My introduction to agrarianism

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A harvesting operation. Wendell Berry, a significant writer and farmer makes important points about agriculture. Photo by Mark Stebnicki from Pexels

If you’re a UConn student, you might remember there being quotes painted on the edges near the tops of the walls at Whitney Dining Hall. I don’t know how or when they were chosen, but when the dining hall was renovated in the summer of 2019 the quotes must have been important enough to someone because they were incorporated into the dining hall’s new design. There’s one that I’ve always remembered and that actually seems comical when I now think of it being there: “Eating is an agricultural act.” 

The quote comes from Wendell Berry, an American writer and farmer known for his essays, fiction and poetry on agrarianism and the degradation of environment and landscape as it pertains to, and is a consequence of, culture. I recently finished reading Berry’s most recent work, “The Art of Loading Brush”, and now realize that Whitney Dining Hall is in so many ways representative of so much of what Berry opposes — that it’s almost farcical to have his words up on the wall. A typical college dining hall is at the end of a long supply chain of agribusiness and mass production; Berry staunchly opposes the ethics and politics of many of these systems and institutions. Whitney was very recently renovated; Berry would likely consider this to be a superfluous expenditure, emblematic of a cultural aesthetic of wastefulness and indulgence. The dining hall also belongs to one of the land grant universities Berry seems so skeptical of; which assumedly, in his view, herd students into career paths and lifestyles that detract them from comprehending the realities of nature and time.  

Despite at times feeling as though my entire life is a casualty of modernity’s ills while reading Berry, “The Art of Loading Brush” is a fantastic book. With an authority and complexity that only comes from experience, Berry’s writing on farming, local communities and human connection to the land is beautifully instructive. The book is a collection of essays, short stories and poems that explore much of what Berry has spent his entire life writing about — considerations of ethics and aesthetics, individual and cultural, in the context of politics, economics and community living.  

Berry’s writing is beautiful. There’s a part where he recounts the story of Odysseus returning to Ithaka when he finds his father planting a fruit tree, which Berry describes as “enacting a covenant with the possibility of renewal and continuity.” He quotes Blake with “every particle of dust breathes forth its joy” — which in many usages might come off as trite or mawkish as a prelude to something about spreading kindness — but Berry uses it to instantly turn to, “it is exceedingly dangerous to force our will upon the earth by means of explosives, poisons, enormous machines, and a great numbness that allows our selves and our economy to come first.” In the middle of a long passage on forestry and logging, he unexpectedly writes “The right motive is love.” In one of his short stories, a farmer is on a diligent quest to learn the “art of sustainable forestry” practiced by the Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin. The character, Andy, says,  “Everybody I talked to … urged me to understand that the forest is the basis of a culture …”  

Berry’s words opened my eyes to how crude my understanding of rural America and the practice of agriculture is. Farming, as both a practice and culture, is far more complex and artistic than I had ever paused to consider before reading Berry. Back in September I wrote about how the vastness of America is challenging to comprehend — but how beauty, in art and stories, can draw us into its complexities in a way that allows us to form personally meaningful understandings of our own positions and capabilities in it. Reading Berry’s writing was exactly that sort of experience. The beauty of his writing drew me into a landscape and lifestyle unfamiliar to me that has challenged my assumptions and perceptions of worlds near to and beyond me. Now there are images in my mind of places and people that mingle with and beautify the sights in my own worlds — and I suspect that if I’m ever back in Whitney Dining Hall, it’ll be the thoughts from those collages of experience, imagination and ideas of artistry and beauty that come to mind.  

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