Wendell Berry Comes to New York, with Words for Edible Readers

Wendell Berry with Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, at the recent James Beard Foundation conference.

A couple days ago, when Diane Rehm caught up with Wendell Berry, the poet laureate and moral compass of the American food community, he echoed many of the compelling — and painful — points he made in a conversation I had with him recently when he was in New York to pick up a James Beard Foundation award.

During the riveting NPR segment, there were some gushing calls from longtime Berry fans, not unlike when Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, and I got to sit down with Berry, and Langholtz noted that Berry was read at both hers and my wedding. Berry made her blush when he said that “livestock farmers have a lot more sense than grain farmers.” (She is married to a livestock farmer.)

Berry, who dislikes leaving home, came to New York with his wife, Tanya, and his daughter Mary Beth, who directs the Berry Center, to accept a leadership award from the James Beard Foundation and speak at the foundation’s conference about trust in the food supply. “Every farmers market is a sign of hope. Every CSA is a sign of hope. Every chef using local ingredients is a sign of hope. Every garden grown in town is necessary to better farming in Iowa. It’s all very encouraging, but the work is far from done,” he told Langholtz and me, perhaps hoping to influence Edible magazine’s editorial tone across the nation. Berry said he was optimistic since people seem to “understanding what I’m saying” in a way he couldn’t have imagined in the 1960s. But he is on an intensely “rural” crusade. He and his daughter Mary Beth both expressed concern that our nation has become just 17 percent rural. And while Berry referred to the need for “dooryard” gardens in cities — and got to see the rooftop plot at Roberta’s when he blew in for a Heritage Radio chat — he said more than once, “The countryside is where calories will come from.”

The Rehm interview is a melodious display of slow talking not seen since Mr. Rogers joined Rehm a few years ago. Berry read from his new book of poems, Leavings, which includes the global soul-searching piece called “Questionnaire,” which asks, among other things, how much poison we are willing to consume in the name of global trade. (“Please name your poisons.”) Berry also notes why we should consider trees “community members,” what happened to the once-great American Tobacco Program, why he takes climate change seriously, and “how the earth and the natural world give us hope despite the  daunting realities that confront us daily.” He describes in detail the process of coal mining by mountaintop removal, calling it “no more elegant demonstration of the less than no value we place on the little skim of topsoil that takes thousands of years to develop, and upon which we depend utterly for our life.”