|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 10 (1995)|
Wendell Berry lives and farms with his family in Henry County,
Kentucky, and is the author of more than thirty books of fiction,
non-fiction, and poetry. Among his novels (set in the fictional
community of Port William Kentucky) are Nathan Coulter
(1960), A Place on Earth (1967), and The Memory of Old
Jack (1974); short story collections include The Wild Birds
(1986), Remembering (1988), Fidelity (1993), and
Watch With Me (1994); collections of essays include, among
many others, A Continuous Harmony (1972), The Unsettling
of America (1977), Recollected Essays (1981), and Sex,
Economy, Freedom, & Community (1993); and among his many
volumes of poetry are A Part (1980), The Wheel (1982),
Collected Poems (1985) and Entries (1984).
In a commencement address delivered in June 1989 at the College
of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, Berry gave some advice that
to most modern graduates would sound old fashioned, indeed backward.
But the advice he gave was timeless, and his reminder seems apocalyptic
in view of the world's current environmental crisis and, as Berry
sees it, America's cultural crisis. In a sense, Berry's deliverance
of such a critical message parallels Moses' deliverance of the
Ten Commandments, for Berry's advice is also a prescription for
cultural healing through the imposition of a set of laws. The
laws Berry delivers, however, seem to be Nature's laws. He closed
his address (later published in Harper's as "The Futility
of Global Thinking") with a series of ten commands, which,
he said, "is simply my hope for us all" (22). These
instructions are at the heart of Berry's personal and literary
world, and collectively they express the thesis informing all
of his work, a canon now in excess of thirty books of essays,
fiction, and poetry:
Viewed in the context of Berry's canon, this sequence represents
far more than a neo-romantic or agrarian appeal to return to "simplicity."
To think of his advice in this way is to misinterpret it, for
it is more of an oracular warning; either rethink our attitudes
toward each other and the natural world, Berry implores, or continue
on a path toward natural-, cultural-, and self-annihilation.
Although Berry's tenets echo those of many of his literary ancestors
in American literature, his advice is more critical than that
of his predecessors, for we now more than ever threaten our existence
with destructive potentials unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Berry explains our critical condition in "The Loss of the
Future," an essay in The Long-Legged House:
We have reached a point at which we must either consciously desire and choose and determine the future of the earth or submit to such an involvement in our destructiveness that the earth, and ourselves with it, must certainly be destroyed. And we have come to this at a time when it is hard, if not impossible, to foresee a future that is not terrifying. (46)Berry's work is an ongoing exploration of man's use of and relationship to the land, and his writing constitutes, as Gary Tolliver has said, one man's "continuing search for avenues of reentry into a proper state of harmony with the natural world" (13). To proponents of modern "progress," Berry's ideas must seem regressive, unrealistic, radical. But no advice could be more needed and more practical, if we are to progress.
Berry's life, his farm work, his writing and teaching, his home and family, and all that each involves are extraordinarily integrated. He understands his writing as an attempt to elucidate certain connections, primarily the interrelationships and interdependencies of man and the natural world. One of his premises in The Unsettling of America at once evinces his notion of cultural and natural interdependency: "Everything in the Creation is related to everything else and dependent on everything else" (46). The Unsettling of America is about connections and thus ramifications.
Arnold Ehrlich has called the book "a cool, reasoned, lucid
and at times poetic explanation of what agribusiness and the mechanization
of farming are doing to destroy the American fabric, the community,
the household, even the sexual love that is at the basis of communitas"
The traditional community is one of Berry's central metaphors
for cultural and natural harmony. Such a community is a highly
intricate alliance in which individuals function as "parts"
of a membership, each depending on and affecting all the others.
The traditional community, like the traditional farms within it,
is a model of interdependency. Berry explains, "A community
is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place
is shared, and that the people who share the place define and
limit the possibilities of each other's lives" (LLH 61).
Such an intertwinement of lives is a way of describing a traditional
community dance, which is usually circular and cyclic and involves
several couples, each partner relying on the other, each couple
relying on other couples. The result of this interdependence among
the dancers, if each dancer has learned the motions, is harmony.
Gurney Norman, a friend of Berry's, has explained that "something
basic to people's welfare is present in this sort of community
dancing; it has to do with people knowing how to affirm one another
and to cooperate, and how to have a good time." The dancers
move to the music through the intricacies of the dance, and as
each sequence is completed, the cycle begins again. In "People,
Land, and Community," an essay in Standing by Words,
Berry speaks of the analogy between an interweaving dance and
the traditional community. While elucidating this metaphor for
cultural and natural harmony, he brings together his cyclic ideas
of traditional work, apprenticeship, and the dead as an intricate
part of the living:
People at work in communities three generations old would know that their bodies renewed, time and again, the movements of other bodies, living and dead, known and loved, remembered and loved, in the same shops, houses, and fields. That, of course, is a kind of community dance. And such a dance is perhaps the best way we have to describe harmony. (79)Berry uses the dance metaphor throughout his poetry to describe harmony between humans and nature, between the living and the dead of a community, and between members of the living. The music accompanying the dancers is sometimes the music of the spheres (the notes of which are so drawn out they can be heard only over years, decades, even centuries). Other sources of the music are farmers working or whistling a work song in a field, people working together harmoniously in communities, water running in a stream, and rain.
The modern agricultural crisis, as Berry sees it, is a consequence
of widening the gap between the way nature farms and the way man
farms. Many modern agricultural theories and practices assume
universal applications. But such attitudes and practices constitute
an affront to Nature--that is, the particular Nature of a particular
place. Traditional farmers are sensitive to the particular needs
of their farms; through the years and generations they have looked
to the Nature of their place to judge which practices, plants,
and animals work and thrive the best, given the farm's conditions:
"A man ought to study the wilderness of a place" (LLH
206). He explains The Unsettling of America that "the
land is too various in its kinds, climates, conditions, declivities,
aspects, and histories to conform to any generalized understanding
or to prosper under generalized treatment...
To treat every field, or every part of every field, with the same consideration is not farming but industry" (31). Farmers, he says in a later essay, "must tend to farms that they know and love, farms small enough to know and love, using tools and methods that they know and love, in the company of neighbors that they know and love" (What Are People For? 210).
Berry believes that a "place" has its own ruling Nature.
Thus, Berry stresses that a traditional farmer will always consider
and adapt his practices to the needs of the land's primal character.
Successful and sustainable agriculture, then, as Berry understands
it, is possible only by maintaining a cyclic vision, one attuned
with Nature, rather than a linear vision, one seeking conquest
The more a person is removed from the substance of his work, Berry
argues, the greater is his tendency to neglect or to ignore it.
He says that a traditional farmer "will walk his fields out
of interest; the industrial farmer or manager only out of necessity"
(UA 188). Traditional care requires a comprehensive, intimate,
often passionate knowledge of the Nature of one's place. Berry
writes, for example, in The Unsettling of America, "A
healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can
grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it
nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that
no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace" (43).
Berry is the fifth generation of his father's family and the sixth
generation of his mother's to farm in Henry County, Kentucky.
Loyal to the cyclic vision, he knows the history of his ancestors
on the land, and he understands how each has affected the other.
To Berry, farming the land requires the same discipline as writing a poem. John Ditsky calls farming Berry's "paradigm of art" (13). And Leon Driskell says frankly that Berry "is the same person when writing as when plowing" (63). Traditional farmers, like artists, learn their art through a kind of cultural process, the cyclic view of education, rather than through training or programming, the linear view. Berry explains that the best farming
grows not only out of factual knowledge but out of cultural tradition; it is learned not only by precept but by example, by apprenticeship; and it requires not merely a competent knowledge of its facts and processes, but also a complex set of attitudes, a certain culturally evolved stance, in the face of the unexpected and the unknown. That is to say, it requires style in the highest and richest sense of that term. (CH 98)Like the farmer, the poet must stay in tune with the natural processes of his world, because "the rhythms of the land are an analogue by which we understand ourselves" (Prunty 958).
Berry's artistic vision of agricultural work, then, is diametrically
opposed to the industrial vision which maximizes agricultural
mechanization in order to minimalize human interaction with and
care of the land. Separating humans as far as possible from Nature
in practice has created a character-killing and "community-killing
agriculture, with its monomania of bigness" (UA 41).
The modern linear view of progress not only has destroyed many
of America's farmlands; it also has been the driving force behind
strip mining, deforestation, pollution, and has widened the gap
between culture and nature. The current natural resource crisis,
in Berry's view, is a direct consequence of our character, and
thus the only real hope lies in the change of attitudes. But for
such a change to occur and be effective, Berry contends, it must
begin on the local level, not under the guise of national "movements."
Berry says in "The Futility of Global Thinking" that
"the civil rights movement has not given us better communities.
The women's movement has not given us better marriages or better
households. The environment movement has not changed our parasitic
relationship to nature" (17).
Aside from our suicidal depletion of natural resources, one of
Berry's concerns is that our attitude towards the land necessitates
our estrangement from it. Berry has said that "my sense of
values comes from what I'm rooted in, what I believe in"
(Ehrlich 11). To him, Nature, more specifically, the Nature of
his particular place, serves as a moral teacher. In "The
Nature Consumers," an essay in The Long-Legged House,
Berry explains one of the dangers inherent in our longing to separate
ourselves from the land:
Man cannot be independent of nature. In one way or another he must live in relation to it, and there are only two alternatives: the way of the frontiersman, whose response to nature was to dominate it, to assert his presence in it by destroying it; or the way of Thoreau, who went to natural places to become quiet in them, to learn from them, to be restored by them. To know these places, because to know them is to need them and respect them and be humble before the, is to preserve them. To fail to know them, because ignorance can only be greedy of them, is to destroy them. (41-42)Berry's canon constitutes an urgent call to reevaluate both our use of Nature's "gifts" and our view of ourselves. And it is a plea to redirect our environmental concerns from the abstract notion of our "planet" to the more grounded, familiar notion of our "place" - our homes and our communities. In his address, Berry asked the Bar Harbor graduates, "How, after all, can anybody-- any particular body--do anything to heal a planet?" and he answered, "Nobody can do anything to heal a planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous. The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horses to save the planet--and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand" ("Futility" 16).
Berry's premise, implicit, often explicit, in almost all of his
work, is that we must have a particular place, must identify with
it, must learn from it, must love it, must care for it. And only
by living in this place long enough, and by attending to the knowledge
of those who have lived there before us, will we fully realize
the consequences of our presence there: "We may deeply affect
a place we own for good or ill," Berry has written, "but
our lives are nevertheless included in its life; it will survive
us, bearing the results" (LLH 143).
Berry, Wendell. A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural.
(CH) New York: Harcourt, 1972.
---. "The Futility of Global Thinking." Harper's
Magazine Sept. 1989: 16-22. (Adapted from "Word and Flesh,
an essay in What Are People For?)
---. The Long-Legged House. (LLH) New York: Harcourt,
---. Standing by Words. (SBW) San Francisco: North
---. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.
(UA) 1977. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986.
---. What Are People For? (WPF) San Francisco: North
Ditsky, John. "Wendell Berry: Homage to the Apple Tree."
Modern Poetry Studies 2.1 (1971): 7-15.
Driskell, Leon V. "Wendell Berry." Dictionary of
Literary Biography 5: 62-66.
Ehrlich, Arnold W. "Wendell Berry" (An interview with
Wendell Berry). Publishers Weekly 5 Sept. 1977: 10-11.
Norman, Gurney. From This Valley. Kentucky Educational
Prunty, Wyatt. "Myth, History, and Myth Again." The
Southern Review 20 (1984): 958-68.
Tolliver, Gary. "Wendell Berry." Dictionary of Literary Biography 6: 9-14.
This web page is maintained by
Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075