By James A. Chisem
I first came across Wendell Berry a couple of years ago when I started reading The American Conservative and Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. After spending a night or two digging around in the ‘bowels’ of each website, I soon realised that the octogenarian Berry is a figure of great importance to Burkeans and counter-cultural conservatives in North America, and I could see why.
Berry is a rare-breed; a person who actually practices what he preaches. Yes, he’s written and continues to write novels, novellas, short-stories, poems, and essays, all dealing in their own way with the toxic impact of the industrial revolution on community, agriculture, and work. But he’s also spent the best part of fifty years running the family farm with his wife, Tanya, in Henry County, Kentucky. That lends a certain authenticity to his words; an authenticity that’s often lacking when the pen is in the soft hands of an academy-bound intellectual.
Berry doesn’t need to watch an Inconvenient Truth or read Naomi Klein’s latest book to know that our current political-economy is bankrupt. He can see it in the retreat of the native black willow from the shores of the western bank of the Kentucky River. He can smell it in the coal-ash tainted air of Clark County. He can taste it in the sour, acid-rain tinged soil that holds his crops. Lots of other people are aware of all this, of course, and they’re more intimately acquainted with the everyday brutality of our economic system. What makes Berry different is his appreciation of the scale of the problem. He knows that neo-liberalism and twentieth-century socialism are two sides of the same coin. He knows that the living standards of late capitalism are incompatible with sustainability. He knows that technology is as much a hindrance as it is a saviour. He knows that something is wrong when the most gluttonous society on earth employs only one percent of its citizenry to grow food and tend to the land. It’s in his bones.
It really is scandalous, then, given the profundity and popularity of Berry’s ideas, as well as his involvement with the organic farming, conservation, and slow food movements, that it has taken until 2016 for somebody to make a documentary about his life. This oversight is partly down to the old man’s suspicion of screens and reluctance to participate in the edifice of his own fame—if you want to gauge the extent of his Luddism, look no further than the article he wrote for Harper’s Magazine back in 1988 entitled ‘Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer’. Thankfully, an award-winning independent filmmaker from Texas called Laura Dunn managed to coax the hermit out of his cave, if only for a little while and on his own terms. Her film, The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, takes an unconventional approach to the biopic formula. According to Dunn, The Seer is filmed “across four seasons in the farming cycle…[blending] observational scenes of farming life, interviews with farmers and community members with evocative, carefully framed shots of the surrounding landscape.” It’s less about Berry the man than it is about the world around him.
The film is currently in post-production and Dunn has set-up a Kickstarter page to help cover the final costs before it debuts at the South by Southwest Festival next week. As things stand, the campaign is around $9,000 short of its $40,000 target. So if this sounds like your kind of thing and you have a few pennies to spare, click here and make a donation. I’m sure you won’t regret it.
James A. Chisem is the editor-in-chief at Atlantic Bulletin.