I’ve been climbing this mountain as many days as I can this Lent, finding a place among the rocks, looking down on the valley. This is a quiet place, a place where Creation speaks in its fullness. But the landscape below is pocked and marked by another way. The ridge across from here is littered with television and cell phone towers, the valley is marred by sprawling homes. When I was a boy these were mostly wild places, a home to green herons and bobcats, the city’s borders still out of earshot. In the last twenty years the farms have given way to shopping centers and cookie cutter houses, forests to fertilized lawns and golf courses.
“We all live by robbing nature, but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.” These words from the farmer and writer Wendell Berry ring in me like the words of John the Baptist: repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.
I’m as much a participant in this theft as anyone else. I drive too much, buy too much, use too much. I’m addicted to convenience and choice, I’m in the thrall of that old vice luxury. And yet, like so many others I want peace, I want wholeness, I want the creation to be full and alive.
There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:
“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”
“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.
I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).
Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.
It’s a shame Wendell Berry’s new book of essays, Our Only World, has received scant recognition from reviewers. Not that the media have failed to acknowledge the work, just that they have all printed the same review by Kevin Begos of the Associated Press—a good review, but sadly singular.
Spiritual kin as well as an associate of Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey through Wallace Stegner’s Stanford writing class, the Kentucky-born poet-philosofarmer deserves more attention. His informed and deftly crafted prose alone recommends him, but also in this book Berry directly takes on the greatest of civilization’s recent enemies—climate change.
Well known as a foe of thoughtless resource extraction, Berry takes on industrial farming and forestry in this latest work. He argues that the extreme technologies humans have now achieved “barter the long-term health and fertility, which is to say the long-term productivity, of local ecosystems for a short-term monetary gain.” The destruction of locally based household economies and the conversion of large numbers of small independent producers into entirely dependent consumers, for whom everything needed must be purchased (not cultivated), severs the link between people and the land.
Read the complete article by Sandy Dechert at Planetsave.
Wendell Berry has been named among the recipients of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Trailblazer award. Other recipients include Louisville mayor Greg Fischer and Louisville chef Kathy Cary.
Dr Mario Aquilina, lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Malta, reflects on Wendell Berry’s essay “Getting Along with Nature” (1982) from Home Economics.
The Azure Window, the collapse of which he speaks, is described at Wikipedia:
The Azure Window (Maltese: it-Tieqa Żerqa), also known as the Dwejra Window (Maltese: it-Tieqa tad-Dwejra), was a 92-foot-tall (28 m) limestone natural arch on the island of Gozo in Malta. It was located in Dwejra Bay in the limits of San Lawrenz, close to the Inland Sea and the Fungus Rock.
The formation, which was created after two limestone sea caves collapsed, was very popular among scuba divers and one of Malta's major tourist attractions. The arch, together with other natural features in the area of Dwejra, is featured in a number of international films and other media representations.
Since the early 2000s till late 2016, several parts of the arch broke away and fell into the sea, both by natural erosion and by irregular activities. With the weakening of the pillar, over the years, it collapsed in a storm on 8 March 2017.
On November 9, 2016, Wendell Berry engaged "shepherd, farmer, author, poet and photographer" James Rebanks in conversation at the Louisville Free Pubic Library. Audio of that conversation is available HERE.
Also, read James Rebanks' op-ed in the New York Times (3/1/17) HERE.
In the end Chesterton’s mock-medievalism – his idea that we should all be much better off with a pig than a radiogram – defies most of the classifications of contemporary politics. In his brief introduction to The World‑Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth makes the same point about Wendell Berry’s half-century campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism, the sanctity of the dairy farm and the sharecropper’s 40-acre plot. From one angle, Berry (born 1934), with his sonorous, preacher’s style and his horror of colonising concrete, looks like an arch-conservative, and yet money, markets and corporatism are forever looming into his sights. From another, he looks like a classic eco-lefty pitting himself against the big battalions of agri-business, and yet his assaults on individualism, rootlessness and urban snobbery will be enough to leave most leftwingers feeling deeply uncomfortable.
All this is further complicated by the particular locales (or rather, locale, as the author has stayed tethered to his native Kentucky for the last 50 years) through which Berry so observantly passes. He is not, for instance, a great-outdoors merchant in the manner of Edward Hoagland and Annie Proulx; he is more interested in soil quality than fauna. The mistiness that most British writers bring to considerations of that tantalising notion of “the land” is altogether beyond him, and on the evidence of the 30 or so pieces collected here, he never wrote a sentimental line in his life. About the closest equivalent to his tough-minded, small-scale environmentalism on this side of the Atlantic would be the George Ewart Evans of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay or the John Stewart Collis of The Worm Forgives the Plough, and even that is not very close.