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A Quieter Life Now

In an exchange of letters with a dear friend, Wendell Berry explains why his writing is only a small part of the movement against greed and waste.
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58 Wendell Berry Spread


YES! contributing editor Madhu Suri Prakash is a longtime friend of poet, essayist, novelist, activist, and farmer Wendell Berry. Inspired by changing attitudes among her college students, who were reading Berry, Madhu declared the Wendell Berry Era, and wrote to him, proposing that he write an open letter to President Obama calling for funding to establish new small farms. This correspondence ensued. 

Dear Wendell,

Madhu Suri Prakash

Madhu Suri Prakash.

I have a dream; and, at its center, you stand—tall, humble, simply magnificent.
Despite all my reservations about writing to you, here I am, hours before dawn, doing something I could not even have dared to imagine only last evening.

I awoke with a dream long before the sun is scheduled to shine. In this dream, I join millions reading your open letter to the White House, courteously requesting $5 billion—a tiny pittance compared to the going rate for government bailouts—to regenerate 50 million family farms; $5 billion, in other words, that could support young people who have the gumption and sense of adventure necessary to grow food and sequester carbon in the soil; $5 billion that would allow American women, men, and their families a chance to eat and grow clean, uncontaminated, uncancerous food.

Your moral stature and vision are such that all you would have to do is write such an open letter to the president to more fully awaken millions; to start a groundswell.

My dream declared itself loud and clear as soon as I rolled out of bed—perhaps the time is right. It’s been a long time coming, Wendell. Your half-century-old patience, my dream declares, may finally be paying off. Your time, the Wendell Berry Era, has finally dawned. Hopefully.

If I looked back and saw myself being followed, my only wish would be to escape. I am a mostly solitary man ...

People might now be ready to embrace your vision, holding it close to their hearts while abandoning the illusions foisted upon us by recent elections and by corporate admen and those in cahoots with them. My dream declares boldly that not only your grassroots fans in the millions are ready to savor your wisdom, but that others, who may not have heard of you nor studied your writings, are world-weary of hokey hope and industrial illusions, and are ready as well. We find ourselves genuinely scared of the triple crises of climate collapse, resource depletion, and inequality, which we have all colluded in creating, and, at long last, are able to hear your words with an openness to surprise.

Your long patience with all of us during the past half-century reminds me of the 50-year-old patience of Gandhi. Gandhi had a dream of walking unarmed towards Ahimsa freedom, symbolized by taking back from the Empire India’s salt—the original birthright of its people. Gandhi’s tiny coterie of conspirators marching to the ocean to harvest their salt was the most powerful 20th-century gesture of the powerless spurning brute force.

If Hindus in the heyday of the British global economy could exercise the audacity of harvesting salt by the side of their beloved Gandhi, then what stops us from shaking off the shackles with which Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, and their governmental gang bind us? What stops us from harvesting our own food, nourishing our communities, audaciously enjoying the pleasures of eating?

Wendell, it is clearly outrageous of me to ask anything of you over and above the many gifts you have brought into my life. Following in your footsteps, learning lessons given to us by many of your loving fans—including the likes of Ivan Illich, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver—I find myself still compelled to write to you from my small world in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania.
The time has come to listen to you and your kindred spirits.

Your era is our era.

We are ready.


P.S. Have I ever properly thanked Tanya and you for all the abundant gifts of hospitality with which you showered Krishna, Gustavo, and me?

Berry Prakash letter 1

Dear Madhu,

Your letter is full of good news. Its only mistake is your overestimation of me and what I’m capable of. As most men would be, I’m delighted to have made an appearance in an attractive woman’s dreams, and so I’m tempted to concur in all the terms of your praise, but in fairness to my own understanding of myself I’m obliged to resist.

I’m not a leader. I am, above all, in no way comparable to Gandhi, who was an ascetic. I love the world’s abundance of ordinary pleasures. And he was a leader. I have neither the character nor the abilities required for leadership. And I want no followers. If I looked back and saw myself being followed, my only wish would be to escape. I am a mostly solitary man, always in need of quiet, who has written some essays inviting, not converts or followers, but honest judgment.

So far as I can see, there is no reason for me to write an open letter to the president. All of my effort as an essayist has been at least to suggest the real complexity of the issues of agriculture, and of all of human culture in its relationships to nature. I would not now reduce that effort to the inevitable oversimplification of an open letter to a politician.

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