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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Trudging Along

I heard from a few of my readers last week. Of course I only have a few readers so I heard from pretty much everyone. The consensus is that WWW is an enjoyable read. And that no one is buying it.

I'd sum up the problem in a word: irrelevant.

To be fair, my fans qualified their critiques. "Interesting but quaint." "Erudite but overheated." "Lovely but sentimental."

Thank you, all three of you, but let's be frank. If Wendell Berry's output can go more or less ignored for a half century, my attempt to retell his stories in the cacophony of current events is an absolute lost cause.

These well-meaning reviews returned me to the place I've been my whole life when it comes to Mr. Berry. It's an uncomfortable spot, let me tell you. One: I think my readers, and many of his readers even, tend to miss the point. Two: I think my readers are missing it because of my failure to put it across -- to adequately explain the essential things that we need to learn from Wendell Berry. And so I was left wondering if I should accept the fecklessness of trying to synopsize Mr. Berry and return again to the solitary and satisfying pleasure of just reading him. My readers' very reasonable head-scratching have made me ask myself yet again, "what am I trying to do here?" "Why is this so important?"

Today's post is my answer. It's the best I can do, trudging along.

At the bottom of the "Wendell Berry Problem," is his agrarianism. He is the father of a movement that isn't moving -- a Pied Piper marching along, piping along, with exactly zero people following. Environmentalists claim him as their own, and I agree that his ideas are still among the first and foremost in the worldwide environmental movement of the past forty years. But he'd tell you he's no environmentalist. In fact I think that term, and that movement, are the source of some frustration for him. Environmentalism is almost entirely a conservationist movement, largely unreconciled with, and inarticulate about, land use and the thorny problems of human enterprise and natural resource dependency. No, Berry's non-existent movement is agrarianism, which, let's face it, is as esoteric to Americans as Rosicrucianism.

Agrarianism is a social or political philosophy that sees farming as a superior way of life for shaping people and communities. And if history is our judge, its a failed idea, having died in America before the birth of anyone alive in the nation today. Not only did agrarianism lose in the marketplace of ideas, it never even really showed up to compete. Thomas Jefferson extolled its virtues, but even he couldn't make it stick. Since then, it's not even been a speck on the map of American political philosophy. If liberalism and conservatism have been our mainstays, environmentalism, libertarianism, and socialism have at least enjoyed bit parts. Each can point to adherents and political representation in the 20th century. Hell even fascism, apparently, is finding favor in the 21st. Poor agrarianism is a set of ideas so far off center that it doesn't even make the fringe.

So, to side with Mr. Berrys' ideas would seem to reject the entire trunk-line of human progress and especially the current powerful flow that, taken together, comprise life in the "First World." To ascribe to Berryism is to reject the empirical evidence that's all around us -- from the laptop I'm writing on to my children's health and education systems to the organization of all our jobs and everything in between. Quite literally, it is to repudiate the world as we know it -- politically, culturally, scientifically, socially and religiously. Even if his ideas have some appeal, it seems a little crazy -- maybe a lot crazy -- to devalue the entirety of the human project from these last several hundred years. This thought occurred to me for the umpteenth time, as I stood high above Portland, Oregon last week in the lobby of the state's preeminent teaching and research hospital -- a place, perched atop a hill, that is a marvel of human engineering both civil and medical.

The natural response to a contrariness of this magnitude is to reject it out of hand -- to stick with the known, and frankly, with the victorious. As I said, the evidence is in. Our forebears, and theirs, did not select agrarianism. Our inheritance is not Port William -- Mr. Berry's fictional tight-knit rural community, with its quirky and affectionate membership of neighbors, each bound to the other through their shared rootedness in the local economic landscape. Our inheritance, and our legacy, is urban and suburban, with all their requisite inputs and outputs, good and bad. The rural life in the first world, such as I myself have seen and have heard about from others, is a backwater, except for those favored places endowed and preserved for their scenic beauty.

It would seem that Wendell Berry is arguing for a completely different world -- a world made by penguins or by Mynocks or something. Clearly it's not the world made by humans, because that's the world we've actually got. Or, it seems, he's arguing for a world that existed "once upon a time." A human-made world once here, now gone, that only a fortunate few, like him, have fleetingly experienced. Or, possibly he's describing a world still here, somewhere, to be lived and enjoyed by someone else. Whichever it is -- a bygone world, an alternative human-made world or a world that must always be somewhere else and never "here," it's not here and now. It must be an imagined world -- a fiction. And so we're presented with a second barrel to allow taking even better aim on Mr. Berry: not only is his world agrarian, it's also make-believe. It's both impractical AND impossible.

But I think it's neither. I think he's right.

I know of no other way to put this. I have been unable to pull myself away from Wendell Berry all these years because what he's saying seems absolutely right to me, and the implications of his ideas fill me with a contentment that's hard to describe. I have always been more drawn to Wendell's essays than his fiction and poetry, though not because I don't enjoy his artistry -- I do, immensely. But the power of his nonfiction is his argument -- his ornery refusal to put bad ideas that have been universally enacted on even terms with good ideas that haven't. In his essays, unlike in his stories, we get a presentation of ideas laid out logically and factually, using his prodigiously refined skills of rhetoric and observation to explicate a worldview that is coherent, complete, and consistent. There is beauty in Wendell Berry's argument, plain as you'll find in his stories and poems.

What's the argument he's been making and ramifying all these years? It's that an economy must be made to fit the ecology of local places or else the places, the people and the economy will crumple together, eventually. And that no matter how many centuries pass wherein we ignore this indivisibility, nature herself will eventually put things in order for us, or in spite of us. And, (and this is the part that I'm smitten by), if we could finally learn how to love and care for our places, we will at the same time have learned how to truly care for our fellow creatures, for creation. Because if we don't know how to care for the world itself, we cannot care for the creatures of the world. I used to take this to mean, Genesis-style, that we were failing our dominion -- "the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the livestock and all the wild animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground." But now, with so many of us being shot by each other, blown up by each other and ripped asunder from each other and from our homes, I think it's not just the flora and fauna that we're destroying, but the people too. We are not making a better peace. We are making, through our religious, political and economic acts, a better violence.

I'm not sure exactly what a Wendell Berry world would look like. When I say that readers miss the point, I mean that they tend to mistake the scenery for the scene. When he describes a the beauty of a properly scaled and productive farm, it's health that he's describing there -- a quality of wholeness and holiness. The farm is lovely yes, but not because farms are inherently more beautiful than subdivisions. It's because of qualities of interlocking dependencies, affections, memories, and benefits that are emergent in the place. These are the qualities that he's trying to get us to see, although they are indeed difficult to find in our modern industrialized world. Mr. Berry makes a point of showing these qualities to us, where he finds them (see Spartansburg), and though his eyes, being his, will tend to fall on things rural and agricultural, I don't take this to mean that our best future world would be a country of nothing but farms. He would probably belly-laugh to hear anyone suggest that we should all go back to the land. In fact, he's repeatedly warned young people against taking up farming, knowing all too well the seriousness of the commitment and breadth of the necessary toil involved.

What he does do, again and again, is point to hope, to remind us that his cause, and ours, is not lost, despite all evidence to the contrary. At the end of Our Deserted Country in Our Only World, Wendell again leaves us with a list. "We are not destitute of instructions and examples," he says of our need to "do better." We have nature's own way of land care in native ecosystems, and some humanly modified ecosystems that precede the industrial economy. We have traditional or peasant agricultures that we could learn from. We have, scattered about the country even today, good farming and forestry practices. We having a growing movement toward economies of local food and organic farming. We have the work of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, which invented and is now propagating the science of breeding and growing perennial grain crops. Finally and most necessarily, says Wendell, we have the ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. We have not yet forgotten entirely how to be neighborly.

I do not understand how truths as basic as these can be disputed. Any economy must follow the laws of ecology, and human caring is ever-extendable. Nor do I think Mr. Berry is alone in his view (my Pied Piper crack notwithstanding). Millions of people are working to realize a better economy, to create better futures for some of Gods' creatures, and to help human beings understand and prosper more harmoniously in this world around us. This is what so many of us do every day.

Where Wendell stands alone, I believe, is in his insistence that all this good work MUST include everyone and everything -- and that we must NOT substitute or sacrifice one person for another, one place for another, or one technology for another, without an honest and fair accounting of what's lost in the bargain, nor without the humility to admit our innate human ignorance in a blessed world that is not of our making. In taking a stand for rural people, difficult hillside fields, coal lined mountains, woodland flowers, abandoned towns and all the rest, he is making the point that all life is sacred. Not some life. All life.

Modernity, industry, technology, religion, politics, higher education nowadays -- all have abdicated this essential idea. The failure of our culture and our institutions to take care of all creation -- that's what made the radicalism of Wendell Berry. He would say -- has said -- that he's just a writer and farmer, and that his irrelevancy is why he must go one writing and farming and trudging along the way he does. Yes, he is irrelevant. That's precisely the point.


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