One from the vault: The work of Wendell Berry


I originally wrote this post as part of series of books that most influenced my thinking. A recent conversation on another wordpress blog reminded me of Wendell Berry’s work. I am still trying to sort out how exactly I should relate to modern technology and the lifestyle it creates. 

Today’s book is A Place On Earth by Wendell Berry, which describes the impact of the Second World War and other disasters, both human and natural, on a small farming community in Kentucky.

This book did not so much determine how I think about issues as make me conscious of problems that I had not thought carefully about before, though I have yet to decide where I stand on these problems.

For those who are not familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, he is a Kentucky tobacco farmer who moonlights as a novelist, poet, essayist and environmental activist. The main thrust of his work is his claim that life on a small family farm is the most humane life, while city and suburban life based on trade and finance is ultimately dehumanizing.

The small farmer is chiefly concerned with caring for the land; not over-farming it and preserving it for future generations. He shapes it with his work and intelligence, and it shapes and supports him: his body, his food, his emotions, his self-esteem, even his sense of immortality. Long after he is dead and forgotten, the land he cared for will remain. The symbiotic relationship is like a marriage. On the other hand, the agro-businessman with his chemical fertilizers and pesticides quickly exhausts the natural fertility of the soil, while suburbanites and city people see land in terms of real estate value and square-footage.

It isn’t just that people who do not value the land destroy it, but that they ultimately destroy themselves. Though the small farmer is as desperate to make a profit as anyone else, he knows he can only make money through his responsible love for the land. On the other hand, those who can only see the land in terms of money, and not love, end up seeing themselves and the people around them in primarily economic terms: whether or not a couple stays married, how many children they have, how they deal with their neighbors, how they treat elderly parents, and how they care for their own bodies is determined by an unconscious (or sometimes conscious) cost-benefit analysis.

Not that Berry denies the validity of forms of life other than farming: a national economy should be a natural system with the majority of people extracting natural resources from their land (farmers, ranchers, loggers…), another large block turning those materials into goods (manufacturing), and a small class that helps facilitate the system (bankers, lawyers, etc.). The problem with America is that we have intentionally turned the natural economy on its head, devaluing the price of food and natural resources, outsourcing our manufacturing base, and educating the majority of our young people for that third sector. This, he argues, is at the heart of our social problems.

There is, I believe, a theological basis to Berry’s thought: in the book of Genesis, man was created by God to work in the garden, to be a steward of God’s creation, eventually returning it to God. “Stewardship” is probably the word that best describes Berry’s view of man’s calling.

I hope I have done justice to Berry’s opinions, because I cannot say I am in full agreement. I see his point, but I cannot agree that it is a bad thing that food be cheap. Nor can I agree with his hatred for fossil fuels which have brought cheap energy, and all the benefits that go with it, to millions of people who would otherwise be cutting up lovely trees for firewood. What sacrifices would moving back to an agricultural economy entail? Pol Pot tried to reinvent Cambodia as an agriculturalist’s paradise… only a few million people died.

But I have to confess that I am bothered by the artificial nature of condos, office parks, and shopping centers. I lived in Wisconsin for a couple of years, and saw how town centers where one could once have done the day’s shopping shopping and socializing within a ten minute walk from home have been boarded up; all the business going to the malls, all the families to sprawling subdivisions. It is as if we are building our social and economic activity around the automobile, and not around the human person. No wonder so many people are depressed, isolated, and call “friends” people they only know on facebook.

Berry often points to the Amish as being “the most technologically advanced people on earth”, because while most of our lives are defined by economics and technology, the Amish first define what sort of people they want to be, and then make use of only the technologies and economic possibilities that fit into that definition. I think he is onto something.

I’m a little embarrassed by how much I enjoy Berry’s novels, since he is such a favorite of the “beautiful people” whose company I can’t stand. But his novels are so well written that I can’t help myself. I take some comfort in the fact that those beautiful people and their lifestyles are exactly the ones that Berry is attacking in his work .


  1. Sounds pretty interesting reading, and your take on it seems balanced. However, regardless of the farming methods, I still think it’s unnecessary and cruel to force breed, raise and slaughter animals when we now have lots of other nutrition options readily available that don’t involve the blatant exploitation of sentient beings.

    1. I thought you might be interested.
      I sympathize with vegetarianism; it can be a consistent life ethic and the motives are good. But I don’t think eating an animal is wrong. If humans are basically omnivores and have a predatory instinct, a human eating meat is no more wrong than a shark eating seals.
      Granted, humans are not quite like other animals. We have a sense of acting “humanely” that should govern how we go about eating other species. I don’t think the industrial scale production and consumption of livestock is evil, but it is not most humane way of eating meat.

      1. I’m confused where you’re coming from on this. If you are a Christian and believe there can be absolute rights and wrongs why would it be relevant to frame what’s ‘right’ in terms of predatory animal instincts? You could say our instinct is to breed therefore rape in humans is no more wrong than rape in dogs. It’s not considered ‘wrong’ to eat animals at this point in time, but I’m confident it will be one of the many changing moral standards for generations to come.

      2. What is right for human behavior is determined by human nature. Sex is part of human nature. It is good for people to have sex in a human way. Rape does not respect certain aspects of human nature (freedom, privacy, bodily integrity) and is therefore always wrong.
        So if humans are natural omnivores, then you can’t say it is wrong for humans to eat meat. But you can say that whatever eating they do, they should do in an intelligent and humane way. Maybe you can make the argument that vegetarianism is a higher, more noble path.
        I don’t see what religion has to do with it.

      3. I find it odd you think that human understanding of right and wrong is fixed. I assume you think it’s the way things are because you’re a Christian – and that’s what religion has to do with it. Or am I wrong?

      4. Please expound on the circumstances under which rape is right behavior.

  2. “Please expound on the circumstances under which rape is right behavior.” I’m not sure what to say. I guess I’m not being very clear, or my point of view is allowing people to draw strange conclusions. I used that example to show how absurd your suggestion that because it’s our nature to eat animals, it’s somehow correct – ‘want to eat animals=eat animals’ or ‘want to have sex=have sex’ – regardless of suffering or consent.

    1. Well, you insist there are no fixed standards of right and wrong behavior. So rape must occasionally be right.

      1. Straw man, anyone? I said there are no absolute rights and wrongs, and that what we understand as ‘morality’ is constantly evolving. That doesn’t mean that something like rape would ever be viewed as ‘right’ by someone like me. There are probably lots of examples down through history where other people haven’t shared my view, and by their own sense of cultural morality would feel justified to rape. An example could be a conquering army believing they are doing a god’s work if they “kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” as described in Numbers 31.

      2. Simply because your Hebrew tribesmen think they are doing right by behaving in a manner typical of bronze age culture, does not mean that in fact they are doing right. Which means that some behaviors are always wrong, whether or not the acting person understands it. It is wrong, not because of the culture, but because it goes against what it means to be human.
        I think you really agree with me about this, but you are very committed to the slogan “there is no such thing as absolute morality.” I think it is possible to acknowledge cultural differences without falling into total relativism.

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