Paige Garner participated in the inaugural course of the Wendell Berry Farming Program in Kentucky in September 2018, a two-week intensive titled Homecoming I: Good Work is Membership. We are grateful for Paige’s permission to publish one of her class essays.
Good Work Is Needing Each Other
By Paige Garner
Good work is membership, and that provides great comfort. I was not blessed with the legacy of place. I cannot trace my roots multiple generations back all in one small slice of America. I certainly find myself unable to announce with any confidence or certainty to what or who I belong. Kentucky imprinted one thing on me if nothing else, and it is that to belong anywhere, all one has to do is simply stop somewhere and get to work.
It is in the definition of work that we find ourselves in turmoil. It isn’t enough to work for a paycheck, own a house with a picket fence and a red door. It isn’t the American dream as it was taught to many of us in school. There is no climbing to the top of the acquisitional ladder in good work; rather, it is the principle that we can insert ourselves as integral parts of an ecosystem or community and become irreplaceable features of the landscape. Good work respects limitations, it fosters an empathetic relationship to the land and it supports the idea of resilience via interconnectivity.
Wendell Berry is not only a revered voice in the agrarian community but a real example of the potential to leave a favorable imprint on the land we steward. Specifically, Berry’s advocation of draft power speaks volumes about his dedication to doing things the right way. In a truly kincentric land-based system, our work inherently encompasses the limitations of our land and there is no better way to enforce those limitations than with the use of draft labor.
The relationship between teamster and team is unique in that it holds us accountable for the wellbeing of the animal, which in turn holds you accountable for the land. The physical limitations of an animal ensure that the hours farmers work, as well as the intensity with which they alter the landscape, are adhering to the principles of land-based economics. Horse and oxen power systems work because they “are living creatures, and therefore fit harmoniously into a pattern of relationships that are necessarily biological” (Berry, People Land and Community, 15). This draft system directly combats the notion of an “absentee economy”(Berry, Conservation is Good Work, 150). The “absentee economy” outlined by Wendell Berry is perpetuated by the use of fossil fuel based power systems. In no way could a tractor limit us, save for perhaps economically. “To drive our cars here, we sink our oil wells there” (Berry, Conservation is Good Work, 150). The means of powering implements such as the tractor are sourced nowhere near our homes in most cases, and we therefore have a limited capacity to empathize with the destructive nature of their usage.
Good work is in part based on healthy limitation. The land can only take so much cultivation, our bodies can only work so many hours, and in that way we find ourselves empowered by our limitations as we are forced to stretch out and rely on our draft teams and our neighbors. Our limitations empower us to build community by the necessity of sharing the burden in order to reach our absolute potential.
Good work must always “consult the genius of place” (Berry, Art of the Commonplace, 240) if it is to be an adequate alternative to the capitalistic definition of work provided by western ideology. There can be no sustenance if the history and spirit of individual landscapes are not considered. Previous land use practices, including pre-settlement management, shed much needed light onto such questions as “what does the land ask of us?” It helps to abandon colonizer systems of thought which portray land as simply a resource, rather than integral parts of our legacies. The agrarian economy envisioned by Wendell Berry is strikingly parallel to the notion, articulated by Enrique Salmon, of a “kincentric ecology” (Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship, 1). This school of thought perpetuates the agrarian economy as it values all aspects of place. It regards the physical and metaphysical, the plants, soil, and stories of the land. It holds us accountable for the land and blurs the divide between human and nonhuman needs. What we seek becomes inseparable from the natural limitations of the land.
Den Berry illustrates this concept in his complete lack of regard for conventional advice in farming. His farm, in his words, fits the land without exception. He does not strive to make the most profit, nor acquire the most assets. Den Berry strives for a balanced system that meets the land where it is, while remaining operable for one self sufficient family. He fulfills this aspect of good work in the way that he leaves wildflowers, thistles, and large woodland areas for the other creatures with which he shares the land. He practices good work in his rotational grazing, and holistic pasture management. He strives to accomplish good work in his ability to take no more than he needs, so that not only he thrives, but the earth he stewards continues to thrive.
Good work is resiliency. It seeks to empower communities to rely on each other and the local abundance first before seeking imported luxuries. Tanya Berry quelled a great fear of mine. On multiple occasions I heard her note that she was “so lucky to have been given guidance from the older women in the community,” (Tanya Berry, Look and See) that she simply asked for help in learning the culture of the kentucky landscape and that her humility meant she was graciously given it. The wisdom of the elders in that place proved an invaluable resource and their willingness to induct a newcomer into their world speaks to the necessity of communal work. Many hands make for light labor, and in a land-based, kincentric economy, local reliance is required.
In the way that Tanya reached out to her elders, Den Berry utilizes neighbor and friend John Grant for labor support, shared tool use, and for the shared burden of haying. The connections run further as John Grant not only relies on Den Berry, but Tanya and Wendell as well. They find themselves sharing land for grazing a combined flock of southdowns. John manages the ram lambs for meat and is mostly in charge of breeding. Tanya and Wendell for their part have ample land that thrives off the presence of grazers, and they also harbor a joy for the intensity of lambing season. The Berry legacy is far more than the literary works for which they have received acclaim. The legacy of the Berrys is in that the whole family has had the ideal of good work instilled within them and that they as agrarians “recognize the necessity of preserving the coherence of families and communities” (Berry, Art of the Commonplace 240).
The Oxford Dictionary supplies the words “slog,” “toil,” and “exertion” as synonyms for work. This is the difference between modern work dictated by a sickly economy, and the “good work” detailed in the writings of Wendell Berry. Synonyms for Berry’s work would include “fulfillment,” “honor,” and “soul.” The work that we do defines us, and we are given the choice to toil away in an absentee economy, or to nurture the soul of our communities. Good work grants the ability to put down roots, it fosters a balance of self reliance and interdependence, inherently it has necessary limitations, and it is the root of a land-based economy. When we achieve these parameters we engage in active healing of generational trauma via displacement, and aid in the construction of resilient communities. Good work is our only means of creating a replacement for the destructive and exploitative system wherein so many of us are trapped.
- Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.
- Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Shoemaker and Hoard, 2002.
- Berry, Wendell. “People, Land, and Community.” E.F. Schumacher Society, October 1981.
- Berry, Wendell. Class Discussion. September 7th, 2018.
- Berry, Tanya. Look and See. Dir. Jeff Sewell, Laura Dunn, March 2016
- Salmon, Enrique. “Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature
- Relationship.” Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, No. 5, pp. 1327-1332. Ecological Society of America (Oct., 2000.)