Wendell Berry on Sustainability, Citizenship and Becoming a Native

For over forty years, Wendell Berry has written from his hillside farm in Kentucky. Through more than thirty books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, he has critiqued the many problems of our American lifestyle while also offering more ecologically sane alternatives.

What follows are excerpts from an interview with Berry conducted in November of 2003. This interview originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2004 issue of Appalachian Journal (vol. 31, nos. 3-4, pp. 300-313) and is reprinted with permission.

The conversation ranged widely, but the highlights excerpted here focus on “native-ness,” citizenship, and forestry, specifically a forest cooperative just formed in the New River Valley of Virginia (To read the entire interview, you may order this issue by sending $8.00 to Appalachian Journal, Belk Library, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 29608).

On “Native-ness”

Minick: How do you define the word “native”?

Berry: Native means born here. But it’s possible now to be born here but not made here. You can live here and yet be made by imported nutrients and imported influences. If “native” is going to mean anything, you have to say you’re born, nourished, and educated to a significant extent in and by your place, your local community.

Minick: I was re-reading “A Native Hill,” and this one sentence struck me. You’re talking about coming back, and you write, “Here, now that I’m both native and citizen, there’s no immunity to what is wrong.” The “citizen” part jumped out at me on this reading. What is the connection between “native” and “citizen”?

Berry: That essay “A Native Hill” is an early one, written a long time ago, partly in the exhilaration of rediscovering my own part of the world, of seeing it with the change of vision that came with the feeling that I was going to live here, that I was here for life. It was an exhilaration sobered by the understanding that we had made historical blunders here that would have to be corrected. To live here responsibly meant that you had to accept responsibility for those blunders and errors and find, if you could, suitable remedies and corrections. So the word “citizen” occurs in that sentence because of its implication of responsibility. You can be a native without consciously assuming responsibility. A citizen consciously assumes responsibilities that belong to the place, responding to the problems of the place.

Minick: I’ve always been troubled by neighbors who have claimed nativeness, rightly so in one way, with their families living in this one place for five generations. And yet I look at how they care for the land, and it is worse, or not any better, than most of the non-natives. That has always troubled me. The word “citizen” has to come in there to make any sense.

Berry: It has to come in there. Wes Jackson has a book titled Becoming Native to This Place. As he understands it, it’s a very complex process, becoming consciously native. You ask where you are and how you should behave within the local circumstances and limits.

Minick: I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about, and hacking at, non-native, invasive plants on our farm. Are there any parallels here between plants and people in regards to this word “native”?

Berry: Yes. Exotic weeds and pests are a side effect of long-distance travel and commerce. They are out of context and out of control, like European exploiters on the frontiers of North America. We came here as a sort of weed species, and we’re not over it yet; in some respects we’re weedier now than ever. Our advantage over the nodding thistles and Japanese beetles is that we can learn where we are and consciously adapt, if we are willing to do it.

Minick: So, do you think you can become native to a new place even though you were not born there?

Berry: Well, we had better. It can’t be easy, but the stakes are pretty high.

On Sustainability

Minick: I’m part of a group trying to form [a co-op]. We’re going to have a sustainable forestry, vertical business. We’re all going to be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.

Berry: That’s the right thing to do.

Minick: Our leader, Harry Groot, has been doing this for several years, so he has a mill, a drying kiln, and a moulder. We have roughly 10,000 acres, but if it’s to succeed, we need five to ten times that as a business. That just daunts me.

Berry: The local food markets are facing the same question. If you’re conceiving your co-op as a marketer of raw products into the global economy, then the question of large quantities is applicable, and probably means that you’re going to fail. If you are talking about marketing your timber locally to local mills, builders, furniture makers, woodworking shops and other local enterprises, then you’re not limited by small acreages and you can go ahead.

If you’re trying to market Kentucky-grown food to Kroger, you’ve got to have big, uniform quantities, and you are going to be competing with people in, say, California who are working with bigger volumes than you are, inevitably, and probably you’re going to get beat. If you’re talking about marketing to local shops, stores, restaurants, governmental institutions and so on, then it’s a different proposition.

Minick: I hesitate to ask you this, but how would you define “local,” if you were to put a mileage on it? That’s a hard question, I know.

Berry: This is a conversation we ought to have, but I don’t know if we can have it here or not. Anybody’s authority to talk on this subject is questionable. But mileage, the radius of the operation, is going to depend on the cost of hauling. If you can keep the product price depressed enough, you can haul farther. If the cost of fuel goes up, that’s going to reduce the radius, and the cost of fuel is probably going to go up. So you have to think about that.

Maybe 30 years ago, we went up to a farming conference in Keene, New Hampshire, and I talked at length to a fellow up there who was running his own forestry and logging operation. He had, as I remember, 2500 acres of forest in the hills, and his technology consisted of a portable sawmill and an 8N Ford tractor. He could be, at his scale, a very thorough marketer. He could sell short logs to build a table. To build furniture, you don’t need a 16-foot log. He could sell firewood. He told me he once filled an order for 30 hornbeam logs. Somebody wanted them for some reason, and he went and got them. This is the kind of thing, he said, that he could do on his scale, that a big timber company couldn’t possibly do. I think that’s the way you’ve got to think about your co-op. And you’ve got to carry it out locally to finished products. Saw timber, firewood, birdhouses, grapevine wreaths, mushrooms, herbs, Adirondack chairs, cherry desks, corner cupboards—the whole range.

Have you ever visited the Menominee forest?

Minick: No, but I’ve read a little about it.

Berry: That’s really something to see, and people in Appalachia ought to know about it. Your co-op people should send a delegate up there. That’s an astonishing example. What they have been doing essentially is what Jason Rutledge [the Virginia forester and horse logger] calls “worst-first, single-tree selection” forestry. So you’ve got a given boundary of trees and you’re logging it at frequent intervals. And it’s doing nothing except growing more timber and getting better.

Then you go and look at one of those “laminated strand” factories, and the timber they’re using looks like somebody’s post pile or a pile of firewood.

In the laminated strand process, they shred the logs, which means they can use anything, trees of all sizes. Such a mill can be supplied by clear-cutting. So it can be a forest-eating monster. It can use all trees without any discrimination at all.

What you’re doing [with the forestry co-op] is the right thing. It’s an exciting thing to hear about, but the answer to competing in the global economy (which means you’ve got to undersell everybody else to survive, which means you probably won’t) is to develop the local economy to its fullest. Fill the local demand out of the local woods and sell finished products.

Minick: I guess this has been a struggle I’ve had. One of the leaders sees making flooring out of the low-grade wood as the way to make money but also improve the forest. Making flooring requires substantial investment in machinery, and so I guess it’s all about scale.

Berry: It’s all about scale. You don’t want to get onto that ladder that the farmers get on where they get a bigger tractor and then they’ve got to have more land, then they need a bigger tractor and then more land, and they can’t find a place to stop. They fail to reach a balance point. First thing you know, they’re bankrupt. You don’t want to do that. That means you’ve got to solve the scale problem, which means you’ve to practice thrift and frugality and accept limits. You’ve got 10,000 acres. If you get the scale wrong, the next thing you know, you will be buying outside your boundaries, taking anything, or you’ll be over-cutting your woods.

You’ve got to watch the emphasis on volume because the demand for volume drives you out of scale, destroys the effort of local adaptation, and costs you too much money. If you were a big corporation, it would be to your advantage to talk about big volume, big scale, and big equipment. But you’re competing against the big corporations from at the bottom end of the ladder. You have to limit scale, control costs, and emphasize quality.

On Citizenship

Minick: … I think it was Don Worster who gave a provocative speech about land ownership, if I remember right, basically saying that our current system is not working. A private land ownership is defunct and outdated and not working. I’d like to hear your opinion on that.

Berry: Because some people have been unwilling to give up the frontier spirit of really stubborn individualism, they’ve clung to the idea of absolute ownership. I don’t remember exactly what Don was saying about it that day, but the idea of absolute ownership is fraudulent. It’s fraudulent if you measure it by the religious traditions. The Bible says the earth is the Lord’s, and the deed has never been transferred to any of us. It’s fraudulent by the laws of ecology too.

On the other hand, all creatures are territorial. Even the most far-flying sea birds have their own nesting places that belong to them in a sense, that they come back to, and think of as home. You need some means in the law to safeguard the sense of belonging, of being at home, and to grant people certain privileges, certain rights of self-determination, within their homelands. But the culture also needs to instruct people that they are not the absolute owners of anything, not even of themselves. The Indians, or some of them at least, had the idea that you have to hold yourself responsible to the seventh generation of your descendants. Well, it was once easier to imagine the seventh generation of your descendants than it is now, but it’s never been possible to know the seventh generation. What that requirement does is put you under the pressure and even the guidance of a mystery. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to hold yourself responsible to the possibility that the human race will survive and will need the things you have.

Minick: So, to take that a step further, when that cultural means breaks down, which it has, how much should the government play a role in protecting the land?

Berry: The government ought to prevent people from destroying things outright. It’s so obviously a question that the government needs to ask: What right does a mere person have to destroy forever a mountain or a watershed? And the government isn’t asking that question. What right do we have to burn up all the oil and all the coal in, really, a very short time? Wes Jackson is saying that this is the “prodigal” era of our history. He means it’s the era when we squander our birthright, the era in which we use up most of the fossil fuel and most of the soil.

There’s such a thing as a principle of return. That you’re a living creature implies that you have a right to take from the world what you need to maintain yourself, to live and go on. The compensating principle is the principle of return. You must take but you also must give back, so that the cycle completes itself over and over again. The Wheel of Life—of birth, growth, maturity, death and decay—must turn, and it must turn in place.

Minick: I ask about the government’s role because, are you familiar with the CREP program, the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to fence out streams? We just signed up for it, and yet my neighbors say cows have always pissed in the streams.

Berry: Well, they have. The buffaloes pissed in the streams before the cows. But the proper question is how often they do it and how many do it at the same time.

Minick: It goes back to being a citizen, the native and the citizen, doesn’t it?

Berry: It does. There are lots of questions governing decisions like this. I’m quite sure that the government is not asking them all. A lot of it has to do with climate. How long, in this place, does it take for a trampled patch of ground to restore itself? How often does the disturbance occur? What are the numbers involved and so on? There are ranchers out West who are thinking well about these problems.

I can’t fence my stream banks because of flooding, but I have dropped back from the edges. For the last two years when I’ve mowed my creek bottoms, I’ve dropped back 50 or 100 feet; it varies from place to place. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I’m not sure that by mowing them I wouldn’t improve the quality of the sod. I am not seeing, because those bottoms are pastured, any significant growth of tree seedlings. I’ll know what I’m doing in ten years, maybe, if I last that long. It interested me to do it. I knew the principle, so I thought I would try it.

The principle is the same wherever you’re working—in pasture or field or forest. You need to use the place, but you need also to keep it healthy, keep it ecologically intact, while you use it. My friend Troy Firth says that a bad logger is thinking only of what he can get out of the forest, whereas a good logger is thinking of what will be left. So the principle is that you take out what the forest can produce and still remain a forest. The Menominee Reservation is obviously an intact forest ecosystem. There are ancient trees in it. North of there, where the forest was extractively logged, taking everything, you find a forest ecosystem that was destroyed 100 years ago, and it’s still destroyed.

It just drives me nuts that in all the talk about eastern Kentucky, or the Appalachian mountains, nobody is willing to come out and say, “Look, it’s the forest or nothing!” If you neglect the forest, then all you have left is these bastards who will move industry into the region to exploit the people as cheap labor.

Jim Minick lives, writes and farms in Wythe County, Virginia. He also teaches in the English Department at Radford University. His collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, is forthcoming from WVU Press in 2005.

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