berry says that our current civil war (that on agriculture, rural communities, and the land itself) is also a failure of imagination: "I have been describing an enormous failure, and to me this appears to be a failure of imagination." We are, Berry says, destroying our country because of our failure to imagine it. (p. 30; "it" being the destruction of our country. We seem to be blind to it.) It is here that Berry provides a working definition of that imagination of which he speaks: "I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one's place or the life of one's enemy" (p. 30). Generalization, like war, is destructive of particular people and local places, but a poet's or novelist's imagination tethered loyally to a particular place and to particular persons can speak also for me and my place (pp. 33, 37). And, exercised well, it may lead to love of neighbor and prayers for enemies.

What follows these two programmatic essays is a series of portraits of authorial imagination. There is no heavy hand here, but everywhere Berry searches the lives and works of writers--contemporary and hoary--for hints, clues, and traces of imagination and inspiration as he has defined it. He seeks in these authors an imagination grounded in place. The good news for us and for him is that it is everywhere in evidence here among these authors who have been most influential for Berry and, where we are conscious of it, also for us.

  • Wallace Stegner ("The Momentum of Clarity" and "In Memoriam")

  • John Haines ("Speech after Long Silence")

  • Hayden Carruth ("My Friend Hayden"). I could not help but chuckle at Berry's comment about North Winter that "[i]t told me, at a time when I greatly needed to hear it, that one writer may do life-sustaining work in a place that, to others, would be 'nowhere'" (p. 58). Writing from Indianapolis--long known as "Indiana-no-place" that comes as a relief.
  • James Still ("In Memory" and "A Master Language")

  • Gurney Norman ("My Conversation with Gurney Norman")

  • Jane Kenyon ("Sweetness Preserved"). Here Berry gives expression to what I have often wondered about the folks who would have us consider literature apart from the historical setting and biography of the author, "[h]ow then are we to help knowing what we know?" (p. 88) Here too he gives considerable attention to the notion of exile and place. Given the importance of exile both to biblical and literary themes, this essay in particular is worth some additional attention.

  • Gary Snyder ("Some Interim Thoughts about Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers without End")

  • James Baker Hall ("In Memory")

  • Kathleen Raine ("Against the Nihil of the Age") Berry rings the changes on this "poet of the Imagination"--both her own poetry and her interaction with the likes of Blake, Yeats, et al. This is an essay to which I shall return many times, Lord willing.

  • William Shakespeare ("The Uses of Adversity") comparison of "As You Like It" and "King Lear" with an eye toward their moral imagination, especially as it pertains to the "uses" of adversity.

I will treasure and return to this collection for what it reveals about Berry as much as its revelations about the authors whom he selects for review. It is a window into Berry's own spirit, into his inspiration, or at least into his imagination.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Perennial Vegetables (Part II)

This is Part II of a two-part review of the book. (Read Part I of the review of Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables.)

Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to 'Zuiki' Taro, a Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, 2007.

Part II of the book begins with a caution about sampling too much of too many new food plants for the first time. This is an important caution, given the prevalence of food allergies. Sample slowly! I was also a little taken aback to see how frequently some of these perennials have poisonous cousins and look alikes. Exercise caution and know what you are eating before you taste!

After that brief caution, Part II plunges into the meat (OK, the vegetables) of the subject in earnest. What follows is a list of edible perennials, accompanied by a map of the U.S. climate range for the particular plant (similar to the maps in bird-watching books); shaded pink where the crop is perennial and yellow where it might be grown as an annual. Along with the Latin name of the plant and known common names, Toensmeier provides the following for each entry (as applicable): Overview, Crop Description, Climate, Tolerances and Preferences, Naturalization, Pests-Diseases-Weeds, Propagation-Planting-Cultivation, Harvest and Storage, Uses, and Related Species and Breeding Potential. Wow! These "notes" on various plants are alone worth the price of admission. (However, I should note that Toensmeier breaks his pattern sometimes and treats some plant in a cursory manner, e.g., Lovage, pp. 86-87.) I cannot wait to try a few new plantings and report on the results this year. But, of course, I live in what Toensmeier calls the "Cold Temperate" section of the country in Zone 5b Indianapolis. I'll not be able to plant anything now until the ground thaws. We woke today to a temperature of 16F in an area that regularly experiences temperatures as as low as -16F. It will be March 2010 before I am able to plant, and many of the perennials will likely take a full year or more to become fully established. So, my sampling of new vegetables will be slow. As indicated in the previous review, though Toensmeier discusses growing tropical perennials in some locations as annuals, I plan, because of my particular climate, to ignore the tropical plants and those for the warmer Southeast and review the book with an eye toward its greatest usefulness to me here in the Cold Temperate Midwest.

So, what can I and will I plant? Herewith, my personal list of potential perennials, with an asterisk beside those I plan to try in 2010:

Onion Family, Alliaceae

Arrowhead, tubers cooked like potatoes.

Multiplier Onions

*Ramps (wild leek)

Perennial Onions

The Celery Family, Apiaceae


Water Celery


The Aroid Family, Araceae


The Spikenard Family, Araliaceae


The Aster Family, Asteraceae

Chicory and Dandelion

Sunchoke (Jerusalem Artichoke)



The Malabar Spinach Family, Basellaceae


The Cabbage Family, Brassicaceae

Turkish Rocket

Sea Kale


The Cactus Family, Cactaceae


The Canna Family, Cannaceae


The Papaya Family, Caricaceae


The Goosefoot Family, Chenopodiaceae

*Good King Henry

The Morning Glory Family, Convolvulaceae


The Squash Family, Cucurbitaceae


The Sedge Family, Cyperaceae


The Yam Family, Dioscoreaceae

*Yams (D. japonica and Chinese yam)

The Wood-Fern Family, Dryopteridaceae

Ostrich Fern

The Spurge Family, Euphorbiaceae


The Pea Family, Fabaceae


The Mint Family, Lamiaceae

Chinese Artichoke

The Lily Family, Liliaceae




Giant Solomon's Seal

The Mallow Family, Malvaceae

Musk Mallow

The Neem Family, Meliaceae

Fragrant Spring Tree

The Mulberry Family, Moraceae


The Moringa Family, Moringaceae


The Banana Family, Musaceae


The Lotus Family, Nelumbonaceae

Water Lotus

The Wood-Sorrel Family, Oxalidaceae


The Pokeweed Family, Phytolaccaceae


The Grass Family, Poaceae

Running Bamboos

the Smartweed Family, Polygonaceae



The Nightshade Family, Solanaceae


The New Zealand Spinach Family, Tetragoniaceae


The Linden Family, Tiliaceae


The Nasturtium Family, Tropaeolaceae


The Nettle Family, Urticaceae

Stinging Nettle and Wood Nettle

Remember, I have listed above ONLY what Toensmeier has claimed is hardy as a perennial to Zone 5b. Part III of the book is entitled "Resources" and includes lists of perennial vegetables for each climate type (similar to what I have done above, but for all of the plant hardiness zones and with greater detail, including variety names and Latin names). He also includes a list of recommended books in the following categories: useful plants, permaculture and edible landscaping, history-ecology-native/non-native species, garden climates, and gardening techniques, water gardening, pests-diseases, and propagation. There is a short, but excellent list of organizations and web sites, and lists of plant and seed sources and garden suppliers. Finally, Toensmeier includes a bibliography and helpful index.

I heartily recommend the book. It is well worth the $35 list price. The only downside is that the cultivation of perennials as garden vegetables is so new that the details are sometimes sketchy at best, because sketchy details are all that is available. Toensmeier has done us a great service in drawing so much information together under one roof. It is now our turn to do the hard work of collecting, propagating, and breeding these plants--and introducing them to our friends and neighbors--until they become successful, mainstream garden varieties. I for one wish winter would hurry up and end so that I can get started.

[Note: The above title was provided for review by the publisher. No remuneration was received for the review.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Perennial Vegetables

This is Part I of a two-part review of the book.
(Read Part II of the review of Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables.)

Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to 'Zuiki' Taro, a Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction, Vermont, 2007.

If you are a gardener interested in sustainability, the "holy grail" must be a more-or-less stable perennial polyculture. (See Wes Jackson's work with perennial grains at The Land Institute, for a related example.) In other words, you want a garden that mimics nature. The problem is that most of our food gardens are the opposite: we grow lots of annuals, mostly of a very few varieties. That is why, if you are anything like me, you already know what artichokes are--and even the difference between artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes--but you may never have heard of 'Zuiki' Taro or any of the "Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles" heralded by Eric Toensmeier's subtitle. His goal is to introduce people who garden for food to 100+ new food crops, all perennials. He wants to ring the changes on perennial vegetables from A to Z! Does he succeed? Yes, in my opinion he does. My only caveat to the readers of this review is that my experience with these plants is very limited. For that reason, and because I have gardened for food avidly now for a decade, I think I am directly in the bulls eye of Mr. Toensmeier's target audience. For far too many of the plants that Toensmeier names I cannot provide an independent evaluation of his recommendations. Most of these plants I have never grown or tasted, or even seen with any recognition! And that is what is so exciting. I cannot wait to devote sections of my garden to this new (to me) kind of vegetable next year. Already I grow lots of perennial fruit, so the addition of perennial vegetables is only natural. The key questions, it appears, will be where to find good varieties of the vegetables Toensmeier names ("Only a small number of nurseries and seed companies offer even the best perennial vegetables!") and whether I agree that they are palatable. (This latter appears to be a point of much debate.)

Part I: Gardening with Perennial Vegetables

Before we take a look at a few examples of the many new varieties that will be on our Zone 5b purchasing list for next spring, let's review part one of the book. I'll call this the "How to Garden" section. It is devoted to general information about gardening, with an eye toward the gardening of perennial vegetables. If you already have experience with perennial ornamental plants, fruits, and nuts, there will not be much new in this section. You already know much that is required to plan the garden, choose the plants, prepare the soil, and plant and care for your new "babies." You know how agonizingly long it can take for your plants to "grow up" (especially if more mature specimens are not readily available for planting), how to watch for and mitigate problems with species that are "aggressive," and all about plant pests and diseases.

Given the relation of perennial vegetable growing to the concept of permaculture, it isn't surprising that a whole chapter of the book is devoted to "Design Ideas" (chapter 2). I must admit to a bit of bias here. I have never quite been able to swallow the whole permaculture ideal, especially as presented by Introduction to Permaculture. It has always seemed a little bit Rube Goldberg to me. Permaculture as a system and movement just seems a bit too complicated and totalizing. The idea that humans can so totally plan and design every aspect of their environment without something going wildly a muck seems to me to smack of the same sort of hubris that afflicts rampant development. Too much talk of "conscious design" and the "harmonious integration" of the elements of a garden make me want to say, "you haven't seen my garden!" And, when I look at such fully detailed plans, "you don't have my limited budget." My garden is a constant flux between chaos and order, with chaos always on the verge of gaining the upper hand. All that having been said, the great thing about this chapter (and the whole book) is that Toensmeier doesn't present a "system" so much as real, good, reliable information. With regard to permaculture, for example, he merely provides a few drawings of exemplary garden layouts and recommends several resources for further study, including Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set), which he co-authored. He also recommends The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping: Home Landscaping with Food-Bearing Plants and Resource-Saving Techniques, Designing And Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally, and Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community.

For the purposes of "Selecting Species" (chapter 3), Toensmeier divides the country into "eight basic climate types." The climates are

  • Extreme Cold: High Mountains and Frozen Northlands
  • Cold Temperate: East, Midwest, and Mountain West
  • Cool Maritime: The Pacific Northwest
  • Hot and Humid: The Southeast
  • Arid and Hot: The Southwest
  • Mediterranean and Mild Subtropical: Southern and Coastal California
  • Tropical Lowlands: Hawaii and South Florida
  • The Hawaiian Upland Tropics

Indianapolis at Zone 5b is in the Cold Temperate section of the country. Though Toensmeier discusses growing tropical perennials in some locations as annuals, I plan, because of my particular climate, to ignore the tropical plants and those for the warmer Southeast and review the book with an eye toward its greatest usefulness to me here in the Cold Temperate Midwest. A subsection of this chapter is entitled, "You Might Be Surprised by What You Can Grow." While I trust that Toensmeier knows whereof he speaks, I'll want to verify that before sinking a lot of money into plants that may not be hardy in my zone. For example, Toensmeier lists the groundnut (Apios americana, aka Potato bean) as "extremely cold-hardy..., being hardy to Zone 3." However, the only source I've found for them as of now (12/01/2009) is in the Edible Landscaping catalog. Edible Landscaping lists the plant as recommended for Zones 6-8. At $15 for the quart or $25 for the gallon, I'll think twice before going all out. Maybe a quart first just to see whether I can get them established? My hunch is that the catalog is playing it safe with the USDA Hardiness Zone info and that Toensmeier may be stretching. At any rate, Zone 5b is close enough to Zone 6 for this gardener to gamble, what with global warming and all that jazz.

One potentially controversial aspect of the book should be mentioned. Toensmeier advocates a rethinking of the whole issue of nonnative plants. Following David Theodoropoulos (Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience), he suggests that the whole "native" vs. "nonnative" plant issue has been overblown, or that the native plant movement has become too rigid. More to the point, he advocates the use of some non-native perennial vegetables.

Toensmeier offers an extensive section on plant propagation and breeding in chapter 4, "Techniques." Throughout the book he advocates that we backyard gardeners must once again regain this significant part of our gardening heritage to become effective plant breeders and propagators once again. We seem to have lost that art, especially the art of breeding, and with it some of the variety that used to characterize food gardening. More to the point, many of these perennial vegetables are still very hard to come by. Propagating them ourselves, and improving the available varieties, will for a while be our best and sometimes only choice.

[Note: The above title was provided for review by the publisher. No remuneration was received for the review.]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Leavings: Poems

Wendell Berry, Leavings: Poems, Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2010. (132 pp.)

I have been living for the past few weeks with Wendell Berry's latest anthology of poems in my backpack and have decided it is time to share a few thoughts about it. The book is in two parts: the first part is a potpourri, an all-too-short assortment of letter poems, occasional pieces, and brief reflections (the 20 titled poems in the collection are here); the second part is entitled "Sabbaths 2005-2008" and carries the tag line, "How may a human being come to rest?" (54 numbered poems make up this section.)

The title Leavings is not the title of any of the poems, but seems to sum up the book, as if Berry were deliberately taking leave of his readers. "It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old." (2007.VI) "In time a man disappears..." (2007.VII) "I know I am getting old and I say so,..." (2005.VII) There are other leavings here too, other than the merely personal, predominantly that of the descending water that flows out from a lowly stream named Camp Branch. Falling tones, falling leaves (literally), falling steps, falling stones, falling snow and falling rain transport the reader to the Kentucky countryside where we see the place that has meant and still means the world to Mr. Berry. This small collection takes the reader on a painful but beautiful journey, a shared pilgrimage down familiar paths measured in ever slower and more halting steps, made all the more valuable for the fact that the reader is not required to leave his native place to join Mr. Berry except in imagination. "So many times I've gone away from here, where I'd rather be than any place I know.... It is death." (2008.X)

One of my favorite poems in this collection, one I know I'll return to many times, occurs early in Part I and is entitled simply "An Embarrassment." The severe economy of language--3 or 4 word lines mostly, mostly 1 or 2 syllable words--conveys the embarrassment of friends who regularly offer thanks for a meal when they eat alone but who are now trying to decide whether to do so when they are together. One of them, having decided to make a go of the prayer, leaves (!) them both embarrassed as the prayer falls awfully flat. I'll not ruin the ending for you, but it is a Berry-esque show stopper. For someone who makes his living as a pastor, that one poem was worth the price of admission. But there are many others from this book that will now join my ever growing list of Berry favorites: e.g., "A Speech to the Garden Club of America," which admonishes us to go "back to school, this time in gardens." Or "While Attending the Annual Convocation of Cause Theorists and Bigbangists at the Local Provincial Research University, the Mad Farmer Intercedes from the Back Row." (If you've read The Mad Farmer Poems, you'll appreciate the appropriateness of this addition to the corpus.

I have been reading (and re-reading) Wendell Berry's work for quite a while now. That means I've heard many of the words and seen many of the ideas before. But these poems are new, encountered for the first time like today's bracing walk in a familiar woods I've visited many times. In that sense they are very gratefully received; it is, after all, November and there are too few such walks left to me ...and to you.

It wouldn't be right to end the review without a full list of Wendell Berry's poetic works. Check your shelves! If you do not have all of these, you'll want them on a shelf close by when the winter winds begin to blow the snow around.

The Broken Ground: Poems


Farming: A Hand Book

Openings: Poems (Harvest/Hbj Book)

A Part (Part Paper)


Sayings and Doings

The Wheel

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food

Berry, Wendell. Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food. Counterpoint: Berkeley, CA, 2009. With an introduction by Michael Pollan.

It is hard for me to admit, ever, to being disappointed by Wendell Berry. And even now it isn't so much Berry, whom I do not know personally (I've only ever heard him speak once live), but the latest book to come out under his name that is the source of my disappointment. And it isn't what is in the book that disappoints me. The problem is that I have already read most of the content before in other books by Berry that I already own. This book should have come with a large warning on the ad page (I pre-ordered from Amazon, based on the advance copy description) that this book is 99% recycled material, pre-composted, repackaged fertilizer if you will. So, after rushing into the house to open the package when it arrived, I had that all-too-familiar sinking feeling as I flipped through the pages of my "new" book by Berry. Other than the introduction by Pollan, I've seen it all before. In fact, I now own multiple copies of most of these chapters in the form of other collections of Berry essays.

Even more annoying to me is the fact that the chapters come marked only with the date of previous publication. (Except for the fiction excerpts, which are marked by the title of the novel in question, but not with the date of publication.) Nowhere does there seem to be a note citing the locus of that previous publication. I cannot even confirm easily my suspicion that I already own (versus having merely already read) the non-fiction essay in question. And as you might expect, I do not object so much to reading something twice (if I cannot remember that I have read it already, that is my problem) as I object to purchasing it twice. As someone who is interested in the context within which ideas arise and the history of their publication and dissemination, I like to know how to track the paths of words and ideas in the world, especially those that have occurred elsewhere in a prior conversation. Here the essays seem to be lifted out of their primary location and recombined in such a way as to erase all sense of place. (I would say time and place, except that the year is duly noted at the top of each chapter.) That is something I think Berry would (or should) object mightily to, given that he is so keen to preserve local adaptation and local landscapes. If we cannot preserve the local nature of our thoughts and ideas from such globalized generalization, how will we ever preserve real farms, farmers, and food?

I will not do what should have been the author's, editor's, and publisher's work for them by tracking down and publishing the location of the previous publication of these essays, but I will do you the favor of listing the title and date of publication here so that you can check your shelves before you order:

Part I: Farming

Nature as Measure, 1989

Stupidity in Concentration, 2002 (which includes Berry's definition of "sustainable agriculture")

Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978

A Defense of the Family Farm, 1986

Let the Farm Judge, 1997

Energy in Agriculture, 1979

Conservationist and Agrarian, 2002

Sanitation and the Small Farm, 1971

Renewing Husbandry, 2004

Part II: Farmers

Seven Amish Farms, 1981

A Good Farmer of the Old School, 1985

Charlie Fisher, 1996

A Talent for Necessity, 1980

Elmer Lapp's Place, 1979

on The Soil and Health, 2006

Agriculture from the Roots Up, 2004

Part III: Food

mostly drawn from Berry's fiction writing

from That Distant Land

from Hannah Coulter

from Andy Catlett

from "Misery"

from The Memory of Old Jack

from Jayber Crow

from Hannah Coulter (again)

The Pleasures of Eating, 1989

So, would I recommend the book, and if so, to whom? Clearly I wouldn't recommend the book to anyone who is well familiar with Berry's work and who owns a considerable library of Berry's fiction and non-fiction. I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't read Berry, who knows him only by reputation, and who wants a quick introduction to his thoughts about sustainable agriculture and local food. For example, I could imagine the book as assigned reading in a college course on contemporary issues, especially environmental issues. But the reader should understand that tracking down the original source of some of the essays may be difficult should he or she become "hooked" like so many of us are, including evidently Michael Pollan, on Wendell Berry's prose and poetry. (Which brings up another interesting oversight; why wasn't some of Berry's poetry included?)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Soil and Health

Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (Culture of the Land), with a new introduction by Wendell Berry, The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

This book is one of A Series in the New Agrarianism by UPK, edited by Norman Wirzba, that bears the title Culture of the Land. The book was originally published in 1947. It followed the publication and good reception of An Agricultural Testament in 1940. (One may hope that An Agricultural Testament will also be added to this series or reprinted by some other publisher soon.) This book is one of a set of classic texts, along with F. C. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries,
Lady Eve Balfour's The Living Soil (Soil Association Organic Classics), and the like, that have occasionally been reprinted and should remain always available in print. One suspects that they will be widely accessible again as soon as they enter the public domain. In the meantime, short run or print on demand--or re-sale by and the like--must suffice to keep a new generation of readers informed.

This book certainly deserves the reputation it has received as a "classic." Sir Albert Howard is plain spoken and easy for any agricultural practitioner--including this one--to understand. Though it is somewhat getting the cart before the horse to say so, Howard truly exemplifies the purpose of the series, demonstrating a profound appreciation for the "intimate and practical connections which exist between humans and the earth." Perhaps that is because Howard was, as is often stated, a pioneer and founding source for the New Agrarianism and the organic movement. Nowhere have I seen the connection between humans and the earth more profoundly and clearly stated than in the progression of Howard's outline for Part II of the book, "Disease in Present-Day Farming and Gardening." Howard moves with deliberation from diseases of the soil, through diseases of crops, to disease and health in livestock, and ultimately to a brief and convincing statement of the relationship between soil fertility and human health.

I was bemused to discover again the depth of my ignorance. I am a product of U.S. public schools--primary, secondary, and college all in the great agriculturally dependent state of Tennessee--from 1972 to 1984. I took "biology" as a school course (not counting the units of biology in early science classes) twice, once in High School and once again in college, but never do I recall hearing of the "Mycorrhizal Association" or the "web-like mycelial strands" that surround and invade some plant roots. As recently as 2007 I took the Master Gardener course from the Purdue Extension service, and again do not recall having heard anything about the mycorrhizal association in some roots. Certainly there was an emphasis on keeping organic matter high in our gardens and an emphasis on care in working the garden not to destroy the soil structure (not to work too often, or when the soil is too wet or too dry), but nothing was said about the importance of the symbiotic relationship with some microbes for the growth of some plants. It is clear that the association is understood as scientific fact and that its importance for plant growth is also understood, though the remedies (adding more synthetic phosphorous to what Howard would have called the "artificial manure" mix) are not necessarily ones embraced by organic agriculture. (e.g., Purdue note regarding the effect of flooding on helpful fungi.)

The fact that the mycorrhizal association is recognized and still studied today as an aspect of forestry and natural resource management suggests that Howard's drawing of connections between the forest (Howard recommends "afforestation," including forests in the long-term agricultural rotation) and a sustainable agriculture and human health is true, even if viewed by today's agro-science technicians as impractical. The book, 300 pages of small type, is too extensive to do it justice with a single review. Perhaps the best recommendation for the book is its constant citation by others more qualified than I to speak about organic agriculture. I think it is for good reason that Howard and his "Wheel of Life" (with its imperative to return everything to the soil whence it came) has formed a constant touchstone for authors like Wendell Berry (e.g., "The Use of Energy" in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry). Perhaps the best and most important thing to take from a first (hopefully not the last) reading of Howard is that "The first duty of the agriculturalist [farmer or gardener] must always be to understand that he [or she] is a part of Nature and cannot escape from his environment" (p. 194). This maxim leads everywhere in the book to delightful conclusions like the following: "the attempt to raise natural earth-borne crops on an exclusive diet of water and mineral dope--the so-called science of hydroponics--is science gone mad; it is an absurdity which has nothing in common with the ancient art of cultivation" (ibid.)

To which this reviewer can only add "amen!"