I have been reading up on the well known and well honored agricultural and cultural thinker Wendell Berry. He is himself a farmer and a potent critic of what the federal government has done by way of legislation to undermine (he believes) the vital connection between agriculture and wellness, health and wholeness. I want to explore some of his critiques and assert that I agree with him: Rampant urbanization and denigration of the rural, has led to a dysfunctional cultural relationship of people to their food; that which necessarily sustains us all.
In Berry’s essay “The Body and the Earth,” Berry argues that “health” is best understood as “wholeness.” The healthy unity of life in its various parts; spiritual, relational, mental, physical – all of which are tied together via “culture.” That is, the lived way in which we construct our worlds. When one or more of these are neglected or inflated to an imbalanced proportion, other parts of life end up suffering from the disparity. People often speak of their life being “imbalanced,” but perhaps surprisingly, unless one is overtly obese or suffering from a painful illness, people do not often look to the food they eat as a possible reason why they are tired or depressed, spiritually inattentive or perennially bored.
This may be the symptom of highly compartmentalized lives that we often live in the city. We get up at home, we go to work, we head to school, we eat out, we go to church, and so our education, our living, our spirituality, our safety, our food; is all divided up to different locations, different times, different social crowds. All this divides our wholeness, our cultural unity, and especially in the age of “fast” and “diet” foods that allow us to speed along with the “important” things in life, we forget, with our concrete roads, our steel buildings, that even the most processed of fast foods had to come from a field somewhere even if it stopped at a factory along the way.
But the fields aren’t what they used to be. In order to provide the types of food to sustain a fast-paced urban society, effiency is the rule of the day. Which means that food is grown too much on fields which are depleted of their nutritional resources and even mildly (or not so mildly) poisoned by artificial fertilizers and pesticides which aren’t even spread anymore, but sprayed. And so “By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else.” One might add, by dividing sustenance and life, we divide a part of life.
That which sustains life itself is marginalized to an afterthought in life. Where our food comes from, how it’s been treated and what it does for us is subsumed underneath the functional. Even if we like the taste of food, perhaps even taking pleasure in it, the real life connection between the field and the plate (or the box or the bag) becomes a mystery. Sacramentalized in the modern grocery store where we can have a pepper in December from Brazil, shipped on a freighter, coated in wax and “preserved” with an unripe picking and the spray of a wand.
This can only be seen if we decide not to view health as the mere absence of illness. A belief in this view of health can be strangely violent to our own bodies and their physicality. As if not-suffering somehow is rich enough not to need to be filled up by literature, music, relationships, sex. This is perhaps to be expected when art is now reserved for “artsy” people only and classical music is the weekend hobby of the rich. Instead people have entertainment. They listen only to “what’s on the radio,” not exclusively but while they drive; they dance in clubs, alone in the dark, to pounding music; they watch “reality tv” leaving their own lives shallow and tired.
What then of apples and oranges? Is it really right to connect the club and the farmer? Or is it a stretch? Berry says in another essay that the life of the farmer teaches an integrated life. One that doesn’t run on a clock but on intuition, lifelong learning, and endurance. It is not so much that everyone needs to move to the country (though I’m not always sure that’s not such a bad idea) and start feeding goats. But the knowledge of the rhythm of life that comes from being more deeply connected to creation and its pivitol role in providing the sustenance for life is not something to be dismissed lightly. Especially considering that it has only been the last several hundred years that we have moved past hundreds of thousands of years of essential connection to the earth.
So health must not be thought of in shallow and simple terms, as if it is just one more part of life. Rather health is the interconnectedness of the various aspects of living, related as a whole expressed by what we commonly call “culture.” Music is rich because cheese can be rich, and life can be balanced, as say a well aged India Pale Ale, food is life and life needs the circle completed.