Wendell Berry Offers Hard Lessons on How to Live a Simple Life

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Of the things cut from my recent article on Huarache Farms for the Los Angeles Times, was a section referencing Wendell Berry, an American writer and naturalist farmer. Berry has been around since the 1960s, but he made news when he declined Nick Offerman’s pitch to adapt his work for Netflix. Offerman settled for recording Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a treatise on the perils of industrial farming and joys of small-scale farming, which I listened to on my hour-long commutes to work. The Economist opined on his “charms,” too, noting that he was not the usual “luddite” because he offered lessons for living that still resonate today: gardening releases cortisol, the stress-reducing hormone, and helps engender self-efficacy (we used it as a mental health treatment at Ascend Healthcare).  

So as Mike Wood, founder of Huarache, explained how diversified crops keep pests at bay and breed more resilience, I was pleased to reference Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. Like most environmentalists, Wood is a fan, too, but he resisted the comparison. “Berry was more of a traditional farmer type,” he says. “More of an east coast farmer [...] this is more of an adaptation of Wendell Berry’s ideas.”

True, Berry’s medium is soil and his tools are run by animals; Wood’s medium is hydroponics and stacked planters, technologies likely anathema to Berry. But that's an adaptation to California’s soil degradation, which has led to the misuse of water and the need for drought resistant methods. Wood still uses his hands, and connects to Berry in other key ways. The following is a much deeper look at the connection than I would’ve referenced in the article. 

First, he is a jack-of-all-trades. Specialization, to Berry, is a trap that results in individuals becoming dependent on the authority of others (obviating self-efficacy) and on goods, which over time become “poorly made.” Wood had to learn how to build wicking beds. He had to learn how wind impacts his shade structures. He had to learn the different needs of a variety of plants. For Berry, skill is “the enactment or the acknowledgement or the signature of responsibility to other lives; it is the practical understanding of value.” 

Wood had to learn about soil composition; he spoke of it often, particularly nitrogen levels. Just as CO2 is harming the atmospher, out-of-whack nitrogen levels are harming the soil and water. This is because of our reliance on fertilzer and our overconsumption of animals. For Berry, soil runs deep (no pun intended): it’s “the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” 

Berry breaks down the etymology of agriculture, linking it to our culture to demonstrate how its “tillage and worship” are intertwined by culture. Furthermore, farming requires restraint. “In any biological system the first principle is restraint — that is, the nature or moral checks that maintain a balance between use and continuity.” Mike echoes this when he said: “Farmers need to be frugal.” Frugality is an act of restraint, and Wood wastes little water, energy, or time. 

Wood’s diversified crop is a balance that limits pests. A diversified ecosystem is also required to prevent wildfires. Bill Nye famously quips that "diversity breeds resilience," a fact proven through a century-worth of research by biologists on the molecular and macro levels. Sean B. Carroll details this in his book, The Serengeti Rules, showing how bodies become diseased when out of balance. The right amount of cholesterol helps the body build cell walls; too much causes heart disease. The right amount of starfish keep a tidepool fecund; too little and mollusks invade, dulling the water. Our personal and communal lack of restraint have led to imbalances, endangering our inner and outer worlds.

Poet Barry Lopez says diversity is a necessity of life, relating it to language: “This, I believe, is why even a passing acquaintance with endangered languages or endangered species or endangered cultural traditions brings with it so much anxiety, so much sadness. We know in our tissues that the fewer the differences we encounter in our travels, the more widespread the kingdom of Death has become.” Berry (Wendell… damn homonyms) would agree, seeing “culture as a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.” For both writers, this relationship is bound to the earth. 

Wood’s desire to start his business is out of a hope of reducing our burden on the planet; which Berry prescribes as remedies for a dying planet and culture. But he’s also aligned to Berry because his partnerships are friendships, too (agriculture meets culture). He doesn’t have lots of stuff or huge ambitions, but Wood is one of the most joyfully content people I’ve met, and he’s healthy, too, which mirrors Berry, who is 88 and still at it. 

Berry’s simple, earthy existence may seem romantic, and it’s-all-connected aphorism may feel like a reductive platitude; however, physical and mental health are declining lockstep with the planet’s health. So many of our health problems stem from our inability to sit still; we choose to consume our way to better lives, making Berry’s line of simplicity harder to tow. The allure of consumerism and its requirement of specialization do advertise an easier life; that shouldn’t be confused or conflated with a simple one. Simple is a hard art to master, but yields the best fruit.

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Cutting Room Floor