Lessons From “It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture And Other Essays”

During February The Berry Center posted excerpts from Mr. Berry’s 2012 speech, “It All Turns on Affection,” The Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities.   It has been published by Counterpoint Press in It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Counterpoint, 2012).

I was particularly interested in another essay in that book, “Starting From Loss,” which is also Mr. Berry’s foreword to the book Kentucky’s Natural Heritage: An Illustrated Guide to Biodiversity (University Press of Kentucky, 2010). In the essay, Mr. Berry discusses the changes, positive and negative, that he has noted in agriculture in the area and at his farm by the Kentucky River in Henry County, Kentucky in the fifty years he’s been there.

The essay relates the history of the loss of the small farmer, his capabilities and knowledge, the family farm, precious farmland, the continuing exhaustion and erosion of soil and the loss of rural communities. Its suggestion and even insistence that we remain hopeful, in spite of lost opportunities through the years to develop a culture of land stewardship and the diminished condition in which we continue, is what gives me certainty that things can improve.

On the positive side he notes that there are actually more trees here now than when he was young when row cropping took place on the valley sides of the Kentucky River. Erosion put an end to that practice, born of tough economic times and desperation as people tried to ‘plow their way out of debt.’ Now the woods have returned and with them the forest animals: deer, wild turkeys, beavers, otters, and even bald eagles, fishing the river.

Also arriving, but not to our benefit, have been these invasive plants: nodding thistle, Canada thistle, Johnson grass, multiflora roses and in the river bottoms, Japanese hops…honeysuckle. Not all of these have been as a result of industrial agriculture. Some got here by design like kudzu in the South; certain animals and insects stowed away on freighters. But since the 1950s, native bluegrass in the pastures and naturalized European white clover have been supplanted by “fescue, [recommended by the University of Kentucky]…a taller coarser grass excellent for erosion control, but far less palatable… to livestock and not hospitable to wildlife. It makes a denser sod than bluegrass, and grants less passage to the runways of small mammals and ground-traveling birds such as the bobwhite.”1The bobwhite is certainly gone from my farm, and it seems, from Mr. Berry’s as well.

Among other debits have been have been elm trees, ash trees and black willows from along the banks of the Kentucky River. We’ve lost black bears, wolves and bobcats. Many biologists believe that the loss of these large predators has not only increased the number of deer, but also coyotes. Among invertebrates we’ve acquired Japanese beetles and the scourge of the Asian lady-bug which lives in the walls of houses, swarming on warm winter days, causing allergic reactions, stink and annoyance. But we’ve lost honeybee colonies, butterflies and the weeds upon which they feed, and the cause is almost certainly the nearly universal use of powerful agricultural chemicals.

Another insect that seems to have disappeared for now 50 years, according to Mr. Berry, is the black dung beetles known as “tumblebugs” that would roll their dung balls – cow manure – along paths next to a cow pasture. They actually fed off the manure, buried it, laid eggs and fed larvae on it.

Why did they disappear? Why do we care?

When Mr. Berry asked an entomologist at a near-by college of agriculture, the scientist said that he didn’t know what had happened to the bugs, but that he was sure they were of no economic significance. Still, what happened to them? The scientist didn’t have an answer and wasn’t interested in finding one. Mr. Berry who says that he is neither a trained scientist nor even a trained observer, surmises that this disappearance could be because of a medication used on cattle.

As for “economic significance,” he connects the disappearance of the tumblebugs with an “epidemic increase in the population of face flies,” [which breed in the manure piles]. “Face flies, in addition to their pestering of farm animals, are a major cause of pinkeye in cattle, which in turn can cause blindness, and which requires expensive treatment. If I’m guessing right, the tumblebugs were economically significant, and so was their disappearance. Furthermore…this is an example not merely of an agriculturally caused agricultural problem but also of the impossibility of separating economic significance from ecological significance.” 2

There is no substitute for a farmer thinking about his place and taking note, however informally, of what he observes. As trivial as the arrival of an invasive plant or animal species or the extinction of an insect or a species of tree may seem to us, if one thinks carefully, there are consequences of these appearances and disappearances. No extinction or invasion is without an effect. The effects are almost inevitably economically significant as farmers spend time, energy and money to treat diseases or replace beneficial plants or insects that have gone missing with medicine or chemicals without knowing or understanding the effect on human or environmental health. The point is that farm economy and health are inextricably bound to environmental and human health and well being and deserve scientific focus and support.

Only when we have more farmers on more farms (more “eyes to acres” in Wes Jackson’s words), able to farm well, and scientists whose minds are on “our only world”3 rather than on the chemical companies and other industries behind the design, direction, financing and influencing of their research will we have a chance to restore our damaged land community with the science, economy, and common sense solutions that work with the natural world instead of against it. It is then that we can begin to restore farms, and the rural communities of which they are a part to health and vitality.

Inspired by Mr. Berry’s “authentic reasons for hope” and Chapter Six, “Conservation,” of Kentucky’s Natural Heritage here are some suggestions for actions that might make a positive difference in your home place:

Learn where you are. Educate yourself about your ecosystem, watershed or foodshed. Consider whether there is something you might do to make your landscape a more productive, beautiful, healthy place.

  • Wildlife Regions and Private Lands Biologists in Kentucky.
  • Plant a garden so that you are growing as much as you can of your own food. I have found free garden plans and a free printable garden journal on the Internet.
  • Landscape with native species – Kentucky Native Plant Society. The mission is to promote education, preservation, and protection of Kentucky native plants and ecological systems. A wonderful book by the late Thomas Barnes, Gardening for the Birds (University Press of Kentucky, 1998) is full of information about beautifying and preserving the flora and fauna of Kentucky landscapes.
  • The Henry County Kentucky Harvest Showcase is a July gathering of locally based farmers, businesses, entrepreneurs, restaurants, musicians, and artisans to celebrate the agrarian heritage of our area. Support us on Facebook. Consider doing something like this in your area.

Determined attempts to restore land health can have a positive effect in a relatively short amount of time. Cover eroded areas with native grasses or other native perennial plants. Start a compost pile or use green manure to fertilize a field. Plant native trees to replace harvested timber.

Conservation efforts are everywhere. Support an established group doing good work. Follow their progress in newsletters and blogs; take part in their activities.

  • The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT) is working to protect, connect and restore wildlands, large forest tracts and migratory corridors. Efforts began with the preservation of Blanton Forest, expanded to the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, and now include a range of conservation projects. KNLT uses a wide variety of tools to conserve natural areas and to work with forest landowners. There are wildlife corridor projects all across the United States.
  • The Kentucky Conservation Committee, established in the seventies, still lobbies the Kentucky legislature advocating for the protection, restoration and sustainable use of Kentucky’s natural resources for the health of Kentucky families, communities and economy.

Support local groups encouraging and practicing sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, support the local economy, support land preservation efforts and restoration or other kinds of conservation initiatives begun by local citizens. Ask restaurants where they source the food they serve. Buy organically grown or produced products.

Many of the following links are unique to Kentucky and/or Henry County. You can no doubt find similar groups in your area. Consider finding out about and supporting:

Contribute to and join organizations doing good work. Become involved. Be supportive, but also offer criticism when it is warranted.

Depend on real conversations and honest exchanges of thoughts and ideas among community members and stakeholders to voice your opinions. Some action items to take up with policy-makers which could help new farmers gain access to capital to purchase farms and to be able to farm well:

  • Loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture
  • Programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners
  • Affordable health care
  • Shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms4
  • Farmer collateralization accounts held at local banks

We have in the world those people “for whom the effort of conservation has become to be at one with their ways of making a living” 5…it is a part of them. We are proud of our local farm leaders. In addition to local farmers there are conservationists, foresters and scientists doing good work in your area as well. Find out who they are, read what they write and support them; ask for their advice.

There is no substitute for reading Wendell Berry’s fine essay, “Starting From Loss” and others, in their entirety in this book: It All Turns on Affection: the Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Counterpoint, 2012.)

Mr. Berry says of Kentucky’s Natural Heritage (University Press of Kentucky, 2010), “This volume could hardly be more needed or more welcome to Kentuckians who have at heart the health and real wealth of their state.”6 The essay, “Starting From Loss” is its foreword.

They are both available at The Bookstore at the Berry Center.

  1.  Berry, Wendell. It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays, “Starting From Loss.” Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012. p. 81.
  2. Ibid., p. 84.
  3. Berry, Wendell. Our Only World. New York: Counterpoint, 2015.
  4. Smith, Bren. “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers.” New York Times, August 9, 2014.   Accessed 2/26/2016.
  5. “Starting From Loss,” p. 88.
  6. Abernathy, White, Laudermilk, and Evans, eds. Kentucky’s Natural Heritage: An Illustrated Guide to Biodiversity. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. p. xiii.