Considering my interests, it's very surprising that it took me so long to read any of Wendell Berry's work, especially since he's written 50 books and is everywhere in the food politics scene. You think I would have stumbled onto him at some point. He is the son of farmers and he and his wife have farmed in Kentucky for over 40 years. Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food (2009) is a collection of Berry's essays that muse on farms and farmers as well as snippets of his fiction work about food and eating. It's somewhat of a "greatest hits" collection on these topics and all were written between 1971 and 2006. I was completely and totally blown away. Here are the simple but profound ideas about farming that I long to put into words myself, but somehow always fall a little bit short. Michael Pollan, in his introduction, claims to pick up any work by Berry and read a passage at random when he has a bout of writer's block. The smooth easy prose helps to refocus him and guide his own thoughts. I believe him. This is one of those books that I spent a lot of time nodding and "mmhmmming" to myself and one that I know I will come back to again and again.
It's difficult for me to pick a single passage to quote or analyze one argument that he makes. Honestly, they all really speak to me. But this passage is especially resonant:
As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore...People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement...One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit--a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation. This is explained, of course, by the dullness of the work, by the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made. What can be the status of the working small farmer in a nation whose motto is a sigh of relief: "Thank God it's Friday'"?
This describes exactly how I feel (and have always felt) about the jobs that I've had and the work that I've done and why I feel such a passionate calling to do something more. Something that's worthwhile. I've written before about my frustration at the fact that I only spend 3 to 4 waking hours a day in the company of my husband, the one person I care most about in the entire world, while we spend the rest of our waking time with our co-workers. And for what? We both spend the rest of the time in our separate cubicles staring at our computers...so that we can make enough money to buy more things? It all just seems so ridiculous, but the alternatives seem so impossible (even though I know they really aren't).
This leads me back to Sharon Astyk and her book Depletion and Abundance. In it, she talks about gender and the changes in "work" over the past 100 years. She advocates for low impact living, which usually necessitates at least one parent staying home to care for the children and the homestead. When she is confronted with questions about the effects of this line of thought on feminism, she responds with "you're asking the wrong question." It's not whether or not women should work outside the home; it's whether or not any of us should work outside the home. This whole two-parents-commuting-to-an-office lifestyle we have going is a very new one. Up until almost halfway through the last century a majority of people either worked at home (either on a farm or in small cottage industries) or worked within 3 miles of their home. This means that both mom and dad could be home for lunch and dinner. Little junior could help mom out at home and dad out at the store, spending quality time with both of them while learning all of life's lessons and learning how to work. I really do think this is the model that we should return to and I don't think this means a "return to the dark ages" (which is the assumption that everyone jumps to). As Internet connectivity goes up, it should only be easier for all of us to work remotely from home without giving up many elements of our "modern" way of life, while keeping two parents in the house which (in my opinion) is the ideal and (for me) means a return to small farming.