Maybe it’s because it’s my birthday, and Wendell Berry was the first writer I ever met, about 30 years ago. (My dad introduced me to him at a draft horse auction.) Maybe it’s because I just bicycled past the organic dairies outside the small North Carolina town where I’m living this fall, and remembered groups of hippies (no disrespect! – including my parents!) laboring to sell bushels of vegetables from under the interstate overpass in Charleston, WV, 50 miles from home and a lot of gas in a (then!) ancient flatbed truck. But I’ve been noticing how one generation makes the next possible.
Really, it’s mostly because in the last two weeks I’ve re-read two important and very different books about food, land, and people: Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” (1977) and Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (yesterday, today, and tomorrow in every bookstore). Pollan’s writing has crystallized the energy around local, regional and sustainable food, brought it squarely into public awareness, and probably helped make it bigger (maybe helped a lot – it’s hard to say). They’re vastly different books. Berry’s is a jeremiad by a literary Appalachian farmer (and English professor, plus former student of Wallace Stegner’s and friend of Ken Kesey’s): its major sources include William Blake (“energy is eternal delight”), Shakespeare (a beautiful reading of a scene from King Lear), and, not especially explicit, but pervasive, Berry’s Christianity, centered on the goodness of Creation and the sin of division from it. Pollan’s, which needs less introduction, is systems theory and vicarious gourmandizing, courtesy of a somewhat faux-naif narrator who manages, with enormous energy and ingenuity, to trace the ecological sources and effects of industrial, local (and Whole Foods’ “industrial organic”), and hunter-gathered foods.
They exemplify totally different cultural styles. Berry has a lot to say about how WE SHOULD LIVE. Pollan has some information and suggestions that YOU MIGHT LIKE. One, that is, addresses a congregation, or an audience of earnest seekers after righteousness. The other speaks to a loose affiliation of the curious and well-intentioned, who would prefer to do right if it were not too hard, but would really rather not be hassled about it. So it is not surprising that Pollan has his own shelf-end display about my local chain; Berry’s publisher claimed in August that it didn’t have his book at all, then dug up some copies in October.
But without Wendell Berry, there would be no Michael Pollan. Pollan’s book sets out the same core arguments as Berry’s, with more detail and detail of a different kind. Some of the difference is just the difference between the two writers. Some is the knowledge created by thirty years of people, some inspired by Berry, who have been working closely with land since he wrote, learning things they can now display for Pollan and, by way for him, for everyone.
The premise of Berry’s book is that eating is a cultural, ethical, ecological, and political act, because producing and consuming food is the basic link, the metabolic tie, between a living thing and the rest of life, as well as the so-called inanimate nature that sustains it. Logically enough, he says (and this is equally the core of the book) the same about agriculture, how we get food from the world. He claims that a single moral logic follows through how we treat land, how we treat one another in producing food, and how we treat our own bodies in eating what we do (and how we do). He says at various points in The Unsettling of America that whatever degradation we visit on the health of the land and the plants and animals that we eat we will ultimately turn up in the health of our bodies.
Pollan’s astonishing chapter on corn, subsidies, chemical fertilizer, and human health makes Berry’s point afresh, irresistibly. By making fertility from fossil fuels, driving industrial agriculture overtime to produce mountains of cheap calories, American farm policy, with plenty of help from agribusiness (and there’s not much difference between those two), has sacrificed land health and human health to abstract, short-term maximization: more corn! more calories! more profits! He is equally disturbing on our “successful” attempt to raise meat on the industrial model, which takes animals off the land, turns them into antibiotic-filled breeding grounds for superbugs, generates big-time pollution, and spins off a beastly truckload of pain and suffering on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Berry contrasts two ethics: that of the abstract maximizer and that of the nurturer. If you already believe him, it’s lovely; if you don’t, it probably seems sentimental. Pollan shows that the balance sheets of companies (and the sometimes desperate farmers who produce commodity corn) can be blossoming while land and human health veer toward collapse. At least in the present food economy (partly thanks to gross subsidies, economists will rightly point out), maximizing profit and “maximizing” anything like health are aim that seem to pull in opposite directions.
An environmental economist would say, sensibly, that you just have to get big ag’s balance sheets to reflect health and environmental externalities, such as fertilizer runoff, increased diabetes rates, and so on, and then the market will do its magic. Maybe (any move in that direction would help). But Berry argued, or poetically asserted, that the most health-promoting forms of agriculture couldn’t be abstracted into generalized techniques, that (like good manners – one of Berry’s lovely formulations and unlikely to persuade doubters) good farming required close attention to context and judgment about what will best keep any piece of land in productive health. The more Pollan examined the farming of the book’s hero, land restorer and eccentric sustainability artist Joel Salatin, the more he concludes that no accounting or regulatory formula can make fungible what this guy does: he knows his land very, very well, and he will not do anything with that doesn’t contribute to its long-term health.
Berry drew on William Blake, mainly, to contrast biological energy, the annual intake from the sun, turned into nutrition and fertility by photosynthesis and digestion, with fossil energy. The first, Berry argued, tends to harmonious cycles. The second tends to runaway hubris, with the poetically ordained result. This contrast was as basic to Berry’s book as the ideas of health and nurturance. Pollan spells out the system effects of each source: fossil fuels are a kind of distorting ecological subsidy, enabling us to live beyond our long-term planetary means, and potentially locking us into unsustainable ways of doing things. At every point, reliance on these fuels enables industrial agriculture to ignore soil health, land-friendly scale, and the virtues of mixed agriculture in favor of super-concentrated, industrial-style food production. (Return to the beginning for the effects of this on health.)
I am huge admirer of both these writers. I think their differences are important and telling. Berry is, in a deep sense, a conservative with doubts about whether modernity, mobility, consumerism, and individualism, let alone secularism, are compatible with a living world. Pollan, as far as I can tell, is hoping that we will decide to buy the good stuff, and that what Berry wants is good. I recognize that Berry’s view is one of the really serious conservative arguments. And I hope that Pollan, who ignores such arguments, is right.
And, of course, neither writer is a demiurge. Berry was drawing on more than a generation of ecological thinking and agricultural neo-traditionalism, though his was one of the first serious attempts to think through the revolution in environmental ideas that happened in the 1960s and and 1970s, and to tie it to a serious look at how we live. And Pollan was drawing on many people who came after Berry (though, as I mentioned, a lot of them had read Berry).
But. There is a Michael Pollan only because there was a Wendell Berry. Today that makes me happy. Someday maybe I’ll tell the story to a child, in the course of explaining why people write books, and why they plant seeds.