Our economy where it meets the landscape is violent, toxic, community-destroying, family-destroying, and there is no perception of it in the places that matter, except perhaps indifference.
— Wendell Berry
Earth Day was April 22. But shouldn’t we care for our mother earth every day? Reflecting on that this springtime, I’m grateful for having grown up on a family farm in Saskatchewan. There’s a connection to nature, to habits of work, and to simple country wisdom that has stayed with me through decades of urban living. It’s also a source of enduring earthy values that can be pushed aside in a society and economy driven by technology, consumption, the aggrandizing ideologies of new and improved and bigger is better.
A major voice calling attention to those values is the American writer-poet-philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry, a passionate defender of agrarian life and the recipient of many awards and honours.
Among the impressive documentaries at the 2016 South By Southwest festival (SXSW) was director/producer/editor Laura Dunn’s portrait of his work entitled The Seer. An updated version, Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (http://lookandseefilm.com/), was a selection of the 2017 Sundance film festival and is the one reviewed here.
It opens with a speeded-up montage of our current manic industrial civilization addicted to “progress” set against the warning lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” that “the centre cannot hold.” Contrasted to this compulsive frenzy the camera then follows a serene path in the woods of rural Kentucky’s Henry County where Berry has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, since the mid-1960s. We’ve entered a place with space to breathe and contemplate what has served as a creative wellspring. “When we make art,” observes Berry, “we are also making our lives and I’m sure the reverse is equally true.”
Berry isn’t some backwoods character. He achieved academic distinction and taught at big-city universities before moving back to the country where he has since published over 30 books including the seminal 1977 volume The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.
Look and See, which includes interviews with wife, Tanya, and daughter Mary as well as friends and fellow farm advocates young and old, unfolds over six chapters and an epilogue. Berry, who has an aversion to being photographed or filmed (he’s only shown in archival footage), is nonetheless powerfully present as an observant narrator reading from his work. “Imagination in Place” situates his life and words in the nurturing agrarian environment from which he draws inspiration. Mary recalls being taught from an early age how to appreciate it, to “look and see.” The evocative cinematography throughout, which received a SXSW special jury ward, is by Lee Daniel, renowned for his work with Richard Linklater. (The film’s producers include Terrence Malick, Robert Redford, and Nick Offerman.)
The Unsettling of America lays bare the effects of the industrialization of agriculture — the pressures to “expand or get out,” the resort to chemicals, the imperatives of agribusiness and a food-industrial complex (some of which is dependent on Mexican migrant labour). It’s an ideology that’s been pushed by both government and corporations, often leaving farmers trapped in a cycle of debt. At the same time, as the chapter “Nowhere” shows, family farms disappear, communities decline from depopulation and rural areas suffer from a stereotype of “backwardness.”
The fourth chapter, “It All Turns on Affection,” is an appeal for the restoration of values rooted in family and community bonds that are not beholden to the idolatry of the money economy. Against an “age of divorce” that divides and polarizes, the core of Berry’s philosophy proposes a search for connection and coherence. The last chapters, “A Homecoming,” and “The Handing Down,” see the rural and agricultural vocation as devoted to the care of the earth. One of the farmer commentators, Steve Smith, who switched from growing tobacco as a cash crop to organic farming, explains that the land responds to care as people do. Recovering such agrarian values will take more than “local food” movements and the like; a cultural shift toward earth care is needed. Much has been lost, but the film’s epilogue gives hopeful expression to that vision.
Mary Berry, who with her brother Den runs The Berry Center (www.berrycenter.org), says her father “doesn’t watch screens.” But this film inspired by him is definitely worth watching on any screen.
Another compelling Sundance documentary, Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, directed by Susan Froemke and John Hoffman, draws on the eponymous book by Miriam Horn that celebrates the example of “conservation heroes of the American heartland” (see http://rancherfarmerfisherman.com/). At one time 80 per cent of Americans made their living from the land and sea. Today only one per cent do. And they have become the front line in protecting the country’s precious natural assets from multiple pressures.
With narration by television broadcaster Tom Brokaw, the film’s trio of stories unfold down the middle of America from Montana to the Mississippi Delta. The first profiled is Montana rancher Dusty Crary, who is committed to the protection of remaining wild places and wildlife habitats. That has led to involvement with the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front and organizations like The Nature Conservancy. Heritage legislation isn’t popular with some landowners who protest any restrictions as “extreme environmentalism.” But the five-generation rancher sees no contradiction between his belief in property rights and in “wilderness values.”
We next visit the operations of Kansas farmers Justin Knopf and Keith Thompson. Their concern for the care and conservation of the soil has led them to develop practices of “no-till farming” that avoid the cycle of plowing and chemical spraying. Instead they use crop diversity and rotation to build up and maintain healthy soils that are resistant to erosion and infestations (weeds, insects, disease). Calling themselves “rugged co-operators,” their success has attracted a lot of interest.
The third segment focuses on the Gulf Coast fishery, notably for red snapper, which has been put at risk from poorly controlled exploitation of the resource. Veteran fisherman Wayne Werner describes how the commercial fishery had to learn to curb overfishing through regulations and individual fishing quotas. He’s concerned that a lack of rules governing that catch by well-heeled and well-connected recreational fishers will upset the balance and once again imperil fish stocks.
These are plain-speaking folks who are “conservative” in the best sense of that term. They might be described as salt-of-the-earth (and sea) working men with a message to the country worth heeding.
Also deserving attention are several excellent documentaries examining the growing vulnerabilities in our industrialized food systems. Directed by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel, Seed: The Untold Story (http://www.seedthemovie.com/) addresses the threats to seed biodiversity, noting that 94 per cent of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the course of the 20th century, and that some 90 per cent of current crop seeds in common use are controlled by huge biotech chemical corporations like Monsanto. The film underscores the importance of seed seekers, savers and preservers, including the role of public seed banks and Norway’s Global Seed Vault on the high Arctic Svalbard archipelago, which I visited last summer. It follows the efforts of farmers, scientists, lawyers and indigenous peoples determined to protect access to seed diversity. They worry about the corporate patenting of seeds and genetic modifications for profit, and about compromised regulatory systems that are a “revolving door between governments and corporations.” Their message in a nutshell: “human health over corporate wealth.”
“The environment doesn’t know any boundaries” is an underlying theme of Circle of Poison (http://www.circleofpoisonfilm.com/), the title of which draws on a book by David Weir and Mark Schapiro, Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World original published in 1987. This led to a “Circle of Poison Prevention Act” being introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1991, but it never became law. The investigation by directors Evan Mascagni and Shannon Post reveals how chemicals developed for military use were adapted for agro-industrial applications, stating bluntly: “Without war we wouldn’t have pesticides.” Giant multinational chemical corporations control a global pesticide market estimated to be worth $US65 billion. They spend heavily on lobbying legislators and co-opting regulators. There are examples of chemical compounds (e.g. endosulfan) that were banned for use in America but still allowed to be exported.
The filmmakers’ message is that contamination of the earth’s soil, water and air is “an unforgivable sin” that threatens the long-term human prospect. Harmful chemicals have spread to all parts of the globe including the polar regions. Exposure can lead to genotoxic effects and deformities in children. So-called “chemical corridors” that contain concentrations of chemical plants have also become known as “cancer alleys.”
All of these films question the prevailing industrial-corporate model of agriculture and food production on the basis of human and ecological costs. We know the harms. Like getting off our addiction to carbon-polluting fossil fuels, restoring the earth and moving toward sustainable alternatives is the challenge facing this generation.