A Little New Year's Berry

To challenge your thinking as the New Year begins.

Wendell Berry is an acquired taste. And for a good sampling of his various essays and topics, I recommend The World-Ending Fire, selected and edited by Paul Kingsnorth.

It is impossible to agree with Wendell Berry on everything. But it’s difficult to argue with him on most of what he writes. Berry’s agrarian worldview leads him ever to think and live locally, and he calls us to do the same. He has no time for big corporations, corrupt politicians, and feckless religion. He wants to save the world by focusing on the land and our duty as its stewards. All his essays revolve around this theme, even as they spin out and touch and many other important issues.

This collection of essays reaches back to the beginnings of Berry’s agrarian thinking, living, and writing, and works all the way up to early 21st century concerns. He tells the story of his return to his native Kentucky to take up an agrarian lifestyle. Concerning this choice he writes, “I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed, although I did not understand that at the time. Free of any intuition of its doom, I delighted in it, and learned all I could about it.” 

He is passionate about that choice, and wants his readers to see that returning to smaller, more local, more communal, and more loving and caring ways is the only hope for this world: “I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.” 

Berry takes off on our consumption lifestyle, the need for more, our enslavement to gadgets and machines, and our disregard of the earth, its soil, and its creatures. He is insistent that such institutions and practices violate good sense and the teaching of Scripture. I suspect he’s right.

Berry may believe his cause to be doomed, but he does not regard it as impractical or unworkable. He calls on all readers to discover ways of being better stewards of the land, working harder at community, resisting the wiles of advertising and corporate greed, and learning to love our neighbors. He insists that such a way of life can be pleasurable and rewarding, and he offers many stories and examples to demonstrate that this is so.

A few random quotes might give the flavor of Berry’s worldview:

“There appears to be a law that when creatures have reached the level of consciousness, as men have, they must become conscious of the creation; they must learn how they fit into it and what its needs are and what it requires of them, or else pay a terrible penalty: the spirit of the creation will go out of them, and they will become destructive; the very earth will depart from them and go where they cannot follow.”

“We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

“In this crisis it is certain that every one of us has a public responsibility. We must not cease to bother the government and the other institutions to see that they never become comfortable with easy promises.”

“Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human character and culture also from the inside.”

“Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human character and culture also from the inside.”

Wendell Berry is erudite, winsome, versatile – novels, essays, and poetry, as well as farming – and convincing, especially when he guides readers to think about the best ways of occupying our place responsibly and with due regard for the earth, our neighbors, and the future. His sweeping and unremitting dismissals and condemnations of industrialism, corporations, and big anything can get in the way of receiving his main message. But he is always informed and interesting, and it’s worth trying to figure out how each of us can apply as much of his teaching as possible.


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