The Seer (awarded the Special Jury Prize at SXSW), directed by Laura Dunn is an inspiring, aesthetically crafted documentary that presents the seminal portrait of the poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, novelist, essayist and farmer, Wendell Berry. The title of the film (in its World Premiere at SXSW), is well chosen. Berry is a prophet of the time. Like the canary in the coal mine, in the 1970s up until today, he has tolled a warning in his writings and his outspoken activism. Berry’s prophecies center around human relationships and the earth from which people derive habitats, spiritual and material sustenance. He has maintained that a society which loses touch with the land and environment-an integral part of its heritage-easily displaces earth artisans and land caretakers. The vacuum is then filled with the meretricious, shallow “prosperity” of those who value power and money. Once this occurs, the culture plummets toward alienation and rootlessness. And eventually this cycle annihilates the substance and energizing force that once gave the society its true foundation of prosperity and wholeness.
In Laura Dunn’s examination of Berry, we see that his life encompasses the whole and vice-versa. He is an artisan who works his Henry County farmland. He is a tiller of the soul/soil of individuals with his profound themes and sonorous writing craft. Both aspects of Berry’s life, his farm and his writings, are interchangeable. Each fuels and prospers the other.
Thus, as Dunn opens with Berry reading one of his poems in a voice over narration, she focuses on the natural surroundings, the woods, the trees, and the farm that Berry husbands with love. Throughout, Lee Daniels’ detailed cinematography in such poetic visualizations combined with the exceptional original score by Kerry Muzzey, illustrate the preciousness of what Berry finds valuable in nature. For him nature is an ineffable treasure that must be safeguarded. If it is not, its intangible beauty will be despoiled and lost forever to encroaching, wanton development by corporations that are not mindful of sustaining the earth we live on but are only conscious of their bottom line.
Using family photographs and archival footage, Dunn chronicles Berry’s contributions as a spokesperson, essayist and activist against ideologies that damage the land and harm individuals. Berry has been ahead of the curve in activism against nihilistic policies that perceive people and the places where they live to be expendable to the corporate universe. He has written and taken part in protests against the Viet Nam War (including the poisonous defoliation of natural habitats as a military tactic), nuclear power plant construction (Maple Hill Indiana), coal-fired power plants (Washington, D.C.), coal-burning nuclear power plants (Clark County, Ky), mountaintop removal coal mining, and the National Animal Identification System which overburdens small farmers. He has received countless awards for his activism, his essays and his astounding and prolific literary legacy.
With others in 2009, Berry traveled to Washington, D.C. to deliver their proposal that would address the current problems incurred by corporate land abuse. In their proposal was a 50-year farm bill that dealt with “soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”
Berry’s activism in Washington is nothing new. He anticipated the negative impact of industrial farming which Dunn indicates was initiated by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, a racist, Republican conservative under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Butz abolished policies that helped farmers under the New Deal; one example included a policy to pay farmers not to plant corn. Butz demanded that the farmers use every inch of their acreage to plant commodity crops. His slogan for farmers was “get big or get out.”
Butz was the major spur which empowered agribusiness oligarchies that hold sway over family farms and often work in concert and collusion with the processed food industry. Such farming conglomerates use “strategies” that encourage factory farms: unnaturally penning up chickens, calves and baby pigs despite their inhumane treatment and risk of producing a tainted meat supply. Such animal husbanders have moved away from cattle drives and for efficiency and heavy yields, have placed beef cattle on feed lots. Enforced animal husbandry has necessitated the heavy use of antibiotics, growth hormones and other drugs which have indirectly blighted the taste and nutritional benefits of beef.
Additionally, the impact on huge swaths of land with the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers has led to unsustainable agriculture which depletes the soil of beneficial nutrients and balanced nitrogen supplies. Clean soil has been supplanted with poisons that the plants take up and humans then ingest. The untold effects of the overuse of such drugs and chemicals have been studied and oftentimes, their research results are covered up, especially with regard to genetically altering the DNA of plants to make them “roundup ready.” Such GMO plants have ended up cross pollinating with pristine organic plants on nearby farms, destroying clean, healthy plants. These practices and others have had a deleterious effect on the health and welfare of farmers who use the chemicals, and on those who eat animals and plants that have been made unclean as a result of the overuse of antibiotics, growth hormones, etc. Berry has continued to speak out and advocate against agribusiness.
Dunn highlights examples of Berry’s dual mission as a farmer and writer. She emphasizes that he upholds the preciousness of life and techniques of sustainable agriculture. He values connection to place, clean, delicious, nutritious food grown on clean land. He advocates for a healthier climate absent of acid rain, polluted groundwater, contaminated air and global warming.
Dunn reveals that his belief in the support of local economies that embrace values of fidelity, respect for work, lack of indebtedness and the interconnectedness of everything is diametrically opposed to Butz’s mechanized, global vision of farming industrialization. Butz discounted the artistry involved in animal husbandry and the pleasure of nurturing and teasing out crop yields. Farmer artisans who were sensitive to all the elements of nature, the seasons, the climate and their delicate balance were anathema to Butz who was all about efficiency and profitability.
To her credit in revealing Berry’s prescient vision of the dangers of Butz’ policies to the land and its people, Dunn includes black and white footage of Butz spewing his anti-farmer policies and Berry’s response and advocacy against them. Indeed, Berry debated Butz. He discussed the potential disastrous consequences of Butz’s programs. Over the years he has taken no pleasure in being proved correct. As a result of Butz’s policy shifts, agribusiness grew into a dictatorial monster whose debilitating protocols forced smaller farms into bankruptcy and most into declining financial stability.
As a counterbalance for hope Dunn interviews farmers who were forced to become bigger players along with mammoth industrial farming outfits. They discuss the personal devastation and oppression they experienced, until they stumbled upon Berry’s writings and gained strength from them. In one instance, a farmer explains how he embraced organic farming techniques, eschewed using the pesticides and herbicides and began to enjoy farming once more.
Berry’s readers, who over the decades, had been connecting with the concepts of farming as an art that is vital to the energy of humanity, supported this particular farmer in his pledge to only farm organically. It was a convergence of Berry’s vision, his mission to connect the land and people in healthful, sustainable ways. The movement for organics began to burgeon and more and more farmers are embracing such techniques not only because they know it is spiritually right on a personal level, but because of the pleasure they receive in throwing off noxious policies that can only reap harm.
From beginning to end, Dunn weaves in Berry’s philosophical commentary from his poetry and works like The Unsettling of America. His readings are poignant and quietly dramatic. Coupled with her visuals and Muzzey’s score, the effect grounds one in renewed hope and encourages one toward embracing the swelling activist movements that uphold clean food, water, air, environment. Dunn’s portrayal of Wendell Berry is inspiring because it reminds us that there are guardians of the path that uplift health, well being and long life. Though Berry has always been in the forefront, there are many others who are following along in the recognition that we cannot allow policies that negatively impact people, the land, plants and animal resources if we wish our posterity to flourish. Dunn’s The Seer succeeds in its spiritually transformative power, cinematic poetry and profound message for our time and all time.