Over the weekend I watched Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry. It’s on Netflix right now, so it’s available for you to watch, too; if you are interested. The Look and See trailer can be found here.
Wendell Berry is a writer and a farmer and so has spent his life doing both. This film focuses on Berry’s on Berry’s efforts to bring community back while resisting the industrial march that continues to threaten our farms. We see how huge industrial farms have come to dominate – acre by acre, 100 acres by 100 acres – the smaller, family owned farms that once made up America. We first see how tobacco farming “used to” be done. How tobacco farmers, and their hired hands, move through the fields: cutting stalks, slicing those stalks, and then hanging them to dry inside the barn. It was hard laborious work. Honest work.
Then the machines came. Laborers were forced out and farmers were forced into debt. It seemed to be the same, honest work. But something had changed.
It wasn’t just tobacco this happened with, food crops have gone this way as well. I live in the midwest and just across the street is gigantic farm of industrial proportions that cranks out the corn and soy on a rotating basis. The in-between year, the land lays fallow, trying to recover from the last round pillaging. And it is pillaging.
Look & See points out that many of these farms grew to such enormous sizes not because the farmers themselves wanted gigantic farms, but because to afford to continue farming at all they had to increase crop size, increase the land farmed, increase the debt. Decrease the humanity. This is demonstrated well within my community. We are what is considered to be an “agricultural town.” What that means is that when you drive down country roads you see acres and acres of farmland. All owned by the same few people, subsidized now by the state university and seed companies.
Factory farms have not only consumed the actual farms, but they have consumed the idea of farms as well. An acquaintance of mine relayed to me once about how her family in the neighboring town was excited. Their farm was recently selected to be a contract farm with the local university. Finally he could make a profit. That the corn is some hybrid version to resist disease, drought, and pestilence in order that it might be poured into a gasoline tank somewhere was not his concern. His own family, to be sure, needs to eat and this is the way he has been conditioned to arrive at the money to feed them.
There is no small irony that the owner of a large industrial farm needs to contract with larger entities to feed his family. Our town’s farmer’s market is generally small with few vendors. I have seen larger turnouts in the city. It isn’t that all the farms are growing their own food, either. We have suburban tract housing just like any other community across the United States. There are other neighborhoods, too. Older, more established neighborhoods, like the one I live in. Less formulaic, larger plots of land, but still too few kitchen gardens.
Films have their limits and this one is by no means the exception. It’s true that Wendell Berry focused on farming but by doing so he was about so much more. What we have lost to industrialization and globalization in general terms as demonstrated by the farm, we have lost in our private lives as well. This is what Mr. Berry has been shouting at us.
There is the “local food” movement, of course. And it’s good for what it is. But even that has taken on a sort of industrial flare. The truth is that our world has been industrialized. Our food is industrialized, our children’s education has been industrialized, our medicine has been industrialized. Even our families have been industrialized as procreation is, as often as not, halted or enhanced by artificial means with an industrial efficiency.
I am not an innocent in this. But I am at a loss as to how to repair it. Indeed, the process of industrialization has not only industrialized our lives, but has industrialized us. With our lives full of responsibilities and the resulting busyness, we forge out our communities “on line” through various social media. As comforting as these can seem, there is no substitute for an actual human life. A real neighbor who will come over with extra tomatoes from the garden, a freshly baked pie, or a good book are hard to come by. Worse, people don’t know what to do when they encounter such a person. I have been laughed at for bringing extra tomatoes to a neighbor’s house, scorned for my offer to share an extra cake I made. Even bringing gifts, my use was not sufficient to warrant a courtesy encounter.
The film, Look & See, was originally called “The Seer” but out of respect for Mr. Berry’s discomfort at being called a profit, the title was changed. I have to agree with the choice. “The Seer” sounds so pretentious, even if it is true. Indeed, Flannery O’Connor likened the writer to the work of a prophet, or at least of having a prophetic vision:
In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extreme extensions of meaning and thus of being far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances… (Mystery & Manners, 44)
In as much as Wendell Berry sees, his vision is prophetic. Yet his vision is clouded, dismissing organized religion as just another means of industrialization along the way. He has forgotten that Jesus is a shepherd who wills that we, his sheep, remain within the fold. What’s more, the Catholic Church is just the thing that Berry is trying bringing about. It is a ragtag bunch of people – a community – who gather for the most essential meal.
It’s only the Eucharist that can bring together the prince and pauper
Only the Church where we can find the Eucharist.