The Short Answer: An exchange with Wendell Berry

The Short Answer: An exchange with Wendell Berry

The author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry, and essays on rural society, economy, and heritage, Wendell Berry lives on a farm in his native Henry County, Ky. His most recent novel is Hannah Coulter.

You often write and speak of "community." What is it?

A community—a real community—would be a place and all of its native or benevolently naturalized inhabitants. The human part of it would be responsibly conscious of the having-in-common of which the community is composed.

Are community and "place" the same? Must community have a geographic location?

Yes. Otherwise the word becomes merely a figure of speech. "Networks" or professions, for example, are often called communities, but they are only metaphorically so.

Do we have to be rooted in a place in order to preserve it?

No, but we need to have settled into it conscientiously as our permanent home. We have to give up the idea of going to "a better place" or of "going west" to escape our troubles or messes.

Much effort has been invested by many in preserving rural America. Where are we?

We're still losing. We have made it almost impossible, economically, to preserve good farmland, good farming, or even good farmers—although we don't know, we haven't asked, how we will survive for long without them.

Is the historic preservation movement helping to save what you call the "economic landscapes" of farms and other cultural aspects of the land?

It is not helping enough. No movement is helping enough. This is because the present economy is inherently destructive of land and other necessities. The way to save farmland is by farming it well. To do this, it is necessary to save farmers who know how to farm well.

But in today's economic situation, can these still be small farmers?

Yes. If the necessary markets and other economic supports are in place. There are prosperous Amish farms of 100 acres or less. A few acres of vegetables can provide a decent income, given a decent market.

What role do communities in cities have in helping rural communities?

Urban communities eat. Rural communities produce food. The present economy throws these communities into competition with one another—as if "cheap food" at any human or ecological cost is a triumph of capitalism. But there is no correlation between the cheapness of food and either quality or sustainability. If we're interested in quality and sustainability, then we have to think of local food economies based on cooperation between consumers and producers.

Does volunteerism still work in rural areas, or anywhere?

Volunteerism, as I understand it, is a way of compensating for economic or social failure. If you have an economy that impoverishes land and people, as now, then decency will try to compensate by various kinds of volunteerism. But the only effective answer to economic destructiveness is a better economy—an economy that takes proper care of things, as an economy is supposed to do.

The idea of the current crop of "conservatives"—that government can cater to greed and leave charity to volunteers—is vicious, and it can't work. The "liberal" idea—that the failures of a greedy and wasteful economy can be effectively patched by government services and regulations—is also hopeless. There is no way to get a good result from an economy that institutionalizes greed as an honorable motive and excuses waste and destruction as "acceptable costs."

What should government's role be, in rural areas and cities, in building community?

To do for the people what the people can't do for themselves. The people, either as individuals or as local communities, for instance, can't protect themselves against trusts and monopolies. They can't stop the likes of Wal-Mart from destroying locally owned small businesses. Such destruction damages the economic life and health of the country as a whole; it weakens the country, and the government should not allow it. As another example, the government can ensure a decent income to farmers at little cost by means of price supports with production controls—as in fact it did under the New Deal. The government, in short, has the power to see that the economy fulfills its proper function: to take good care of things; to put things, including land and people, to the best possible use.

Ours is a culture preoccupied with growth, both economic and physical. Is it possible to not grow, yet not die?

Creatures who grow beyond the carrying capacity of their habitats will die. So the right question is: Will we restrain ourselves, or will we die?