The Atlantic has published an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s recent book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and I urge you to read the whole thing. But in one particularly interesting passage, Berry writes of an alarming change he observed along the Kentucky River:
I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.
The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.
Berry uses this example to point out that “experts”—in conservation and agriculture, particularly—are often poorly qualified to do their job, because they don’t understand local ecosystems. No matter their scientific proficiency, they lack a vital ingredient to truly understanding—and thus caring for—their environs: they are not natives.
Berry has grown up in Kentucky. He’s a descendent of Kentuckians. He knows and understands his place with the intimate knowledge of a native. Thus, he noticed the willows, and wondered what might have happened to them. Though two biologists are now at work on the dilemma, they have not as yet discovered any answers. The experience taught Berry this lesson: “Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know. Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.”
But this anecdote speaks to a different dilemma, as well: namely, that people are not staying in their place, and thus are ignorant as to the ecosystems they are inhabiting. They don’t understand them—and thus, how are they to care for them? In an increasingly mobile America, we must consider the problem this presents.
Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these.
… We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.
We need more people to become “natives” of their place.