Any occasion to herald the sheer awesomeness of Wendell Berry as one of the preeminent poets and novelists of the past half-century should be seized. This is why I write glowingly of Berry but must curb my enthusiasm about The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, a new documentary making the rounds of U.S. film festivals.
First, some background. For generations, both sides of my family farmed the central Michigan area. From cash crops to livestock and dairy, we had all the bases covered. For generations, we worked hard, attended school oftentimes with crud stuck to our boots from morning chores, and enjoyed mostly what Dylan Thomas evocatively depicted in his poem “Fern Hill” as a life “green and carefree, famous among the barns/About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home.”
The work waited for none of us, and we sacrificed family vacations to put up hay, combine wheat, mind the cattle and tend the large gardens that provided fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer and canned nourishment during the winter months. My brothers and I would unwind by fishing a small creek trickling through our pastures: “And the sabbath rang slowly/In the pebbles of the holy streams,” wrote Thomas.
My siblings and cousins – with some exceptions – opted for careers outside the backbreaking, time-sucking labor involved in agriculture. The lessons we learned on our families’ respective farms, however, remain to this day, including the value of hard work, an appreciation for nature and cultivation, teamwork, that cattle may be dumb but also can be very mean, and to never, ever trust my older brother around electrified fences. (Those raised rurally will understand what I’m talking about.)
Farming posed other physical dangers beyond my rambunctious brother. A high school classmate lost his arm in a grain elevator accident; my father nearly lost an arm in a hay baling mishap; two cousins narrowly escaped death or serious injury when one of our hay lofts collapsed beneath them; and my paternal grandfather was permanently hobbled after catching his leg in farm equipment during the Great Depression. Doctors were still attempting to graft skin on his mangled appendage up until his death in the 1970s.
Now that readers are all caught up on the farming aspect of this review, let me turn to the tremendous admiration I possess for Berry’s verse and fiction. I first became aware of his work when toiling in the salt mines of a literary reference book company in the mid-1980s, where I wrote: “Berry rejects modern methods and farm machinery in favor of more traditional and conversational means. In his verse, he uses conventional techniques to demonstrate how the ordering and healing qualities of nature should be allowed to function in human life.”
Later, I corresponded briefly with Berry when I served as editor of a small circulation magazine, and once a year I would retire to a small farm house in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I inevitably would read or re-read several of his novels and short stories set in Port William, Kentucky. When I married a few years ago, I insisted that one of Berry’s beautiful poems about his long marriage to his beloved bride, Tanya, be read.
Needless to say, I hold a deep affinity for Berry’s artistic work. Why, then, was I not quite awestruck by The Seer? After all, besides its compelling subject, it is beautifully directed and wonderfully edited by Laura Dunn, executive produced by noted filmmakers Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, and features world class cinematography by Lee Daniel. The film also was co-produced by tireless Berry supporter and former Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, who exchanged his own woodworking creations for Kickstarter donations to fund the project.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the bulk of the film’s running time ignores two-thirds of what, for me, makes Berry so special – his fiction and poetry – in favor of what renders him more of a curmudgeon, which is his activism against industrial agriculture. Somebody cue up the mid-1980s John Mellencamp and rally the Farm Aid troops, because tobacco farms in Berry’s backyard are struggling. According to the film, some tobacco farmers – gasp! – have been forced to diversify their crops, or increase the amount of acreage farmed in order to optimize expensive new equipment while eking out minuscule profits.
It’s not my intention to make light of the farmers’ plight, but only to point out the creative destruction happening in agriculture over the past century. According to an October 2012 article in The Washington Post, the number of U.S. farms peaked in the 1930s and has been declining precipitously ever since:
During the 19th century, gains in U.S. food production mostly came from a rapid increase in the number of farms. Then, with the development of hybrid crops in the 1920s and the rise of new fertilizers and mechanized tools, farms became vastly more productive. Ever since, the U.S. farm count has been plunging. As the Department of Agriculture details here, large farms bigger than 500 acres have been steadily swallowing up small and mid-sized farms since the 1970s. We’ve been able to produce more and more food on fewer farms.
No word in the article on the impact on tobacco farms in Kentucky, but the film does rise above Berry’s mopey ponderings concerning the current state of agriculture (Berry is seen only in archival footage throughout the film; in particular a 1970s exchange with then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz) when it depicts formerly single-crop tobacco farmers diversifying their production or, in one instance, successfully embracing organic farming. This could explain why the WaPo article reports a four percent increase in small farms between 2002 and 2012, which also presumably was driven in part by a $1 billion boom in farmers markets.
The film ignores the tremendous benefits of new farming techniques, not to mention technology all around. Yes, it’s cute that Berry types his manuscripts on an old manual typewriter with a worn-out ribbon, but I bet his publishers and typesetters think differently. Further, the aesthetic beauty of the film itself results from new technologies that allow digital shooting, sound recording, graphics, and editing. Anyone who recalls the old method of film-splicing with razor blades and tape certainly can relate to the benefits of advancing technologies in contemporary editing booths. Shame this irony was lost on Dunn and her fellow filmmakers.
But our curmudgeon persists on romanticizing the old ways: “We haven’t valued farmers or farming, so we’re losing them,” he intones. Forgive me for saying this, but that’s as much malarkey as bemoaning the scarcity of blacksmiths in this day and age. Or this: “You can’t love traditional values and love contemporary agriculture at the same time,” Berry says. Seriously?
Mary Berry, Wendell and Tanya’s daughter, joins in the rhetorical fun by maligning larger farms as unimaginative enterprises that work against nature, make slaves out of a lot of people, and are a crime against sustainability. Farming, she says, lost its beauty and appeal on its way to becoming an industry. Slaves? As if beginning work each day before sunrise and knocking off well after sundown inherently is a better allocation of human resources.
Finally, Berry veers into any number of pagan territories when he refers to “the land and the land’s people,” and simply sounds like a crank when he compares the decreasing number of U.S. farmers with the forcibly removed inhabitants of the former Soviet Union. I couldn’t figure that last one out either, but I do take theological umbrage at the suggestion humans are the land’s people rather than, as we’re told in the Bible, the other way around.
The best I can say about The Seer is that I hope it inspires many viewers to pick up Berry’s fiction and poetry as both are well worth the effort. If it also prompts individuals to plant gardens, I suppose that’s a terrific thing as well. But for a cogent environmental and economic manifesto, I’d recommend viewers look elsewhere.