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.
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.


Wendell Berry photo by Charlie Pearl

Wendell Berry on his front porch in Port Royal, Kentucky, earlier this year.

Photo by Charlie Pearl/State-Journal.

As far as an open letter to everybody, I think that is exactly what I have already written in my essays in which, by now, I have probably said nearly all I’m capable of saying. Now I have my mind mostly on writing of other kinds.

In fact, Madhu, what we both want to happen—a counter movement to greed and waste and the dominance of corporations—is already happening. It is happening simply because a lot of people have seen things needing to be done and are doing them. They are at work without grants, without official instruction or permission, and mostly unnoticed by the politicians and the news industry. Eventually this movement will have political powers which will be in some ways regrettable. I hope it will have the sense and strength to remain locally oriented, and to resist the simplification and corruption that will come with power.

This movement involves a lot of people—as I know—who have never read a word I’ve written, who don’t know my name. And it would be happening now, for the same reasons, if I had never written a word. It would be happening because the justifications of individual and corporate greed are now exhausted, and better ways are available. The better ways will be helped along, as we know, by large historical forces such as rising energy costs, rising ecological and social costs, and the inability of governments, large institutions, and corporations to respond effectively.

And so, rather than becoming more involved, I intend, and I’ve begun, to be involved less. I’ve already, except for one engagement next May, put an end to my career as a “visiting writer.” There’ll be no more trips to schools, libraries, etc. I’ll continue to do what is necessary, even travel, to stand with my old allies against the coal companies, and to work with Wes Jackson, Fred Kirschenmann, and other friends on agricultural issues—such as, right now, the 50-year Farm Bill. (I’ll enclose a copy.)

But I greatly dislike such public life (crowd life) as I have had, and I want less of it. I want to be more at home, more quiet, more employed at the work that still seems my own to do.
So this is my love letter back to you. I would like Krishna and Gustavo to know I wish them well.

Your friend,

Berry Prakash letter 2

Dear Wendell,

Today, your beloved friend Wes Jackson discussed the 50-Year Farm Bill  that you crafted with him and Fred Kirschenmann. Delightful presentation, quintessential Wes Jackson. Witty and brilliant.

Just as I begged you in my November letter, Wes Jackson urged those gathered at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference to use their power and influence to push this nation/Washington, D.C./civil society towards implementing the bill, from the grassroots and ground up, starting today.

I asked him what type of farm/place/farmer connections he envisions. He reiterated your celebration of diversity in farms and communities, working with the genius of their places. …

Responding to questions about the farmers and communities that would be needed to implement the 50-Year Farm Bill, he estimated 80 million Americans growing good food on 400 million acres of good soil; supported by $50 million.

You continue to be the beloved hero/leader of PASA. Your disinterest in power and politics is what, I sense, draws PASA farmers and members towards your philosophy of farming practices. 

So, Wendell, there you have it! Your 50-Year Farm Bill for the nation inevitably has Berry moving the hearts, minds, and spirits of millions—despite all his disavowals of leadership and his perfectly understandable shyness of being followed and pedestalized by followers and devotees.

Life is funny that way, Wendell! Don’t you think so?

With more affection,

Dear Madhu,

I’m not disinterested in power and politics. But I don’t think there is much to be gained from answering the oversimplifications of politicians with our own oversimplifications. The World, the given World, is complex and finally mysterious. The truth of it cannot be reduced to campaign slogans or bumper stickers. We must remember this, even under political pressure, and we must keep reminding the politicians.

Your friend,

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