cover_bringing_it1“I LIVE IN A PART OF THE COUNTRY that at one time a good farmer could take some pleasure in looking at,” Wendell Berry intones in the opening essay of his new collection, Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009); a little farther down the page he continues, “Now the country is not well farmed, and driving through it has become a depressing experience.” This somber tone-setting essay, “Nature as Measure,” was written 20 years ago. Poet-essayist-novelist Berry—now in his mid-70s and who has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, Kentucky, for more than 40 years—has had plenty to rail against when it comes to Big Ag, the politics of indifference and our alienating post-industrial age; but he also has had plenty to celebrate in clear-eyed observations of humankind interacting with nature, the value of true hard work (diametrically opposed to the digitally and plutocratically enabled “work” of accumulating phantom wealth) and the rewarding simplicity of sharing, of family, of community.

An out-of-touch cranky neo-luddite screeching for a return to prelapsarian times? Hardly. Berry’s vision is that of a hardy-yet-hoary realist, tinged by both optimism and pessimism (ah, the foibles of humanity!), attempting to show us a path out of our befoulment, a steaming, festering swamp we teeter face-first ever closer toward. And Berry’s prose? Gracefully worn and weathered to a burnished beauty, like a glacier-cast erratic, transfigurative in its straightforward simplicity.

“NOW WE FACE OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE that we are not smart enough to recover Eden by assault,” Berry continues in that same 20-year-old opening essay, “and that nature does not tolerate or excuse our abuses. If, in spite of the evidence against us, we are finding it hard to relinquish our old ambition, we are also seeing more clearly every day how that ambition has reduced and enslaved us.” Again, a harsh-yet-realist assessment of where we are today—and clearly observed two decades ago. Over the course of its 234 pages, Bringing It to the Table shows us how to get away from that “ambition,” how small farms and farmers are achieving this end, and how food, what we eat and how we eat it and where it comes from, can bring the vast majority of us who don’t and never will farm to the transformative table Berry has in mind. Consider it the taxonomy of a well-rounded meal.

Pigs on farmThe book is neatly divided into three parts, “Farming,” “Farmers” and “Food,” with essays and novel/story excerpts dating from 1960 to 2006. The “Food” section, which closes the book and primarily consists of excerpts from Berry’s fiction (all deal with eating, the “communal event” that meals represent), doesn’t quite cohere with the others—it seems a little force-fitted and concept-pushed—even with Berry’s accompanying contextual notes for guidance. I’ve never been a fan of reading short excerpts of larger works of fiction, especially when situated directly adjacent matter-of-fact essays. That said, this section does close with an excellent essay, “The Pleasures of Eating,” again from 1989, which considers eating an agricultural-political act:

There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.

Berry makes an impassioned plea for us to (re)connect to the natural world—a powerful means to establishing empathy and rethinking our relationship to the environment per se. “A significant part of the pleasure of eating,” he writes, “is one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes. The pleasure of eating, then, may be the best available standard of our health. And this pleasure, I think, is pretty fully available to the urban consumer who will make the necessary effort.”

chevlambs“Farming” and “Farmers” make up the vast majority of the book—and choice observations and bon mots abound, easily appreciated no matter where you stand on the urban-rural divide. I don’t want to share all the folded-down pages and underscored passages from my copy of the book (I’d rather you go out, purchase your own copy and read it straight through), but Berry, time and again, essay after essay, has a firm grasp of what makes a compelling story (Border Cheviot hill sheep in “Let the Farm Judge”—see pic to left), an ideal anecdote (the practicality of a well-planned barn in “Elmer Lapp’s Place”) and the timely application of a necessarily sharp barb (“The factory farm, rather than serving the farm family and the local community, is an economic siphon, sucking value out of the local landscape and the local community into distant bank accounts” in “Stupidity in Concentration”).

I’ve posted previously on the growth of organic agriculture and need for more fair agricultural policy, and sincerely hope the work of writers like Wendell Berry, with books as vivid and telling as Bringing It to the Table, can and will reach a wider mainstream audience, including lawmakers and influencers from K Street to Hollywood and Vine, to help effect real change in matters of what and how we eat, where our food comes from and where we’re heading as a nation and as a world—let’s make “super-sized” and its ilk words and practices of a distant, unhealthy past never to be repeated. Let’s not leave Berry and Bringing It to the Table like Ovid and Sorrows of an Exile, where:

You’ll go, my little book—and I feel no envy—
Without me to the City where, alas,
Your master may not go. Go, but be shabby
As suits an exile’s book. In your sad pass
Be dressed to match our lot: no purple cover—
That color won’t beseem a grieving soul—

Extra Credit
Closing with a poetic extract I’d feel it remiss to not also mention and highly recommend Berry’s new collection of verse, Leavings (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009), which, while not exactly the Georgics, includes his latest “sabbath” poems (2005-2008)—observations on life, death, love, friendship and nature originating from contemplative Sunday wanderings. Berry, certainly not an exile, is also on Facebook, where you can become a fan and comment on a wide variety of sanctioned posts.

Allen

2 Responses to “Back to the Garden: A Review of Bringing It to the Table”

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