When readers of Wendell Berry see that he has a new book coming out, we tend to read it on reflex. The themes are seldom new; that’s part of the appeal. We read because it means immersing ourselves once again in a particular mind and set of values, expressed with clarity and conviction.
In that sense, this book met expectations. It travels familiar ground: farming well, ecological responsibility, neighborliness, love for one’s place and community, and everywhere a desire to think through even complicated issues systematically, with hope.
Yet I felt a sadness too. There is a pervasive sense of loss in this book — of a culture impoverished of important knowledge, of ties to locality, of vital connections with one another, of basic virtues that once informed our care of “our only world.”
The dominant perspective of the book is that of a farmer who sees the whole complex of American life through the lens of our treatment of land. He refers often to “the middle of the last century” as a time of more intelligent, more coherent agriculture. Farming then was characterized by an attentiveness to scale, contour plowing as an effective way to counter erosion, and diversity. These represent a contrast to the now common techniques of “no till” planting, toxic chemicals, and the vast monocropping of soybeans and corn. Industrialized agriculture, Berry warns, operates according to industrial values of quantity and profit rather than preservation and care. The result is a culture dangerously unaware of the sources of our own life, and one increasingly dependent on large, impersonal entities.
I suppose that’s why Berry felt it necessary to include an essay on the politics of both abortion and homosexual marriage. He paints with a broad brush and misses whole dimensions of the issues in this essay. Though I agree with his basic sense that these are not issues a government has the authority or practical efficacy to resolve, the essay didn’t resolve much either. I found his treatment of the Boston bombing, “The Commerce of Violence,” a more compelling examination of a recent event because it underlines violence as one of the norms of American life, in ways we don’t think about.
Still, he is at his best in these pages writing about the land, whether he’s describing smart forestry, or the 50-year farm bill, or the loss of the willows along the Kentucky River, or the sudden appearance of corn and soybean crops on the rolling hills of his native state. It took me awhile to get through these essays because I often set the book aside with a heavy heart. But as always, Berry does make an effort to hope. He points to examples of people who are getting it right; makes a case (more than once) for the 50-year farm bill published in 2009 by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas; and lists an inventory of resources at hand to help us improve our lot.
Overall the message of the book is that positive change is within reach, but it comes through personal choices and households, not government programs. Berry has a large enough body of work, and a large enough audience after devoting himself to these subjects for over 50 years, to reasonably hope that he is making a change himself when he sits down and takes up a pen to share his take on the world.
I’ll give him the last word here:
Though a clean slate is impossible, as it has always been, we are not destitute of instructions and examples. Though our present anxieties incline us toward theories and illustrations of the natural rapaciousness of humans, not all humans and not all human communities have been so. I don’t think the present bunch of living humans can be allowed to make the (very restful) claim that there is nothing they can do, pleading the incorrigibility of their nature or their circumstances…. My obligation here is only to show that we do have resources, probably enough, if we would pay attention to them. (From “Our Deserted Country”)