Monday, April 21, 2008

Pollan Channels Berry

My cousin Marnie, recalling the chat about sustainability we enjoyed over pricey cappuccino at a seaside resort last summer, sent this recent piece by Michael Pollan.

Marnie writes: "Either Michael Pollan is channeling you or you are channeling him, and you're both channeling Wendell Berry."

Pollan's piece quotes my hero WB in defense of virtue as a dissapearing commodity in American culture and specifically on the virtue of self-reliance that planting a garden embodies. Pollan, who writes often about his own gardening, sees that effort as a more substantive response to climate change concerns than say, changing a light bulb.

After seeing Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth,' Pollan says the most frightening moment for him came after the closing credits, "when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart."

Pollan develops his theme in an effort to explain why, after we've given away so much personal responsibility to various specialists ("...our meals to agribusiness, health to the doctor, education to the teacher, entertainment to the media, care for the environment to the environmentalist, political action to the politician...") we are left with such pitiful "solutions" as switching to other kinds of light bulb or auto fuel as the only actions we might successfully take on our own behalf.

"Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it. "

Wendell Berry's writing and thinking, suggests Pollan, points to a better way:

"[Berry is] impatient with people who wrote checks to environmental organizations while thoughtlessly squandering fossil fuel in their everyday lives — the 1970s equivalent of people buying carbon offsets to atone for their Tahoes and Durangos. Nothing was likely to change until we healed the 'split between what we think and what we do.' For Berry, the 'why bother' question came down to a moral imperative: 'Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.'"

Amen, Brother Wendell!

But what a shame that Mr. Berry needs a spokesman. I read the Pollan piece and wrote back to my cousin:

Berry is the prophet of our age. You’ll see him quoted more and more over the next decade, I’m sure. And after he is safely dead (also likely in same period), his lauding by pundits and politicians of every stripe will soar. Somewhere in the ground on a Kentucky hillside, Wendell will be spinning in his grave.

I think Pollan is an important figure and I enjoy reading him. He speaks for the urban/yuppie set for whom references to carbon footprints, hybrid SUVs and fair trade lattes have real-time relevance. That demographic (which is mine, to some extent) needs him. But Berry himself does not need translating. If you read his novels you’ll enjoy them and understand them perfectly. If you read his essays you’ll feel empowered and inspired and ashamed, all without needing anyone to parse out the reasons for it. I am getting into his poetry and theology now and know there’s yet another opportunity here for enjoyment and enlightenment.

We did get a garden in this year, but it’s small. We’ve got 7 tomato plants, 2 basil and 2 peppers. But these are the things we will actually eat, so we’ll get a good return on investment. I’d like to keep it going this year into the fall and winter with salad greens, just to experiment. As for “giving up the beef,” we’ve largely done that but still of course eat meat. We ate a lot of local game this year (including last night's grilled deer sausage) and will be eating more I suspect as the economy tanks.


Matt Mullenix said...

Also from NYT Home and Garden section, this story. HT Reid.

Anonymous said...

Faustian economics:
Hell hath no limits
TYPE Article
BY Wendell Berry

SUBJECTS Biotic communities
Marlowe, Christopher
Energy conservation
Energy policy
Environmental policy
Global Warming
Government policy
Land use
Science and the arts
Tragical history of Doctor Faustus (Book)


terrie said...

Thanks for pointing to this -- I'd missed seeing it and always enjoy Pollan. I'm going to pick up some Berry for sure!

Thanks also for "Eagle Dreams" -- I loved the book, and had been hungry for something about the subject. I was ecstatic to find that a book about the eagle hunters even existed, and even happier when it turned out to be such an enjoyable read!

Steve Bodio said...

Thanks Terrie-- I love feedback!