Daily Archives: July 27, 2011

For Wendell Berry’s Birthday

Wendell Berry will celebrate his 77th birthday August 5. If I were going to send him a card, this is the message I would write.

“Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.” If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Cicero wrote this phrase to a friend. A more literal translation is “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will fail.” Cicero probably meant the garden as a place to converse, though I like the image of an actual garden in the library. We have an actual garden at CLP — Main. It’s a bamboo garden, a place for sitting out of doors, within the Library’s walls.

I found the Cicero quote on page 402 of Maira Kalman‘s through-the-year picture book for adults, And the Pursuit of Happiness. Fellow-blogger Tony introduced this book in a previous 11th Stack post, and I call your attention to “Back to the Land,” the November chapter, which could easily have been dedicated to Wendell Berry.

In “Back to the Land,” Kalman begins by musing about fast food in this country.

Thanksgiving. Since the beginning, Americans have connected the bounty of the land and the goodness of life to democracy. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison—farmers all—evnisioned an agrarian society. We have since evolved into a very different kind of society. There are those of us who are not farmers. Take me, for instance. I live in a city of pretty fast talkers and fast walkers. And we have fast food. Every city does. And every suburb. And every little bit of the country has very fast food. If you eat too much of this food you become sick and also fatafat. . . . You would need to walk to California to work off the excess. Which is what I did. In my head.

Kalman has lunch at Alice Water’s restaurant Chez Panisse, where the kitchen warms her heart. She visits Bob Cannard’s organic farm. “He believes there is no such thing as a bad bug.” She walks with Michael Pollan, and he picks mushrooms. She visits an edible schoolyard in Berkeley where middle schoolers work a huge vegetable garden, churn butter, roast peppers, eat together and clean up afterwards.

Then Kalman muses.

Now I am getting flashbacks to the ’60s. But it is different. It is not dropping out (though that sounds tempting now and then). It is bringing elemental things to the present time with commerce and optimism. Can that work? Can giant agribusiness shrink, while true organic farms grow? Can the elitism of a farmer’s martket shift so that the organic farms can be subsidized and that prices are reasonable for all people? That would be a democracy of healthy eating.

Wendell Berry’s message that “eating is an agricultural act,” explored in four decades of his poems, essays, and novels, continues to resound. I close with a Berry quotation from an essay in Orion magazine.

We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has a charm and a drama that are seductive, especially to politicians and financiers; but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and damage, and often bigness is not necessary. You may need a large corporation to run an airline or to manufacture cars, but you don’t need a large corporation to raise a chicken or a hog. You don’t need a large corporation to process local food . . . and market it locally.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized