As I was riding my exercise bike Sunday evening I tuned in to Bill Moyers’ interview with Wendell Berry. How have I missed knowing of this inspiring man? Now nearly 80 years old, Berry is a novelist and poet, environmental advocate, farmer and professor. At age 30 he left his teaching position in New York to return to farm in Kentucky where his family had lived for over 200 years. He’s written 40 books on agrarian life, sustainable agriculture, and American culture.
Responsibilities for our world is his recurring theme, “The world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in and the use of it to live from, on the condition that we will take good care of it. To take good care of it we have to know it and we have to know how to take care of it. To know it and to be willing to take care of it we have to love it. And we’ve ignored all that all these years.” One example of this neglect in his state is the strip coal mining and the resulting stream pollution. Persistent in his objections, he recently led a weekend-long live-in protest at the Kentucky governor’s office.
I wanted to let Mr. Berry know that his words had an effect at least on this much lesser known activist; thus this letter:
Dear Wendell Berry,
Thank you for saying, “Leadership consists of people who simply see something that needs to be done and they start doing it. . . Learn everything you can about where you are. . . Increase the possibility you will make a good example.”
We don’t have strip mining in the same way you have in eastern Kentucky. We mine our landscape to sell views of the ocean. Digging, grading, forcing off the plants and animals that have lived there for eons, we have been in retreat in our little coastal community of Laguna Beach. In 1983 after 12 years of testifying, planning, participating in the democratic process like you have done, we saw the bulldozers scraping over the top of the ridge. Where there were vernal pools and chaparral there are condominiums now. With each subsequent plan approval the houses have gotten larger. You can see them marching across the skyline, large, larger and grandiose. I love it when we have a day of low clouds/high fog settling along the ridge tops. Only the undisturbed hillsides that we were able to save can be seen then. Then I can pretend that the houses aren’t there. For a few hours they have vanished.
That saving of the hillsides was the good example, as was the saving of the greenbelt natural open space around our town, accomplished by the leadership you describe, people who saw something that needed to be done and found a path to do it. The idea of saving the greenbelt grew and one day it was endorsed and funded by the vote of the people.
Thank you for going back to your farm. When I was 19 my grandmother called and asked me, “Will you want to come back to Wisconsin and run this farm some day?” How did I know where life would lead or how to run a farm? I said, “no,” and now the farm has fast food outlets and a Walmart. I have “fallen short,” as you warn. But on the other hand, now we have a mini-farm here in my California hometown. Each family has a 6’ by 8’ plot in a community garden. It’s a park too, where people can enjoy the environment of fertile fields on a tiny scale. The gardeners saw something that needed to be done and they did it. It’s been more than four years now since the community came together for the first work day and cleaned the vacant lot. The garden is a lesson in loving our land and our neighbors, right there every day giving its bounty and hopeful good example.
Thank you for consoling us by quoting Yeats, “Things reveal themselves passing away,” because as you know we often lose these battles for protecting the world we live in. In loss some of these precious things become more valued, and we all hope one day that the collective memory will make us see that what needs to be done is to restore what was lost. And we hope we will find a way to do it more emphatically than ever before.
See the full interview with Wendell Berry at BillMoyers.com.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph also served on the Laguna Beach City Council.