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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher


There's a theme in Wendell Berry's work that I've avoided tackling head-on, because it's uncomfortable. But it appears consistently in his essays, and lately my avoidance has become an uncomfortable presence also, out here on my walks with the man. It raises questions about this whole project of mine.

The theme is physical work.

Necessary and unchanging for 99.9 percent of our two million year history, manual labor wasn't just a fact of life, it was THE fact of life. Eating, playing, sheltering -- life for us humans was encountered on the physical plane, day after day, year after year, pretty much forever. There are still hundreds of millions of farmers, field workers, construction laborers, tradespeople, movers, haulers and landscapers around the world today doing muscle-work and hand-work both heavy and light.

Not me though. About a billion of us now earn our keep in a pretentiously named "knowledge economy" that requires no physical labor at all. This is widely regarded as a great accomplishment made possible by the west's loving embrace of technology, capitalism and professionalization.

Across the board, economic policies, educational credentialism and pay scales all valorize white collar work over blue. The physical de-laboring of work has become dogma -- fundamentally essential to our modern economic order and the engine of phenomenal wealth creation. "Clean Hands/Large Paycheck" is the winning ticket, says everyone. Except, of course, Wendell Berry.

Before plunging into all that, let me state the problem plainly: I'm a knowledge worker who doesn't wish for more physically demanding work. Nor do I wish it for my children. I get to choose the timing and amount of my physical exertions. They are not a job demand so much as a personal liberty. It's true that knowledge work can be tough on mental health, but the most dangerous jobs have always been those that put bodies at great heights, or near heavy equipment, or into punishing weather conditions. I have many things to worry about when I go to work; getting maimed or killed isn't one them, and for that I'm grateful.

I don't think I'm an outlier on this. As an urbanist who writes lovingly about farming, I'm frequently admonished to acknowledge that farmwork is plum difficult and a drudgery that's regularly abandoned for other economic prospects. Many former country people want this understood. And surely that is part of the story of America's rural decline. Yes, agricultural policies and industrialization have forced people off their farms en masse. But it's also a simple and penetrating truth that most people, given a choice, prefer jobs that are physically comfortable.

So yeah, this is awkward and begs to sidestepped because those facts don't line up with Wendell Berry's worldview.


Wendell Berry's prescriptions for the good and decent life always contain a dose of sweat equity. More than that, part of his political philosophy (if he can be said to have one), is that the bond that holds person to place, neighbor to neighbor and patriot to state, depends on an essential willingness to put one's body to work. Like he has done.

As there's no separating Wendell from his beloved Kentucky farm, there is no separating him from his work. Not just the writing and teaching, but crucially, the farming, Stripping and curing tobacco back in the day...feeding, grooming, medicating draft animals...repairing fences...clearing buildings...moving pastures. It's silly to parse a man's life, especially this man's life, given how hellbent Wendell Berry is on wholeness, but it's safe to say that his farming is as essential to his thinking as his thinking is to his farming. That is to say he's a farmer who writes, more than a writer who farms.

Which means what exactly, for those of us who think plenty but sweat not so much?

Does Berryism transcend agrarianism? Which of his concepts can be threshed and winnowed and put to use among the un-placed? These are especially relevant questions for someone like me -- certain about the correctness of his thought, and uncertain about its plasticity.

A thought exercise is to try to imagine whether Berryism works without the same ratio of intellectual rigor to phyisical labor. Could there have been, for example, a version of Wendell Berry's life in which he only toyed with a hobby farm? Would it have looked something like Barbara Kingsolver's? What if he had located Port William twenty miles closer to Louisville? Would it have looked like Coldstream, Kentucky, which has farms, and also parks, hotels, a research campus and tech center?

The exercise fails. Port William and Coldstream are worlds apart. Berry's agrarianism isn't notional, it's foundational.

Maybe Wendell Berry's life and point of view is utterly unique, unreplicable, and impossibly anachronistic. People have discredited his corpus because most of us don't, won't, or can't take on the physical work of farm, forest, field and sea. So what am I doing? Following a famous person because his life appears complete and charming and purposeful? Is this all just a highbrow version of what other people are doing on Instagram and TikTok?

If nothing else, reading him carefully demands that we reconsider the value of all types of work -- especially the kind that most people would rather not do.


That bodies are meant for working, and working land needy for human bodies, is a tenet of Berryism. In his essay "Waste," which I recently read, he argues that the trash and scrap we see along roadbeds, riverbanks and in front yards are no different from the unemployed workers strewn across rural and urban places -- all detritus from a centralized, throw-away ecomony. Not just the statistical labor force, but old and young people also left un-employed and absented from "household and local economies, (doing) work (that) would be useful to themselves and to others." Most everyone, he believes, even those without formal education or maximally able bodies, should be at work around the house, around the community,

And in my last post, What People Are For, I summarized Wendell's big idea that our prime function is to do the work of caretaking. But now I'll confess that I used the verb "caretaking" euphemistically. We can't care for the land or for each other with only our minds. That kind of labor is physically demanding and hands-on. In "What are People For?," just like in "Waste," Wendell repeatedly points us back to the inescapable necessity of bodily work, and to all its redemptive qualities.

He's neither the first nor only thinker to assert that our mortal coil, and our best path, is bound up with our corporeality. Rudolph Steiner, who founded the Waldorf School, believed that young souls were best shaped by gardening and knitting in addition to reading and writing. The American Transcendentalists, on whose shoulders Berry stands, cherished the simple, manual, uninstituted way of life. All religious traditions sanctify ethical work; Muhammed was a mender of shoes. Jesus was a carpenter. Siddartha renounced his princely station for ascetism and physical hardship.

Political schools also understand the primacy of the body. Feminism, Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Theory all teach how social power structures code and mark individual bodies with identities. Whether given, assumed or rejected, those identities remind us daily that our bodies are not surplus cargo on our journey through life. They are the origin point of the work we get (or are forced) to do, for better, or sadly, for worse.

In short, no one except the transhumanists seem to believe that our bodies are baggage to be dumped as soon as our minds and technologies set us "free." Free, I suppose, from having bodies, or the curse of any physical labor at all. To be rid, finally, of our messy, species-long interdependence with earthly demands and desires.


What's complex about this is figuring just how much physical labor is required to complement the life of the mind (and vice versa). Somewhere between "sitting on your ass all the time" and "farming when you're not writing" there's a line. On one side of that line is a virtuous feedback loop where the mind is enlivened by physical interactions with our material world. That engagement eventually bestows a kind of knowledge that Wendell writes about a lot. It includes qualities like fitness-to-purpose, muscle memory, sensory acuity and pattern recognition especially about the order of things. It seems to accrue as a wisdom that builds up from spending many years carefully working with, attending to, and relying on the particularly of one's surroundings.

On the other side of that line is an alienation. The absence of bodily wisdom creates a compensatory kind of intellectual overdrive. Unworked bodies can and do accumulate impressive stores of knowledge. Yet these are categorical, abstract, and broadly applicable without being attuned to any place at all. To be sure, this can power incredibly keen thinking -- the stuff of theory and practice that's taught by the brightest professors across all the disciplines.

And there's a further complexity: I think there are probably limits to how much this ratio even matters outside of community. For example if every professional in the suburb where I work suddently committed half their waking hours to yardwork and gardening, the place would not begin to resemble the farming community it once was. The residents would be healthier, but not very likely happier. They would miss their lost income and would resent being wet and cold and achy most of the year. They would long for easy days in the office, and work-from-home, the inside version.

Perhaps individual happiness isn't the point. Maybe there's a different formula for happiness that got buried when we went all-in for "clean hands and high pay." Maybe we'd be happier if we were closer to the dust and dirt and grime, but not for a paycheck. We might feel quite different if every season we got our bodies tired and calloused for the sake of something more gratifying and more precious than a job.

Wendell Berry decided, back in '65, that his job was his place, and the people he knew there. It was an unsual decision. Most people understand their job to be their vocation or career. He knew it was a choice seeded with discomfort, and gravid with great pleasure, and it informed his opinion that work abounds for all of us, if we're willing to take it on.

Most aren't though, and for some reasons that I completely understand -- despite all my wistful glancing toward far-away fields that await the watering sweat of a human brow.

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