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?)

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