HOME ECONOMICS Fourteen Essays By Wendell Berry North Point Press. 192 pp. $20 IN DEEP Country Essays By Maxine Kumin Viking. 180 pp. $16.95
As many of us know by now, old MacDonald has a problem: his farm. Nothing is going right -- the value of his land has dropped precipitously; he can't get a decent price for his goods; and that damnable agribusiness has gobbled up family farms all around him. To make matters worse, his bank has notified him that it will not be extending his loan.
But why should we care? What values derived from small-scale, intimate farming are worth preserving? Drawing from life on her own New Hampshire farm, poet and novelist Maxine Kumin uses these fundamental questions to form the basis for what she calls her "quest" in her collection of essays, "In Deep."
Just as important, given the family farmer's predicament, what can be done to help? That question is central to "Home Economics," the latest collection of essays from Wendell Berry, the Kentucky gadfly who may yet become to the agricultural establishment what the medfly is to California. With this book, nothing less than a call for a revolution in American agriculture, Berry -- a most unwelcome pest -- has certainly increased his chances of being sprayed.
Though the subjects of Berry's essays range from national defense to wilderness preservation, his preoccupation here is with farms and farm policy. A part-time farmer as well as a writer, Berry has been buzzing in the ear of Big Agriculture for some time now. Rooted in his agrarian community along the Kentucky River, Berry's poems and novels have championed the neighborly values of the small farmer, while previous collections of essays have confronted the dangers to community and soil that result from corporate ownership and cultivation of farmland.
But in the circles where agricultural policy is made, have people been listening? A man who has been called a contemporary Thoreau, Berry writes as if they haven't. His voice has a hard, humorless edge; he has never been angrier, never more eager to declaim in the half-truths of absolutes, to draw partisan battle lines. If anything, Berry has become a farmland version of Thomas Paine, wresting our attention with inflammatory rhetoric:
"It is an irony especially bitter for Americans that, having cast off the colonialism of England, we have proceeded to impose a domestic colonialism on our own land and people, and yet we cannot deny that most of the money made on the products we produce in rural America ... is made by other people ... We cannot deny that all of these fundamental enterprises, as now conducted, involve the destruction of the land and the people."
Trenchant as his analysis can be, Berry's remedies are strange medicine. He all but dismisses the role of government policy and places the coming revolution in the hands of farmers alone. Farmers, he insists, must return to preindustrial, subsistence agriculture. His paragon for a farming community is, essentially, an Amish community -- not only its farming methods, but also its "principles" -- its values and culture.
To be sure, there is much to be learned from the Amish. But at certain points Berry plants himself in the nostalgic soil of another era. The relatively homogeneous culture of the Amish (or of his home community in Kentucky in 1938) is not mainstream farm culture today, nor should it be. Modernity has its horrors, but Berry distorts or conveniently omits many advantages that most farmers themselves embrace. As an organic farmer who plows his farm with horses and shuns labor-saving machinery, Berry himself is proudly out of the mainstream. But he is also a literary farmer, enjoying the luxury of gaining much of his income from nonagricultural sources. Berry is drawing too many conclusions from his own experience. He has much to tell us about the predicament of American agriculture, but little of practical value about how most farmers can get out of it.
Maxine Kumin, too, is a literary farmer, though the dust jacket of "In Deep" makes the vague and unsubstantiated claim that her farm is "increasingly self-sufficient." On her hillside farm near the Merrimack River in New Hampshire, Kumin hunts mushrooms, grows vegetables, builds fences and breeds and rides horses. In this sunny collection of essays, she writes at times exquisitely, at times rather preciously, on these and other activities, always with a keen eye for natural detail.
On the subject of horses she is both expert and poet, combining intimate knowledge and the passionate, self-confessed maternal instincts of a woman whose children are grown and gone. Of a colt and filly that one night break out of her barn, she writes:
"They wanted only to be in the paddock with the mares, it seems. We want them stabled at night, thinking them too young and venturesome to roam. It is a return to the era of earaches and chicken pox and the nightmares of young children. Presumably, it serves some purposes, vague ones -- the animal pleasure of touch, an aesthetic gratification -- and it uses up some of my material obsessions."
Aside from the pleasures of Kumin's affectionate voice and poetic sensitivity to language, her essays remind us that small farms, loved well, can be a source of sustenance if not always dependable income. We are losing them at great cost.
The reviewer is a writer and commercial fruit grower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia.