The Seer opens with a blur of urban lights and longings: the faster freeway, the taller building, the machines that become the objects of our affections. Over this, the film’s subject, in his distinctive timbre, laments the pursuit of “the objective.” These opening three minutes culminate in the blaze of car lights circling, approaching a bridge to who-knows-where. Then the screen goes dark and, after a pause, gives way to the slow rhythmic sound of feet on autumn leaves. A dog trots ahead, down the wooded trail. We are looking through Wendell Berry’s eyes, at the land he calls home—perhaps during one of the Sabbath walks that produced the poem we have just heard. With this juxtaposition of frenzy and forest, filmmaker Laura Dunn seems to be asking, “Isn’t this better?”
Dunn’s film is not your run-of-the-mill biopic, and how could it be? Berry, though very much alive, agreed to participate in the project, but with the complicating condition that he would not appear on camera. The viewer sees recent interviews of his wife Tanya and daughter Mary, but the man himself is present only as a voice and in images from the past. With their differing views of progress, both fans and critics of this farmer/writer, who has done his varied work with draught horses and a 1956 Royal typewriter, will likely see his elusiveness as fitting.
The Seer centers on Berry’s debates in the 1970s with Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Butz had rural roots that rivaled Berry’s, but he came to see a decline from 45% of the population working the land at his birth to some 4% at the time of their encounters—what Berry labeled The Unsettling of America—as a positive development. “Butz’s law,” which he formulated, was “adapt or die,” and its measure of success was “P-R-O-F-I-T.”
Berry is seen by many as a prophet of a different sort. Archival footage shows him—then with a full head of dark hair—acknowledging that he and Butz would likely never agree, because “he’s arguing from quantities and I’m arguing from values.” For Berry, the calculus must acknowledge such incalculables as “the Hebrew-Christian values” of neighborliness and kindness. He concludes, “I don’t think you can love those old values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.” It is a message that has permeated the more than forty books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that have issued from his literary perch overlooking the Kentucky River.
The film also delves into the lives of Berry’s neighbors, who work in and around agriculture today. We see the once-bustling downtowns reduced to antique shops and “For Sale” signs. We meet “conventional” farmers who have hopped on the Butzian “get big or get out” treadmill, but have trouble sleeping at night due to the enormous capital investments that ride on the success of each crop. One farmer tells of his conversion to organic agriculture. Hispanic farm workers, replacements for the once-willing local teenage labor force that now seems more interested in computer games, talk of living away from their families for up to eight months out of a year. Berry’s voice is missing during these lengthy interludes. Dunn is having the people of his place speak for him—for him who has long spoken for them. We are seeing what the seer has seen.
Berry, who lives life without a television or a computer, is about as un-Hollywood as he can be. Yet, the executive producers for Dunn’s labor of love were heavyweights Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, with names like Nick Offerman, Zach Galifianakis, Megan Mullally, and Robert Smigel also appearing in the credits. There is a good chance that The Seer will get a nomination come Oscar time just as Food, Inc. did a few years back. Still, the majority of Tinseltown is unlikely to agree with all of Berry’s positions—from his fidelity to a talented wife who is not above “mak[ing] a home,” to his words (not heard in the film) against “treating an innocent fellow human as an enemy-in-the-womb.” (Dunn, married with six boys, who has called herself “grateful for the gift of motherhood,” may be a rare exception here.)
Nor does Berry fit well into the box that has been made by the modern religious right. Jeffersonian in his inclinations, Berry is probably still more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, and his relationship to the institutional church is fraught with friction. He espouses a quasi-libertarian position on same-sex marriage, preferring to see government uninvolved altogether. Further, his localism is a flavor of Burkean conservatism foreign to the globalist neo-conservatives who have dominated in the pre-Trump era.
None of these nuances or potential political contradictions are explored in The Seer. Instead, Dunn is content to use her considerable talents to highlight Berry’s long and consistent advocacy for rural America, a theme that for Berry transcends partisanship. While he has written widely, and often wisely, on topics ranging from race to religion, Berry’s quest to uplift agriculture has always been a central concern. “We weren’t used to being respected,” says a farmer in reaction to the author who helped to spark today’s local food movement.
In response to Dunn’s question about dealing with the discontinuities of our time, Berry replies in the film,
This is an age of divorce … and you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things. Not all things.
Berry’s work of rejoining people and place is worthy of notice, and Dunn has made it beautiful to behold.